Only a minute fraction of Hernando County prep athletes have ever had the type of personal success on and off the field that John Franklin Emerson has enjoyed at Hernando High and beyond.
He was born in Tampa as the older of two boys to Frank and Joan Emerson. His father is a fixture with Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative while his mom is a guidance counselor.
John Emerson, a 2001 Hernando High graduate, has spent the past three years as a resident specializing in family medicine at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C. COURTESY PHOTO
The Brooksville-based Emersons actually raised three children including a foster daughter, Lauren Moore.
Like most children, Emerson initially gravitated to baseball.
His diamond roots trace back to Hernando Youth League T-Ball. He alternated between center field and second base until high school.
The current 5-foot-9, 155-pounder also loved hoops.
“I thought I was better in basketball than anything else,” declared Emerson.
He participated in HYL basketball from second grade through middle school.
If that wasn’t enough, Emerson’s father encouraged him to run road races.
In a short time, he became a staple with the Red Mule Runners Club, competing at McKethan Lake and in the annual Flatlanders Race in Brooksville.
Interestingly, it was in a Fun Run at Flatlanders that he was introduced to Hernando High’s Hall of Fame cross country coach Ernie Chatman.
“I remember I was in a sprint to the finish and he must have seen me,” said Emerson. “He introduced himself and said I should run cross country when I get to high school.”
Little did Emerson know at that time that the distance running seed had been planted.
At Parrott Middle School, Emerson continued as a multi-sport athlete.
In hoops, he played point guard under Marion Jones in seventh grade before switching to shooting guard in eighth grade.
On the track, to feed his distance-running passion he concentrated in 1,600 meters as a seventh- and eighth-grader.
Upon matriculating to the Bell Avenue campus of Hernando, Emerson alternated his athletic path.
“I missed the basketball tryout as a freshman,” recalled Emerson. “When I looked in the mirror, I thought basketball was my No. 1 sport, but I made the decision to stick with cross country and track.”
Turning the clock back, Emerson says he has no regrets with that decision.
“I was good at it (running), but I needed some help,” Emerson said. “Coach Chatman was a great mentor to me. He has such a passion for running, it’s contagious.”
As a freshman, Emerson competed at the junior varsity level in three-mile races (5K wasn’t universally accepted until 2002).
In his first-ever 1997 competition – the Hudson Invitational – he managed to record a 19:22.00 clocking to finish fourth among the 11 Leopards in the meet. HHS placed third in the 14-team field.
He completed that inaugural campaign competing in eight junior varsity races behind a personal best of 17:50.00.
He steadily zoomed up the ladder to become first alternate for the Leopard team that captured the 16-team Class 4A FHSAA Finals in Jacksonville. HHS toppled runner-up Tampa-Jesuit, 67-91.
Amazingly, that team captured the sport’s four most prestigious titles: conference (Gulf Coast Athletic), district, regional and state. From that point, Emerson was absolutely hooked.
As a sophomore, Emerson was elevated to the varsity ranks. He competed in 11 meets and shaved his personal-best time to 16:24.00.
That team captured another GCAC crown, plus districts, but fell to Jesuit in regionals (27-32) and states (83-93).
Behind teammates Brian Major and Casey Isaac, Emerson was the third Leopard to cross the finish line in the GCAC Championship Meet at McKethan Lake placing 10th overall and earning the first of six All-GCAC honors.
As a junior, he felt ready for a breakout season. But prior to his third meet, a rain storm wiped out practice.
Instead of resting up, he and some buddies went out to play flag football on a slick field. He landed awkwardly and broke his right fibula and right ankle.
The injury was so severe, Coach Chatman was told afterward by one of the attending physicians that Emerson might never run again.
“It was brutal being on the sidelines, watching other guys compete,” lamented Emerson. “It turned out to be a source of motivation. As an athlete you take things for granted, especially when you’re not doing what you love.”
On the greatest lesson learned from that experience, “I haven’t played flag football since,” said Emerson. “From that point on, I took nothing for granted. If you have some ability, it’s not worth jeopardizing. That football game left a huge impact on my athletic career.”
After getting medically cleared, Emerson returned to his second season of track and field under Rodney Byrd. He got back into good enough shape to run a 4:40 mile.
As a senior, Emerson did not hold back.
Over 10 cross country meets, Emerson was far and away the team leader. He captured the loaded GCAC Championship at McKethan behind a personal-best 15:23.00.
He concluded his senior campaign placing seventh at states (15:49.00) at Titusville – achieving first-team All-State honors.
“It was a great year. My goal was to win a state championship,” summed up Emerson. “I thought I started to peak at the conference meet. I ran well in districts, regionals and states. Winning at McKethan (at GCAC) in that stud field was absolutely my highlight. I raced against some awesome guys that I really respected; what an experience.”
Oddly enough in his third varsity season of track and field, instead of being named All-GCAC in the 4×800 like he was as a sophomore and junior, Emerson was tabbed All-GCAC in two events: the mile and two-mile.
“It was a little disappointing because I didn’t make states in the two-mile,” he recalled. “I ran OK.”
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After a dazzling prep career, the 2001 graduate Emerson accepted a full athletic scholarship to Lakeland’s Division II Florida Southern College.
The Moccasins’ track and field emphasis was to better prepare for its best sport – cross country – which fit Emerson just fine.
Despite competing at the eight-kilometer level in college in the rugged Sunshine State Conference, the Mocs claimed four straight conference titles.
Additionally, Emerson was named All-SSC four times and named All-Region as a senior.
“I definitely had to adjust to college, especially in my mileage,” pointed out Emerson in the difference between HHS and Florida Southern. “It was an awesome experience. We were so talented that basically we had targets on our backs in every meet we competed.
“UT (University of Tampa) was really close to us, especially during my junior year. We had some memorable battles,” he said. “I’m proud of all my teammates.”
Academically, Emerson was no slouch. In the classroom, he earned his bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry and English.
It was at the Polk County campus that he made another pivotal decision: to opt for graduate school and later apply for medical school.
He applied for med school in August 2007, before being accepted by USF. After two years of clinical work, Emerson spent his last two years in a hospital rotation.
In 2011, across the next part of his medical apprenticeship, he awaited word on where he would be placed for his National Residency Program.
Emerson ranked which hospitals he would have liked to work at, though the decision is partly based on his specialty – family medicine – and whether his choice of hospitals had a vacancy.
Good fortune again befell Emerson as his No. 1 choice – Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C. – became a reality.
He’s been in Tar Heel country for over three years. He elected to further branch out and do some of his training in research and family development. His current duties are similar to the ones of characters from the sitcom “Scrubs.”
“I want to be Dr. Cox,” said Emerson, referring to the experienced doctor portrayed by John C. McGinley on the show. “That’s basically what I do now; I teach the residents.”
Born with a slight birth defect, Emerson feels he can give back to those less fortunate.
“In a way the birth defect has helped motivated me – I guess that’s why I’m so passionate about my medical career,” he said. “There are very few careers where you can impact the quality of someone’s life. To me, medicine has been a great match.”
While studying late one night with another pediatric resident, Sara Ryder, he asked the Williamsport, Pa., native if “maybe we should get together for a milk shake.”
A romance soon blossomed. Ryder, a former tennis player, is Emerson’s current long-term girlfriend. According to Emerson, she’s “very supportive in everything I do.”
Emerson believes he’s struck a balance in his life. In his spare time, he still enjoys running 2-3 times a week.
“In terms of working hard and working toward a universal goal, you have to sacrifice,” detailed the 31-year-old Emerson on tracing his success back to HHS. “Without a doubt, the work I put in to get better as an athlete at Hernando really helped me prepare for the rigors of med school. There are a lot of similarities.”
Emerson believes he’s leaving a calling card for others to follow.
“I was a good leader, especially as a senior at Hernando and at Florida Southern,” he said of his legacy. “I struck a chord helping to guide younger runners. Being a leader and pushing the team to move forward and get better – that’s what I hope I’m remembered for.”
By the numbers: John Emerson at Hernando (1997-2001)
– Compiled by TONY CASTRO
YEAR RACES 3-MILE TIME
1998-99* 11 16:14.00
1999-00 2/INJ. 15:57.00
2000-01*#$ 10 15:23.00
TOTALS 23 15:23.00
* Denotes All-Gulf Coast Athletic Conference selection.
# Denotes All-Gulf Coast Athletic Conference Runner of the Year.
$ Denotes All-State First Team.
Track and Field
2000-01* 1,600 meters
2000-01* 3,200 meters
* Denotes All-Gulf Coast Athletic Conference selection.