ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kendall Spencer’s time in college has been built on work, talent and prayer – a leap of faith, if you will.
Spencer is about to graduate from the University of New Mexico, having studied psychology, business and sociology.
He will play a part in ground-breaking studies involving athletes and head trauma.
He had a role in the changing landscape of college athletics.
He has traveled across the country as a member of the school’s track and field team, jumping his way to all-American honors.
He won a national title, the winner of the 2012 NCAA Indoor long jump championship.
“The only thing left to do now is meet the president of the United States,” Spencer says.
Before Spencer embarked on his college career, before he departed San Mateo, Calif., and stepped foot in Albuquerque, he sat with his parents, Wyner and Pamela.
They told him he was going to experience ups and downs, that there would be a lot of adversity.
“They said as long as I kept my relationship with God, everything will always work out,” Spencer says.
That was in 2009. And there was adversity.
“My first two years of college were extremely rough,” Spencer says. “I was struggling with injuries.”
He thought a bad hamstring was going to cost him his scholarship.
“I thought they were going to cut me,” he says. “I wanted to quit, but I prayed about it.”
And he stayed.
On a March night in 2012, in Nampa, Idaho, Spencer long jumped 26 feet, 3½ inches, winning the NCAA indoor title.
His personal best outdoors is 26-8¼. He will be trying to defend his Mountain West Conference championship this week in Laramie, Wyo.
“I probably won’t finish the peak process until (NCAA) regionals,” Spencer says. “It will be three or four more weeks before I put the finishing touches on everything.”
But his NCAA work is not limited to the track. A couple of years ago he became UNM’s representative on the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Then he became the MWC’s rep. In January, he was named the NCAA Division I SAAC chairman.
“I didn’t feel like enough student-athletes were getting involved in their own affairs,” Spencer says. “It was a great opportunity for my campus, my conference to be represented.”
He doesn’t believe college athletes should unionize. He fears that once athletes start to get paid, it will become more like work.
But he is pleased that the NCAA’s proposed governance structure includes a seat at the table for athletes.
“When you’re working with a sports administration of thousands and thousands, it’s easy for the student-athlete’s voice to get lost in the shuffle,” Spencer says. “But tons of progress has been made. With the restructuring the NCAA is going through, there will be some amazing changes.
“One of the biggest things my committee is excited about is that there will be (athlete) voting representation through the organization. There’s a new idea of a legislative council, a new legislative body, where rules are developed and voted on. And there will be a student on the board of directors, which is huge. That’s something a lot of student-athletes though would never happen.”
After the NCAA meet in June, he will prepare for graduate school.
Part of his work will be on a study being done by UNM and the Mind Research Network regarding traumatic brain injuries.
“We will be screening all the football players at UNM as part of their physical,” Spencer says. “Then we’ll chart their progress throughout the season.”
He got involved in the project through his professor, Dr. Ken Kiehl, who made a national name for himself working with psychopaths. This study will look at the long-term effects of brain injuries. The long-term hope is to minimize the impact of concussions.
“I’ve always been interested in neuroscience,” Spencer says. “This merges my interest in athletics.”
Toward that end, he is grateful to be a Lobo.
“Our coaches work so hard for us,” Spencer says. “The best thing about it is they allow student-athletes to explore other opportunities. All the stuff I’m doing outside of track, I can tell you for a fact, I would not be able to do at some other schools.”
Spencer sings, he hip-hop dances, he plays the saxophone.
But there is more left to do – qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, for instance.
There is an entire world awaiting him, and he is interested in much of it.
But as for his time in college: “I can say I did everything I could,” he says.