Commencement arrives for Tupelo native, despite detours

OXFORD – Jacob “Whit” Black believes in getting back on the horse that threw him.
The Tupelo native was lining a Tupelo Parks and Recreation ball diamond in 1997 when a freak accident ended with a metal stake through his skull and deep into his brain.
“I almost got killed working on baseball fields, but I’ve always enjoyed working on baseball fields,” he said. “I really enjoy my job, and you can’t say, ‘I’m not going to ever do it again.’ My accident was just an accident.”
Black started the road to recovery with hospitalization and surgery and continued the whole summer with intensive physical therapy.
He returned to high school in a wheelchair just over two months after his injury and served that fall as the football team manager.
Pushing hard at his rehab, he soon promoted himself from chair to cane and again from cane to unaided ambulation.
“My goal was to walk without any assistance across the stage to graduate high school,” Black said. “I made it.”
That no-nonsense approach was evident early on.
“He never wanted to be treated differently than he had before his injury,” said Neal McCoy, director of sports development with the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau and a longtime friend. “He wanted to go hunting and fishing just like he had before.”
Black still lives with some relics of his accident – diminished fine-motor control of his left hand and “drop foot,” which gives him a distinctive gait to compensate for a left foot that tends to sag.
But today, he is graduating from the University of Mississippi with a degree in park and recreation management. He wants to work full time in athletic facilities – including baseball fields.
Black was injured in June 1997. According to McCoy, Black was using a string to mark chalk lines. The string was attached to a stake that has been pounded in the ground. Black was holding one end of the line when a co-worker pulled the stake out of the ground. The tension in the line caused the stake to fly at him and enter his skull.
He pulled the stake out himself on the field, McCoy said.
Black knew even before his injury that he wanted a career related to the outdoors and recreation, but he took a circuitous route getting there.
He first studied business at Itawamba Community College, then at East Mississippi Community College’s Mayhew branch with intent to transfer to Mississippi State University.
A decision to major in forestry, however, sent him back to ICC, which also allowed him to work as groundskeeper for Harrisburg Baptist Church, his home congregation.
A stint of more than two years working at Tishomingo and Tombigbee state parks convinced him of the need to continue his formal education.
“I’ve always known I had to get a degree for a lot of the jobs I’d want,” he said.
At age 30, Black has several years on most of his college classmates.
“He’s a non-traditional student, several years older, and he has held his own in the academic world,” said Dr. Kim Beason, associate professor of park and recreation management. “The other students look up to him.”
Beason said Black’s working in sports facilities throughout his college career – something many students without disabilities don’t manage – makes him more hirable than many students.
“I wish I had classrooms full of Jacobs,” Beason said. “I’d be a very happy professor.”
The road ahead may have its own twists and turns. Black is contemplating either working full-time with Ole Miss Athletics or pursuing a master’s degree while his fiancampée, Kristen Von Walden of Savannah, Ga., finishes her doctorate in psychology.
So equipped, he’d be prepared either to teach or to manage facilities, perhaps at the same institution that hires her in a couple of years.
All Black is sure of, he said, is that he’s willing to go wherever Kristen’s career takes her.
“You’ve got to have a big heart to put up with me,” he said. “My mom always told me there’d be somebody out there who could deal with me.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal