Cody Riffle, a St. John's graduate, was named a co-captain for the Michigan track and field team.
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If Cody Riffle had anxiety about an upcoming exam or if he was unsure of what the next day would bring while in high school, he went to his backyard, where he had constructed a thrower’s circle that mimicked the one he practiced in and competed in at St. John’s Jesuit.
That was where Riffle was able to center himself.
“It was more therapeutic, but it was definitely an awesome place,” said Riffle, a 2010 St. John’s graduate who is a shot putter at the University of Michigan. “Sometimes it would get too dark and it got to where I’d put spotlights up so I could continue practicing.”
When the weather was too cold, he’d practice his footsteps in the threshold between the living room and kitchen of his family home. Step, step, pivot, turn. Over and over.
It got to a point that his footsteps wore through the carpeting.
The carpeting eventually got replaced. The throwing circle is likely gone — his family moved away from their Neapolis home. Yet nearly nine years after he became a thrower at the urging of two of his friends at Anthony Wayne Junior High, Riffle has become one of Michigan and the Big Ten’s top throwers.
A two-time second-team All-American in the shot put, Riffle, a redshirt junior, was recently voted by his teammates as one of three co-captains of the men’s track team.
Riffle’s demeanor and his ability to navigate socially, Michigan coach Jerry Clayton said, has helped him gain the respect of his teammates.
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“With track being a team sport that has individual events, some people may be a little more introverted, but Cody is engaged,” Clayton said. “He’s not just passionate and committed to what he does, but he’s engaged in how his teammates respond around him. People follow him, people listen to him, and you gain respect.”
Growing up, he was convinced he’d earn a college football scholarship. But two of his friends in junior high school encouraged him to join the track team. When he agreed, he didn’t think much of a future in track.
“Everybody has their own way of getting into it,” Riffle said. “When I threw the shot for the first time, I won my first meet and thought, ‘OK, this is cool, and I really didn’t have to do that much.’ ”
At St. John’s, Riffle played football and found that several of his track teammates weren’t just running or throwing for its own sake. Andrew Hills went to compete at Notre Dame and Jon Kusowski went to Marquette, and both took a different approach to their event.
“Those upperclassmen were really passionate about track, and they made me feel the same way about it,” said Riffle, who opened the 2014 indoor track season Jan. 18 by winning the Simmons-Harvey Invitational with a mark of 57 feet, 0.25 inches. “Because of it, I took off on my own and began to have really high finishes, like at the conference championships and at the state meet. It felt really good to to see that hard work and effort translate so well.”
In 2009, Riffle placed second in the discus at the Division I state championships, just one inch behind the 191-feet, 2-inch effort by Corey Linsley, who went on to play football at Ohio State. On the way home from Columbus, Riffle made a decision.
“We were saying goodbye in the parking lot at St. John’s after coming home from the state meet and Cody said something to me about college and what he wanted to do,” said Steve Spenthoff, the Titans track coach. “He talked about not playing football and we wanted him to reconsider, but he insisted and told me, ‘No, I think I’d like to do track and field in college.’ He had his mind made up to go full-bore in track and field.”
Part of that came from the sting of missing out on a state championship. Part of it was realizing the potential he had to excel in the throwing events. Part of that also came from the understanding that if he was going to participate in sports at the college level, his best opportunity would come in track and field.
“That was a really hard decision for him,” said Steve Fruchey, who coached the St. John’s throwers from 2004-10. “He’d been so committed to football from such a young age. But the fact that he was mature enough to look at this and say, ‘this is my passion, this is what drives me and this is where I can be the best,’ that showed a lot about him.”
Riffle won the Division I state discus championship in 2010. He went to Michigan that fall.
Using a 16-pound collegiate shot instead of a 12-pound implement used at the high school level, he eclipsed the 60-foot mark as a freshman, becoming the first Michigan thrower to do so in nearly 30 years.
Riffle (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) underwent surgery to repair torn meniscus and sat out the 2012 indoor track season with a medical redshirt, but 2013 was a breakthrough for Riffle. He finished ninth in the shot at the NCAA outdoor championships (61 feet, 1.25 inches) and 12th at the NCAA indoor championships (59-4) to earn second-team All-American honors.
Clayton became Michigan’s head track coach in the summer and immediately noticed two facets of Riffle’s personality: he wasn’t afraid to interact with other members of the track team — unusual, given that throwers can be isolated from the rest of their teammates, but something that helped Riffle earn the respect of his teammates. And Riffle wasn’t afraid to ask questions of his coach.
“The more questions athletes ask, the better job I’m doing as a coach because they get that feedback,” Clayton said.
With that, Clayton has begun to set goals for Riffle, beginning with small goals that he hopes will culminate in two big goals: scoring at the NCAA championships and finishing in the top three at the Big Ten championships.
“I know I’m following up on a good season, and it would be hard not to force certain things to happen,” Riffle said. “I’m not trying to put a certain mark in my head. If I think about it or dwell on that, I could hurt some of my results. Instead, it’s stay calm and let the process work itself out.”