By Marty Farmer
The stories about the great ones typically arrive early. Eyewitnesses on a golf course who reminisce of golf balls repeatedly landing on the greens from a tiny Tiger Woods, basketball junkies recalling an adolescent Kobe Bryant holding his own on the basketball court against pro players, or little league parents describing a precocious Josh Hamilton crushing prodigious home runs as a kid.
Whether 10-year-old cross-country extraordinaire Paxton Ferencak generates such almost mythical "word of mouth recognition" remains to be seen, but he's undeniably on the right track to success on and off the field of competition. While the aforementioned legendary athletes have all experienced well-publicized personal problems as adults, Paxton has already established a maturity beyond his years and a genuine concern for others in addition to his athletic accomplishments.
Alongside his mother, Dawn, he puts in over 100 hours per year helping others mainly on the West Side of Chicago, and particularly, in the Austin community. Paxton has participated in peace marches, attended rallies to stop violence against women and served food to the homeless on Thanksgiving. The socially conscious youngster is friendly with multiple politicians and has even rubbed elbows on occasion with Gov. Pat Quinn.
"It seems like after Martin Luther King Jr. died, it's been harder for a lot of communities to stay safe," said Paxton, who attends Grace Lutheran in River Forest. "I look at communities like River Forest and Oak Park with so many nice houses and wealthy families, and it makes me want to help make Austin a better place."
While Paxton's charitable endeavors (particularly for his age) are praiseworthy, make no mistake running is the name of the game for this burgeoning star.
At the cross-country state finals this fall, Paxton finished 60th overall with a time of 14 minutes and 3 seconds. He also led Grace Lutheran to eighth place in the team standings. Although his individual result at first glance may seem pedestrian, keep in mind Paxton raced primarily against kids two and three grades above him. He also tripped during the first quarter-mile but responded well to finish strong.
The following day, the indefatigable and determined young runner participated in the Frank Lloyd Wright Race in Oak Park. Paxton came in 76th out of 978 runners overall (all ages). He placed within the Top 2 among 10-year-olds. He's already become essentially a nonfiction version of young Forrest Gump (sans legs braces), always on the run.
An all-around excellent athlete, Paxton also dabbles in baseball, football and karate.
"Paxton just started running last year [in fourth grade] and he had no fear," said Grace Lutheran cross-country coach Rich Brooks, a former OPRF runner and All-American at the University of Illinois. "He doesn't worry about getting tired, he just loves to run. I think he's a very good athlete with good coordination and a runner's body. Running is really about 80 or 90 percent mental, and Paxton has the right mental approach and work ethic to be great. He's set an example for the other runners in our [Grace Lutheran] program. Other kids see his determination and success and want to emulate him."
His Grace Lutheran teammate and close friend, 11-year-old Anthony Gene Battaglia, continually marvels at Paxton's running ability.
"Paxton is way too fast for me to keep up," Battaglia said after a meet at Miller Meadow this season. "He's really an inspiration to me. Seeing how well Paxton runs, it makes me want to run better."
Of course, Battaglia isn't the only runner with intentions of improvement. In fact, Paxton's aspirations are sky high with an appearance at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo as his ultimate goal.
Only time will tell if he qualifies for the Olympics, but the scouting report of Paxton's future is pure gold. At a minimum, an area high school is going to pick up a tremendous athlete and an even better young man a few years down the road. The same cycle could very well apply to a college cross-country program as well.
Much of the credit regarding his character belongs to his mom, who has supported him every race.
"She tries to make it to every meet which is nice, really nice." Paxton said about his mom. "Her support means a lot to me."
For others who also attend his races, Paxton typically treats the gallery to a focused, fast and rhythmic run. For him, it's just a form of expression.
"I feel like I was born to run. I just love running," Paxton said. "I don't get distracted and I just concentrate on the race at hand. Sometimes, I feel like I am flying and my feet aren't even touching the ground."
Now that ought to give people something to talk about.