Ten days later, he became an ACC champion in the men’s 400-meter hurdles. How Saddler escaped rock bottom took a village of support he didn’t know he had.
The track and field staff were already aware something was not right with Saddler. Two days prior to his breaking point, he practiced without talking to anyone. Head down, hood up — and Saddler is usually far from quiet in practice.
“People always gravitate around him,” Madias Loper, a former thrower on the team, said.
After speaking with his trainers and coaches, Saddler was granted time off. The first step for Saddler — after collapsing to the ground on Dorrance Field – was to call his athletic trainer Kelly Fleming.
“She’s always someone we can talk to about anything,” Saddler said. “She's open to hear anything that we're going through. As she's giving a massage or flushing out our hamstrings, she's also asking, ‘How are you personally doing?’”
Fleming arranged for Saddler to stay with Loper for the night. Loper said Saddler is someone with whom he can be vulnerable. Both have cried in front of each other during tough discussions.
Loper also remembers one of his fraternity brothers committing suicide two years ago. Based on that tragedy, he had zero hesitation in letting Saddler stay for the night.
“I learned that it takes a friend to know how to save a friend,” Loper said. “If someone tells you that they need you, it's important for you to be there how they need you to be there.”
So the next step for Saddler: talking with his parents. Not something he wanted to do. Saddler thought he needed to project a perfect image for his parents.
Minutes into calling their son, Craig and Marsha Saddler looked at each other, knowing CJ was suffering in a way they had never seen before. They booked the first flight they could find from Florida to North Carolina.
It was that call with his parents that CJ said was his critical breakthrough.
“It was an amazing moment of clarity,” CJ said. “Our relationship got ten times stronger. Because now I can tell them anything and I know that they won't hate me.”
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Growing up, he always saw his father’s unblemished transcript from his master’s degree. He never saw the undergraduate transcript — that was for a reason. Craig struggled through undergrad, going through the same “a-ha moment” CJ was going through.
And Saddler's parents could trust him to learn from his mistakes.
“We just said, 'We’re here to help you on the path you take,'” Craig said. “But ultimately the choice is yours. And for him to hear us say that, I think it went a long way.”
CJ, after praying about finding more people to trust, went to teammate Troy Yearwood’s house. It was a deeper conversation than they'd ever had before. Yearwood told CJ not to shy away from the past but to use it as motivation for who he wanted to be.
“Day one, he was receptive,” Yearwood said. “He's had one of the fastest turnarounds I've ever seen.”
Putting a plan into action has never been the hard step for CJ. His dad remembers warning him when they moved from Iowa to Florida that the competition would be much tougher.
"And his response to me was classic," Craig said. "He said, ‘Dad, all that may be true, but they haven't raced me yet.'"
So CJ put his mind to recovery. He stayed with his parents at a hotel until the ACC Championship. He had struggled to eat before staying with his parents, and Saddler said he cried in front of food realizing how hard it was to eat.
His parents ate with him, and CJ got back to eating three meals a day. He got back into practice, warming up with the team and working out on his own until the ACCs.
On the day of the men’s 400-meter hurdles, Craig heard CJ tell someone he was going to win — how he would celebrate, what he would say in the interview. Like he read it in a book.
And it happened. CJ posted a time below 50 seconds for the first time in his career, winning the ACC Championship.
As Craig celebrated in the stands, he recalled how he told his boss he needed a week off to help his son.
“There’s no way my boss is gonna believe this,” Craig said.
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