By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Chris Happel is definitely a late bloomer in the sport of track and field – twice over.
When he was a student at Kearny High School, Happel was first a baseball and basketball player for his first three years.
“I just ran the bases and was a designated hitter,” Happel said. “I wasn’t getting much more playing time.”
So a friend suggested that Happel give track and field a try.
“I decided to try it,” Happel said. “I ran for only my senior year of high school.”
As it turned out, Happel became a very versatile performer for the Kardinals, running in the 4×100-meter and 4×400-meter relays, as well as throwing the javelin and competing in the triple jump.
“I had only one outdoor season, but by the time I was finished, we won the county championship for the first time ever,” Happel said. “It was a great year for us and I had a lot of fun.”
After his time at Kearny High was completed, Happel then went to William Paterson University.
“But they didn’t have a track team there,” Happel said. “I went to William Paterson for a year and transferred to Rutgers-Newark.”
While Rutgers-Newark did have a track team, Happel didn’t think he could compete.
“I was committed to my academics,” said Happel, a psychology major. “I thought about getting back into track, but I had been away from the sport for two years. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to do it at the college level.”
When Happel first approached Rutgers-Newark head track and field coach Juan Edney in the spring of 2012, he had grown to 240 pounds.
“He came in and noticed he was a big kid,” Edney said.
So Edney was tempted to hand Happel a shot put or a discus to throw, because he had a thrower’s frame.
“He told me he was a runner, that he wanted to run the 400 (meters),” Edney said. “I don’t knock anyone until I could see for myself. He definitely could run, but it was going to take a little while for him to get into shape.”
Happel was encouraged by the opportunity to run at Rutgers-Newark.
“I really wanted to run,” Happel said. “I did the javelin in high school, but I wanted to run here. I knew I was at a big disadvantage, because I was out of running shape. I just wanted to see if I could keep up with my old standards.”
Happel started to lose weight in rapid fashion by simply working out with the other members of the Scarlet Raider program.
“He was down to 210 by the end of the outdoor season and ran a 52 (second time in the 400-meter run),” Edney said.
Happel instantly became a member of the program and made a promise to the other members of the team at the end of last season.
“At the ECAC meet last year, Chris told everyone that he was going to get a spot on the (mile) relay team,” Edney said. “He didn’t say who he was going to beat. But he said he was coming after a spot, that they better watch out.”
“I wanted to be part of something bigger, being part of the A team here,” Happel said. “I didn’t want to be in the shadows here. In high school, I really didn’t make a name for myself. So I made a promise to the team and made a promise to myself that I would make the relay team this year. It made me work harder for this year.”
So Happel worked with the Scarlet Raider cross country program in the fall.
“It was the first time I ever ran cross country and I wasn’t used to running those distances,” Happel said. “It took a toll on my body, but it helped with my stamina. I was then able to focus on speed along with my stamina.”
There was only one problem in the fall. Happel could not stay healthy.
“He was always catching a cold,” Edney said. “I would stay on him to take vitamins and dress warmer. But he was constantly getting sick.”
The illnesses caught up with Happel as the indoor season began.
“Ever since he came to us, he’s always been a great worker,” Edney said. “He’s a great kid. He’s very respectful. He’ll do anything I ask of him. I love him to death.”
Happel has really enjoyed a breakthrough season in the current outdoor campaign. He ran a 50.5 in the 400-meter leg of the mile relay at the Penn Relays and posted a split of 50.8 seconds in the mile relay at the recent New Jersey Athletic Conference championships. The team ran a 3:19 for the mile, breaking a school record, with Happel running the anchor leg.
“I still think he can give me a little bit more,” Edney said. “He has one semester left of school. I’m trying to have him take the extra semester and run outdoor next year. He’s still learning how to run. He’s getting better and better each time. If he continues, the sky’s the limit.”
Happel has made such an impact on the program that Edney hopes he becomes the program’s graduate assistant coach after he graduates.
“He still doesn’t know what he’s doing and he hasn’t reached his full potential,” Edney said. “But you tell him something, he does it. He works on it and gets better. He loves to work hard. He’s been a big addition to our program.”
Happel said that he was flattered to hear that Edney wants him to become a coach.
“When he spoke to me about that, I was in such astonishment,” Happel said. “I was so happy to hear that, because it means that Coach Edney has so much faith in me to help the program. He wants me to get better and if I get better, then I can give back to the program.”
Sure enough, the promise that Happel made last year came true, as he was set to run the anchor leg this weekend at the ECAC Championships.
“I made my promise and I lived up to it,” Happel said. “I have loved every minute of being part of this team. I wish I did track earlier in my life, because I love the sport and I have a good time.”
So Happel will return next fall in some capacity.
“I will see if I can run one more semester and give it my all,” Happel said.
Like he’s done since he arrived in Newark.