FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Originally, Roderick Townsend—the Northern Arizona University track & field jumps coach and well-renowned 2016 Paralympian—pursued football.
From an early age, his interest in sports was dedicated to the gridiron, with track—which he only took up the beginning of his senior year—being somewhat of an afterthought. Excelling in the latter years of his high school career, Townsend graduated and went on to play ball at San Joaquin Delta Junior College in his hometown of Stockton, Calif. It was on the field, though, where his speed and athleticism caught the eye of the college's track and field coach.
"When I got to junior college, I was playing in the championship football game and afterwards, the track coach walked up to me and she was like, 'You should come to practice next Monday,'" said Townsend. "I was just like, 'yeah, okay.' I really didn't give much thought to it then. From that moment on, it has been all about track."
The rest, as they say, is history. But like many that have come before him, the road was anything but smooth for Townsend. His battle began at birth.
"Originally," Townsend confined, "when I was born, the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck a couple times and the doctor had to break my elbow and dislocate my shoulder. Then, I got a brachial plexus in my right bicep—which is a damage of the nerve in the arm—and I got a contractor on my bicep, so my right arm doesn't have the flexibility and range of motion as my left arm does, or the strength for that matter."
As if his mobile disability was not enough, Townsend was born and raised in Stockton, Calif., notoriously known as one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country. Constantly surrounded by gun violence and gang activity, it is enough of a challenge to make it home safely every night, let alone escape the risk of getting sucked into such a cultural lifestyle.
Townsend, though, credits his support system—specifically his mother—for giving him the opportunity to live a good life and avoid the ever-present trouble associated with his neighborhood.
"It was difficult," Townsend confessed, "but I was one of the people who was fortunate enough, I believe, to be able to look at people and know that's just not what I wanted to do.
I remember there was a point in time where I really thought, the life I grew up with, everybody went to prison. I just thought that was something that would happen to me eventually. But my mom raised me great, and I'm fortunate enough to have had a mom who was really hard on me and wanted better for me. Now, I'm in the position to be able to do the same for my kids when I do have kids."
Through the positive and disciplined influence of his mother as well as his uncle, whom Townsend also credits for helping raise and mold him into the person he is today, the kid from Stockton became a man with a Paralympic dream.
"I've had some tough times, but not nearly as rough as my mom and uncle had it," said Townsend. "When I graduated from college and came to NAU to get my master's degree, they were just really, really proud of me. I know I don't have any excuse but to be great and to continue to strive for greatness because of their influence."
Townsend has since then been able to transform that inspiration into a highly successful professional career. Most recently, Townsend was able to add another notch in his already accomplished belt, earning a trip to the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.
Do not let him tell you, though, that he was just happy enough to participate.
"People say, 'Just go there and have fun,' but it's not going to put food on the table," Townsend said. "I want to go out there and, honestly, beat people as badly as I possibly can. I want people there to know I mean business, plain and simple. It will be fun, but it's a business trip. If you don't go there to win, then you're just a tourist.
I try to humble myself as much as I possibly can, but if I come back without a medal then I did something really, really wrong."
To his credit, he certainly took care of business. Townsend, whose competitive persona is reflected in his mindset, stature and work ethic, not only competed at the games, but flat out dominated his specialty events: the long jump and the high jump.
Recording personal bests in both events, Townsend carried himself with both contagious enthusiasm and determined professionalism en route to setting the Paralympic long jump record, the Paralympic high jump record and shouldering the pristine shine of two gold medals.
It would be too simplistic, however, to attribute Townsend's success with an intrinsic, underdog motivation to do well because of his disability. Instead, he likes to classify himself as just a winner, regardless of physical deficiencies.
"I've just always wanted to win," said Townsend. "If both of my arms were just fine, I feel like I would still have that same driving force. Everything that drives me to do well athletically goes back to being poor when I was growing up, being homeless, hungry and having a teenage mom. Everything I've always done has been for the people who've helped me get to where I am now. It's much more than my disability; it's the sacrifices that people have made for me that make me look past my disability."
Also contributing to his daily pursuit of greatness is his newest profession: coaching.
Townsend joined the NAU track & field coaching staff at the beginning of the 2015 school year, and has since had a positive impact on the Lumberjack jumps unit. With more highly-touted recruits scheduled to join the roster in 2017, Townsend is hoping his group can seriously contribute at conference championships for years to come.
For now, he's concerned with helping his athletes get better each day by setting a good example.
"Competing really inspires me to continue to coach," Townsend admitted. "The way I see it, the more successful I am in track & field, the more influence I have on my athletes. Just being able to tell my athletes where I started and where I am now makes them realize putting in the time and hard work can get you into a lot of places."
As if his achievements in track & field and coaching were not enough, Townsend is also now a finalist for Team USA Male Athlete of the Games because of his performance at the 2016 Paralympics.
All this success has surely made Townsend a household name among those interested in Paralympic sports. However, the NAU jumps coach maintains none of the glory on the track & field carries much weight. For him, it is about the impact he has on the people he touches.
"My biggest goal, whether it's me competing or my athletes competing, is if I can influence somebody who can influence 10 people, then nobody needs to know what my name is," said Townsend. "I just want to do my little part in making the world a better and happier place to be, and I think I have a really good group of men and women on the team who are willing to follow my leadership. Even better, I think they can influence a lot more people, too, and they don't even know it yet."
Given the considerable impression he has made so far in his life, it is a good thing the whole football thing did not work out.