Justin Rabon is running his life faster, freer and with more purpose than ever these days as an award winning professional recruiter for Insight Global in Minneapolis.
Life is good, because in the end, love always wins.
And as an engaged African-American human being in this pandemic and race scared country we live in, the former track star at Shorewood High School and his boyfriend Brad Neumann raised many thousands of dollars in a very short amount of time in June and made food runs into central Minneapolis to help those where stores were shuttered and buses no longer ran because of the protests over George Floyd‘s murder.
“After seeing everyone’s overwhelming support, friends checking in with me making sure I felt safe, all my friends and work were reaching out, and seeing all the good the community was doing to come together, that really gave me the motivation to do something,” he told Cyd Zeigler of Outsports.
The strength to reach out and help comes from within Rabon and was fostered by the love of Neumann and by strong family acceptance. When the University of Minnesota graduate was entering college in 2014 he was still largely closeted.
It’s been a remarkable transformation for Rabon over the last seven years since he finished high school in 2013 anchoring a WIAA D2 record-setting 4 x 400 relay that cemented the usual cross country power Greyhounds’ first state team title in track.
He first went to Wisconsin and then transferred to Minnesota. There he was track teammates with Neumann, who had won a D2 state title in the 100 dash for Peshtigo in 2012. The two quickly became friends.
Rabon had kept his sexuality largely a secret in high school, even dating girls, but felt a trust with Neumann and in 2014 confided in him that he was gay. Much to Rabon’s amazement and in what had to feel like a beautiful surprise for both, Neumann, who had carefully kept that part of himself secret too, also revealed that he too was gay.
They eventually fell in love and have been a couple ever since. Scott Gleeson of USA Today chronicled their story in 2017 as the couple prepared to write essays for Outsports on their lives together. They both noted that coming out to each other made it easier to do so with friends and family.
“After we came out to each other, we finally had someone to relate to,” Rabon said in Gleeson’s piece. “That changed everything.”
Neumann, who told Gleeson that it took him a bit longer to come out to his relatives because he comes from a more conservative part of Wisconsin, said that being his true self “allowed me to have an open conversation with my teammates.”
Shorewood boys track and cross country coach Dominic Newman couldn’t be happier for the couple, especially Rabon.
“Just an amazing young man with such a great family,” Newman told me this past week. “I was his phys-ed teacher through sixth grade and then I had the honor of being able to coach him and see him grow into such a great person.
“I’ve worked with many athletes who have come out as gay or transgender, but Justin hid it fairly well. I think a couple of his teammates may have known, but he held it close to his vest. Then it was just one day and he was like ‘Hey Dom, I have something to tell you.’
“And good for him. He’s such a great role model. I’ve had dinner with him and Brad and they are such a happy couple. His (Rabon’s) family has been so accepting and so was the (Minnesota) program. It’s just great for the world to know, great for the world to see, that it is safe to be out. That you can be who you are.”
Which in taking the long view, makes the 2013 state D2 track title for the Greyhounds mean even more because of the tumult that surrounded it. The program would deal with two major tragedies in the 2013-14 time period, including the accidental shooting of a teammate and so the success of the team was a bit of a salve on some open wounds.
In 2012, Shorewood had finished fourth in the D2 state track meet behind Rabon’s victories in the 200 and 400 dashes and the record-setting (3:21.42) efforts of the all-underclassmen 4 x 400 relay team of Alec Grimmer, Taylor Dennis, Jacob Goldberg and Rabon.
And in prepping for the 2013 track season, Newman and his staff were able to pull in some talented individuals such as Charlie Stahl from the 2012 D2 state championship cross country team.
The track season went well as Shorewood won both WIAA regional and sectional titles heading into state and felt confident heading into La Crosse despite the fact that Rabon was coming in less than 100 percent due to some injury issues. He was not going to defend his 400 title but did run the open 200 and anchored both the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relays.
It was a formula that worked to perfection though with a few bumps along the way. A disciplinary issue during the week before state forced Newman to switch the line-up in the 4 x 100 (Michael Fazio came up big in a pinch) and then a clumsy exchange in practice for the 4 x 800 just two days before state left John Traudt crashing to the track and coming up with an arm fracture.
Much to everyone’s relief, Traudt was cleared to run at state by his doctor with a brace that ran from his wrist to beyond his elbow. “The doctor decided it was OK,” said Traudt with a laugh, “and then said ‘Try not to fall on it again.'”
Rabon then willed the 4 x 100 relay to a second and then took third in the 200 behind sectional competitor Sam Tiahnybik of Catholic Memorial, who earlier in the meet made history in the 400 (see below).
Stahl and the distance guys did their part too in the run for the title, as on a hot as hades Friday, Stahl willed himself to a third in the 3,200 and then on Saturday helped the 4 x 800 (with Traudt carefully guarding his arm) earn a runner-up spot. Also that day, Goldberg took fourth in one of the greatest 800 races in state history (see more below).
And though Shorewood has never been big in the field events, Dennis helped out with a sixth in the triple jump.
That left it up to the now veteran 4 x 400 crew of Grimmer, Dennis, Goldberg and Rabon. They came into that final race down 37-34, to Memorial. The Crusaders did not have a relay in the race, and the Greyhounds had earned the top seed in the preliminaries by a wide margin.
A fifth or above would earn Shorewood that first ever state title
But only Rabon knew about that situation as he had looked at the team scoresheet after the awards for the 200 dash.
He asked someone in the know “Do either Catholic Memorial or Seymour (in fifth at the time) have a 1,600 relay team?” and when he got the answer “No” his eyes got really wide and then he raced off to find the rest of his relay teammates.
He knew a state team championship was distinctly possible if the Greyhounds got the stick around the track.
“I only told some of them,” Rabon said at the time. “Some of them were still in race mode and I didn’t want to freak them out just yet.”
Newman had spoken about the possibility of a team title before state, stating that Shorewood track had a chance “to be legendary.”
And the coach liked the focus he saw before that final 4 x 400 race.
“When he (Rabon) came to me before the race, all he was saying was ‘we just got to get the stick around,” said Newman.
The Greyhounds did much better than that, as Rabon got the baton and raced home a 1.4 seconds ahead of runner-up Mt. Horeb (which also went under the old record with a 3:21.03 effort). It was Shorewood’s second straight D2 record time in as many years (3:19.62) and Rabon exalted and whooped in joy as the victory clinched a 44-37 team victory over Memorial.
“I’m just ecstatic,” Rabon said at the awards’ ceremony. “I’ve never felt this good before. To finish out as a team champion is the best thing that could have ever happened.”
It was an historic victory in another way too, as up to then only four schools which had won cross country titles in the previous fall had gone on to win track titles in the spring and the last time before Shorewood had been Verona in 1991-92.
In the end, it was Rabon who carried the trophy with his head held high on the victory lap at Memorial Stadium just as he would in so many other ways in the years that followed.
It was the legendary effort that Newman had dreamed of.
“We didn’t want to set ourselves up for disappointment,” he said after the meet. “It wasn’t like cross country (where we always expect good things). Through it all, I told them we’ve been given this gift.
“Given a chance to set ourselves apart.”
TIAHNYBIK MAKES HISTORY
Tiahnybik couldn’t quite lead Waukesha Catholic Memorial to a D2 state team title but it not for a lack of trying. He had finished second to Rabon in the 400 and was fourth in the 200 in 2012 and then took off like a rocket in 2013.
He was trying for the D2 sprint sweep and just narrowly missed out on it. He lost to sectional rival Ryan Send of Brookfield Academy by just .04 of a second in the 100 to start off his finals Saturday (11.18-11.22) but then quickly made amends by making history in the 400, breaking Pete Nowka of Mt. Horeb’s 28-year old D2 record by a scant .02 of a second with an impressive 48.26 effort. He then got revenge on Send in the 200, claiming the title with a 22.16 effort (Send was second in 22.26).
Tiahnybik eventually went to Wisconsin graduating with a degree in industrial engineering and is now working in the capital management field.
EAST MAKES IT THREE IN A ROW
Brookfield East middle distance runner Brad Johnson had been through this before. He had run on Spartan 4 x 400 and 4 x 800 relay teams that had won state championships, and were critical to East’s team titles in 2011 and 2012.
He always seemed to have a sense of the moment.
Now two years after he and his Spartan teammates had won their first D1 team title ever, it was 2013, his senior year and he was anchoring East’s 4 x 400 with a chance of an unexpected third championship in a row.
Johnson would need that clutch gene again. He had already come up big on Friday, anchoring the 4 x 800 relay team of Ryan DunDun, Stephen Browne, and Trenton Daniels to an impressive state title (7:44.8).
But the odds were long on Saturday. East trailed Green Bay Preble, 48-41, going into the 4 x 400 and the Hornets also had a team in the final and they were seeded fifth as opposed to the Spartans sixth.
All Preble had to do was finish sixth or better or better and they would clinch no worse than a tie for a state team title.
“I tell you, going into that race, it did not look good,” East coach Mike Steiner said at the awards ceremony.
“We needed something miraculous,” said Daniels, a runner on both the 4 x 400 and 4 x 800 relays.
And the Spartans got it.
Because these Spartans saw their moment and seized it.
Will Sutton was swapped into the finals third position on the 4 x 400 after DunDun had run in the preliminaries. There he joined Daniels, Josh Breider and Johnson for a chance to make history just one more time.
And they did, as the Spartans roared around the track in a dazzling 3:17.26, then the second fastest time in state history, and five seconds better than they had run in the prelims.
They had to run that fast, because this was possibly the best 4 x 400 in state history up to that time, as Waukesha South was close on the Spartans’ heels in 3:17.86 while Homestead was right behind in 3:18.2 and Sussex Hamilton was also in the mix in a swift 3:19.97.
Further good news came in the fact, that though Preble ran well faster than it had it in trials, its excellent 3:20.87, good enough to have won many D1 titles in the past, was only good for seventh.
And that allowed East to nip them for that improbable third straight title, 51-50.
“We had to work hard to keep ourselves on an even keel, try to keep each other up,” said Johnson. “You can’t control what the other teams are doing. We can only go out and do what we have to do.
“I was happy I came in first. I got kind of excited and turned my head to the scoreboard (after finishing). That’s when I knew we had won it.”
It was especially gratifying for Johnson, because despite his two wildly successful relay anchors he felt he had let the team down, as his defense of his 2012 state 800 title did not go as well as he took only sixth in a very fast race.
He knew he needed his teammates help if East was going to succeed.
“If we were going to cooperate,” he said on finals Saturday. “It would be best if it were this day.”
That this East team did supremely well, because as with all of its championships (with one more to come in 2016), this one was built on the stout backs of the Spartan relay teams, ones that earned three gold medals this weekend.
Future Wisconsin football star defensive end Alec James anchored the winning 4 x 200 team of Landon McDonald, Sutton and Breider to a swift time of 1:27.87, just edging Appleton North for the title. James, who got a tryout in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, must have terrified opponents with his imposing 6-4, 230-pound frame hurtling down the stretch at breakneck speed.
Even then, that early in the meet yet, he was thinking about bigger things.
“We were just jumping up and down (for joy),” said James after the Spartans’ won the race. “…We were taught to keep our heads up, that there’s always a possibility, that you have to believe.”
More cooperation came from Breider, a top flight soccer player, who was finally conned into running track his senior year, winning a conference championship in the 200 dash, two state titles in the relays and then a team championship.
Such was the intensity of the competition between East and Preble this weekend, that it was not surprising that the Hornets wound up taking the other relay, the 4 x 100. Preble’s team of Robert Starnes, Will Daniels, Corey Cegelski and state athlete of the year Jake Wallenfang set a new state record of 41.5 breaking Milwaukee Vincent’s 12-year old standard of 41.67.
Wallenfang also edged East’s Glen Harold in an epic pole vault dual, as both broke Dan Novak of DC Everest’s five- year old mark of 15-8. Wallenfang won with an effort of 16-0 while Harold was second at 15-9.
Harold would come back a year later to formally settle the matter.
In the end, Steiner said the team won this title for one simple reason.
“”Our kids compete,” he said. “They show up and bring it. They treated like a business trip.”
And as for the man with the good sense of timing Johnson?
“Brad was certainly one of the most gifted kids we had come through our program,” Steiner wrote me in a recent text. “He was our motor and he knew how to crank it up in the biggest moments.”
TWO 800s FOR THE AGES
Going out on a limb here, but if anyone can find me two better 800-meter boys races in Wisconsin state history than the D1 and D2 efforts of 2013, I’ll buy them a pair of the most expensive and fanciest track shoes out there.
But I have a feeling my credit card will be staying in my wallet.
These races were highlighted by winners who literally came out of nowhere but who pulled outrageously fast fields to a sea of personal bests and top 50 all-time efforts. And don’t forget that they both set state records that still stand to this day.
They were run on a damp track after light rains on Saturday afternoon. The clouds would be parted by the excellence of these races.
Joe Hinz of D2 Freedom was a senior in 2013 whose main claim to fame were a pair of top six D2 medals in the 4 x 800 his sophomore and junior years. He would go on to UW-La Crosse and have a fine career, posting three top three WIAC finishes in the 800 before finally winning the outdoor title his junior year. Earlier that season, he had posted an all-time best of 1:51.94 in earning third in the NCAA DIII indoor meet, claiming All-American honors.
But in 2013, no one expected what he was to do. Junior Ethan Moehn of Monroe had set a new D2 state mark of 1:54.0 in 2012 and was fit and ready to defend. Hinz had posted one of the top sectional times, but everyone expected Moehn to win.
Except that Hinz beat him in an epic stretch run, as Hinz shattered Moehn’s record with a 1:52.0 flat time. Moehn also blew away his own record with a 1:52.37 effort while 2011 state champion and 2012 runner-up Jake Schimenz of Brown Deer finished third, also under the old mark with a 1:53.87.
Goldberg of state team champion Shorewood also narrowly missed out on Moehn’s old mark with a 1:54.01. All told, seven runners went under 1:55, an impressive feat.
Here’s a quirky thing about the D2 800. Schimenz, the great Brazilian football quarterback (I talked about this in an earlier post), was a surprise winner in 2011 with a 1:57.68 time. The thing is, he kept getting faster over the next two seasons, but his places got worse each time. He was runner-up in 1:55.34 in 2012 before posting his PR third place time of 1:53.87 as a senior in 2013.
He told me he was not disappointed in losing out on the titles but was just elated at being able to go faster.
Immediately after that, came the amazing D1 800. In that race was the defending champion Johnson from Brookfield East, along with Carl Hirsch from Brookfield Central, who had won three titles in 2012 and was seeking to complete the distance trifecta (800-1,600 and 3,200) in 2013.
He would win the 1,600 and 3,200.
There were boatloads of other contenders, but Eric Brown of Wisconsin Lutheran, who took a fine sixth as a freshman in a very fast field in 2012 was considered maybe a year away from anything truly great.
We were all wrong in that assumption.
The field took off fast and stayed fast. Eventual fifth place finisher Nick Freitag of Green Bay Preble led for much other second lap before Hirsch, with his inimitable gawky, but highly successful Emil Zatopek running style surged to the lead with less than 200 to go.
But the sophomore Brown, who was hovering in the top four the whole time, stayed with Hirsch and kept gaining on him in the stretch, eventually pulling ahead with about 30 meters to go and hitting the line in first. Hirsch lost his balance in the final 15 meters and fell just before the finish line and had to settle for third behind teammate Andrew Dusing.
And the rest of the field just surged home, faster than any state 800 race ever had.
Brown would wind up taking .07 of a second off of Gabe Genovesi of Homestead’s 2010 state mark of 1:51.55 with a 1:51.48 effort. Dusing turned in a 1:53.15 and Hirsch 1:53.57. All told seven runners finished under 1:54, a time that has won plenty of state titles before or since.
To exemplify, what hard luck Preble had in just falling to East in the team standings. Freitag finished fifth in a very fast 1:53.58, just .01 behind Hirsch and Alec Miller of West Bend West, both of whom had been caught in 1:53.57.
If he had beaten one of them, the Hornets would have tied for the team title and if he beats both, they would have won the championship outright!
FYI Hirsch also led a very fast 1,600, as he won in 4:13.02. A total of six runners were under 4:15 in that race and 12 under 4:20.
D3 TALENTED JUNIORS LEAD THE WAY
It was a spirited D3 team race, as Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs (48 points) held off both Melrose-Mindoro (46) and Chippewa Falls McDonnell (44), for the team title.
And it came down to the 4 x 400. Melrose-Mindoro helped along by by 100 and 200 champ Alex Hatlevig and 400 winner Gideon Ramsey, had the top seed going into the finals and would earn a share of the team title if they claimed the event and Springs, which also had a team in the 4 x 400, finished no better than the fourth they were seeded.
Springs did indeed finish fourth but Pardeeville upset Melrose-Mindoro, 3:24.4- 3:25.84, giving the Ledgers the team title.
Elsewhere in D3, it was all about talented juniors. Hatlevig would not only win the 100 and 200 in 2013 but come back to do it again 2014. He would then go on to have a solid career at UW-Milwaukee.
McDonnell Central was led by its powerful distance crew, particularly Nick Zander, who anchored a winning 4 x 800 on Friday and then came back to claim both the 1,600 and open 800 on Saturday.
Both Zander and 3,200 champ Darin Lau of Eau Claire Emmanuel Lutheran, as well as three-time (2011-13) state D3 cross country champ Tyson Miehe of Darlington, would come back in 2014 and completely rewrite the divisional records for the 1,600 and 3,200.
And in the not too distant future, Lau would go on to have a staggeringly successful collegiate career at UW-Eau Claire, particularly in cross country (more on that in a later post).
WEAH AND FOUNTAIN SHINE FOR MEMORIAL
Madison Memorial is much better known for its basketball talent as opposed to football (see Milwaukee Bucks guard Wesley Matthews, son of legendary Memorial and Wisconsin 200 and 400 runner Pam Moore), but the Spartans do boast, not one but two NFL receivers in Daurice Fountain (Indianapolis Colts) and Jester Weah (Washington), both of whom were multi-time state track champions.
Weah has an amazing background. He is the nephew of former soccer legend and current Liberian President George Weah. He also has two professional soccer players as cousins, one of whom, Tim Weah, played for the US men’s national team.
But in 2013, Jester Weah was doing his running on the track, claiming both the D1 100 (10.7) and the 200 (21.73) dashes for Memorial in La Crosse. He went on to have a sound football career at Pittsburgh, before eventually landing in the NFL, initially with the Dallas Texans before moving on to Washington.
Fountain, meanwhile, had finished third in the 110 high hurdles in 2012 before winning the event in 2013 (14.55). He would come back a year later in the event and make some serious history. After that, he would have a fine football career at Northern Iowa before being drafted by the Colts.
GRAY DEPARTS A WINNER
Rashadeem Gray of Whitefish Bay finished up an excellent athletic career by helping the Blue Dukes’ 4 x 100 relay take second to the D1 record-setting Preble unit. Gray had the pleasure of doing so with his brother Rhashad Gray. He had also qualified in the 100 dash, narrowly missing the finals and as part of the Blue Dukes’ 4 x 200 relay.
Gray, who ran key legs on the Blue Dukes’ state championship 4 x 100 and 4 x 200 relays in 2011, was a three-sport star at Bay. He also qualified for state three times in wrestling and earned all-state honors in football as a breakaway threat running back for the Blue Dukes’ 2012 North Shore Conference co-champion and WIAA D2 state semifinalist that lost an epic state semifinal to Waunakee.
He had a fine football career as a running back and defensive back and teammate of Fountain at Northern Iowa. He earned Missouri Valley Conference academic honors, graduated and went into teaching.
Gray’s talent was always evident but what stood out to me was that he was a team first, stand-up individual of great character. The kind of person I loved covering in my 35 years at Community/NOW Newspapers.
He started teaching in Dallas, Texas and is now coming home to do so in Bay.
UP NEXT: Draxler goes out on a high note, Davre and Davis light up the distances, Riggins and Gulley repeat for Tremper, the Parkers and Neenah finish their amazing run in the 4 x 800, Logan and King finish finish three-peats in the sprint relays, Noennig starts going long for Hartford and a state champion who isn’t from Wisconsin (huh)?
And oh yes, the weather again!