Tuesday, September 8, 2020

50 Years

I ran my first race 50 years ago this week.  It was the Wamego Cross Country Invitational.  At the time it was the biggest meet in the state of Kansas due largely to the fact that the state meet was run on the golf course there.

I wasn't good enough to play basketball.  I knew I wanted nothing to do with the contact offered up by football.  That left me thinking that maybe I could be like Jim Ryun.  

I  spent the summer of 1970 learning how to become a runner.  That was thanks in large part to my neighbor Greg Morgenson.  Even though Greg was going to be a junior at Abilene High School, he allowed this mere freshman to join him on our near daily runs.

Looking back now our training was laughable but it was something.  We would run a mile out, take a short rest and then head back.  I think we stretched it out to four miles once or twice but generally it was just a couple of miles.  Every couple of weeks we would run one mile time trial up and down the block.

During that summer Greg got a copy of The Long Green Line from the high school cross country coach, Robert Chatham.  I devoured the book.  I began to realize that cross country could be fun even though it would require a lot of work.

The summer of training put me into a good position heading into the start of team training.  I remember a few workouts from my short six weeks with the team.  Chatham loved one workout in particular.  It was called easy/hard.  We would run 20 220's on the golf course.  We would go down in :45 and rest :45 seconds and then try and run under :35 with another :45 second rest.  About halfway through the workout we would start doing everything we could to prolong the recovery.

The other thing I remember about doing interval training on the golf course was I would take water breaks which were strictly frowned upon by coach.  It was unheard of back then to take water during a workout because it was believed it would cause cramping.  

By the time we ran our two mile time trial I was in a position to make varsity which made at least one upper class man angry.  He was asked to leave the team.  I managed to finish seventh in just under 12 minutes on a fairly hilly course.  The question is whether Coach Chatham would dare run a freshman at the first meet of the season on a team that was considered one of the best in the state.

I think Chatham realized that other than the top five on the team, I was the only other athlete who had spent the summer training.  I suspect that's why I was allowed to run varsity, which meant the world to me at the first meet of the season.

It was a very emotional time in my life.  My mother had revealed to me just before the start of school that she planned to move the family back to Lawrence.  She was divorcing my stepfather.  I was all for the move.  I was growing tired living in a small town where everybody knew everybody else's business.

The fact that I was showing success in athletics had given me pause to wonder if I shouldn't stay behind for the first semester so I could finish out the cross country season.  I could stay with my grandmother and continue running for Abilene.  I know by the time I reached my decision my coach and teammates were hoping I would stay, but in the end I wanted to stick with my mom.

So here I was heading on the bus to Wamego on a wet, miserable, late summer day.  We arrived at the golf course where the meet was run to find out it was a no go.  The golfers didn't want us to spoil their pristine grass and we were directed to the site of an abandoned nuclear silo on the other side of the highway from the country club.

We were out on a massive pasture that was a rain soaked mud bog that had cattle roaming on it.  I tried to do a short warm up and completely trashed my shoes with mud.  I was grateful that I had brought my spikes with me and not knowing any better decided to race in them.

I remember seeing the Lawrence High team there because my old childhood friend Kirk Duncan was running for the Lions.  I remember not being sure what to make of the mass of humanity gathered on the pasture.  There were at least 30 teams on hand to run the two races, divided up into large school and small school divisions.  We were a small school.

The start of the race was a massive mud slog.  I remember spitting on a kid as we charged across the first quarter mile.  Some kids lost their shoes in the muck. I remember hitting the mile mark and feeling like I wanted to die.  Most of all I remember the last 300 yards where I caught one of my teammates and passed several runners with my sprint to the finish.  I was 38th overall out of 100 plus runners.  I was the top freshman in the race.  We finished 3rd as a team and I believe our top varsity runner Dennis Cole had come in third.  Greg was somewhere in the top ten as well.

As soon as the race was over the day turned sunny and pleasant.  I remember the team stopped in Junction City on the way home and we enjoyed lunch at McDonald's.  It was a rare treat back in the day.

Our next meet was supposed to be on Tuesday, a dual affair with Salina Sacred Heart.  I knew it would be my last with the team as I had decided to leave the following weekend for Lawrence.  That Tuesday was cold with freezing rain.  Yes, it was still September but that's the way weather was back then.  The meet was canceled and my running career as an Abilene Cowboy was over.

I moved to Lawrence.  I was thrust back into junior high where there was no cross country.  I tried to go workout with the Lawrence High team but I felt unwelcome and the way the school was scheduled I would always be 15 minutes late for practice.  I knew I wouldn't be eligible to run but I wanted to keep training.  

Somehow I got to know enough Lawrence High runners that I managed to snag a ride with a few of them to the state meet in Wamego.  Lawrence High got stomped but Abilene lived up to its potential and finished third in its division.  I had earned a varsity letter by running the one race for Abilene but Coach Chatham wasn't happy with my decision to leave the team.  So I was denied the letter.  I felt bad about it but I understood his reasoning.

Greg and I remained friends.  In fact, the following year he was the one who had to leave Abilene with his family for a move to Lincoln, Nebraska where he would become a state champion in the mile.  Greg and I would run one last cross country meet together in Kansas City before he left for Nebraska at Swope Park.  I got smoked but managed a top 30 finish.  Greg was somewhere in the top ten.  Not a bad finish for a small town runner against the big city boys.

So I have been a competitive runner for 50 years.  During that time I learned that I didn't want to train hard enough to be another Jim Ryun.  But I also learned that I loved running just enough to always stick with it, through tough times, tough jobs and a lot of tough travel around this wonderful country.  It's allowed me to meet and get to know my heroes.  It's given me more than I've ever deserved.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Jan Johnson

Whew... where to begin?  Most of the time when you purchase a self-published book you expect to read a lot of vanity garbage and I always steer clear of that.  But I had to buy Jan Johnson's awkwardly titled, "The High Flyer and the Cultural Revolution Journal of the Osage Orange, Pt. 1."  It's a head scratching title

Jan Johnson was a world class pole vaulter in the early 1970's.  He set a world record in the vault and ended up with the Olympic bronze medal at the 1972 Munich games which probably should have been silver but that's a whole different story.

I purchased the book because my path had crossed with Jan's while he was at the University of Kansas.  He was a friend of a friend.  I remember he was niceguy and I have stamped on my brain his record setting 17' 7" jump for a world record at the NCAA Championships which landed the Jayhawks second place at nationals.

I didn't expect much, just a lot of silly stories and insight into track at Kansas.  What I got was so much more.  Jan serves up a seascape of growing up on the south side of industrial Chicago.  It's full of the grit and grim of the 1960's.  He sees the world as a color blind youth growing up in a integrated world and ends up as a top notch track and field athlete at Bloom High School.

Johnson wasn't just a national class pole vaulter as a prep.  He was a top flight sprinter and a fine long jumper.  I suspect if he wasn't so in love with the pole vault he would have been a world class decathlete.

Jan's parents wanted their son to go to nearby Indiana or Ohio State.  He settled on Kansas because assistant coach John Mitchell had established himself as a first class vaulting coach.  Plus, Kansas was in the midst of its heyday as a national track and field power under Bob Timmons and besides, who wouldn't want to go to college with the great Jim Ryun?

What makes the story telling so great is that Jan kept a journal.  He detailed everything that was going on in his life, from competition to life on campus.  He came to Lawrence and discovered a community embroiled by the politics of the Vietnam War and racial unrest.  Johnson was shocked by the racism he encountered in a supposedly liberal college town, things he had never seen in the hallways of Bloom.

I saw what he saw.  I lived through part of what he lived.  His book also reawakened old feelings I had about Kansas coach Bob Timmons.  Timmy was a no-nonsense ex-Marine who expected his athletes to be clean cut and well dressed.  Johnson was held out of two key competitions early in his career at Kansas because his hair was too long.  

But what I wanted to know was why Jan left Kansas after two years of competition and transferred to Alabama?  At the time none of it made any sense.  A rising distance star Brian McElroy also left K.U. at the same time.  The rumors surrounding their departure centered on a trip to the Caribbean and some college drinking high jinks.  Johnson writes about it but whether he revealed all of the gory details of that night out is still unclear.

What is clear is that Johnson was run off the K.U. track team because he wanted to stand up for the rights of athletes.  He writes about a previously unknown trip he took to California with activist Jack Scott at the beginning of his junior year.  That trip stirred up a hornets nest.  But it made it clear that Timmons and Athletic Director Wade Stinson couldn't cope or deal with the changing cultural standards that was part of the world.  That includes outright racism on the part of the athletics administration and NCAA violations that could have sunk the track and field program had they been known at the time.

Jan's book made me mad at Coach Timmons all over again.  Yes, I too was kicked off the team at Kansas and I felt the circumstances behind my dismissal left a lot to be desired.  The book brought new life to old grievances that I had harbored against Timmy for many years and had finally come to terms with in the early 1990's.  

But Jan brought me back around in the way he ended a book.  He shared a letter from Timmy that he received after leaving for Alabama.  In it Timmons apologizes for what happened at Kansas.  The apology reminded me why I had made my own personal peace with coach.

This book, while a little ragged in its editing, is a great read.  The next edition promises to be filled with stories of Jan's adventures with Steve Prefontaine.  Yes, they were great friends.

Jan's contribution to the pole vault, in terms of competition, coaching and safety measures, makes him a giant in the sport.  Heck, even his daughter Chelsea was a world class vaulter.  Give the book a read or if you want, I'll share my copy!

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Into the Darkness

Two weeks from today could be the start of something big or just another day along the miserable path that is 2020.  The Fort Myers XC Invitational is scheduled for Friday, September 4th.  It should have been the third meet of Southwest Florida's cross country season.  Thanks to COVID 19 it stands to be the season opener.

I have no idea how they plan to pull it off.  I suspect in the end Fort Myers XC coach Yancey Palmer will be forced to downsize this meet, which is generally the largest meet every year in Southwest Florida.  It's a giant sized headache for Palmer, the administrators at Fort Myers High School and for the Lee County School District at large.  By the 4th we will be just five days into the 2020-21 school year.  A sudden COVID outbreak could bring it all to a screeching halt.

How many athletes can you congregate across the large soccer complex where the meet is run?  How do you control the parents who will want to come and watch their children compete in the first athletic event in our area since early March.  I was at the last road race in Lee County on March 7th which also happened to be the first day we learned that two local residents had died from COVID 19.  The death toll is nearing will be well over 400 by the time the cross country season starts.

So with grim determination I am setting out to size up the quality of competition we will see this season.  First, the boys, headlined by Fort Myers senior Liam Holston.  Illness took all of the pop of a monster season Holston was running through last fall.  A healthy Holston will be a pretty tough competitor to beat this fall.

Holston is fortunate to have a teammate that can push him through workouts.  Junior Colsen Palmer is capable of a top 10 finish at State.  The question for the Green Wave is whether they have the depth to compete against their rival Estero.

The Wildcats, as always, is loaded.  Junior Kolton Pickard stands as the biggest threat to Holston's dominance in cross country.  Estero will field a loaded team helped along by senior Brian Robinson.  Fellow senior Jared Olitsky came on strong at the end of the season last fall to put the Wildcats in a position to compete against Fort Myers. 

A quartet of other boys are on the radar to make a mark on the 2020 season.  First, there is SFCA senior Ethan Tank.  The lean blonde has been piling up the miles over the summer.  He should be the top small school harrier in Southwest Florida.  Canterbury sophomore Charlie Meagher will be a handful for Tank.  Both athletes could land in the top ten at State at the end of the season.

Two other runners that should compete for the top spots are a couple of juniors.  Lehigh Acres Evan Meyer was having a great track season before the virus shut everything down.  Dunbar's Ogler Bartolome shows a great deal of promise too.

On the girl's side one name stands above everyone.  Canterbury senior Jessica Edwards is a fine cross country runner with sprinter's speed.  She has the ability to put her name alongside cross country legends like Estero's Kacy Smith and big sister Emily, a cross country state champion for Fort Myers.  Can she emulate last fall's incredible running by Florida bound Stephy Ormsby?  I wouldn't bet against it.

Five other girls are on my radar as we head into the start of the season.  A pair of Fort Myers seniors, Anna Fischler and Sarah Laboda should keep the Green Wave atop the county for another season.  The top runner on that squad should be junior Amy Meng.

Bishop Verot would love nothing more than to take Fort Myers down.  The Vikings will need some strong running from sophomore Kylie Thomas.  Cape Coral should be competitive as well with junior Natalee Jones and senior Jenny Jacoby returing for the Seahawks.

Let the running begin.  Let it mark the end of this horrible stretch of five months of no racing.  Hopefully high school country can show the way back to some sense of normalcy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

If

If the University of Nebraska is bound and determined to play football this fall and if the Big 12 conference is bound and determined to do the same then I'm ready for the Cornhuskers to return to the fold.  Of all the schools from the original Big 12 conference, Nebraska is the one institution that I enjoyed competing against the most.  Oh, it really wasn't much competition for Nebraska when it came to football and the same could be said for the University of Kansas when it came to basketball but here's the thing.  I respect Nebraska and its fans.

My first college football game was watching Nebraska dominate the Jayhawks in 1967.  The wildest moment I ever saw at a Kansas basketball game was in the mid-70's when Cornhusker head coach Joe Cipriano lost his mind and picked up two quick technicals ending his frustration with his jacket thrown to the mid-court at Allen Field House.

Nebraska is one of three major college football stadium I've ever watched a game in besides the Jayhawks' Memorial Stadium and Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium.  I will never forget watching the great Tommy Frazier dismantle a good Kansas team in the mid-90's.  I will never, ever forget watching Kansas end Nebraska's long football winning streak in 2005.  Even during those dreadful drubbings we took during the 70's and 80's... Nebraska fans were classy.

I loved going to Lincoln for the Big 8 indoor track meet.  The facilities in Lincoln were second to none 40 years ago and they have only gotten better through the years.  I miss Nebraska.  I want them back in the Big 12 conference.  I want a counter-balance to the overly immense power that the University of Texas welds.  Nebraska won't budge that balance of power much but it would be a start.

Completing the transition would to bring Colorado back into the fold.  It's ridiculous that the Buffaloes are so geographically out of sync with the rest of the Pac 12.  And no, I don't want Missouri back.  They turned their back on the best football/basketball rivalry in the NCAA.  The Tigers let money cloud history and now they are getting their payback.  Their football program can't compete in the SEC and their basketball is just as sorry.

Money ruined the conferences as we knew them.  COVID may ruin college football as we know it.  But if it gets Nebraska back into the Big 12 permanently, I'm all for it.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Burt

I don't know why I started thinking last night about Burt Kennedy.  I suspect it's because one of the Czarina's overweight work colleagues died from a heart attack last week.  Between COVID and the news of the COVID death of a former Fort Myers co-worker, Dave Lombardi also last week, Burt came to mind.

When I wrote several years ago about my three years working at KTSP (now KSAZ) in Phoenix I failed to even mention Burt Kennedy.  It's a shame because Burt was a quiet force of nature in the newsroom.  Technically, he was the newsroom operations manager but in many ways he was a keeper of the flame of a station that had dominated the Phoenix television market when it was known as KOOL TV.

I didn't know what to make of Burt when I first arrived at the station.  He was quiet and down right studious and seemed out of place in a raucous newsroom.  But I soon realized that these still waters ran very deep.

Burt Kennedy was the first person I had worked with who understood how a personal computer worked.  Now that seems ridiculous in 2020 but in 1987 having a PC on your desk was a new thing.  I was used to banging out scripts on an IBM selectric typewriter, not a computer with a floppy disc.

Burt patiently taught me how to use the computer.  He showed me the ropes of the newsroom.  And perhaps the most important lesson he taught me was how to answer the newsroom phone.  I had worked for nearly a decade in television news but Burt always answered the phone politely and directly.  "Newscenter 10, this is Burt Kennedy, how can I help you?"  It struck me as professional and at Burt's insistent direction I started to copy his style.  I still do it to this day, 33 years later, although I say, "Run Florida On McGregor, this is John, how can I help you."

Burt knew the Valley of the Sun inside and out.  He had countless interesting stories about growing up in the Phoenix area and the amazing people that crossed his path.  Burt was especially proud of his namesake uncle, the Hollywood director Burt Kennedy.  Google him.  That Burt Kennedy was part a pretty big name in the film business and specialized in westerns.

The most important thing Burt imparted was the grand history of the station where I worked.  He yearned for the days when the station, when it was owned by Gene Autry, yes that Gene Autry, when no expense was spared to produce a top notch newscast and a lot of documentaries, many of which Burt helped to produce.  He was the part of a station legacy that included legendary anchorman Bill Close, the Walter Cronkite of the market, who had been the face of the station for a quarter of a century.

The other thing about Burt, was his size.  He was a big, big man.  He tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds and stood more than six feet tall.  Burt died in the 1990's, for the life of me I can't remember the year and can't find an obituary.  He was in his mid to late 40's.  He got a staph infection and I suspect his weight didn't help.

Burt Kennedy was a gentle soul in a rough and tumble business.  Most importantly he was a great journalist. He believed in doing great journalism.  He encouraged great journalism.  The world of television news could use a few Burt Kennedy's right now.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Nino

I remember the first time I saw a jaw dropping athlete.  It was at the Kansas State High School Basketball 4A Tournament in the winter of 1972 at Allen Field House.  I went to an opening round game featuring McPherson against Salina Central.  I went to see a player named Nino Samuels.

What I saw that night left me amazed.  Nino Samuels was a man playing among boys.  He overpowered the McPherson squad with slashing drives and rebound after rebound.  But McPherson had a better team and squeezed out a win on its way to a state title.

I was excited because the Salina Central All-American who averaged 31.1 points and a staggering 19.3 rebounds a game his senior year, was going to the University of Kansas.  He was a sure fire NBA prospect.  Back in the fall of 1972 freshman were not allowed to play varsity basketball.  That left Samuels to sharpen his skills on the freshman squad.

Suddenly, the NCAA decided to change its rules regarding freshman eligibility half way through Samuels freshman year.  The 72-73 Jayhawk squad was just this side of bad.  I had hoped that Nino's arrival to the varsity would lift K.U.'s hoop fortunes.  There was one problem.  Nino couldn't shoot.  I see it as a failure of the Kansas coaching staff.  They should have drilled him and drilled him on shooting the 15 footer. 

You could see that by the start of his sophomore year, this heralded player was disheartened.  His minutes were few on a Kansas team that would eventually would go to the Final 4. Averaging 4.4 points per game, Nino quit the team around Christmas and headed back to Salina and Marymount University.

I remember hearing stories from an English professor at K.U. who described Nino as a good kid but a lackluster student.  He told me about an essay Nino had written about the NBA which Samuels had summarized as, jock around for three quarters then hustle.  That story always stuck with me.

Samuels thrived at Marymount, a NAIA power.  By his senior year Nino had led his hometown team to a third place finish in the national tournament.  He never played a minute in the NBA.

Nino Samuels passed away Wednesday.  He was only 67.  Nino Samuels is still one of the three best high school basketball players I ever saw in person.  Darnell Valentine of Wichita Heights and Cole Anthony who now plays at North Carolina are the other two.  He may very well be the best all around high school athlete I ever saw.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Lots of Pain, No Gain

A lot of track coaches will tell you, no pain, no gain.  It's a point I won't argue.  You have to work if you want to be a good track and field athlete.  But this is the blog that I didn't want to write, prayed I wouldn't have to write and took more than a month to get around to.

Southwest Florida's high school track and field season came to a COVID-19 halt just as the season was beginning to get going.  By March the pandemic had brought the season to a screeching halt just as the area's top flight athletes were looking forward to big meets at FSU and Florida.  What's sad is this year promised as much history in the girl's middle distances as we saw last spring.

The Oliveira twins of ECS versus versus Jessica Edwards of Canterbury would have made for some epic battles over 400 and 800 meters.  Edwards was also aiming at joining the growing number of Lee County girls to have run 1600 meters under 5 minutes.  These wonderful athletes were robbed of making history.  The twins will go down as two of the best athletes in any sport to have represented their school.

The heartache extends to the boys distances where Estero's Kolton Pickard, Ida Baker's Franklin Caceres and Fort Myers' Liam Holston were rounding into shape for some epic races.  Caceres will take his talents to FGCU.  Fortunately Pickard and Holston will have another year to deepen their rivalry.

There are at least another half dozen athletes looking to make a name this spring.  Steph Ormsby comes to mind.  The Fort Myers senior could have done some special things on the track this spring.  Dunbar had an exceptional sprint team again and a brand new facility that was looking forward to hosting some major meets.  That will have to wait until next spring.

The good news is the finishing touches are being put on a new synthetic track at Cypress Lake High School which will mean good to first rate surfaces at five of the 14 Lee County public high schools.  Racing on asphalt is criminal.

Finally, I wish all of you could have seen a couple of the Instagram posts by the aforementioned Caceres and Edwards.  These two athletes were brave enough to share their time trials over the web as they tried to push themselves to PR's.  It was both entertaining and inspiring.  These two young athletes represent what is best about our sport.