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Grit: Retracing the steps of Jack DesRoches

From New Orleans to Nashville, the path of Jack DesRoches has taken many twists and turns. Through it all, he’s relied on one thing: sheer force of will.
With his freshman season coming to a close, Jack DesRoches still has plenty of time left at Vanderbilt. Hes not wasting any of it. (Hustler Multimedia/Sofia El-Shammaa)
Sofia El-Shammaa
With his freshman season coming to a close, Jack DesRoches still has plenty of time left at Vanderbilt. He’s not wasting any of it. (Hustler Multimedia/Sofia El-Shammaa)

New Orleans, La. is a city with a thousand reputations. Vibrant. Historic. Dangerous. The birthplace of jazz. The home of a dozen cultures mixed into one. The city that’s been knocked down and rebuilt a hundred times.

It’s a city that demands a certain mentality of its residents. It takes a certain fortitude to rebuild after a storm and to keep the faith during the next one. To stick it out in the Crescent City after all that’s happened is to look life, circumstance and nature in the eye and say, “You might upend me, but you will not move me.”

In a word, it’s a city that demands grit.

Down on Carrollton Avenue in the Mid-City rests Jesuit High School, a private Catholic institution for boys in grades 8-12. The school has its own scars. When Hurricane Katrina swept through the city in 2005, the building’s first floor was covered in five feet of water.The damage may not have been fully repaired for years; but, just 90 days after the storm, Jesuit became the first high school in Orleans Parish to reopen after restoration.

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Jack DesRoches may not have arrived at Jesuit until over a decade after the storm, but he — and everyone in the city — is a product of it and countless others.

A mild-mannered freshman still adjusting to life away from home, DesRoches recalls his hometown fondly.

“I was there my whole life,” he told The Hustler. “Everything was amazing.”

The young student-athlete — now an emerging SEC cross country star — is not wholly defined by one city or one event. But, it’s impossible to miss the telltale signs of the city — that unmistakable grit — in everything that he does.

“I tried pretty much every sport,” DesRoches said. “I played baseball for a while.”

That was the young man’s first true love.

“[My older brother] played baseball, and I wanted to be like him,” DesRoches recalled with a laugh. “I really wanted to be good at baseball, but I wasn’t.”

When he got cut from Jesuit’s baseball team at the beginning of high school, he pivoted to cross country.

“Everybody makes the cross country team, so I just settled with that,” DesRoches said.

Through freshman year, DesRoches mainly took part in meets as a way to be outdoors. With all its cultural monuments and historic sights, New Orleans is quite the backdrop for a young athlete just looking to run. Then, something clicked.

“My sophomore year, I had this one race that it, it really just came out of nowhere and I did really well,” DesRoches said. “At that point, I realized that this could be something big, and so I just kind of dedicated myself to the sport.”

His high school coach, former LSU cross country runner Cullen Doody, had a similar recollection of events.

“Jack’s sophomore year was when I knew he would be special,” Doody told The Hustler. ”He went from our No. 7 man in the first race to the No. 1 on the team and fourth at the state meet.”

Once the awards and recognition started rolling in, DesRoches had another realization: This could lead somewhere.

“The second I realized that running in college was going to be an opportunity for me, I was pretty much just thinking about Vanderbilt right away,” DesRoches said.

In a state where most athletes want the life of a star at Louisiana State University, where the Tigers from football to gymnastics are the talk of the town, DesRoches had a different mindset.

“My plan from the start was pretty much to kind of use this opportunity to maybe get me into a school I wouldn’t have been able to get into otherwise, to be completely honest,” DesRoches said. “I always wanted to go to [Vanderbilt], so that was kind of my plan from the jump, and it worked out.”

DesRoches first caught the eye of Vanderbilt head coach Althea Thomas’ staff during his junior season. A former LSU runner herself, Thomas is intimately familiar with the Louisiana high school circuit and its cadre of coaches. By chance, Thomas had a former college teammate whose sibling had taken the venture into coaching cross country — and at no other place than Jesuit High School.

“Sometimes they say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Thomas told The Hustler. “Throughout his junior year, we were able to go and see him run and see him practice and talk to him and his parents.”

Given DesRoches’ desire to go to Vanderbilt, it was an easy sell.

“As his senior year approaches, it was almost just a formality,” Thomas said.

Now, through four competitions, DesRoches has established himself as one of the best long-distance runners on Vanderbilt’s roster. On Oct. 3, he was named SEC Freshman of the Week after being the first Commodore to cross the 5-mile finish line at the Joe Piane Invitational. Just a week prior, he accomplished the same feat in the 7.8-kilometer at the Mountain Dew Invitational.

“As coaches, we know the precursors that lead up to [success], and he’s just been diligently showing those precursors,” Thomas said. “You just like to see young people accomplish their dreams and do what we all have been working hard to do.”

The recognition still caught DesRoches a little off guard.

“I was in the locker room and I was just alone, scrolling through Instagram,” DesRoches said of when he found out about the accolade. “I saw a notification on my phone that I was tagged in a photo and it said ‘SEC Freshman of the Week.”

The reaction was instantaneous.

“I just dropped my phone and I started screaming,” DesRoches said with a self-reflective laugh. “Our laundry guy was outside of the locker room and he was really concerned, so I had to go out and let him know that everything was alright.”

DesRoches wasn’t trying for the award, nor does he seem particularly concerned about individual accolades. That said, it’s human nature to be happy for one’s accomplishments.

“I walked back into the locker room and I kept screaming for a while longer,” DesRoches said. “It’s not that you need to be kind of award-oriented because you shouldn’t be, but it is nice to sometimes get the fruits of your labor. So, it felt really nice after a long time of work.”

How hard DesRoches works is something everybody notices, and it’s not a new quality.

“Jack loves to train and loves to compete,” Doody said. “He was always doing the little things outside of practice to stay healthy so that he could train and compete at the highest level.”

That’s become even more true as he’s transitioned to a college game that features longer distances. Endurance is everything, and putting in the work outside of practice is the only way to get there. His recognition of that early on was a blessing to his coaches.

“He was diligent enough to sacrifice that last summer of high school and actually go on a training trip where he met up with some of his current teammates and trained at altitude,” Thomas said.”A lot of kudos to him [because] when we say this is what it takes, he takes the initiative to make some sacrifices and do what it takes.”

His teammates might be the ones who notice most of all.

“Jack definitely leads by example when we are at practice and at meets,” teammate Zach Hodges, a junior, said. “The strength required to come into a sport, largely dominated by seniority, and dig your heels in and push for your goals every day is immense and Jack has done an incredible job of that.”

But, the freshman isn’t satisfied. Not even close. With just the NCAA Regionals and Championships left in the season, DesRoches has his eyes set not just on a good performance there, but on building the program in the years to come.

“I want to have contributed to a really big team improvement, that’s kind of a big goal for me,” DesRoches said when asked how he wants to be remembered at Vanderbilt. “I want, in terms of the team, to just build, build and build, and that’s everybody’s plan in the long term.”

Part of that building requires on-the-course performance, but an even bigger part of it happens away from the meets.

“I want to lead in any way I can, and that can be individually performing [or] kind of doing my part and also helping the other guys,,” DesRoches said. “Maybe helping recruiting, trying to get some young studs on the team.”

His teammates have noticed that drive too.

“Ever since his official visit, it has been clear that Jack wanted to take up the mantle of turning our program into a powerhouse,” Hodges said. “Before he arrived on campus, he let a few of us know what he had been dreaming of doing his freshman year. Every single day since then, I had not seen a moment where that dream wasn’t in the forefront of his mind.”

If New Orleans has proven anything, it’s that rebuilding takes a lot. It takes time. It takes teamwork. Above all, it takes grit. The same goes for building anything of value, whether it’s a city skyline or an athletics program.

Jack DesRoches has known this since his days of running through City Park. Now, he gets to put it into action.

This story was originally published on The Vanderbilt Hustler on November 8, 2023.