In 1991, James Stallworth was on top of the world. With long jump titles and World Championship track and field medals, he was destined to be the next Tulare Olympian. But one evening his life started to unravel. Fast forward 27 years and Stallworth is now living a new dream.
Stallworth was born and raised in Tulare, graduating from Tulare Union High School in 1989.
At the age of 12, he set a national midget group pentathlon record. The win, which included the shotput, hurdles, long jump, 50 and 400 meters, enticed the attention of Sports Illustrated. A reporter interviewed him for its “Faces in the Crowd” section. They also sent him a silver bowl in support of his achievement.
In high school, Stallworth was a three-sport standout. He lettered in football, basketball and track. In 1989, he set the National Federation of State High Schools Association record in the long jump with a 26’ 4.75″ jump, while participating in a CIF State meet. That record is still in existence today.
In 1990, he attended the World Junior Championships in Bulgaria and again set a record – earning a gold medal with a 26’ 11″ jump. He still is the world record holder from that jump. At the same games he earned a gold in the 4 x 1m relay, which he anchored, and a bronze medal in the 200m.
He started college with a scholarship in track and field at Cal State, Fresno. He had his eyes set on the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain in 1992.
And then – “I went to the Drake Motel in Tulare on South K – a rundown motel and they were selling a lot of drugs out of there,” Stallworth said. “I sold a $20 rock to four undercover officers – it was a buy bust. And that’s when my life changed. That was the spiral.”
He was not using drugs at that time, he said.
A Positive Life Starts to Spiral Out of Control
“I was arrested. I was given some time in the county jail [serving a total of 4-5 months], and from that point on I started engaging in criminal activity,” he said. “I got on drugs and started using heavily.
“Taking inventory of my life – I have to be honest with you – I started using rock cocaine heavily. I started pilfering. I started doing some robberies. In 2001, I was arrested for two counts of 211 – robbery. It went to jury trial and through God’s grace I had a hung jury, and the DA didn’t pursue any more charges.”
But it continued.
“From 1991 – September 2, 2014 – it was all drug use, criminal activity [non-violent], relapsing, prison,” he said.
“I lost my father to a tragic accident in 1995 – he was run over and killed,” he said. “It was tough, because I was just given a two-year sentence for possession and I’ll never forget when they came up and said, ‘Stallworth, you need to come down’ – like at one o’clock in the morning – and I thought, ‘OK, why are they calling me down.’ Back then I was a little mouthy and I thought, ‘What did I do wrong this time?’ They just wanted to inform me that my father was run over by a car and killed, and they wanted to give me time to make phone calls.
“I remember it like it was yesterday.
“I am close with my brother and sisters. We all hail from the eastside of Tulare and it’s different today. But anyone who is familiar with the eastside of Tulare in the ‘80s and ‘90s – there was P Street – the pool hall and the gambling shack. That’s when it was a tough neighborhood to grow up in and come out of.
“Growing up, I saw it all at such a young age. They used to take the mattresses and dump them in the alley, of course we were just kids then, we would see a man and a woman engaging in sexual activity. We laugh about it, because the guy would say, ‘Kids, get outta here,’ and we’d take off running. We were scared.
“At Fresno State, I was a C-average student – I was studying criminology with a minor in physical education. I studied criminology with the thought of working with kids in probation – giving them counseling. Physical Ed was the minor to say, ‘you know what – let’s go do some PE work.’”
Reality Hits – Big Time
“After my [first] conviction – Fresno State would no longer honor my scholarship,” he continued. “That was a tough deal.
“Here I came from the eastside of Tulare – Bam – I set this national record at 12. At 18, I set the national high school record. I was heavily recruited in basketball and football – heavily recruited. In ’89, I set the national record. In 1990, I go overseas to Bulgaria, and I win two golds and a bronze. My whole life seemed to be pretty good.
“I had Reebok after me – I was a wear-tester for Reebok. At that time I couldn’t sign a professional contract, because I was still in college. At that time, with my personal coach – who I give a lot of credit to for my success – we decided not to [take a professional contract] – so they give me a wear-testing contract. This was 1992.
“There I am destined for stardom and then reality hits – Wow!”
He paused in reflection.
“In 1992, the Olympic Games are going to be in Barcelona – here I am in the championships in 1990,” he said. “I have already submitted myself among the world’s best – Carl Lewis, Mike Powell – the best, and I’m on my way to this next step of my life.
“In ’91 I do that drug sale.
“To be honest with you – the truth, today, because I live in the truth – I did not need the money. I had Fresno State give me a full-ride scholarship. I had my apartment was paid for. They were giving me $450 a month to spend. I could go get my books. The only thing I had to do was study and go get my education.
Stallworth paused again, “I don’t know,” he said.
“Why would a kid from the ghetto, who has pretty much made it – if you do one more thing right, we make it,” he said. “We set this kid’s age group record at 12. We set the National High School record in ’89. In ’90 we get two golds and a bronze. Boom, boom, boom – he’s made it.
“Why go sell drugs? It’s still a mystery today. And, that’s the truth. I didn’t need money.”
Comeback Falls a Bit Short
Through his ups and down with drugs, convictions and jail time, Stallworth made a comeback in 2000. He was getting out of prison in 1999, and he spoke with his personal coach on the phone.
“He said, ‘Olympic year in 2000 – you get out in September, what you want to do?’” Stallworth said. “Let’s shoot for it.
“Getting back in shape, having that nine-year layoff, I started to realize you do get old, or you do age.”
He was 29.
While training, he stayed clean. He went to the Olympic trials in Sacramento, but did not make the team.
“I had been absent for nine years,” he said.
“I was clean until 2001, and then I relapsed,” he said. “My mom passed January 27, 2001 – things had been going pretty good. I was working. I lost my mom and I relapsed. Not to say because of my mom’s death – but, it was a tough situation. A lot of that situation with my mom is very personal and I have done some work here at the [Visalia Rescue] Mission regarding that. But, when I lost her in 2001, I went back to my addiction.
“I was arrested – I was given a four-year, four-month sentence for two robberies. I did 23 months straight – from June ‘01 to May ‘03. I came home in ‘03 and I went right back to my addiction, that same year.
“In ‘05 I did a violation, and I did a year. Again, I relapsed. In ‘06 I get another possession’s charge – a two-year sentence – I came home in home in February ‘07. I returned to my addiction. In 2008, I did my last violation.
“My baby was born in February – I paroled off of my last violation on Easter Sunday of 2008.
“I said this is my last stint in prison – I’m done – I’ve got to break these chains. And, that was it for prison.
“I stayed clean from Easter Sunday until the summer of 2010. I was working – I moved to LA, I came back – I re-engaged into my addiction. In 2013, I was back – it was always the same drugs. I went back to the vomit [referring to addiction] until September 2, 2014. If you return back to the same thing, we expect different results and it just doesn’t happen.
“It did the same thing for me for 27 years – it’s either going to jail, institution or death. Through the grace of God, I never did death. Jail and institutions – I’ve been there. That’s some pretty sick vomit – huh?”
A Baby Changes Everything
“In 2014, I came over to the Visalia Rescue Mission (VRM) and when I came here, I came here for help to come clean and sober,” he said. “My daughter was six. I had to get my life together, because I had to help support my daughter.
“When I came here, I’ll never forget – I did an interview with Henry Leon [who now works in the warehouse for the Mission] and he said, ‘James you’ve got one hour,’ this is really meaningful to me – I was doing my assessment and he saw that I wanted to change my life, and he said, ‘James you’ve got one hour to go get your clothes.’
“I was back in 45 minutes, and I had to go all the way back to Tulare!
“When I got here September 2, 2014, I’d go to the classes. I always knew God existed, but I never knew about building a relationship – opening your heart to him – crying out, if you will. You’ve got to believe in God, or you’ve got no way of existing.
“Where I come from, religion is not practiced on a continual basis. You see the elderly people walking with their wives, or their husbands, to church – that’s as far as it went.”
Stallworth’s grandparents attended church, he said.
“So, I get to the classroom and they’re pouring out God, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, here I am in this classroom – I didn’t come here for this – I came to get my life together, I came to get clean and sober,’” he said.
“When I got to the classroom I was afraid. I was embarrassed – not because of my lifestyle, but because I didn’t know the word of God,” Stallworth said. “I’ll never forget talking with the counselors – they’d say, ‘James, ya know, this is a faith-based program – we practice God here, we practice religion – we’re trying to change our lives.’
The Word of God
“And, I’ll never forget opening up to God for the first time in my whole life. Having somebody that I could go to, that I knew loved me and would hear my cries – because for so many years of my life, didn’t nobody hear my cries.
“And, it was then I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.
“What I wanted at that time was help – what I needed at that time was change. In this classroom, I’m getting the combination of both. I’m getting the help and the change. So, I started praying, and I started believing and I started talking to God – not knowing if I was talking to him the right way or not.
“When you do something wrong, you say, ‘God forgive me,’ – that’s the norm. But I’m still trying to figure out how to say – how do I talk to him – is he going to hear me?
“Nobody’s heard me my whole life. I come from the eastside of Tulare. I come from where I hear myself – don’t nobody hear me. Don’t nobody care about my hurts, my pain – but me. I’ve got to put my trust in somebody I don’t even see.
“That’s the best part of my life today. I didn’t know, but now I know today, that there is a living God and that he does exist. And, yes, I’ve had situations in the last 34 months of my life to show me that God is real.”
Stallworth hopes he can reach others with what he has learned.
“Only thing I ask for today – is to help somebody and be rich in spirit,” he said. “You can talk about my legacy. You can talk about my national record – which they still talk about 28 years later. That’s OK. You can talk about my gold medals. But, when I came to the Visalia Rescue Mission, I found something greater than a gold medal will ever do for me. Records are made to be broken – eventually, one day, somebody else will be the reigning king in the long jump.
“I’m from the eastside of Tulare – for so long we developed that attitude of racism. I’m being honest here, and I want you to hear that – I’m being honest here. Today, God has renewed my heart. He has renewed me as a person. I can go in a church, like I did last night, and be the only African American in there and feel like its 100 African Americans in there.
“I can finally trust again.”
Work at the Mission
Stallworth graduated the then eight-month VRM class in 2015. He was employed in the Mission’s warehouse upon graduating. He had to take a break on medical leave last year, when he required surgery. He was given oxycodone to manage his pain. He took a total of six of them following his surgery. He threw the other 84 remaining in his prescription away.
“I thought I can’t take these pills,” he said. “I got rid of them. I had major surgery, but there was no way I could consume all of those pills. My system was clean. I took the conservative way – there’s no way I can take 90 of them. I took ibuprofen. The doctor wanted to prescribe something else, but I said I don’t want to take anything with narcotics in it.
“I own the truth – I’m still an addict.
“It was tough. I had to lay a certain way and I encountered a lot of discomfort. But, I just asked God for strength and I just kept going.”
Stallworth went back to work at the mission, this time in the Men’s Shelter and he now works as an assistant in the Life Academy.
“The life I once had – I had it,” he said. “I had it from the bottom all the way to the top. But, I have never felt the way I feel today. The feeling you get by having a relationship with Jesus Christ is phenomenal.
“The blessings that have come – here I am able to talk with you about my story. If you had come to me three years ago, No. Twenty years ago, No. Ten years ago, No. Because I wasn’t content and I wasn’t happy with who I was at the time.
“I get so emotional – because I lived that lifestyle. Why does God intervene in people’s lives? That’s what I’ve got to find out. Because, I was at the top – one more thing and I would have made it. But, I wouldn’t trade my life today for all the tea in China. I am so blessed.”
Stallworth has three children, two who are now adults and his nine-year-old daughter. He also has three older sisters and an older brother. Today, he has a good relationship with his three children and his siblings.
He lives in transitional living at the Mission. He took a coaching assignment with the COS track and field team last year. But, he didn’t participate this year. He may be open to coaching in the future and a lot of people would like to see him do that.
But today, it’s about giving back to the community in a different way.
“If I leave work today at 3:30 and there’s a guy sitting out there and he’s hurting,” he said, “I can sympathize with him. I can sit with him. I don’t have to judge him. I won’t laugh at him. I can relate to him and I can hug him, if that’s what he wants.”