Jeff Masterson has realized there is more to life than just running.
Since his father’s death nearly three years ago, the sophomore runner on USF’s cross-country and track teams has learned to appreciate things in life other than the sport he’s participated in since his adolescence.
Jeff was only a junior at Mitchell High School in Pasco County when his father, George Masterson, died of cancer on Oct. 1, 2003.
Until then, his life was consumed with running – but his father always wanted him to have a life outside the sport.
“Running was a lot (before he died),” Jeff said. “He always wanted me to be a good person when I no longer had running, and I think for a long time if you just took running away from me, I would struggle a lot.”
Now, more than a year into his college career, Jeff has found a balance, something he struggled with in high school. In addition to working as a resident assistant on campus, he has taken a big interest in motorcycles and is a fanatic of the show Lost, among other things.
“I’m more prepared for life,” Jeff said. “I’ve become more of an individual without running – not as ‘Jeff Masterson, the runner.'”
Former USF assistant coach Todd Morgan, who coached Jeff last year before taking a job at the University of Florida, helped guide Jeff to this path.
“The biggest thing that Jeff and I talked about last year was him finding a balance with being happy with himself and incorporating running into that,” Morgan said. “I was trying to help him see that he could still run and be very successful and have other things go on in his life.”
Making the transition
Before his family found out George was ill in July 2003, Jeff was almost certain he would attend UF after graduation. However, given the circumstance, he felt staying close to his family was more important.
“I was 99 percent sure I was going to be a Gator,” Jeff said. “(But) after cross country my senior year, everything just clicked – finances, being close to home and not having to worry about anything if I was here. Coach Morgan, too, was a really big influence.”
The decision to come to USF may have come easy, but he said making the transition from high school to college was tough.
“There’s no book written for people who have lost somebody who had such an impact on something they were going to do in college,” Jeff said. “Along with trying to deal with running in college, running in a new environment without my father and just dealing with the things that freshmen deal with – it was a lot to deal with.”
Although he has adjusted to college life and is glad he came to USF, Jeff did not always have this feeling during his freshman year, when he sometimes felt like quitting and going home to attend community college.
“I was ready (to leave home), but when I got here, I was kind of ready to go back,” Jeff said. “It was in that transition of life – to start your own life, you move out on your own and take care of yourself, so that was really difficult.”
Thankful for space
Being one of the best runners in the state during high school, Jeff couldn’t show up to a race without getting bombarded with attention. Although he enjoyed being in the spotlight at first, it became difficult after his father died.
“We’d be warming up for a race, and I’d be putting my shoes on or going to the bathroom, and somebody would come up to me 20 minutes before my race and just be like, ‘Hey man, I’m sorry about your father.'” Jeff said. “It takes me right out of my game. You try to put it aside so you can run and get what you need to get done.”
Bill Napolitano, Jeff’s coach for three years in high school and a good friend of the Masterson family, remembers the struggles Jeff encountered before races.
“Here you are getting ready to get fired up to run a 5k race, and all of a sudden somebody comes up and hits you with the bomb of, ‘Sorry your dad’s not here,'” Napolitano said. “You should be concentrating on what you have to do at hand, and that was always taken away from him.”
Running in college, however, has been a different experience for Jeff. Although USF isn’t far from his hometown of New Port Richey, Jeff doesn’t get the same attention he got in high school because he isn’t the only elite runner on the team.
“There’s thousands of Jeff Mastersons in the NCAA, running,” Jeff said. “It’s kind of like I’m not a big name anymore. I think a lot of people thought that was going to be tough for me, but I really like it more.”
Growing up with four brothers, Jeff said his father always instilled the importance of family in his sons. When George was still alive, the family always went to church and spent Sundays together.
“Things are different because one of my brothers has gotten married, and I’ve gone off to college,” Jeff said. “But if my mom ever called or I ever called her and said, ‘Hey I’m going to be home on Sunday,’ there would be no doubt everybody would be there.”
Jeff said he and his brothers help their mother, Kathy, by filling voids left by their father. She agreed, saying Jeff is there for her to talk to while her oldest son helps with finances and one of Jeff’s younger brothers serves as the family comedian.
But just as her sons help fill the voids left behind by her husband, George, Kathy said they also help each other out.
“They’ve all grown closer, and especially recently,” Kathy said. “I’ve seen that they kind of minister to each other, and I think in a way, they’re kind of like their dad to each other.”
Upon graduation, Jeff plans on returning to the classroom as either a special education teacher or an English teacher. He also wants to stay involved in distance running by coaching.
Jeff’s involvement with kids won’t be limited to his teaching and coaching career. He looks forward to taking what he learned from his father and raising a family of his own.
“I want to have an impact on my kids’ lives because that’s what my dad did,” Jeff said. “He put something into me that I love to do, and he put so much time into me – I want to do that for my kids, too.”