As i indicated in “On Track, I” my attending Danielle Lister’s meet ten days ago not only let me connect with a rather remarkable young woman, but it also put me back on track. Here are the other thoughts that afternoon generated:
Oh, i’ve watched track and field on television, especially the Olympics and some other special events but only remotely since that warm 1963 sunny spring day on what is now The Edward S. Temple Track on the Tennessee State campus.
That track stadium, like nearly all of them now, was a bit less polished then. When i walked around the Mesa College stadium where they were holding the track events in the Arnie Robinson meet, even though it was shiny and polished with fake grass and some high falutin’ substance for the track, that feeling i had first experienced three score years ago on much less refined facilities returned.
Friday when i got to the area where they were holding the field events, which they call “throw events,” where there was real grass and pop-up tents, and athletes grilling burgers and hot dogs and eating pizza, i was back on what is now Hale Stadium on the Tennessee State campus.
Track meets are like a three-ring circus. There is something going on everywhere. You can’t see all of the events because they are going on hither and yon at the same time. There is a casualness unlike the regimen of football, baseball, and basketball. It is on the whole less dramatic, but for the individual events, it seems more tense to me, even more exciting. Yesterday, i once again questioned why i didn’t go to more events, or wondered why i didn’t cover them during my sports writing days.
i mean i even had friends, especially two friends: John Sweatt and Kent Russ. They both took me under their wings during Heights football seasons. They both were on the track team.
What do i remember about that? i remember walking up Hill Street at Castle Heights Military Academy from the baseball diamond after practice. The track team was still at it on the football field, track, etc. And someone had turned on the speakers in the press box, and hooked up a turntable. Jimmy Reed ‘s sweet blues with that iconic harmonica was wafting in the wind. And i’m thinking why didn’t i play a sport where i could listen to Jimmy Reed. Oh yes, that oval of a track was composed of cinders, not plastic or rubber.
However, i recognized i was quick and not fast. In one physical fitness competition, i cleared not quite four feet in the standing broad jump. Distance running, i.e. anything longer than 440 meters seemed like work and pain compared to playing football, baseball, and basketball. It was only much later that i discovered how much pleasure i got from running. i was not so inclined in spite of Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Loving You, Baby”
The track meet i attended in Nashville those many years ago was special in many ways. To begin, i was with one of the best athletes, and probably the fastest, i have known in my living. Kent Russ was instrumental in my becoming a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. He had been a post-graduate at Castle Heights, played football and ran track. He also was on a track scholarship at Vanderbilt. i soon found out he also was on an AAU 440-relay team with Ralph Boston.
For you younger folk who are too young to remember Ralph Boston, he set the first man to break the 27-foot barrier in the long jump, winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, and medaling in 1964 and 1968. He was a giant among U.S. track and field athletes and named as the country’s 1960 Track and Field Athlete of the year.
Unbeknownst to me, Ralph was a timer at that meet long ago. Kent parked the car and we walked across a field to the track. We were standing right by the track when Kent introduced me to Ralph. i tried to act natural. i’m not sure i pulled it off.
We chatted for a while when Ralph asked if Kent would mind giving him a ride to downtown Nashville after the meet to pick up his car from his mechanic. Kent quickly agreed. Our conversation turned to the meet. Kent asked Ralph if he thought Bob would break his world record in the 100-yard dash. Ralph said Bob had a chance
They were talking about Bob Hayes, the sprinter on the A&M “Rattler” team. Hayes is in the the NFL Hall of Fame due to his incredible performance as a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. He played football for the Rattlers, but he also had broken the world 100-yard dash record earlier in the year.
Ralph moved over for his timing duties. Kent and i watched trackside about halfway from the oval to the finish line. Hayes didn’t break his world record but he tied it. Ralph later commented that the officials were very lenient in that he believed it was wind assisted.
One of the last events was the 440-relay. Hayes ran the anchor leg. When he passed by Kent and me, he was running so fast i thought he was going to run out of his skin. There was no doubt in my mind Bob Hayes was the “world’s fastest human.” Even today, i vividly recall the fastest human flashing past me no more than three feet way.
As the meet wound down, we found Ralph and walked across the field to Kent’s car. When we approached the car, i went ahead and opened the back door and began to get in when Ralph said, “No, no, i’ll sit in the back seat.”
i protested. After all, i was getting in a car with a World Record holder, an Olympic champion, and the driver was his teammate on a relay team.
Ralph then pointed out the civil rights protests were raging in downtown Nashville. Woolworth’s was in the midst of a sit-in due to their segregation policies. He then told me if he rode in the front seat, there would be a much better chance all three of us could get shot and killed.
i meekly climbed into the shotgun seat (pun intended) while Ralph sat in the back.
i have thought about that afternoon many times. My respect for Ralph Boston grows each time.
I was naive. Only in short glimpses of the news was i aware of what was going on concerning civil rights. i was too busy being a college boy, partying, girls, booze, and even studying occasionally when an exam loomed. i knew the protests were going on, and i was repulsed by the violence against the protesters, but it was a blip on my priorities.
i know it wasn’t an intentional ignorance. i don’t feel guilty. i was a nineteen-year old male. i wish i had been more aware. Done something more. Sometimes in a quiet moment, i feel ashamed. But there was no intent to harm anyone, or help anyone. The testosterone was raging.
Ralph Boston was focused. He was his own man. He felt equal, if not more equal, to anyone. His priority was his track and field prowess. He obviously cared and liked people…of all kinds. He treated me like he treated Kent. i felt i really was a friend.
As with many thoughts of this nature, my feelings ultimately end up as sad. i am sad our country with such a basis like our constitution, regardless of the creators intent, as a powerful statement for equality, could have fomented such hatred and invoked the need for protests. i am sad racial, ethnic, and social gaps still exist and with it, the hatred and violence.
But i’m proud of being a friend, albeit a short-lived one, of Ralph Boston.
And i’ll remember that glorious sunny afternoon i spent watching and spending time with incredible athletes at a track and field meet 63 years ago.