Denson’s youth set him up for life of service, sport

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Denson’s youth set him up for life of service, sport

Djdade Denson competed in his first indoor event of the year this weekend.

Djdade Denson competed in his first indoor event of the year this weekend.

Photo by Bert Rogers

Djdade Denson competed in his first indoor event of the year this weekend.

Photo by Bert Rogers

Photo by Bert Rogers

Djdade Denson competed in his first indoor event of the year this weekend.

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Marquette track and field’s Djdade Denson grew up in Milwaukee’s infamous 53206 zip code, known for having one of America’s highest incarceration rates. Denson’s parents told him like it was. At any given moment, life could turn upside down.

Determined not to go down a wayward path like so many others in his neighborhood, Denson found himself immersed in other activities, primarily track and field and volunteering.

“Growing up, my mom and my parents taught me that everyone has value, no matter who they are,” Denson said. “Treat people how you’d like to be treated and value people for what they have to offer. As a result, I’ve always been involved in service, giving back, because I know that at any moment, everything could change.”

That is why Denson got involved in Project Homeless Connect, which provides basic needs for Milwaukee’s homeless community. He is also a teacher’s aid for Milwaukee College Prep. For Denson, it is more than just about helping others. It is about helping his community.

“Honestly, it means everything,” Denson said. “What I’ve learned more than anything is the future generations and how important they are. That just is propelling for me. Starting at the basics, and from the roots on up, helping them to understand how things are in the outside world, it’s not the same things you always see on TV.”

Denson competed with or against a lot of the people he helped daily in sports. He went to University School in Milwaukee, where he starred on the basketball and track and field teams. He was a member of the 1,000-point club in basketball, was named a team captain to the track and field program and won a state championship in the triple jump his senior year.

When Marquette offered him a track and field scholarship his senior year, Denson knew he had to stay local and stay true to his community. He loved Marquette’s emphasis on giving back to the community. Denson became an engineering major for the same reason he came to Marquette, to improve the lives of others.

“You do what you can to help others out, and teach them that there is more than one way, always more than one way, to get things done, to make progress,” Denson said.

One person who has noticed Denson’s knack for lending a helping hand is Mary Ellen Jones, his former high school coach. Jones, a frequent volunteer with the United Way and Project Homeless Connect, has seen Denson grow significantly since their first encounter.

“DJ’s plate is full, and I sometimes wonder when he eats and sleeps,” Jones said jokingly. “When I see someone his age volunteering early in the morning, when he could be doing so many other things, I know that he has matured and is maturing into a man. DJ is making decisions to give his time while sacrificing his time to help others in need.”

As his time volunteering at Marquette has increased, so has his distance in the triple jump. In his first season, Denson had a quick start to his first indoor season with the Golden Eagles, as he finished second in the long jump and third in the triple jump at the BIG EAST Championships. His sophomore year, he continued to jump further. He was named to the All-BIG EAST team and his mark at the outdoor BIG EAST meet went into the record books as the ninth-best jump in program history.

Denson was expected to have another stellar indoor season, but toward the end of last semester, he knew something wasn’t right. After going to a cardiologist, Denson learned he had pericarditis, the swelling and irritation of the pericardium, the fibrous sac surrounding the heart. The condition is treatable and is usually resolved within days or weeks. It kept him sidelined for most of the indoor track season, and slowed him down to a walk.

For Denson, it became a time to reflect.

“It really helped me understand the value of time,” Denson said. “When I first received the news, I got down because I love track and it’s what I love to do. but I also feel like it helped me in a sense because it helped me open other doors, to not worry so much about me, but what I could do for other people.

“I wanted to stay busy and active and be a part of my team, but also be a part of my community and my city.”

Remarkably, Denson’s doctors cleared him at the perfect time, and he was with the team in New York City to compete in this year’s Indoor BIG EAST Track & Field Championships. Despite only competing in one meet the entire season before being sidelined, it was like Denson never skipped a beat. He came out strong in the triple jump, his signature event, and finished runner-up with a leap of 14.24 meters, or 46 feet and 7 inches.

And when his track career is done, Denson is passionate about giving back to Milwaukee and knows all it takes is the right person and situation, and the city he calls home will reach its potential.

“I honestly don’t see myself leaving,” Denson said. “This city has a lot of potential, but it just needs to be tapped into, helped along and loved and encouraged, honestly. Me and my city, I love it so much because of that aspect, because there is so much potential and so much life, and often times it is degraded to the point where people think they can’t do it just because of where they are from. I don’t believe that and hopefully I am setting an example for them.”

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