For most, there comes an epiphany – a pivotal moment that could dictate the rest of their life.
For Derek (D.J.) Horton (senior, kinesiology health and sport science), 29, a three-time PIAA track and field state champion pole-vaulter, that moment came on a lunch break while working at a saw mill in his hometown of Kane, Pa.
After quitting the track and field team and dropping out of IUP in 2010, D.J. began working at Kane Hardwood, attempting to pay off fines from a poor decision.
He was 22 when people around him started bringing up his pole-vaulting past.
“[They] all were getting on my case like ‘Can you even pole-vault anymore?’” he said. “One lunch break I remember Jack Wolfe (a high schooler at the time) being like, ‘I want you to come pole-vault, so I can beat you.’”
It was in that moment that D.J. realized that he did not want to work at the saw mill anymore.
After now-IUP alumnus Zach Anderson, a life-long friend, called D.J. telling him there was an opening at the Indiana Country Club, D.J. packed up his car on his birthday and left Kane, this time for good.
The journey to become a great athlete began long ago for D.J.
Growing up as a smaller kid, D.J. always wanted to be the fastest kid in class, trying to keep up with his older brother and live up to his father’s name.
“My old man would take us up to the high school, and we would watch the older kids pole-vault,” D.J. said. “I remember going home one time, and he broke a branch off a tree…and he said if we want to pole-vault, we can pole-vault with this tree branch.”
D.J. was not your typical 5-year-old. He spent a large amount of his time trying to jump across creeks with the pole and attempting to use the same branch to jump onto a 2-foot high stoop in front of his house.
He was reintroduced to the sport in the fifth grade, when IUP alumnus Tom Cecchetti, a now-former Kane physical education teacher and track and field coach, let D.J.’s brother take home a real pole.
From there, D.J.’s dad constructed a wooden standard where the boys attempted to vault 5 feet.
By the time D.J. reached the eighth grade, he could vault just more than 10 feet, breaking the middle school record at the time.
D.J. entered high school still small in size, weighing about 92 pounds. It was there that he was greeted by a familiar face, Cecchetti, who had just made the switch from junior to senior high teaching.
“I remember watching him [Ben Anderson] my freshman year, and he jumped 13’ 0,” and my mind was blown,” D.J. said. “And I remember I would stay after practice and talk to Coach Cecchetti and said, ‘man I want to do that, and I want to learn how to get upside down.”
Following that day, D.J. stayed after practice every day after the rest of the team would depart to work with Cecchetti, who gave him cues on how to get upside down.
The summer in between his freshman and sophomore year, D.J. attended a pole-vaulting camp and hit the weight room. By the time football season came back around, he weighed 125 pounds and was hungry to break his father’s record height of 13’ 6’’ that was good enough to place him fourth in the state in 1982.
In his first meet of this sophomore season in Kane, D.J. broke Tom Cecchetti’s son’s, Andy Cecchetti, school record of 14’ 10’’ with none other than Andy himself catching the pole for him.
D.J. went on to win the 2006 district and the state championship by 6 inches, making him one of the best pole-vaulters at age 15 that year.
After an injury-plagued junior year, D.J. again won states.
Following a state semifinals run in football his senior year, D.J. decided to put more focus on pole-vaulting, pushing wrestling to the back burner.
Trying to find an indoor training facility in the cold Pennsylvania winters, he began traveling with Coach Cecchetti to Akron to use its facilities.
After visiting with the Akron coach and the team, D.J. thought Akron may be his home following senior year, but the money wasn’t there from Akron. D.J. finished his senior season winning another state championship.
He graduated high school in 2008 as a three-time state champion but had no clear certainty of his future outside of District IX sports. With his parents going through a divorce at the time, the fate of his future laid solely on the 18-year-old.
“I didn’t have any good guidance really (when looking at colleges) or didn’t know the recruiting process,” D.J. said. “One of the most pivotal parts of your life. I needed a little bit of direction.”
With his parents divorce leaving a big impact on him as a person and his friends all shipping off after high school, D.J. didn’t know what to do.
That was before he received a call from Tennessee University coach James B. Miller asking him to come jump for the Volunteers. But after realizing he did not have the grades to head to Knoxville, D.J. enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford for one semester in attempt to raise his GPA.
Before D.J. had finished his semester at Pitt-Brad, Miller resigned from Tennessee, taking D.J.’s dream of pole-vaulting for a Division I college with him. After that semester, D.J., alongside his friend Anderson, transferred to IUP.
But after not receiving a scholarship from the IUP track and field team and not enjoying his classes, D.J. quit the team, dropped out and left school, knowing that if he ever wanted to, he could return to Division II athletics at a later date.
Almost four years later, after beginning to work at the Indiana Country Club, D.J. re-enrolled at IUP. But because of the way he left the first time, he was ineligible for financial aid, forcing him to pay for college out of pocket.
In 2014, after his first semester, now-IUP alumnus Ray Ofman started working at the country club and told the track and field coaches that D.J. was in town. While he was unsure if he wanted to compete again, D.J. offered his services to the team as a coach. However, despite his age, the coaches wanted him to compete if eligible.
Almost six years removed from winning his final high school state title, D.J. returned to the track.
“I remember the first day pole-vaulting again. I had the pole in my hand thinking this was a bad idea,” D.J. said. “And by some miracle, everything worked out; it was easy. Coach Cecchetti would always say pole-vaulting is like riding a bike.”
He was jumping with a smaller pole, the only pole IUP had, but an old friend – Coach Cecchetti – hooked D.J. up with some better poles.
The experience was definitely a unique one for him.
“It was real weird,” D.J. said. “I was 24 at the time, man. I was the oldest one on the track team, and some people may have thought I was weird, but I didn’t care. I was having fun.
“I just wanted to pole-vault. I didn’t care what these people thought about me.”
Still unsure about his decision to return and with his father in the stands, as he had been for all of his meets, D.J. took flight competitively for the first time this decade. He set a personal record that day, jumping 16’ 1.”
During his freshman collegiate season, D.J. broke the school indoor and outdoor record with a height of 16’ 9,’’ good enough to place him eighth at nationals.
“How my life had changed, from getting an open container law and having to get a job, to pole-vaulting in a national championship in Florida.”
Three seasons, five All-American honors and five dean’s lists later, D.J. is on the verge of finishing both his degree and his collegiate athletic career.
After placing eighth and fifth respectively at nationals his sophomore and junior year and setting a personal record of 17’ 1,” D.J. is still hungry for more.
Even with a bad ankle and a pulled hamstring, D.J. plans to compete in the NCAA Championships from May 23 to 25.
“I’ve seen some lows, but those highs are super nice,” he said. “But you try not to let the highs or the lows get to you too much. You have to realize that the world isn’t going to quit spinning because you’re upset. You just have to keep making your own moves.”
Following graduation and the track season, D.J. said he hopes to continue being involved with the sport. Currently coaching an Indiana seventh grader, he would like to find a job at a university to continue learning and coaching.
The Olympic trials for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, are also on the horizon, and D.J., who is not far from the Olympic qualifying mark, is not ruling anything out.