Russ Rogers called me.

Hey man,…… J.T. just died !

What ?

John Thomas, just passed.

What ?

Yeah, John Thomas just died.

Holy S—t ! How ?

I talked with him the night before he was going to get an operation for some sort of circulation problem. He was concerned about it, but I never expected any s—t like this, man. He died after the operation.

Jesus Christ ! I just saw him last year in Boston, at the meet at Roxbury Community College where he used to be the athletic director. My brother lives right up the street from there, right off Blue Hill Avenue. He wasn’t looking all that good, but not bad enough to die.


Russ, I was there at the Millrose Games in ’59 when he jumped 7 feet indoors,….. the first person to do it

I was there too. Hell,….. EVERYBODY was there ! It was the Millrose Games ! He was only a teenager at the time. A freshman at Boston University.

I just can’t get my mind around his dying.

Yeah,…. me too. I’ll get back to you with the funeral arrangements.

When John Thomas literally exploded on the track and field scene as a tall, very talented, handsome high jumper, with a heavy Boston accent, the indoor circuit in the Northeast was a very, very big thing. There were two meets in Boston( B.A.A. and K.of C.), four in New York ( Millrose, ICAAAA, New York A.C. and AAU Indoor National Championships ), and  Philadelphia had one also. At that time few colleges had indoor facilities and these meets provided a circuit for them, as well as the “amateurs” who were no longer in college. From January until March the Northeast was the track and field center of the universe. The meets all drew near capacity attendance with Madison Square Garden in New York  accepted and acknowledged as the mecca and epicenter of the sport. It was a commonly accepted notion that you had not really arrived until you had performed at Madison Square Garden. The Millrose Meet was the most prestigious, and the one to which everyone wanted to get an invitation to compete. Fred Schmertz, the canny and crusty meet director, was well aware of the power he and his meet exerted and used it to  organize and manage the premier meet of the indoor season. So when the tall freshman from Boston cleared seven feet at the “59 sold out Millrose Games, essentially his legendary status should have been assured and guaranteed.

But this was 1959, and we have a black teenager that wanted to please and impress everyone, in a country that was racist and sexist in varying degrees as you moved from South to North, and/or North to South. At the same time as John was lighting up his event on the circuit, the Russians were fully engaged in their chemically tainted and compromised quest to prove to the world – through sport – that their political and economic system was superior to the western democracies. The geopolitical climate pitted the USA vs the USSR and the tension was as thick and heavy  as London fog. Enter Valery Brumel, the “wunderkinder” in the high jump, from  the Soviet Union.  Their duels were epic, played out in packed arenas everywhere they competed. Brumel won all of the competitions but one. But the one loss that mattered the most to John Thomas was losing to Brumel and his team mate at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, getting the bronze medal at the ripe old age of 19.

The 1960 Olympics in Rome were extremely noteworthy for some very big successes and some  “failures” of the same magnitude. An Ethiopian won the marathon running the streets of Rome barefooted, upsetting the world view of African running ability versus the previous European dominance of the event. In the men’s 100, 200, and 4 x 100, Ray Norton, the #1 sprinter in the world, lost in all three events. In boxing, a verbose teenager from Louisville, Kentucky took the Olympic village, and later the whole world, by storm with his talent in the ring and his willingness to engage in conversation outside the ring. The public legend of Cassius Clay began there and later morphed into Ali ( the true sign of legendary status is when only one name is necessary ). But perhaps no one athlete was more celebrated and successful at these Games than Wilma “Skitter” Rudolph. “Skitter” not only won the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 ( the longest individual race for women in 1960 was 200 meters ), but did so in a fashion and manner that we have not seen until Usain Bolt equaled the same  Olympic  triple with the same kind of natural charisma that comes from not just winning events, but the flair and fluidity with which it is done. With this as a backdrop, young John Thomas, expected to win, gets the bronze.

John once said to me.

Brooks, I was proud of that damned medal. Then I got all this crap like I had let the whole county down. The press, officials, and lot of other people, who I thought were friends, just left me hanging, man. I was jumping my ass off for my country and I did the very best I could that day. But for a lot of people it was not enough. Man,……I lost my innocence and patriotism after Rome. When I was in Tokyo in ’64, man, I was jumping for me !  Screw everybody else. I was jumping for John Thomas ! I realized that these people will never give me the credit I earned and busted my ass for.

It is possible that John Thomas might mitigate the recognition thing if he could have read his obituary in the January 22 edition of the NEW YORK TIMES. What us Easterners consider the best, and most prestigious, newspaper in the world, there was this three columned obituary of J.T.,  with two pictures of a very young, naive, and talented John Thomas clearing the high jump bar. One was of him doing it at the 1959 Millrose Games. What could have been more apropos than J.T. being shown clearing the bar at the most prestigious indoor meet in the most prestigious newspaper ? This is the kind of positive coverage and recognition he lived to get. Why is it so,  that  in death that so many only get what they so desperately wanted and deserved in life ?

Brooks T. Johnson

( 407 ) 758 – 0755

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