Act I: The AAU Indoor track championships in New York a year ago. and high-jumping kingpin Dwight Stones is trying to organize a boycott of the meet. He has talked to all the high jumpers except one, and he is hollering, "Where is Jacob Franklin? Who is Jacob Franklin?"
Act II: A Miami magazine contacts Fairleigh Dickinson University. The magazine likes to do stories on good Jewish athletes and therefore would obviously be interested in an article on a student named Franklin Jacobs.
Act III: Franklin Jacobs is sloshing toward Mama Rosa's Pizzeria in Rutherford, N.J., fantasizing about how good a meal of spaghetti, Coke and Fleetwood Mac will be. People pass on the sidewalk and one says, "Hey, hiya, Jenkins." Jacobs-Franklin-Jenkins mutters. "That was close."
These are but a few of the many incongruities in the suddenly star-struck life of the 20-year-old from Paterson, N.J. who as recently as a year ago seemed a likely candidate for little more than a life of, say, moving furniture around in a Newark warehouse. Two years ago at this time he hadn't even seen a high-jump bar. Now, Franklin Jacobs—got it? Franklin Jacobs—says, "I've never reached a height I'm uncomfortable at." Which is bad news for other high jumpers, including Stones.
February 13, 1978
Last month in Maryland, jumping for the first time this indoor season, Jacobs cleared 7'6" as if it were an insignificant snowdrift outside Mama Rosa's; two days earlier he had been on crutches with chronic knee trouble. A fortnight ago, before the Millrose Games in New York. Jacobs was jittery. "Madison Square Garden is one very big word," he said, temporarily losing count. "When you jump there, man, you're jumpin'." And he did. This bundle of nerves, the human spring with sweaty hands, cleared 7'7¼' for a world indoor record. He beat, among others—glory be!—Stones. The outdoor world record, held by Vladimir Yashchenko of the U.S.S.R., is 7'7¾". Does Jacobs expect to break it? Next question.
Somewhere, Walter Mitty is on his feet applauding Franklin Jacobs and booing Randy Newman, who is making big bucks singing, "Short people got no reason to live." True, Franklin might have wondered at times what he had to live for when he was growing up in a poor household along with 10 brothers and sisters and four cousins. More important than anything, Jacobs is too short to high-jump. Everybody knows high jumpers are all 6'4", six feet of which are their legs.
But how short is Jacobs? Well, not long ago at Fairleigh Dickinson, which is in Rutherford, N.J., he passed a medical clinic where they were measuring people's heights. He got in line and the nurse said. "Five feet, eight inches." Franklin went through the line two more times and the nurse finally said. "You're still five-eight. I don't think you are going to grow any more this afternoon."
But Jacobs thinks he's taller. Why else would he persist in ducking his head when he walks through doorways, just like the big boys? Anyway, the good news is that Jacobs may be growing just a mite. Backed up against the yellow wall in his dorm room, standing tall but with no shoes and no cheating, Jacobs is gaining on 5'9". More than anything, Jacobs thinks lofty thoughts.
Still, it defies reason and gravity to explain how he jumps so high. "Natural ability." says Jacobs. "But I wonder how I got natural ability?" No one knows, but because of it, he also holds the world record for inches jumped above one's own height: 23¼ "Franklin was more friskier than all my other kids," says Jannie Jacobs, "but he ain't ever been no size. He walked when he was seven months old, which is pretty early. But he was so little, he just looked plumb ridiculous. People would come by to watch him 'cause he looked so funny. But Franklin, he done caught on that he was the star. Then he wouldn't walk until people give him a penny or a nickel. Then away he'd go, and everybody would fall down laughing."
Nobody is falling down laughing anymore. Part of the reason Stones was hollering for Jacob Franklin in Act I was that the AAU had messed up the name in the program; the AAU now knows better—and so does Stones. In fact, Stones now has a bad case of the grumbles when it comes to Jacobs. The Miami magazine in Act II understands more about Jacobs now, thanks to an explanation from Jay Horwitz. Fairleigh Dickinson's sports-information director, that "We would love for you to do a story on our Jewish star, Franklin Jacobs, but I am sad to report he is not of the faith." And people who think his name is Jenkins in Act III surely must be straightened out by now.
The first 18 years of Jacobs' life were uneventful. He was born in Mullins, S.C. and lived in a shack with his impoverished family. When he was three years old, Jannie Jacobs took Franklin and all the children to Paterson. Like lots of street kids, he ran and jumped and played, but nobody accused him of being a great athlete. "We never got in trouble," says Roy Frazier, one of Franklin's friends, "because our parents said if we did, we'd stay there 'cause they weren't getting us out."
In the fifth grade, a football coach induced Franklin to join the team. First play he got his helmet knocked off and was dazed. "I was playing linebacker," says Jacobs, "but all the coach told me was the defense attacks the offense. What he didn't tell me was that the offense also attacks the defense." In high school, another football coach was impressed with Jacobs' speed. Says Jacobs, "He told me I was so fast I could just run down the field, jump up and catch the ball. What he didn't tell me is what could happen to me when I jumped up. I had to figure that out for myself, and I did." Therefore he didn't play football.
Basketball was—and remains—his first love. "I didn't have girl friends," he says. "My basketball was my girl friend." He thinks he's very good at the hoops, maybe excellent, possibly great. Truth is, he's average. But he plays constantly, to the dismay of his track coaches. Several times he has been hurt on the court. A year ago, just after the NCAA indoor championships, he suffered serious cartilage damage to his right knee that almost certainly should have been operated on. But it wasn't, in large part because Franklin has no affection for the knife. He hurt himself again last month playing basketball on the eve of the indoor season. He estimates he has injured his knee nine times playing basketball. "I don't hurt my knee on purpose," says Jacobs, "but I'm so quick, sometimes my mind doesn't have time to give instructions to my knee." Fortunately, it's his right knee that is constantly being hurt; his high-jump takeoff leg is his left. "Maybe it helps me being hurt," he says. "Since I know my right leg is a problem, I put everything into my left."
In basketball, Franklin dunks with ease and says, "I get so much enjoyment jumping up and banging my head on the rim that I just can't stop. It's a pleasure inside." This is, of course, weirdo thinking, for if anything will keep Jacobs from jumping still higher, a basketball injury probably will be it. But his high-jump coach, Bill Monaghan, is stoic. "If he hurts himself, well, he hurts himself."
Jacobs is actually less bent on self-destruction than on simply enjoying himself dinging around at sports. When younger he played lots of playground basketball, ran footraces, tried everything. He still does. He'd love to play basketball at Fairleigh Dickinson even though the coaches don't think he's good enough; he'd like to triple-jump, long-jump, hurdle and run relays but the coaches don't want him to dilute his concentration. Head Track Coach Walt Marusyn says, "He's on the road to the Olympics but he doesn't understand it—yet." Monaghan has no intention of limiting Franklin's basketball. "I hate to take something away from a kid who loves it so much. Heck, maybe that's his first love."
For sure, high jumping wasn't. He had to be cajoled by Coach Bill Shipp to come out for the track team at Paterson East-side High. JacGobs finally agreed to give it a fling in his senior year—less than two years ago—after he rested for a week following the basketball season. But after three weeks had passed, Shipp still hadn't seen Jacobs. The coach cornered him, stuffed a uniform in his hands and said, "When I give a guy a uniform, he's supposed to practice." Jacobs was less than elated at trying the high jump and he told Shipp, "I'll try, but if I'm not good, I'll quit. Basketball is my game."
Shipp put the bar at 5'10"; Jacobs was over by a ton. Then it was moved to 6'1", a fair height for a team on which no one else could go better than six feet. Jacobs, with a five-step, head-on approach, was over easy. He turned to Shipp and said, "I'm going to jump seven feet." Says the coach, "No wonder he thought that, since six feet came so easy." "I knew my form wasn't just right," Jacobs says now, "but I also knew there was nothing to it."
Later, Shipp marveled, "Man, Franklin, you can jump. Let's teach you some technique." At which time Jacobs started missing, missing, missing. A chastened Shipp said, "O.K., do it your way. Just get over the bar." The youngster improved enormously. He cleared 6'8" in high school and 7'1" as a freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson. All this in sneakers, because he didn't realize there was such a thing as special high-jump shoes, which greatly increase traction. But when Jacobs finally got the fancy shoes in time for last spring's outdoor competition, he didn't want to wear them "because I couldn't stand the thought of getting them dirty." He overcame his devotion to cleanliness and went on to finish second to 6'6½" Arizona State junior Kyle Arney in the NCAA championships. A week later Jacobs was second to Stones in the AAU championships, where he had a personal best of 7'5¼".
Experts have a hard time talking about the Jacobs technique without wincing. He doesn't really jump the bar so much as he sort of flails over it backward. Even Franklin says, "I know what I do is slop compared to the Flop." Since Bill Fosbury popularized it at the 1968 Olympics the Flop has become the accepted high-jumping style, although straddle jumpers like Yashchenko have proven that their technique is far from passè. And now we have the Jacobs Slop, although its inventor is trying to refine the terminology. He would prefer it be called the Jacobs Slope—"More dignified, don't you think?" It begins with a conventional 13-step, curving approach to the bar. But then Jacobs throws himself upward, hurls his arms straight back over his head (sometimes even clapping his hands to remind himself to keep them out of the way), jackknifes, arches his back, does a few incidental aerial gymnastics and—presto! "Who's to say that his technique isn't the best and everyone else's is wrong?" says Monaghan. Arney says of Jacobs' style, "There is so much motion over the bar. A lot of things have to be just right for him to make it." Greg Joy, the 6'4" Canadian who won the silver medal at Montreal and held the indoor record before Jacobs, says, "I think taller people are more in touch with the bar. I mean Franklin stands down there and it must be like looking at the moon."
Jacobs, who often has a bemused look when he's competing, gives such observations on his style and size the curl of his lip. "Being small, I have a lot of spring and I have more body control than those tall guys," he says. "The higher you jump, the less technique you need. When I get over the bar, I assume I had the best technique." In any event, Monaghan considers the approach 60% of the battle, converting horizontal speed to vertical lift 35%, and what goes on in midair only 5%. "By 1980," says Monaghan, "I hope he's a complete high jumper."
Jacobs doesn't like to talk about his jumping publicly because "I'm afraid if I think about it, I might not go any higher." But among friends, he says, "It's all speed, and I'm a computer. All I do is psych the bar out. I think, O.K., come out fast, hit the box, explode." That's it? "Yeah, except mostly I think about one thing—go high."
Franklin Jacobs was not sought by any colleges partly because he only high-jumped one year, partly because he had fallen in with some bad company, started cutting classes at Eastside and finally graduated distinction cum none. But Fairleigh Assistant Basketball Coach Dick Wiseman, who was trying to recruit another Eastside player, was impressed with Jacobs' jumping ability. While offering no scholarship help, Wiseman and Marusyn encouraged Jacobs to try to get a federal grant to pay his college bills at Fairleigh Dickinson. Once there, they said he could try playing basketball and then give track a whirl—if he wanted. What Jacobs really wanted was to start earning some money. "Franklin," said Wiseman, "you are weighing a stereo set against an education." To Jacobs, the stereo seemed to have the advantage but eventually Eastside guidance counselor Michael Spinelli convinced him otherwise. Despite his newfound fame, Jacobs has not cut his ties to East-side or to Spinelli. Before a recent meet he dropped in on the guidance counselor to reassure him. "I have a bad knee but I'll beat everybody anyway," Jacobs said. Spinelli was not surprised. "Franklin has been sure of himself, forever."
Curiously, although he seems confident and oblivious to the psyching games that high jumpers engage in, Jacobs admits that "I'm scared to death of competition. My stomach muscles contract and I am miserable." That's why he's anxious to see a chiropractor who says he can take the fear out of him. But do you really think he can help you? "No," says Jacobs. Anyway, because of his fear, Jacobs looks for ways to avoid competing. Before leaving for the CYO meet in early January at the University of Maryland, he said he was hurt and couldn't go; then it snowed and he said he thought the roads were too icy; then he said he'd go but probably couldn't jump; then he got there and he didn't think he should jump. He leaned on a high hurdle and began arguing with himself. "Franklin, why should you jump if you're hurt? But are you hurt? What is wrong with you?" He concluded nothing. So he jumped, eventually cleared 7'6" and was seemingly headed for a world record. At which time he bowed out of the competition. Why? "I asked myself if I was ready to hold the world record and I decided I could wait." Odd. He ended up second to Joy, who had gone on to win with a world indoor record of 7'7".
At a hot-dog joint later, Jacobs was expansive. "Man, I feel good," he said. "I just got rid of a major problem." What? "Having to high-jump. Besides, going 7'6" really proved something." What? "That I can go 7'8"."
Arrogance often travels with Jacobs. A few weeks ago he won the New Jersey College Indoor Track and Field Championship by jumping 7'1"—without taking off his warmups. To fellow competitors, that's the ultimate in brashness. It really ticks them off. But on the other hand, when an FDU coach gave Jacobs a T shirt that read MAKE NO BONES, I'M OUT TO BEAT YOU, STONES Jacobs refused to wear it. He's not that arrogant.
But there is no question that Dwight Stones sticks in Franklin Jacobs' craw. First came the Jacob Franklin episode. Then there was Stones' refusal to pose for a magazine photo with Jacobs. And it continues to gall Jacobs that he was beaten in last year's AAU championship meet by Stones. All of which made victory over Stones in the Millrose Games especially succulent.
Back in Paterson, Jannie Jacobs is downright lonely with only six children at home. She earns $126 a week as a presser and admits she told Franklin that if he broke the world record, she would give him a car. How can she afford it? "I don't know. Every night I've been praying, 'Lord, I made a promise. Could you help?' " After Jacobs' world indoor record leap, Mrs. Jacobs said, "I'm praying harder now because I'm in a bunch of trouble. But I'll get that boy a car somehow. He's earned it." Suddenly, Jacobs appears and everyone is talking at once and the phone is ringing and the television is gabbling away. Jacobs spouts that "what I like about high jumping is you don't sweat." That prompts sister Eula, 21, to say, "Come on, Franklin, be for real."
Later, when Jacobs hears Randy Newman singing on a car radio about how little people "walk around telling great big lies," he is not amused. He much prefers the church song about climbing Jacob's ladder.