Almost all kids have something they hate — brussels sprouts, chores, homework, being pinched on the cheek. For 7-year-old Najee Glass, it was track.
"He would cry when I left him at practice," Trina Glass recalled with a laugh.
Najee's first race didn't start off much better, as he darted out of the blocks with reckless abandon. Had this been a short sprint, like the 200, that strategy would've been fine. But maintaining such pace in the 400 is downright crazy, especially for a first-timer. His coaches tried yelling for him to slow down. His mom, a former 400 competitor herself, even tried running alongside the track to get his attention. But there was no stopping Glass.
"I was just running and trying to get it over with, so I just sprinted the whole way until I won," said Glass, who preferred football at the time. "Everybody said 'He's going to die, he's going to die,' but actually I didn't die."
If anything, a runner was born on that day, one who has gone on to win national titles, earn international gold and become one of New Jersey's greatest sprinters while at St. Peter's Prep (Jersey City, N.J.).
And believe it or not, Glass' technique hasn't changed all that much since his track debut.
"His ability to run fast for a long, long period of time is amazing," St. Peter's Prep assistant coach Chris Caulfield said. "He can really hit other gears at the end of races that other runners can't."
Caulfield would know. On Glass' first day of indoor track at St. Peter's Prep, he shattered the freshman school record in the 400. In the next two years, Glass went on to set more new marks, becoming the first sophomore to win the 400 at the Meet of Champions before breaking the meet record in the same event with a time of 46.43 seconds as a junior.
Yet for as elusive as Glass was on the local scene, there was one goal he couldn’t seem to catch — a national title.
Last year, in the span of three months, Glass finished second in the 400 at the indoor and outdoor New Balance Nationals. What’s more, the indoor loss came by the slimmest of margins: one-hundredth of a second
Still, neither proved more frustrating for Glass than what transpired at the New Balance Games in January 2011. Despite running the odd distance of 500, Glass used his typical end-of-the-race burst to surge past Columbus (Bronx, N.Y.) runner Strymar Livingston and take first in a national-record time of 1:02.22. But following a protest from the Columbus coach and a rare review by track officials, the record was revoked two days later due to a lane violation by Glass.
“When people started saying I cheated, that really took a toll on me,” Glass said. “I was heartbroken over what people were saying on the message boards because it’s not like I ran over the line on purpose.”
After having a national title and a 27-year-old record snatched from his grasp, Glass admitted to running with a “chip on his shoulder.” But this weight of motivation only seemed to make him faster.
“After that happened, I saw a new side of him,” Caulfield said. “He was completely determined to turn it into a positive by running his best and getting that national title.”
Glass gained some solace by running a leg on the record-setting U.S. medley team at the World Youth Championships in France last summer. And after shocking the world, Glass shocked his family by giving up football, his first love.
“Everybody said, ‘What?!’ because he had just come from a national 7-on-7 combine and done well and we all knew how much he liked football,” Trina said. “But I think after having that international experience and with the friends he made, he realized the great opportunities and future he has in track.”
The extra training he gained during the fall as well as the pent-up emotions from his past disappointments all came to a head at the indoor New Balance Nationals in March.
With 150 meters to go and Timberview’s (Arlington, Texas) Aldrich Bailey a step ahead of him, Glass made a move to the inside, giving him just enough room to blaze down the homestretch for a narrow win and the 400 national crown. Glass’ time of 46.57 also set a new New Jersey record and placed fourth all-time in U.S. history.
“After all I’d been through, it meant a lot more for me to win that title,” said Glass, who admitted to shedding a few post-victory tears. “I felt like this was something I deserved based on all the work I had put in and it paid off.”
Perhaps fittingly, this victory proved to be the last major triumph in Glass’ prep career. A hamstring injury kept him from competing in last week’s Meet of Champions and having a shot at becoming the first boy to win three straight 400 titles.
“Everything happens for a reason and I’m very happy with getting my national title this year,” Glass said. “Maybe it was God’s way of saying to rest and prepare for what’s next.”
This fall, Glass will move on to compete at Florida, a powerhouse program that has won the last two NCAA Indoor Championships. And while his coaches are sad to see their best athlete graduate, they are more excited to see what’s in store for Glass.
“He’s the best runner to come through St. Peter’s Prep and with his will to compete and win, I believe he’ll be at the 2016 Olympics,” St. Peter’s Prep longtime head coach Michael Burgess said. “The kid is raw and if you think he’s great now, the boy will be a monster at the next level when he puts together his talent with the correct mechanics.
“Yep, you’re going to be hearing more about him.”