LAFAYETTE — A bundle of poles sits in a homemade case nailed to a fence. Sixteen-year-old Armand Duplantis used one three weeks ago when, without informing his parents, he rode a hoverboard down the runway, planted it in the box and willed his wiry frame over a bar 10 feet above the ground, becoming an Internet sensation with aid from 22-year-old brother Andreas’ film work.
The 300-foot runway once in the Carl Maddox Field House was part of a government auction after the LSU indoor track was renovated. Greg Duplantis won it, sold half to Vandebilt Catholic High School, cut 20 more feet off and laid the remaining 130 feet of track along this far fence in his backyard.
“Stand on it,” Greg urges. “Take a jog.”
The wood framework is sturdy and thunderstorm puddles are the only hazard for anyone curious enough to try this homemade pole vault pit. Greg cleared 19-feet, ¼ inches as a professional, but today stands on this black runway retrieving a tennis ball. He takes it in his left hand and tosses it for one of his two Golden Doodles to fetch.
“I’m a lefty,” he says. “Of all my kids, Twanie’s the only lefty like me.”
Twanie’s a nickname the family bestowed on its middle son, Antoine. Each Duplantis boy has his own — Andreas doubles as “Dre” and Armand answers to “Mondo.”
The dog finds its prize in a wet patch of overgrown shrubbery. Remnants of a pitching surface are feet away, part of a batting cage that once seemed out of place in this track and field haven.
“If there was a day Twanie didn’t bat, there would be something wrong,” Greg’s wife, Helena, says. “Every day, twice a day.”
Sixty-one miles away, Antoine is emerging as a star in his own athletic oasis. His coach that can’t stop praising this “black sheep” will pencil in the true freshman as his right field starter Friday against Cincinnati in the sport that played second fiddle in his own home.
Such repetition ripped the backyard cage’s netting. It eventually was no protection for a fence now littered with baseball indentures. When Antoine left home, the cage came down.
Interrupted by the swings of a baseball bat for 14 years, the backyard’s back to a pole vaulters’ sanctuary.
“We’re a track family,” Greg says. “But Twanie certainly went his own way and he broke the mold.”
‘All he wants to do is play baseball’
The scrapbook was a gift for Greg’s parents. Helena quoted her oldest son, Andreas, under a photo of his little brother.
Sitting just inside a dugout fence, Antoine is 3, wearing a dirty pinstriped baseball uniform he took a school picture in and a Cleveland Indians cap as he digs in a bag of popcorn.
“I know he’s going to be a baseball player because all he wants to do is play baseball,” the 6-year-old said of his little brother.
Greg, one of the most accomplished American pole vaulters in history, sits at a granite countertop Monday. His biceps protrude from a white, L Club polo shirt with “Track and Field Booster Club” embroidered on the right sleeve and will always be a fixture in the tight-knit, international pole vault community.
“You don’t have to be a pole vaulter,” he told his children. “But you’re going to know how to pole vault.”
When they displayed a competency to run with a pole in hand, they were placed on the runway. Armand, who just set a national high school indoor record clearing 18 feet, ½ inch, was 3. Antoine was 10, finished with the sport by 15.
“He could go out there and make 14 feet with no practice at all,” Andreas said. “Kids in high school train forever to do that.”
“It’s the same thing over and over again,” Antoine says.
He jumped 13 feet at one of his final meets, the National Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nevada. That would win some high school meets. Antoine was in eighth grade.
Surrounded by cultured vaulters who didn’t share his last name, the monotony of jumping in the backyard for just his brothers and dad to see escaped him. Upon his return to Lafayette, Antoine announced to his mother he’d give up baseball.
“That lasted for about a week,” he says.
‘Somebody pointed to the track’
The Junior Olympics were in a week. Johanna, the Duplantis’ youngest child, had a long jump competition. She and Helena ran through form drills on an Atlanta track adjacent to the baseball diamond where Antoine roamed center field in a World Wood Bat Association 17U Event.
Andy Cannizaro sat in the bleachers, fixated on this undersized outfielder. An average arm paired with plus speed and plus defense. This was the prototypical outfielder his new boss, LSU coach Paul Mainieri, requested.
Cannizaro had his new job, LSU hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, for less than a month. He still had not received a commitment.
Antoine ran down a ball in the gap. He fired home to cut down a run. Then he hit a game-winning home run. His swing is short with fast-muscle twitches and an unnatural ability to make the barrel of the bat connect with the baseball.
“A guy like that you think wouldn’t strike out often,” Cannizaro says. “Would be a tough two-strike hitter, going to be able to do some damage at any point in the count.”
Get bigger, stronger, adapt to the college game, and Antoine could morph into a power hitter. But now, Cannizaro saw a gap-to-gap hitter who would steal bases and use that same speed to track any ball destined for the wall.
Success for this rising high school senior seemed imminent. Cannizaro sought out his parents of his first LSU commitment in those Atlanta bleachers.
“And somebody pointed over to the track.”
‘She tries to add her track to it’
Will Davis prepared the finish line as a strong wind swirled toward him. It was an early morning after a night thunderstorm but the crop of high school talent assembled at Alex Box Stadium would run a 60-yard dash anyway.
Helena, a former LSU heptathlete and volleyball player, noticed the problem. She summoned Davis, then still the Tigers’ volunteer assistant coach, before the showcase began.
“No, no you can’t do that,” Helena told the coach. “You run with the wind, (Antoine’s) going to get a slow time.”
There was baseball in her native Sweden. Track and field functions there much like baseball does in the United States with clubs, showcases and travel teams. She attended one baseball game during her LSU athletic career.
“Oh my God,” she thought. “This is the most boring thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Now she watches, more fixated on Antoine’s hips. They’re not flexible, she says. His form when taking off to steal a base, chase down a fly ball in the gap or sprint out of the box reflects such an issue. His knees are bent after pushing off the ground.
“She says I don’t look good,” Antoine laughs. “Tries to add her own little track into it.”
She had no idea stats were so closely monitored during fall practice. Stories of Antoine taking reigning National Freshman of the Year Alex Lange off the top of the wall during the Purple and Gold World Series trickled home.
He was in the presence of legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda last week. Other players took pictures, asked for autographs. Antoine took the man’s advice after batting practice, thanked him, and went on his way.
His grandfather, Antoine’s most vocal supporter, was mystified that his grandson did not procure a collectable.
“That didn’t even enter his mind,” Helena says. “He’s kind of like that with his own hype, too.”
‘It shows us all how to handle spotlight’
Andreas is a four-year letterwinner as an LSU pole vaulter and the programs No. 4 all-time indoor vaulter. He’s recently engaged and off a New York internship with Coach, the luxury bag and clothing company.
Their European influence undeniable, all three boys dabble in fashion. Andreas hopes to make it a career — a move to New York is planned upon graduating in December — while Antoine just recently expanded his interest.
“I think it’s kind of similar in his confidence,” Andreas says. “Everyone sees what (Antoine) can really do, so now he wants to give off a certain persona of ‘I’m looking good, I’m hitting good, I’m playing good.’
“I guess there’s a confidence that goes along with the way he’s dressing.”
Antoine lives with fellow Lafayette natives Brennan Breaux and O’Neal Lochridge — St. Thomas More graduates who’ve played with the Lafayette High alum since grade school.
There’s an aura of fearlessness watching their friend in the outfield, a disregard for the human body or the thought of injury. Flinging yourself more than 13 feet in the air with just a carbon fiber pole to support your entire body erases most trepidation.
Shagging balls, then, is almost no different. He lays out for sinking liners during batting practice. Two popped out of his glove last weekend, drawing Mainieri’s ire.
“Look,” Cannizaro joked. “You finally got coach Mainieri mad at you.”
Similar joshing occurs in the locker room when the ballyhooed boy that hasn’t yet played an inning has to leave for an interview or has another publication singing his praises.
“We’ll laugh at him and say ‘Take it all in.’ He’s really humble about it all,” Breaux says. “It kind of shows us all how to handle spotlight if and when we get it.”
‘Maybe Omaha instead’
Christmas break pained Antoine. He longed for live pitching but was instead relegated to the family’s home where, just for fun, he picked up a pole, picked a spot, and cleared a 12-foot bar on two separate jumps.
“Like riding a bike,” Greg joked. “No, a unicycle.”
Greg worries how he and Helena will spread their time. The baseball team’s opening weekend conflicts with the state indoor track meet, where Armand will eviscerate the competition, barring catastrophe. A soccer game in Mandeville will also divide attention. It’s an almost-daily ritual in this home, navigating times and cars and weekends.
“That’s just what we do,” he says. “All we do is sports.”
Andreas walked onto the Lafayette High baseball field last fall, picked up a wood bat and hit a baseball off the scoreboard after an eight-year hiatus from competition.
He was a member of the Lafayette Little League team that reached the Little League World Series in 2005. The team travelled to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, during the first week of Antoine’s fourth-grade school year.
“My mom wouldn’t let me go,” Antoine said.
Helena laughs. She could have bent the rules.
“Never know, she said. “Maybe he’ll get to go to Omaha instead.”