Souhan: Irondale track star set for a leap year — and maybe Paris Olympics

When he was 7, Juriad Hughes Jr. began testing his speed against the fastest beast in the asphalt jungle. He would walk to the sidewalk outside of his home and stare down Broncos and Jaguars, Mustangs and Beetles, assessing not hood ornaments but horsepower.

Hughes would catch the eye of a driver, turn and sprint down the road, straining to win a neighborhood version of Man vs. Machine.

As he grew into a teenager, Hughes chose a more familiar pace car — his mother's. Leticia Jones would cruise down the long, leafy street that led to their front door, and Juriad would sprint alongside, urging her to test the speed limit.

Hughes, a senior at Irondale High, is a promising football player who is creating an international footprint in the world of track. Earlier this year, he broke a 41-year-old state record in the long jump, then won the long jump and finished third in the 100 meters at Nike Outdoor Championships in Oregon, and later won the long jump at the under-20 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. The latter established him as the best young long jumper in the western hemisphere.

Monday morning, Hughes again sprinted alongside his mother's car on their tree-lined street, bursting from shade into the light.

"I'd race anything," Hughes said. "Car, motorcycle, bus, anything that came by. I'd be out there a good amount of time. I'd race one car down the street, then race another car back. The next day, I'd do it all over."

He's still doing it, still racing his mother's car between football and basketball practices and track workouts.

"Starting out, he went to the busiest streets, thinking that's where he would find the fastest cars," Jones said. "For him, it was the thrill of running fast. He was so determined that he would tell me he was going to beat this car or motorcycle, and you couldn't tell him that he wouldn't.

"He does not like to sit still. I used to urge him to rest more. He tried, but after a few days he told me, 'I have to be out there, getting better.'"

Jones is the president of the Irondale Huddle Club. The track team doesn't have such an organization, so she pitches in as she can. Hughes' father and namesake was a standout Twin Cities athlete who played basketball at New Mexico State and South Dakota State. Juriad Sr. owns One Level Sports Management and works and coaches football at Highland Park High in St. Paul.

Juriad Jr. exudes confidence and intensity, the traits that come through during a conversation with Juriad Sr.

Juriad Sr. was the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year in boys basketball in 1989. He turned down a chance to play for John Thompson at Georgetown because he didn't want to sit out a season due to Proposition 48, and starred at Casper Junior College. An Achilles injury damaged his career, but lent him insights into the pitfalls of precocious stardom.

His voice could be heard during the state meet when his son broke a 41-year-old long jump record held by Von Sheppard, another St. Paul Central athlete, who was a mentor to Juriad Sr.

"I mean, a 41-year-old record?" Juriad Sr. said. "And a 17-year-old broke that record? Juriad is still growing. He has such a high ceiling. Everybody wants to know where he's going to go and what he's going to do. I'll just say this: he's got more to give."

Juriad Jr. is looking for a college where he can play football while developing his track skills, although most track stars of his age and ability would be encouraged to specialize.

It may seem unrealistic for someone of Hughes' age to compete in the Olympics in Paris in 2024. His state-record leap was 24 feet, 11 inches. The top American performer at the Tokyo Olympics, JuVaughn Harrison, has a personal best of 27 feet, 9 ¼ inches.

Hughes believes he can make the leap.

"Ever since I started in track, my goal has been to be in Paris in 2024," Hughes said. "I loved the experience in Puerto Rico. Being on the track, hearing all of the nations announced, getting to compete for my country. It's an adrenaline rush."

Hughes idolizes Usain Bolt. He has a poster of Bolt on his bedroom wall and, intentionally or not, mimics Bolt's dietary choice of chicken nuggets.

"He asked me when he was very young how old he had to be to compete in the Olympics," Jones said. "I told him, and he said, 'You mean I have to wait my whole life?' "

Juriad Sr. said he cried when his son broke Sheppard's record. "Juriad won 35 gold medals in the first 37 meets he competed in as a kid," Juraid Sr. said. "He's always loved this, and he's always wanted to be the best. I know he's only 17, and this seems like a long shot, but he wants it so bad, and he's willing to work for it, every day."