Rafael Hernandez was born in the Dominican Republic, remained there until he was 8 years old, then returned to his homeland right before he was ready to start high school.
“When I was in seventh grade, I went back to the Dominican Republic to live with my Dad,” Hernandez said. “I never had the chance to live with him before. He was my best friend, always the first one I could talk to. He kept me moving forward.”
But then, tragedy struck the Hernandez family when Rafael Hernandez Sr. was shot to death in December, just a few months after young Rafael had returned.
“Every time now, I go to the Dominican Republic, that memory is there and it’s always going to be there,” Hernandez said. “It was a tough time for me.”
Hernandez returned to the United States, to New York, where Hernandez’s mother, Landia Chia, resided.
“I came back here and I was really still depressed over losing my Dad,” Hernandez said. “It’s my mother who pushed me. She reminded me that my father wouldn’t have wanted me to settle for second best.”
So Hernandez learned how to speak English fluently – using the cartoon Sponge Bob Squarepants as a guide to learn the language.
“I was new here,” Hernandez said. “Everyone spoke English in the school I went to [in Manhattan] so I had no choice but learn. I worked hard every day with my teachers and I learned really fast.”
In fact, Hernandez learned so rapidly that one can hardly detect an accent these days, a credit to his dedication to learning.
Hernandez soon obtained a similar dedication to running.
“My older sister Alicia was a runner for Memorial and she did real well,” Hernandez said. “At that time, Coach (Julio) Lopez approached me and asked me if I would try out. I had been playing tennis. I loved tennis and had been playing since I was 4 years old. When I went to high school, I thought I would play tennis.”
As a freshman at Memorial High, Hernandez was certain that he was going to become the next Andre Agassi. Those dreams didn’t last long.
“I ran my first cross country meet and I finished second,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t like it. I wanted to finish first. I was disappointed. I was so used to winning. I fell in love with running.”
Lopez remembers the younger Hernandez.
“He wanted to try the mile [the 1,600-meter run],” Lopez said. “He was very determined. He just looked like a runner. He never ran before. He wasn’t bad right away. He ran a 5:24 mile.”
However, Hernandez was destined for greatness. Later that year, Hernandez broke the freshman school record for the one-mile (1,600 meters) run once held by the immortal Sal Vega, the legendary Memorial runner who would become the school’s athletic director and also the mayor of West New York.
Here’s a kid from the Dominican Republic, a first-year runner, who took down a record that stood for more than 40 years that was held by the greatest distance runner in the history of the school. Talk about a bright future.
“When I broke the record, I had no idea who Sal Vega was,” Hernandez said. “But I soon learned. The record meant everything to me. Holding that record is what kept me going and made me strive for more.”
“He was so determined and you could see that right away,” Lopez said. “He hated to lose. He said if he was going to lose, it had to be to someone who was better than him.”
Hernandez also was a determined student.
“I always wanted to learn,” Hernandez said. “I was always good at math. I had to work at English. I didn’t know how to concentrate on English and that got frustrating.”
Hernandez has survived the tough times and has now thrived. He became an excellent student, maintaining a 4.1 grade point average and securing a score of 1,630 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
“Both of my parents went to school in the Dominican Republic, so it’s crazy that I became a good student like this,” Hernandez said. “I think my sister pushed me, but I always wanted to be a good student.”
And as for running? Hernandez has done extremely well there as well.
Hernandez has become one of the best distance runners in the school’s rich and storied history, winning his share of accolades and honors.
Recently, Hernandez won the Hudson County championship in the 800-meter run, crossing the line in 2:05.83. He finished second in the 3,200-meter run to long-time friend Brandon Parrado of St. Peter’s Prep (the two attended CCD classes together when they were little) and was fourth in the 1,600-meter run at the New York Armory.
Last Sunday, Hernandez traveled to the Bennett Center in Toms River to compete in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV sectional championships.
The first race of the day, Hernandez competed in the 1,600-meter run and looked like he had the race won in the final lap. Hernandez had built up a substantial lead and appeared to look like he was ready to coast home.
But in the final strides, Eric Clay of Morristown caught Hernandez and nipped him at the wire.
“The first 400 [meters], I tried to get the lead and I was so locked in,” Hernandez said. “When Eric Clay got me, I was upset. But I knew I was going to make it up in the two-mile [the 3,200-meter run]. I definitely was not going to let anyone get me. I was really confident.”
Sure enough, Hernandez won the 3,200-meter run at the state sectional in 9:42.07, finishing three seconds ahead of the rest of the field.
Hernandez won the state sectional gold medal in one of the most competitive sections in the state.
“It means a lot to me,” Hernandez said. “Remember, I ran 5:45 as a freshman. I never knew I was going to be a runner. So this was just a validation of my hard work.”
For his efforts, Hernandez has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. Hernandez has to share the honor one week last spring with since-graduated Kelvin Almonte. This time, it’s all Hernandez.
Lopez sings Hernandez’s praises.
“He knows he’s the best runner, but he acts like he’s another coach,” Lopez said. “There’s no ego about him. He’s the kind of guy who would take off his own spikes and give them to you. He’s a very humble kid and knows how to handle criticism. When he’s bad, I tell him. But he’s such a great kid that he never takes it to heart. He’s become a great team leader.”
Lopez credits Hernandez’s sister and mother.
“I think Alicia kept him on the right path,” Lopez said. “His mother comes to all the meets. She deserves a lot of credit as well. He’s a great leader. All the other kids on the team look up to him. He tells them to do the right things. You can’t teach class and can’t teach tenacity. He has those things.”
Just how tenacious? Well, three weeks ago, Hernandez had two wisdom teeth pulled and still competed.
It’s helped Hernandez land a scholarship package at a very prestigious school that cannot be released yet, because he has to be officially accepted by the school. But it’s a great school that Hernandez will be headed to and will sign a national letter of intent to attend sometime in April.
“I promised him I’d get him into a good school,” Lopez said. “We’re going to do that.”
“It’s a great school and I’m really proud,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been excited about it since I applied in November. It’s what running track is all about.”
Hernandez will now try to concentrate on the 3,200-meter run for the Group IV state championships and the overall NJSIAA Meet of Champions Feb. 27.
“I really had no idea all of this could take place,” Hernandez said. “It’s really amazing.”
Sure is. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.