TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida State cross country team on Wednesday boarded a plane bound for Louisville, Ky., where it will compete Friday for the 2017 ACC championship.
At about the same time, halfway across the country, Ensign Stanley Linton boarded a plane in Des Moines, Iowa, bound for Louisville, where he will join his FSU teammates and compete for the same ACC championship.
It’s an unusual and extraordinary measure for a student-athlete, but, then again, Linton is an unusual and extraordinary guy.
A native of nearby Crawfordville, Fla., Linton is equal parts runner, graduate student and – in a club all to himself – active-duty member of the United States Navy.
Linton, a human resources officer stationed at Camp Dodge, Iowa, is believed to be the only active-duty servicemember competing at the NCAA Division I level in any sport.
“I’ve never had this in 35 years of coaching,” FSU cross country coach Bob Braman said. “And I’m probably not going to see another one.”
Linton’s story is unique, but, to those who know him, it makes perfect sense.
Having grown up around cousins and uncles in the military, and a father, Keith, who was a police officer in Tampa for 20 years, Linton always had a desire to serve.
“I wanted to do my part,” he said.
And, driven by a desire to ace a fitness test in high school, Linton also learned to love running.
He first combined the two during his time at Wakulla High, where he was a decorated member of both the school’s NJROTC program and cross country team.
“He was the top dog,” said Madi Harris, a friend and classmate at Wakulla and a current teammate at FSU. “Everyone looked up to him.”
Upon graduation, Linton moved 30 miles north to attend FSU on an ROTC scholarship. And, with some nice competitive running credentials to his name – he finished eighth at the cross country state championships as a senior – Linton worked up his nerve to approach Braman about walking on with the Seminoles.
“I realized if I was able to get into a program like that, if I could just get a spot, that I could really take my running career to the next level,” Linton said. “And maybe even further.”
There was only one problem: FSU’s standards for its walk-ons are both high and firm. Braman requires walk-ons to run 5000 meters in 15 minutes. And, at the time, Linton’s best time was over 16 minutes.
Not fast enough.
“(Braman) wrote me back and said, really respectfully, that (FSU’s) walk-on standards are posted,” Linton said. “(He said), ‘Good luck, and hope you can try to get to the standards.’
“It was the really the first time someone told me, ‘No.’ Someone said, ‘You’re not good enough.’”
Linton, however, is not the type to take no for an answer. Not when he could set his mind – and his body – to improving.
Driven by the rejection, Linton spent his first two years at Florida State training in the mornings and evenings, managing his responsibilities with the ROTC and working toward his undergraduate degree in mathematics.
He found a home in Tallahassee’s extensive running community and found that, each time he ran, he was just a little bit faster than the race before.
By the spring of 2014, near the end of his sophomore year at FSU, Linton had done what he had been told he couldn’t. He was fast enough for Florida State.
“He’s super focused, he’s very bright and he’s very driven,” Braman said.
Linton would go on to become a valued member of the FSU cross country team for the next two seasons, helping guide the Seminoles to three top-10 finishes as a junior and picking up All-ACC honors as a senior.
He then graduated in the spring of 2016, and, given his commitment to the Navy – the ROTC scholarship requires five years of service upon graduation – figured that his time as a collegiate runner was over.
Linton didn’t have any regrets about joining the Navy, but, after everything he went through to become a Seminole, he found the end of his running career to be bittersweet.
“You have a lot of thoughts,” he said. “‘Man, if I had another chance, I would have done this right, or done that right or really trained this way. I wish I had another chance.’”
The Navy sent Linton to Des Moines, where he spent a year wrestling with those thoughts. That’s when Braman called with an idea that Linton hadn’t yet considered: NCAA rules allow student athletes to compete in four seasons across five years, and Linton had only run in two seasons.
Not only that, but the 2017-18 year would be Linton’s fifth. He still had eligibility remaining, and, if he wanted it, a spot on the FSU cross country and track teams.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t still some hurdles to clear.
First, Linton had to clear the plan with his superiors at the Navy, which turned out to be easier than he expected.
“It worked out harmoniously,” Linton said. “They both understood – ROTC wanted an athlete. And cross-country wanted an ROTC member.”
With the Navy’s blessing, Linton then had to work with Braman and FSU’s NCAA compliance office to ensure that rules allow for active-duty servicemembers to compete. Bylaw 184.108.40.206 says that they can.
“We have tremendous pride for the men and women who serve our country,” Florida State Vice President and Director of Athletics Stan Wilcox said. “Stanley had been part of our athletics family during his undergraduate time. To create an avenue for his continued participation during his graduate year and simultaneously allow him to service our country, was a value add for all those involved.”
Then, Linton had to apply for graduate school and enroll in a Master’s program at FSU. He did that, and opted to pursue a degree in learning and cognition.
Finally, Linton charted a plan with his academic advisor, Erin DeChellis, that would allow him to do his coursework remotely.
With those steps complete, Linton – lovingly dubbed “Lieutenant Stan” by Braman and teammates – was a Seminole again. A fifth-year senior, living in Des Moines, who would travel to meet the Seminoles at their races.
“When I got the final OK from FSU,” Linton said, “I had remembered all those months of thinking my career was over, and started to put it into action.”
For Linton, that means a strict regimen that suits both his life in the Navy and his life as a runner.
He runs at 5 a.m. every day, then heads to work. If he has any down time in the office, he’ll use it to study. Linton then heads home, runs again, handles whatever schoolwork he needs to and then heads to bed.
“I repeat that five times a week,” he said.
“You’re not going to find another person who has more obligations than he does in the NCAA championships,” Braman added.
It’s a lot to manage, but Linton says he likes it that way.
“There’s a phrase I use a lot – ‘Pressure makes diamonds,’” Linton said. “I think that really applies to me. I’m able to give my best when I’m under pressure. When I’m getting all this stuff thrown at me – whether it’s work, school, running – I think I’m able to adapt and overcome.”
And, as he progresses further in his career, Linton has found that what makes a successful runner is often the same as what makes a successful Naval officer.
“A sense of discipline is essential in athletics and in the military,” Linton said. “Because I have to be disciplined in the military, it’s good that I’m a runner. And because I have to be disciplined in running, it’s good that I’m in the military.”