Winning a state championship in high school requires the overcoming of obstacles.
Darian Mills, 2022 graduate of Port St. Joe High School overcame many barriers in earning three state championships in hurdles, and this May he became the first All-American that Thomas University has ever produced.
Mills, who lives in Grand Ridge, decided to transfer to Port St. Joe his junior year after meeting Keion McNair, Tiger Shark cross country and track coach. “I came to Port St. Joe because of Keion, because I knew the level of coaching that he did would help me do my best,” he said.
“He contacted me,” said McNair. “Once he did that, I had a conversation about how good he wanted to be. I told him that if he came, he would be a state champion, and not just a 1A champion but one of the fastest in the state and in the country.”
“He bought into my vision that I had for him,” said McNair.
First obstacle: Mills “drove an hour and 13 minutes every day” to attend school and train with McNair before returning home.
“My mom supported the change, and without her, it wouldn’t have happened,” Mills said.
A second, and more dangerous obstacle occurred in July, 2021, a few months after Mills earned his first state championship in the 110 meter hurdles.
At the Junior Olympics in Jacksonville, a van traveling an estimated 80 miles per hour plowed into the car that McNair and Mills were sitting in stand-still traffic on the interstate highway. Luckily, Mills escaped unscathed, while McNair required a hospital stay and months of rehabilitation.
After winning state championships in both the 110 meter and 300 meter hurdles his senior year, Mills decided to sign a scholarship with Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia, whose newly-appointed coach, Scott Gowan, had been McNair’s high school cross country and track coach at Port St. Joe.
Thomas University competes in the SUN Conference, and is affiliated with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
College “was a big adjustment from high school,” said Mills, “as far as time, sleep, schedule management, classes, and practices. I had to mentally prepare a lot more than I did in high school. We have to work the hardest in practice to do well at a meet.”
“I learned a lot about the sport, and I learned a lot about myself as a person. I learned that the little things count,” he said.
When asked about similarities in coaching between McNair and Gowan, Mills said that “they both see in me what I didn’t see in myself. McNair told me I would be a state champion, and Gowan told me that I could be an All-American, so they both saw the future for me. I just had to put in the work for it.”
With track being primarily an individual sport, he said that “everybody has their own mind and prepares differently. Just like in the classroom, you can’t do somebody else’s work for them. You can’t run for them, but we can help each other.”
In addition to crediting Gowan for his college successes, Mills also spoke highly of the NightHawk assistant coach, Steve Thomas, for motivating him.
“One thing I learned from Coach Thomas was that ‘easy creates weakness.’ He said that if you work on what you’re good at, you will never grow. If you work on what you’re bad at, you’re definitely going to become a better athlete.”
Giving an academic example, Mills said that “I hate math, but that’s the first thing I have to work on. I have to learn to love math.”
Despite being a three-time state champion in high school, Mills said that when he arrived on campus “I let all that go, and put my rings away. I’m a new hurdler, a new track runner. I’m losing everything,” and starting from scratch.
For instance, he said that “when I first got (to Thomas), I told them that I’m not a good hurdler, because I knew that there would be better hurdlers. I knew that there would be other state champions, so I knew when I got there I had something to prove.”
McNair echoed that attitude. “I knew that he was hungry coming off a summer in which he had false started at Junior Olympics, so he had something to prove,” and another obstacle to overcome.
And prove something he did.
In his first year of college competition, Mills earned All-Conference Honors in the indoor 4×400 relay in February (Birmingham), and outdoor All-Conference honors in the 400 meter hurdles and 4×400 relay at the SUN Conference Outdoor Championships in April (Daytona Beach).
Mills, who ran the first leg of the 4×400 relay, had a fellow Port St. Joe alumnus, Devin Crews, run the anchor leg of the relay.
In addition to the All-Conference recognitions, Mills set seven school records: three indoor, and four outdoor.
In indoor competition, Mills set records in the 60 meter hurdles, the 200 meter race, and 4×400 relay.
In outdoor events, he set school records in the 400 meter race, 400 meter hurdles, the 4×100 relay, and the 4×400 relay.
Saving the best for last, Mills placed third in the 400 meter hurdles at the NAIA National Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana, May 24-26.
His finish looms even more impressive when one realizes that he was the only freshman in the finals. With his school-record time of 51.56, Mills earned 1st team All-American honors, the first ever for Thomas University.
“Darian had an amazing freshman year, both indoors and outdoors, and for him to finish top-3 in the NAIA as just a freshman is about as good as it gets,” said Gowan to Jennifer Coleman, Thomas University Athletic Communication Assistant. “We all look forward to watching him develop into one of the top sprinters/hurdlers in the country.”
Competing at nationals hardly intimidated Mills, who said “Keion really got me prepared with big stages like Junior Olympics and other big competitions. What really kept my mind on it is I always put God first, and then I trust my training. I knew I was going to get the job done.”
Like any athlete, he had disappointments during his first college season. “My biggest disappointment was in indoor competition. I fell over the first hurdle in Birmingham during the 60 meter hurdles.”
But as with other gifted athletes, he overcame that and ended up qualifying for nationals in the event. “It gave me fuel to learn more, to learn the sport more because obviously there was something missing.” Another obstacle overcome.
Following his successful finish in Marion, Mills returned to Port St. Joe and “is taking three weeks off before resuming training with Keion for the summer.”
“My goal is to be better than I was, in the classroom, as a person, as a teammate,” he said.
As he continues to work toward perfecting his craft on the track, Mills is pursuing a degree in biology, and going to dental school.
After all of the obstacles that he has already overcome, that is a goal well within his grasp.