About a year ago, senior Malcolm Branson was racing against fellow students, including Ohio State football players, at halftime of the 2014 Spring Game at Ohio Stadium.
Now, Branson is racing toward a new finish line.
Just months after taking on then-OSU football player Doran Grant in the fastest-student race on April 12, 2014, Branson was contacted by OSU associate head track coach Rosalind Joseph to gauge his interest in trying out for the track program.
“I was shocked if anything, and she said, ‘Do you wanna give it a try?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’” Branson told The Lantern. “I definitely wanted a shot to be an athlete again. I had to jump on it.”
Branson tried out in August, but didn’t exactly impress the coaches right away.
Karen Dennis, the director of track and field and cross country at OSU, said she wasn’t sure if Branson was going to make an impact at all at first.
“I didn’t know if he was going to be able to be a contributor or not,” Dennis said. “He just had no coordination in terms of just being more fluid with his running. He was extremely weak, but he kept coming every day.”
Despite Dennis’ skepticism, Branson continued to show up at practice and tryouts, eventually winning Dennis over.
“Every day I would say, ‘Malcolm, you’re back?’ Every day. I must have said that for months. And every day he would show back up,” Dennis said. “He has just made improvement in terms of getting stronger and learning sprinting mechanics, getting in the weight room and being able to increase his endurance for sprints.”
After years of being just a student, Branson was offered a walk-on spot with the Buckeyes and joined the team in September.
Branson said that while he was not offered an athletic scholarship, the decision to accept a walk-on position was pretty easy to make. He missed the competitiveness that he experienced while running track in Massillon Perry High School.
“It’s definitely something I sat down and discussed with my family. Basically the decision was all mine and I thought it would be worth it to do it,” Branson said. “I love athletics more than anything. Regardless if it was track or any other sport, I just wanted the chance to be an athlete again.”
Branson received his undergraduate degree in criminal justice in December, but continued to pay for classes beginning in the spring so he could continue to compete. He is now taking classes in psychology and plans to apply for jobs with law firms upon leaving OSU.
But with the season currently in full swing, Dennis said Branson’s commitment to the OSU track team is unprecedented.
“I’ve been doing this nearly 30 years, and I have never known anybody that committed and that impassioned about a sport,” Dennis said. “What he brings along with that is other people recognize his joy for just being a part of this team.”
Branson said that while he greatly enjoys the competition, one of the things he has appreciated the most is the camaraderie with his teammates.
“They are some of the best characters that I’ve met in my life. They are all funny,” Branson said. “We have a good time together, but we get serious when it’s time to handle business and that’s what I like most about us.”
Dennis said even though Branson might have once been an afterthought among his teammates, he now pushes them to improve.
One particular instance stands out in Dennis’ mind.
“I think he even beat Tim Faust one time. That just surprised (Branson), but at the same time it gave Tim a sense of urgency to improve his own skills,” Dennis said.
For comparison, Faust is a senior, a three-time second-team All-American and the 2013 Big Ten indoor champion in the 200 meter.
As for the OSU track team as a whole, the Buckeyes are coming off a first-place finish in the All-Ohio championships.
In that competition, Branson ran the 100m and finished fourth out of 20 participants with a time of 10.85 seconds. Faust finished first with a time of 10.75.
With the outdoor season in full swing, Branson said the team goals are set high for his only season as a member of the Buckeye track program.
“Win the outdoor Big Ten’s, for both men and women’s actually. The women are just coming off a indoor Big Ten championship, which is good,” Branson said. “Personal goal, I just really want to score some points for my team and help us win in any way I can.”
The next event scheduled is the Virginia Challenge, set for Friday and Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.
While the Buckeyes will be out of state, Dennis said that because of Branson’s emergence, she will be paying close attention to the second fastest-student competition set to take place at halftime of Saturday’s Spring Game.
“We will look at the football 40 and the football players that run. We want to build our team,” Dennis said. “We want to build our men’s program; we want the best that are on our campus. Our door is open, come on out.”
As for Branson, he said the past year has been a “blessing and a privilege,” and is trying to finish out his first and only year strong.
“Things like this don’t happen this often, especially the way it happened. I am definitely thankful for coaches just reaching out to me,” he said. “I am thankful for the coaches having me on our team. I am thankful for the team welcoming me with open arms; those guys are the best.”