Those of you who know me know I am a football guy. From the time I was 10 until I went in the service, my entire life revolved around the pigskin. I competed in other sports to stay in shape for football.
But this time of year brings me back to the highest of my athletic highs and lowest of my athletic lows – and no, it is not football season. While football was and is my passion, the track was the zenith and pit of my sports persona.
While my father coached me up in all things sport, it was track where we worked together the most. Starting in seventh grade with a pair of red Adidas leather track shoes (I still have them) on the vacant lot next to my house, he taught me how to run. Lean forward, arms down, don’t tighten up – words I grew to disdain but now can only wish I would not have fought them so much.
I set a freshman record in the 880 but my sophomore year was the ultimate. I shaved 18 seconds off the mile record and the night I did that was good for a third place at the North Section finals. (Lower levels went all the way to the section finals in those days.)
After I crossed the finish line I looked up in the stands for my dad and he was running to the coach and showing him the stopwatch, asking the coach if it had stopped it prematurely. He had not. And although the 4 minutes, 42.3 seconds would be quite pedestrian for a sophomore today, back then it was quite a big deal.
I plateaued as a junior, unable to crack the 4:40 mark in the mile. But as I had in my freshman and sophomore years, I made it to the section finals in two individual events and one relay.
My senior year, not so much.
I got the royal shaft in football season. As a junior, after starting the year as a backup to the backup defense linemen, I muscled my way to middle linebacker. I led the team in tackles – the guy whose position I took made all-league defensive end and it was a given that a middle linebacker from Anderson would make all league. I was not even put up for it. The excuse – it should go to the other linebacker who was a senior. I could wait. I was a good, loyal soldier.
Week 3 of my senior year changed all that. After getting my eye swelled shut on the opening kickoff, two plays later I took a cheap shot that strained tendons in my knee. I got hauled off the field, the replacement linebacker did such a crappy job I went back in on one leg and played the rest of the game in agony. I even made an interception, although all I could do was fall down with it because I could not run.
The fallout from that night is I was a half a step off the rest of the year. My junior year was better, but after all, I was a senior now so I was sure that all-league linebacker slot would go to me. It went to the junior. I was furious – enraged. But I still had track season to look forward to.
This would be my third track coach in four years. The first two were absolute nails – loved them both. I knew nothing about this guy, except that his daughter and I hated each other. (I may have told her something not so nice at one time, but I figured the dad would not be so petty as to bring that into this arena. Boy did I figure wrong.)
I was one of two four-year lettermen, so when it came time for the pre-season meeting and the election of captains – which had been seniors only the last three years – I figured I would finally get my gold star. I had not said that to anyone, nor had I ever spoken with the coach. When it got to be time to vote for captains, the coach gave his spiel and ended it with, “And the captains don’t have to be seniors, no matter what Campbell says.” And it went downhill from there.
I did not win a race all year. (Nobody’s fault but my own.) In the final dual meet I begged the coach to let me run anchor on the mile relay so I could take the tape one last time. He refused.
After making it to the section finals in three events for three years, I only qualified out of league in the mile relay. I trained hard the following week, and when that time came around for the mile relay at sub sections, the coach walked up to me and told me I had the best split at league and I would be running anchor.
I was ecstatic – overwhelmed. As I was waiting for the baton, we were in sixth place. As I got the baton, I was 110 yards out of fifth – the cutoff for subs. I ran the gutsiest race of my life. I trimmed that 110-yard deficit to 20 with 50 yards to go. At that point the legs which had been my savior forever just quit. The tank was empty. No trip to sections for me.
I was crushed. At altitude (Weed), I was heaving my insides out, but there was nothing to heave. The coach walked up to me, put his arm around me and said, “You didn’t have the best split at league. You had the worse. I just wanted to embarrass you in your last race.”
And then he walked away.
Well I did not embarrass myself. When I saw him years later he acted as if we were best friends. But since I was on the clock for my employer, I played along. (When I told her what he had done, she told me I should have kicked him out of her business!) And in the years that followed, I took a little of him with me into my coaching career so I would never do to a kid what had been done to me.
But when I am covering the thinclads now, I don’t think of that day very much. I think of my dad wondering if his stopwatch had stopped early.
And as for watches, if I could only turn back time.