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Track and field: With the memory of his late father carrying him, Central's Hunter Cagle looks to make a run in pole vault
The tattoo on Hunter Cagle's chest features the signature of his late father, Kenneth. - photo by Ian Frazer

Hunter Cagle talks to his dad about everything.

The topics range from his dream of attending LSU to his pole vaulting career at Forsyth Central, where he’s a school record holder at 14 feet, a mark set during his junior year. Kenneth, his father, was a pole vaulter, too: In 1969, he was a state champion in Louisiana, reaching a mark of 15-1.

Those talks aren’t face to face like they once were, though. Ever since Cagle’s dad passed away unexpectedly last October, they’ve taken place during regular visits to his grave, and during the meets themselves.

“Right before every jump, I'm talking to him,” Cagle said.

One of those talks happened last week, right before Cagle was about to compete at his only event at the Cambridge High School meet in Milton on April 17. It was around 9:45 at night. Cagle was getting set to make just his second appearance of the season, and he didn’t start his run-up without some trepidation.

He’d been through so much over the course of his senior year: Not only with his dad’s passing, but with a knee injury that threatened his future in vaulting and football. With every vault, there was fear in the back of his mind that his surgically repaired knee wouldn’t hold up.

- photo by Ian Frazer
Fear, though, was something Kenneth wouldn’t want his son to succumb to. With his father’s memory instilled in him, Cagle made his vaults count, winning the event at 12 feet, six inches.  It was a milestone moment for Cagle, who was finally beginning to see a positive end to the roughest year of his young life. By the end of the season, Cagle hopes to earn a state title of his own, just like his dad did 50 years ago.

“Honestly, I'm kind of grateful for everything that's happened,” Cagle said. “I think my injury was a big setback, and that adversity kind of made me a better person. Then my dad passes, and I had to grow up so fast, so soon.”

Before the 2018 football season, Cagle was the favorite to hold the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback job. Naturally, he got the nod to start Central’s preseason game against Meadowcreek.

On the game’s fourth play, he took the ball and ran to his left, and as he backpedaled, a corner rushed in and banged his helmet against his knee. He felt some pain, but he didn’t think it was bad enough to leave the game.

“I had no idea,” Cagle said. “(I thought) it might just be a bruise or something. I kept playing and I heard it pop again and I still didn't know. Eventually it just hurt so bad that I had to take myself out.”

Upon later inspection, Cagle discovered that he’d partially torn his right ACL. He’d need rehab and surgery, ending his final high school football season before it even began. It was a significant setback for the Bulldogs, who desperately wanted to move on from a program-worst 0-10 season in 2017. Still, Cagle did his part in what ended up being a turnaround year regardless.

“I don't know if he ever missed a practice,” Central football coach Frank Hepler said. “It was like having another coach on the field. I remember looking up at halftime one night, and I turn to one of the coaches as I normally do to ask questions, and Hunter's standing there. He had a suggestion on one of the things we were looking at and it was spot on. He really gave a lot to us even though he was injured.”

Behind the scenes, Cagle was going through a mentally taxing rehab process. During pre-surgery rehab, he tore the rest of his ACL, negating all of his progress and forcing him to do everything again. After surgery, all hope seemed lost.

“Doing rehab, you go in there and do the same thing for so long,” Cagle said. “You don't really see any progress until way down the road. I sat there during the first two weeks after surgery and I couldn't even move my leg. I was like, ‘I'm never even going to be able to run again.’ I thought it was over then.”

By the time October rolled around, Cagle’s trajectory seemed to be looking up. He was on Central’s homecoming court during the Bulldogs’ game against West Forsyth on Oct. 12. He could have never guessed that such a happy moment would give way to such a devastating day.

“Right before every jump, I'm talking to him."
Hunter Cagle

“That was the last night I got to talk to (my dad),” Cagle said. “I spent the night at a friend's house that night, I come home the next day and I hear my mom yelling (for help). I run down there and it was a sight to see for an 18-year-old, something that I wouldn't want anyone else to see.”

Kenneth Cagle died of a heart attack on Oct. 13. The football team rallied around Hunter during his time of need, and at home, he was forced to step in and help his family as they all grieved.

Whenever Hunter gets excited or proud about something, he’ll visit his father’s grave. With how close the two were, Hunter’s mother, Carolyn, was afraid that he wouldn’t have anyone to express his emotions to. He’s found other people to go to, though.

“That was my biggest fear, because they talked and talked and talked,” Carolyn Cagle said. “I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to fill those shoes, but he does come to me. We talk and it's been nice. I'm glad I've been able to be there for him.”

While Hunter was still mourning his loss, his final high school pole vaulting season approached. Still recovering from his injury, he’s tried to find ways to preserve his knee for region and sectionals. He comes to meets later than he used to, and has limited his jumps to around four or five, as opposed to around 10 before the injury. He used to land on his feet a lot if he had bad vault, but now he falls on his back.

Before his injury, Cagle had four college offers, which all vanished when he got hurt. Still, in the back of his mind, he already knew he was leaning towards LSU, his dream school. He’s already enrolled there and plans to attempt walk on to the track and football teams.

While his knee is still not 100 percent, Cagle’s still better in his current state than a lot of vaulters are at full strength. The Bulldogs feel like he could surprise some people, and he hopes Wednesday’s regional meet is the beginning of a run that would make his late father proud.

“To me, Hunter epitomizes (the) FC,” Central track and field coach Scott Walker said. “He's strong, he's gutty, he's smart, he's committed, and no matter what obstacle's thrown at him, he's going to overcome it. That kid's had a lot thrown at him this year.

“He's kind of like that old dog that's laying in the weeds (that) people have forgotten about. He's going to bite a few people, I guarantee you.”