PHILADELPHIA - Ford Palmer III saw enough at the 2011 Northeast Conference outdoor track and field championships.

He watched as his grandson, Ford Palmer V, finished sixth in the 800-meter run in a pedestrian 1 minute, 56.09 seconds.

"He said, 'If you continue to run poorly, I'm going to stop showing up to your races,' " the younger Palmer said. "He knew my potential. That really affected me."

Those words from his grandfather gave Palmer the motivation to transform himself from a 205-pound average college runner with a self-described "football mentality" into a 156-pound professional, who is now one of the country's top milers.

The 2009 Absegami High School graduate now runs for the New Jersey-New York Track Club. Palmer, 23, finished an unexpected fifth in the 1,500-meter run at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Sacramento, Calif., last month. That effort will result in opportunities for Palmer that he could only have wished for a few months ago.

Palmer will try to break the 4-minute mark in the mile when he runs in the Sir Walter Miler on Aug. 1 at Meredith College in North Carolina. His ultimate goal is to compete in the 2016 Olympics.

"At the beginning of this year, I didn't expect to be where I am now," Palmer said. "The USA (championships) changed my (running) career. It went from being a hobby to a job."

Palmer's mother, Gina, lives in Galloway Township, while his father lives in Upper Township. He splits his time between both homes. He worked as a bar back this winter at the Revel Casino-Hotel. In the summer, he's a lifeguard for the Upper Township Beach Patrol.

To appreciate Palmer's transformation, one has to know his athletic background. He did not travel the traditional path of a mile runner.

He played football and ran track and field at Absegami High School. Palmer wanted to go to college to play sports. He didn't care which sport.

But his football career ended two games into his senior season when he got his fourth concussion. A linebacker, Palmer was quick to the ball. He delivered hits that shook up opponents and himself.

"I was like, 'Am I going to go to college for football and get the crap beat out of me for four more years, or am I going to college for track?' " he said.

At Absegami, Palmer was more of a sprinter and middle-distance runner. Palmer finished third in the 800 run at the 2009 Meet of Champions in 1 minute, 52.24 seconds. He ran a 4:40.42 in the 1,600 as a high school junior.

When he arrived at Monmouth, he still thought like a football player. He wanted to weigh as much as possible.

Palmer muddled through his first two seasons at Monmouth. But after his grandfather's words, Palmer changed his attitude. He upped his mileage from 20 to 25 miles a week to 40 to 50 miles a week. He trained in the summer.

Just before his junior year, he made another drastic change - he gave up cheeseburgers. Monmouth doctors held him out of the first few practices because he had high blood pressure.

A scared Palmer had just watched a documentary on people who ate a plant-based diet. He immediately changed, eventually becoming a vegan.

"I went cold turkey," said Palmer with no pun intended.

Palmer dropped 51 pounds. His favorite meal is now a burrito with guacamole.

"I don't crave meat at all," he said. "The only thing I miss is sushi."

All the changes worked. His personal record in the mile during his first two years of college was 4:25. Palmer beat that mark by 17 seconds as a junior.

Palmer joined the New Jersey-New York Track Club after graduating from Monmouth last spring. Twice a week Palmer travels to New Brunswick to train with the club.

New Jersey-New York coach Frank Gagliano admitted he didn't think Palmer would amount to much as a runner when he first saw him. The coach didn't think someone who played linebacker could become a top runner.

Gagliano, one of the country's best known distance coaches, has since changed his opinion.

"Ford has a lot of potential," Gagliano said. "He has to get stronger physically. But what he has a lot of people don't have. He's a tremendous competitor. He's one of the best milers in the country. He wants to be a champion."

Before his finish at last month's U.S. championships, Palmer was best known in the track and field world for his flirtation with the 4-minute mile.

He's come as close to breaking four minutes as you can without doing it. Four times he's run faster than 4:01. The last time came at the Penn Relays Carnival, when he ran exactly 4:00.00 on April 26.

"If I had broken the 4-minute mark in my second or third time running a mile, no one would literally care," Palmer said. "The fact that I ran 4 flat four times is very intriguing to the track and field world."

The mystique of breaking the 4-minute mark transcends track and field. The average sports fan may not understand the significance of running 800 meters in less than 1:50 or having a shot put of more than 60 feet. But they know what the 4-minute mile means.

Roger Bannister was the first person to break it. He ran it in 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954, in Oxford, England.

Before Bannister did it, many thought the achievement was impossible. His race has been commemorated in books and movies.

That has helped the average sports fan understand what the milestone means. But the average fan also understands because at some point in their lives most people have run or walked a mile.

Only three graduates from Cape-Atlantic League high schools -Mark Sivieri of St. Augustine (3:59.85 in 1994), John Richardson of Ocean City (3:59.35 in 2008) and Brett Johnson of Ocean City (3:58.62 in 2013) - have broken the 4-minute mark in competition.

"Everybody knows who Roger Bannister is," Palmer said. "They know the 4-minute mile, is the mark (you have to beat to be) great. That's what everyone is striving for."

If he breaks the mark in North Carolina, it would be a second milestone in a year that already has changed Palmer's running life.

Palmer's grandfather died in spring 2013. He lived long enough to see his grandson get on the right path. In the final two years of his life, his grandfather saw Palmer run many times.

"I did exactly what I wanted to do," Palmer said, "and that was make him enthusiastic about coming to my races again."

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185

@ACPressMcGarry on Twitter

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