Jaxson Noel grew up with a can-do, will-do attitude about sports, quickly conquering one and gravitating to the next.
And the less conventional, the better: Noel’s family had to cleanse everything from the blood of mixed martial arts to the mud of obstacle course racing from his clothes.
Still, there were no indications that a casual, junior-year walk through Rupp Arena with his dad, Shaun, would change the college-bound student’s life forever.
“I saw some cheerleaders from my school, and I was curious about what was going on,” Noel said. “When I walked in there I saw some guys cheering, and I didn’t know that guys cheered or anything. So I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll try it,’ because I knew it was good for scholarships and stuff.”
Oh, he tried it, so successfully that Noel’s ability to perform high-level stunts immediately put him on the recruiting radar at the 24-time national champion University of Kentucky.
Not even 18 months later, Noel signed his national letter of intent Tuesday to join the Wildcats on scholarship. He will study theater, another discipline he has admired but never tried.
“It’s been such a whirlwind,” Jaxson’s mother, Gina Hensley, said. “It really came out of nowhere.”
The details of this overnight sensation get even more remarkable. Noel clinched his scholarship May 4-6 at an invitational tryout, barely seven months after major surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Noel, who was completing his high school diploma online while traveling with an elite cheering squad out of northern Kentucky at the time of his injury, credits surgeon Dr. Wallace Huff, SCHS athletic trainer Dan Volpe, and the staff at Bluegrass Orthopaedics for his quick, fateful recovery.
“I met the UK coach (Jomo Thompson) after about four months of cheering,” Noel said. “He kept showing interest in me, so I pushed myself.”
The journey started in January 2018 after his chance encounter at Rupp, when Noel asked his mom to take him to an open gym session, almost an hour north in Florence.
Hensley, whose athletic background included gymnastics and cheerleading before she played tennis at Lindsey Wilson College, wasn’t prepared to see a prodigy.
“It took me like 10 years to do a standing back tuck. He just stood there and did that,” she marveled. “I posted it on Facebook. ‘Look at this kid.’ And he got recruited from there. They said he’s just a natural with the coordination. He has the strength, the look, everything about it.
“When they’re at this level, you don’t watch every practice, because they’re not really kids anymore. Once I could go, I didn’t know what I would even see. That blew me out of the water. I had never heard his voice by itself. That big, booming voice. He’s made for this.”
Noel’s dedication and skill were equal catalysts in the next step of his journey.
“They had a guy (in Florence) that kept not showing up, and they had nationals the next week, so they were like, ‘Hey, can you fill in his spot?’ I said sure,” Noel said. “It was kind of too late to back out then.”
His all-star team performed so well at that event, the JamFest Cheer Super Nationals, that it earned a berth at the world championships.
And with that, Noel, who spent his entire childhood attending Georgetown schools (Providence Christian Academy, Royal Spring Middle School and Scott County High School), was hooked.
The gym invited him to be part of a travel team. Given the commute to practice and the busy schedule, Noel and his family elected to home school for senior year.
“I cheered my last semester here and already missed 30 days, so I was thinking it would be best so I could travel and not miss school,” Noel said.
Everything that had fallen into place seemed to crumble with one, awkward landing.
“I was tumbling, and I hit a dead spot in the spring floor, which is where the spring falls sideways and the floor caves in,” Noel recalled. “I could feel (my knee) pop out, but I was hoping I was lucky. I even drove home that night, and it was about a week before I got my MRI.”
Noel no longer had a competition in his sights. He was suddenly isolated from his lifelong friends due to the online classes.
“That was his group of people, and we had big plans to travel and compete,” Hensley said. “You kind of disconnect from your high school friends. He had the goal of making UK, so everything he was doing in his life at that time was around this.”
And with an injury that typically requires an inexact window of 6 to 12 months for even college and professional athletes to fully recover, there were no guarantees about his future.
“People were telling me, ‘ACL, that’s devastating,’ but those were people my age. At his age he can bounce back,” Hensley said. “We tried telling him when you look at athletes working that hard, a lot of them have injuries, and you can bounce back. You had a weakness, and maybe this made it stronger.”
The family informed Noel’s doctors and therapists about the spring deadline. Huff assured them he would do everything in his power to get the athlete ready but cautioned that he also wouldn’t put him in danger of reinjuring the knee.
To UK’s credit, the powerhouse program’s interest never wavered.
“He only had his sights on UK. I thought, ‘Well, maybe a smaller school, because you love it so much,’ but that’s what he wanted,” Hensley said. “They had strict rules. He had to stay in (physical therapy) three times a week. We had to send all the PT reports to them before he even tried it. They needed to make sure he was healthy and that he’s going to be healthy.
“I think that was a testament to how bad he wanted it, and I think they loved that, because some kids may have (given up). Because it wasn’t even his life plan a year ago.”
Being a quick study was always a part of Noel’s repertoire, though.
Like most boys in the county, he dabbled in baseball and football, playing the latter through ninth grade.
Noel thrived in combat sports, earning his black belt in karate from Masterson’s Martial Arts. He wrestled. He trained for the mixed martial arts octagon, even though athletes generally aren’t allowed to compete in that arena until they’re adults.
He was similarly about six years too young, unbeknownst to Hensley, when she signed them up for a national obstacle course race.
“That was something I wanted to do, so I signed up, and he was my workout buddy,” Hensley said. “We actually competed in the first world championship. He did the singles, and then we did the doubles together, which is crazy. He had to throw my butt over the obstacles. He was good at it. He was good at all those obstacles. He has the upper-body strength.”
It foreshadowed the stunts Noel would be required to perform at the UK cheer tryout: Hoist a female teammate, throw her into the air, catch her, and hurl her skyward again, all while barking out cheers loud enough to fill a 20,000-seat arena.
“With guys a lot of the stunting can come naturally,” Noel said. “I’m kind of in the middle, and I’ve always been jumpy, so I can tumble and stunt. I just like trampolines a lot.”
The road to recovery is not complete.
Noel wasn’t required to do any tumbling passes at his tryout. Once his doctor clears that activity, there are sure to be some stumbling blocks beyond the physical realm.
“Coach said there’s always a mental component, so that will be interesting when Jaxson gets back out there, because he hasn’t done tumbling yet,” Hensley said. “But I’m sure he has a team out there that knows exactly what to do (to encourage him). That one trick he was doing when he injured himself, I know there will be some mental stuff for sure.”
Hensley admitted that she was often frustrated by her son’s jumping from activity to another, noting that he was good enough to grow into a next-level athlete in almost all of them.
Now she sees the expert analyses about the health and welfare of athletes who specialize in one sports versus those who cross-train, and she realizes he was on the right track all along.
“He’s just an athlete,” she said. “He picks up things easily. Honestly as a mom I thought maybe this kid’s a little flighty, because he would do something for a little while and then move on. He just liked trying new things and challenging himself. And he was good at it.”
Noel’s parents have been divorced for some time, although they have evolved into good friends.
In the early years as a single mom, however, Hensley said she worried about how she might pay for college.
Two years ago, being a scholarship athlete for one of the most storied programs in its sport seemed an unlikely route.
“And now I realize it’s going to be OK,” Hensley said. “He’s going to be with a good group of kids and get a good education. Theater is so up his alley.”
“I tried to take drama (at SCHS) my junior year, but not enough people signed up for it,” Noel noted. “And I couldn’t really do it at night after I started cheering, so I waited for college to do it at the entry level.”
Noel will get to take the floor at Rupp Arena and the turf at Kroger Field.
It’s a destination most of his classmates — heck, even their parents — see only in their dreams.
“That part of it I still can’t wrap my mind around,” Hensley said. “I played tennis at Lindsey Wilson College, which is NAIA. I was on full scholarship. I told him you have no idea. That was a small school, and it was such an amazing experience. I can’t even imagine what you’re about to go through.
“I transferred to UK and nobody knew me. Everybody’s going to know him, and it’s going to be such an experience.”
Noel begins two-a-day workouts June 28.
Is it all just starting to sink in?
“Every time I walk in there,” he said.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.