Kenny Reid is a high school classmate of mine and he sent me some photos today of our home town, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Many of them dated from the my early childhood there. There was a picture of Danforth’s  Bakery truck. Mr. Danforth was a short stocky man who used to wear very flashy two-toned brown shoes, and we all wanted to caddy for him because he was such a good tipper ( a dollar a bag for 18 holes and 25 cents tip ). One of my caddy highlights was caddying for him and Glenn Gray ( leader of the Casa Loma Orchestra ). Everyone wanted to carry double in order to get the two dollars plus tip. This day they both shot well and I was rewarded with the princely sum of three dollars !  Another photo was of the Cornish-Burton School on Russell Street. When we moved North from Florida in the third grade, this was where I started going to an “integrated” school, away from the “segregated” school in Clearwater, Florida that my mother was fleeing for me and my sister in order for us to get a “better” education. Going to the “better”, “integrated” school at first meant fighting every day with the white kids there and “integrating” myself by kicking as much white ass as I could. Fighting and gaining status felt good and I soon became something of a bully. That ended when Johnny Pinto caught me on the steps of the the Cornish School and roundly kicked my butt. The bullying stopped, but I was fully “integrated” by then anyway, but seeing those same steps in the photo immediately brought back very vivid and totally embarrassing memories of Pinto wailing on me with all the little kids looking on. Another picture showed Harry Cohen’s Dry Goods . This was the place where I used to fill gallon jugs with kerosene ( ten cents a gallon ) for cooking and also to heat our house on High Street. Many times Mr. Cohen had to extend us credit and run a tab. During some of those New England winters, this was a total Godsend.

Those times were anything but easy, but in many ways they were easierr than today. The movies were black and white and that was reflected in the mores, morals, ethnicity and ethics of the day that still shape my perspective on many things. There was right and there was wrong. Today, too much seems to be on a sliding scale. Ray Lewis, of the Baltimore Ravens, upon retirement is already lined up with a prestigious media job. He will be a first ballot football hall of fame inductee.  This is the same Ray Lewis who had the blood of a murdered man on his person and in his car. Paid a $250,000.00 fine for obstruction of justice in the same murder case. He currently is a lionized icon, and, to me, one of the biggest contradictions of sports and fair play. On the other hand, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens may not ever get inducted into the baseball hall of fame because they have been accused of using performing enhancing drugs. Ty Cobb, an admitted and self-avowed racist, and all around bad guy, was the first inductee into the baseball hall of fame. Lance Armstrong has admitted using performance enhancing drugs and has been banned from pursuing his competitive drive to race and compete. A-Rod, an admitted doper, is still playing baseball as one of its highest paid athletes on the highest profile team in the league. Lance Armstrong is generally credited with raising as much as 500 million dollars for cancer eradication. Despite this fact, he is banned from cycling and other sanctioned endurance events. The 20 plus million A-Rod makes goes to A-Rod. Go figure !!

I am still shaped in my thinking because of the early experiences in black and white I had as a child. I remember when the prevailing attitude in track and field was that you had to compete “natural”. Weight lifting was frowned upon as some how or another “cheating” because it was not “natural”. I remember in the late 50’s at the University of Chicago Track Club, Ted Haydon, who was one of the finest men I have ever encountered, brought some weights into the fieldhouse where we trained in winter. The only person to take full advantage of the weights was the hammer thrower on the team, Jim Brown. Jim Brown was a very talented big man H e was also very motivated to help the rest of us.

Brooks, man, you ought to really try them weights. They will help you beat little Ira ( Ira Murchison was one of the first men to run 10.00 for a hundred 100 meters, and a gold medal 4 x 100 meter relay at the 1956 Olympics ).

Jim, I don’t have time for no damned weights.

Brooks, man, I’m telling you, they will help you run faster.

Jim, I do not want to get muscle-bound fooling around with those damned things.

Brooks, Ted knew what he was doing bringing those weights in here for us to use.

Jim, you believe that whatever the white man says is gospel. I am not ( curse ) around with those weights, man !

Okay,….. but Ted’s color got nothing to do with this.

Nigger, don’t go getting philosophical on this stuff. Look, if I do not beat Ira this weekend, I’ll let YOU and Ted show me how to lift !

Okay Brooks, let’s shake on that.

He shook my hand and his hand closed down on mine like a vise. I knew he was sending a strong message that I had better honor the deal.

Ira and I were the #1 and #2 sprinters on the University of Chicago Track Club. He was #1 and I was #2. We were very good friends, but there was no one else  I wanted to beat more than Ira. We called him “Little Man” because of his five foot five stature. But in fact, when he was on,…. he was a giant. The extra pressure from Jim Brown’s deal caused me to really focus on ways to bet Murchison. I finally decided on a strategy that I thought was a sure fire tactic. He won his heat and I won mine. The only difference was that his time was two tenths faster than mine for the indoor 60 we were running.  In the final I was determined to work my new race strategy. Like most small men at the time, Murchison was known for his killer start. We were in lanes next to each other. When the starter brought us up to the set position, I uttered, Nigger, Nigger, Nigger ! Al Jacobson and a couple of other white sprinters were also in the finals. This was before the day that American white sprinters abdicated the sprints to blacks. Nigger was a term that you just did not use in mixed company. Murchison did as I thought he might, he froze when he heard me use the N word with whites close by. The gun went off with him still in momentary shock,  and I “won” the race and avoided the dreaded task of engaging in the quasi-unethical practice of weight lifting.

In 1971 I was coaching one of the most gifted athletes and competitors I have ever been associated with. Martin McGrady became known as Chairman Of The Boards because of his exploits at the indoor 600 yards. Martin had pulled a muscle in December of 1970 and we were sitting around talking over the Christmas holidays. In an effort to get his mind off the injury I asked him what he felt he could run the 600 in. To my utter surprise and amazement he stated, 1:07.5. I reminded him that this was a full two seconds faster than the existing world record. He promptly reminded me that he knew exactly what it was since he was the record holder at that distance.

Martin, that means you will have to go out in 48.5 and come back over the last lap in 19.0

Coach, you asked what I think I can do,….. that is what I think I can do.

We still have Lee ( Evans world record holder at 400 meters ) to deal with.

Okay, I am up for that.

I thought back to the night when Wendell Motley, of Yale, and Charlie Mays, of  Maryland State, went out in 48.5 in Madison Square Garden on the way to trying to set a record for 500, and on that indoor 11 lap track tied up into excruciating and paralyzing knots in front of 18,000 spectators and died a horrible death. Here’s McGrady, with a pulled muscle advising me he can go out just as fast and carry on for a 100 yards longer than Motley and Mays. During the countdown to the 1:07.5 effort, McGrady broke the 600 record four times in three weeks. One week he broke the record in back to back meets in two different cities. It was this time that Al Franken the premier meet promoter from California called to invite McGrady to the L.A. TIMES Meet. Martin had been in San Jose before he came to train with us in Washington, D.C.. He was very anxious to return to California to compete. I reminded him and Franken that we had asked Franken to invite him before the season and he had turned McGrady down. Now Franken upped the ante by offering money well above the  A.A.U. and I.A.A.F. allowable. Then he redoubled that. When that would not move me, he redoubled again and McGrady was very upset because of my puritanism ( that Plymouth effect ) in maintaining the amateur code. Instead of going to California, McGrady honored a meet obligation we had in Cleveland at A.A.U. allowed expenses .

The end of the story is very bittersweet. At the 1971 A.A.U. Indoor National Championships in Madison Square Garden, McGrady and Lee Evans hooked up in the finals of the 600 like they had for the previous 6 races ( McGrady had won them all ). McGrady knew the race strategy was for him to go out in what was then a scalding 48.5 and come back on the last lap of 160 yards in 19 seconds flat. I stood at the 400 yard mark and when McGrady strode past me with that fluid grace of his, I yelled out 48.5 and he looked over smiled and winked. His last lap was 19.1 for a new world best of  1:07.6. After the rejection of the Al Franken offer, McGrady was very vulnerable to the offer from the Philadelphia Pioneer Club to come run for them and get whatever the shamateurism market would give him.  As fate would have it, he never ran and won another major race.

Martin McGrady was one of the finest athletes and human beings I have ever been around and that covers more than 50 years in some sort of athletic activity, much of it at a very high level. He was quiet, gentle and the strongest language he ever used was “flick it”. We were indeed the odd couple. It was easy for me to turn down the money based on my background and grounding in that black and white world I grew up in. But did I have the right to deny this guy what everyone else was doing and getting ?  I think about the cheaters’ mantra,”everyone else is doing it “. In the famous Ben Johnson 1988 Olympic 100 meter final of 9.79, I personally know four people in that race who lied about not having used drugs. When you add the fact that Ben and Desai Williams both admitted to using, that leaves just two people who were possibly clean. In one of the races that Lance Armstrong won, the next six riders were all busted and under suspicion for drug us. How does this play against his claim that he wasn’t cheating,…… he was merely leveling the playing field ?

Does anyone really know what a level field is anymore ? For me it is all too simple, like black and white. When we needed credit, we were given it because people trusted us to “do the right thing when the time came”. When I abused my power and status, I got my ass kicked,…. and kicked but good, to the extent that I can still experience embarrassing and teaching parts of it more than 6 decades later . When money was the centerpiece, then double up on the load you are willing to carry and hope you do a good enough job to get some sort of extra reward and value added. My current and future conduct is not technicolor, or even sepia tone, it is what Kenny Reid sent me in those black and white photos of those long ago tough and simple times.


Brooks T. Johnson

( 407 ) 758 -0755

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.