My Boy Jesse

Published: February 19, 2016

From November 7, 1936, the true story of what Jesse Owens went through after the 1936 Olympics, as told by his coach.

Painting of Jesse Owens at 1936 Olympics

Artist Robert Gunn painted the iconic 1936 Olympic scene of Jesse Owens saluting the flag after accepting his third gold medal for his record-breaking long jump. He stands between bronze medalist Naoto Tajima of Japan and the silver medalist, German Carl Ludwig “Lutz” Long, whom Owens befriended during the games. The two would remain close until WWII, when Long was killed in action. Owens recalled their friendship in this 1976 Post article.

I don’t want this to sound like a personal bellyache. If I do any complaining in it, I want to complain on Jesse’s behalf, and not my own. What happened to me is not important, except in relation to him.

The main thing I hope to do is give a picture of the greatest athlete in the world today. I want to talk about what makes him tick, what it is that makes his wheels go round, what happened to him in Europe this summer, and what happened to him in New York when he got back to this country.

The famous Friday at Randall’s Island, the Jarrett case, the case of the two Olympic orphans, Glickman and Stoller, the Bronx whistles for the American pole vaulters, the so-called Hitler snub — all these things are not for me to talk about, because I wasn’t even an assistant coach. I was just a college coach, who tagged along because the Olympic Committee broadcast the information that if any coach had a boy from his college on the team, that coach could come along at his own expense to take care of his boy.

My part in the Battle of Berlin began after the Olympic Games were over.

I first saw Jesse Owens back in 1934, when a 19-year-old colored boy reported to me for track practice. I found out that he had been born in Alabama, that he had started picking cotton to help out at home when he was six, that he had been run over by a cotton drag — I am not recommending that as part of a readying for running routine — and I found out his name wasn’t Jesse at all.

A grammar-school teacher talked him into it. When his family moved up from the South, a Cleveland schoolmarm asked him his name. He said, “J.C. Owens” — the “J.C.” stood for “James Cleveland.” He served the initials up Southern style, so that they were long and drawly and sort of ran together. She said, “Jesse Owens?” He shook his head and said, “J.C., ma’am.” When she asked him once more if he meant “Jesse,” he let it go the way that she seemed to want it to be. “ Yes, ma’am, Jesse Owens,” he said.

When he came to State, he had been a champion in the 100, 220, and the broad jump in high school. Every coach in the Big Ten was watching me with a critical eye, to see how I would handle him. They all wanted him, but somehow he got it fixed in his head that a boy who lived in the state of Ohio should go to Ohio State.

I didn’t have any trouble with him. We got along great. The news about how good he was was no secret out our way. Then he broke three world’s records in one day and tied another, and everybody knew about it.

The Tale of the Rambling Pain

There is a story behind that day. I call it the story of the rambling pain. Jesse rolled downstairs in a horseplay wrestling match and landed at the bottom, with his back so sore that he couldn’t bend over. It got worse each day before the meet. The pain seemed to be moving south, and finally worked its way from his back down into the great hamstring muscles of his thigh. On the day of the preliminary heats for the Big Ten championships at Ann Arbor, he lay in a tub of hot water for an hour and a half, trying to soak out the soreness. The bath chased the pain down into the little cup just behind his knee joint. He didn’t tell me about its change of address and he didn’t tell me that it hurt worse than ever. He was afraid I wouldn’t let him compete. He was wrong about that. I have always believed that an injury that didn’t come from running won’t be hurt by running.

He ran his heats, and the sore spot felt better each time. But it stiffened up again at night, although nothing like as painful as it had been. By the next morning it had moved on down to his foot and off the end of his toes into space.

Saturday was a perfect track day. There was just enough wind at his back. It was just under the three-miles-per-hour wind allowance for a following wind. If it had been more than that, his records wouldn’t have stood. And it was the first really hot day of spring. He was just out there to win. That was important too. The only time I ever sent him out to break a record, it worked on his mind so much that he finished second.

This time he took only one crack at the broad jump. He stuck a piece of paper in the ground at the twenty-six-foot mark, and when he made his try, he didn’t even touch the paper. He sailed right over it. Ralph Young, athletic director at Michigan State, who was standing beside the jumping pit, told me afterward that Jesse sailed past him in the air even with the top of his head, and Ralph stands five feet eight. I wasn’t surprised. You have to get up that high if you are going to jump six inches better than the world’s record.

After the first two events, the crowd began to realize that they were seeing history made. When he got on his marks for his last race, the 220 low hurdles, they were sitting there so quiet that you could hear them breathe. They didn’t even yell encouragement to him after he started. It wasn’t because they weren’t excited and keyed up. They were just concentrating on pulling him up that track.

When the time was announced, they made up for it. The noise had almost the solid quality of the blast of air that comes back at you from an airplane propeller.

In the 220, he was eight yards ahead of the field at the 150 mark. It was the only time I have ever seen him lay everything he had on the line. Everybody said he did it easily. He didn’t do it easily. He had tension in his neck and shoulders.

That meant lots to me, for, as a usual thing, he runs as smoothly and relaxed as the average runner does when he’s jogging up and down running pretty for the camera.

Saturday night after a track meet was his big time. He loved his Saturday nights. I used to tell him, “Put on your glad rags and get going. This is your night.”

He was working, studying, and running, and it was good for him to bust loose once in a while.

But this past year these Saturday nights were out. “You’ve got two big things in front of you this year,” I told him: “Randall’s Island and Berlin. And they’re bigger than your Saturday nights.” All I had to do was tell him about it. He didn’t complain. Not even once.

On the boat going over, I had my first taste of those meetings that the Olympic Committee seemed to have every hour on the hour, like the trains from New York to Philadelphia. Only the New York­–Philadelphia trains get somewhere. Later they came out of the huddle with the announcement that the athletes would have to furnish their own running shoes. Jesse had brought three pairs east with him for the tryouts — one old pair and two new ones. But he had managed to lose the two new pairs at Randall’s Island. I wasn’t upset about that. He had lost at least twenty pairs of running shoes since he came to Ohio State. When he put them down to pose for a picture, somebody would grab them up as souvenirs, or he would leave them in a dressing room and just plain forget about them.

A Problem in Shoe Leather

But I was upset by the committee’s decision. In one pair of old secondhand shoes he was expected to train for ten days in wet weather, run ten races, and take ten broad-jump trials against the greatest competition he had ever faced. I thought about how a sprinting shoe is made, like a tight-fitting glove of thin kangaroo hide, with practically no sole at all, and what sole there is is full of spikes embedded in it that are trying to pull it loose. I remembered the hundreds of spikes that he had bent coming down on broad-jump take-offs, and I fully expected to see him galloping down the track in the 100-meter run wearing only one shoe, or maybe none at all, on the opening day of the games.

The members of the committee held another meeting when they got to Berlin to discuss the matter of buying Jesse a pair of shoes.

Finally it was decided to order him one pair from England. If he had to have two pairs, Ohio State would have to pay for the other pair.

In the meantime, I had taken the bull by the horns and had combed Berlin for a sporting-goods store. I finally found a pair for him and paid for them myself. They gave him a beautiful set of corns, but it was a good thing I bought them, for the pair ordered from England never arrived at all. Jesse wasn’t half so worried about the corns as I was. “They’ll make me jump farther when they begin to hurt,” he told me.

The next problem we bumped into was the bus rides. The officials had three small American-made cars brought over for them, in which they could dash from banquet to banquet and from meeting to meeting. But the athletes had to make the journey out to the Olympic Village and back for lunch in buses which took three-quarters of an hour each way. Jesse drew the 12th and last heat in the 100 meters on the opening day, which meant that he wouldn’t have to run until around noontime, but he had to leave for the stadium bright and early in the morning when the bus left, just the same. He had to warm up and stand around slowly cooling off, waiting his turn to run. He waited so long that he had hardly broken the tape in his heat before the bus left for lunch at the Olympic Village, and he barely made it.

Maybe it was a little thing to worry about, but it wasn’t the way we took care of our boys in college. In college circles, we have a silly idea that an athlete should be taken care of between races and that proper care at that time will help him win them. There was only one rubbing table in our dressing room for a tired boy to lie down on between heats and restore his wasted tissues, although we stole the Spanish rubbing table when that delegation went home to the wars.

Then I had a stroke of luck. I ran into Fred Martin, of Los Angeles, who could talk German. I asked him if he knew where I could beg, borrow or steal a cot for Jesse. He knew. He talked his way into the Red Cross station attached to the stadium, he talked the people in charge not out of one cot but two, and he talked his way back with them through battalions and squadrons of guards at every gate along the way.

After that they didn’t let Jesse take that ride back to the village. They brought steak sandwiches, and coffee and milk, in vacuum bottles, along from the village in the morning.

The sandwiches were cold and soggy when noontime came, but it was better than taking a runner with a tense, tight stomach and rapidly cooling muscles for a buggy ride when he should have been resting and gearing his heart and lungs down to normalcy.

The only event Jesse got to see was the 1500-meter victory of Jack Lovelock. We just didn’t dare come out of our hole for the others. As it was, I took him by the arm, after he won the 200 meters, and ran him to the contestants’ section. Even there, surrounded by other athletes, he wasn’t safe. The autograph maniacs grabbed him and twisted him around, and people poked the snouts of cameras into his face.

They woke him up in the morning, shoving autograph books in through the windows of his sleeping quarters. We tried closing the windows, although it made it pretty hot in the small, enclosed place where he lived, but that didn’t stop them. They shot him with clicking shutters through the windowpanes.

I thought it was pretty bad at the Penn Relays, when we had to smuggle him out through a window of the shower room, but it wasn’t a patch on Berlin.

In between times, I was driving it into him about keeping his feet on the ground and not letting himself get stuck up and strutting a cakewalk. I never studied psychology, but I qualified as a psychology professor this summer all right. He was too likable a boy to let himself be spoiled, and I wasn’t going to allow it if I could help it.

It sounds sappy to say it, but once we both got so emotionally worked up during one of those sermons that I preached to him during his freshman year that we both had tears running down our faces before it was over.

Sometimes it was tough, going. The Germans applauded the moment he stuck his head out onto the field. I had braced him for a stony, forbidding silence, because I had read all about the Germanic worship of the Aryan-supremacy idea. But they crossed me up. The German athletes were fine to him. Borchmeyer, the leading German sprinter, had been to the games at Los Angeles and could talk a little English. He brought his coach over to meet Jesse. Borchmeyer’s coach spent all of his time looking at Jesse’s legs. I don’t know whether he bored through them into the secret of Jesse’s speed or not, but he studied them like a scientist studying a rare specimen of fauna.

It seemed to me that Jesse spent most of his time in Berlin smiling at the birdie, with a dozen or so foreign athletes clustered around him or hanging on him, so that they might have a souvenir to take back home. When he turns on a smile, it’s something to see. Hitler must have seen those white teeth shining in the sun all the way from his box.

Jesse swears he saw Der Fuehrer wave to him. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. I wouldn’t know. Maybe Hitler made some sort of gesture in the course of his conversation with a henchman sitting near him. Anyhow, Jesse’s account of that exchange of greetings took some of the sting out of Hitler’s famous exit just before Jesse and Albritton were awarded their laurel wreaths. Maybe Jesse was trying to fix things up so there wouldn’t be any unpleasantness; maybe he was a sort of instinctive ambassador of goodwill.

Europe on the Run

I don’t think the story of Jesse’s being shipped around Europe on a post-Olympic barnstorming tour has I been told. Certainly not as I would like to tell it.

I was in the dressing room with Jesse after the 400-meter relay, when I found out that he was supposed to leave for Cologne the next day, to run in a track meet. I was so hot under the collar that all I could do was splutter for a while. Here was a boy who had run ten races in seven days and had broad-jumped to boot. He had won four world championships, and if ever I an athlete deserved a rest, it was Jesse. I talked to the man who was arranging the junket.

“About this trip to Cologne,” I said. “That’s out. You can’t run him the day after the relay. You can’t ask him to do that.”

He said, “The contract has been signed for him to be there. I asked Jesse and he said ‘O.K.’”

I knew all about Jesse’s saying, “O.K.” to the trip. An official comes up to a boy and says, “How about a trip to Cologne, or Moscow, or Hong Kong?” Naturally, the boy says yes. It sounds like fun to him, and a chance to see the world without joining the Marines. Half of the time he doesn’t have the foggiest notion where Cologne or Hong Kong is. How far away it is. How long it will take him to get there. Whether they will go by train or plane. Or where they will ask him to go after that.

I told Jesse, “You don’t go.”

Sunday evening Jesse called me up and said, “ Larry, I’m packing my bag. They say I have to leave on a train in forty-five minutes.”

I didn’t find out until later that they had sent Ralph Metcalfe down to Cologne to run against Jesse. Ralph is the second-best sprinter in the world, and was much fresher than Jesse, having taken part in only two events — the 100 meter and relay — instead of four. In addition to that, Ralph would have the added incentive of trying to beat the newly crowned world’s champion.

The Metcalfe-Owens Duet

Why, after a week such as Jesse had put in, running his legs off for the United States, they fixed up a grueling test for him like that, I will never know. I was told that it meant 15 percent of the gate would go back to America if Jesse went. Without him, the rake-off would have been only 10 percent. Maybe the extra 5 percent called for a Metcalfe-Owens duel. There were plenty of good German sprinters who could have run against Jesse and given the crowd a thrill for their money.

Jesse told me afterward: “Larry, when I saw Ralph, waiting there on the mark and realized what I was up against, and the kind of party that had been arranged for me as a reward, I just didn’t care. I hope Ralph enjoyed winning that one. He can have it.”

The Cologne meet started at six o’clock at night. It was over at about 8:00 or 8:30. But the usual compulsory banquet lasted until 12. Jesse had to get up at 8:30 the next morning to catch a plane for Prague. He had some American money, but not a mark in his pocket. A man on the plane bought him a sandwich and a glass of milk, or he wouldn’t have eaten all day.

He arrived at Prague at 4:30 and ran again at six. He was not seeing many of the Old World sights so far.

In the meantime, I had been told to take a group of athletes to Prague for the same meet. I had the same group in Dresden on the day Jesse ran in Cologne. We got to Dresden at four and ran at six.

We arrived in Prague at 2:30 in the afternoon and went to our hotel to rest. The boys didn’t see anything of Prague, except what they could see from the taxi windows.

We never knew where we would be from day to day. After we got to a town, we would be met by a man who told us, “You’re going to run at our town tomorrow,” and hand us train or plane tickets.

But our percentage of the gate had to go back to headquarters. I had to stay after the meet to count it. Even though the track budget was announced as oversubscribed $17,000 when we left New York, need for money to pay Olympic Village expenses was given as the reason for the daily meets. The boys said, “We are running to pay for the potatoes we ate in the village.” I got instructions that our expenses for food and lodging must be met by the towns in which we were running. We weren’t running for a town, actually; we were running for clubs in those towns, or newspapers that sponsored the meets. We jumped from Prague to Bochum, making a plane stop at Berlin on the way, but we weren’t there long enough to eat lunch, not even a sandwich. And two of the boys were too sick to eat anyway.

We were running for a police club, which had the concession for the meet and the usual contract. We were handed out luncheons at four o’clock and ran at six; still giving our all for that good old percent divvy. We had run for it four days in a row.

Jesse had run on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Then on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday again. And then was to run again on Saturday in London. Remember this, when you are thinking about the trip to Sweden that Jesse was “ungrateful” and “unethical” enough to pass up.

We arrived at the Croydon Airport, London, at 11:30 at night. At midnight, after arriving, we ate sandwiches which had been made for us at six that afternoon and had, naturally, lost some of their pristine freshness. Accommodation arrangements had been made for the athletes. Some of them slept on cots. The second section of trained seals, who had been competing in other foreign parts, arrived from Hamburg at two o’clock in the morning, having had an educational view of the English Channel by lantern light.

The Cinder Path to Trouble

Everything that happened only served to drive it home to me that the boys who were doing the running and were pulling in the crowds were the last thing anybody thought about. The slogan seemed to be: “Just go out there and do your stuff, boys, and let’s have no back talk.”

The Swedish trip was still hanging heavy over our heads. There was always an out on that trip for those who had arranged it and no out for those who were to go on it. Whenever it was mentioned by an official, it was qualified with: “If everything goes all right, we’ll make it,” or, “If everybody is satisfied, we’ll go.”

When it was first mentioned to me, I wanted to go. This trip was first mentioned to me on the Manhattan on the trip over to Berlin. I was told, “You probably will take this group to Sweden. I’ll have to check with the committee before that becomes official.” They left the gate open so that at any time before the trip actually started to Sweden I could be pushed aside. But as time went on and I found out what making a trip with the American Rover Boys meant, my enthusiasm diminished to practically a minus quantity, and so did Jesse’s.

I came to the conclusion, going across the English Channel on the way to Croydon, that they were using Jesse for bait. They were running his legs off. He was sick and tired of it all, just as lots of the other disillusioned “sightseers” were. I felt, and everyone else I talked with who had Jesse’s best interests at heart felt, that he should get back to the U.S.A. as fast as possible. If anybody was going to use the boy for bait, it seemed to me that he ought to use himself and get something tangible out of it for himself. Offers for his services in various capacities began to pour in, and it began to look as if he was in a position to make more for himself in a few months than he could otherwise make in a lifetime.

Two days after we landed in London, the representative of the Swedish meet promoters — we were to run for a Swedish newspaper — got in touch with me. He came over to deliver the plane tickets. I told him that Jesse and I wouldn’t be able to make it. I told him we were taking the first boat back to America.

Breasting the Red Tape

Dan Ferris called me from Berlin. “What’s all this I hear about you and Jesse not going to Sweden?” he asked.

“You heard right,” I said. “Jesse’s got a big chance. He’s got a break that comes once in a lifetime and never comes at all to a lot of people. It’s tough for a colored boy to make money, at best. What kind of a friend would I be to stand in his way?”

Ferris said, “You can’t do that. I’ve signed a contract with these people.” That word contract sort of got under my skin. I had heard it used so many times in the past few days that it was working on me like the Chinese water torture. Jesse had never signed an entry blank for the Swedish meet. He was told he could make the trip. He never felt that it was obligatory. He understood that they were giving him the opportunity to make the trip.

The A.A.U. rules fill a thick book. But I have read them over and, unless I have misread them, they state that a boy has to sign an application to appear in a track meet before he can be suspended for nonparticipation. Jesse hadn’t signed anything.

“Well, I’ll have to suspend him,” Ferris said.

“You can’t suspend him in the Big Ten,” I told him, “because that’s one organization you don’t run. And listen,” I told him; “you’re spending money on this call that could be spent on making up Olympic deficits,” and hung up.

Lu Valle, of U.C.L.A., and five others had been asked if they wanted to go to Vienna and Prague and points west for a series of track meets. Frank Wykoff was to be in charge. They started off, but found no tickets, no expense money, no mysterious man to walk up to them and tell them where to pitch their circus tent on the next day. They wired and got no response. Finally they telephoned and found that the trip had been called off. But they couldn’t suspend anybody, although they had passed up other trips to go on that one. So they just sat there in a hotel like lost sheep.

When I made up my mind to help Jesse cash in on his big chance, I took one long last look at those four first places he would be pretty sure to knock down for Ohio State next spring in the N.C.A.A. and Big Ten meets and kissed them goodbye. They were mighty hard to lose, but they didn’t stack up very high in my mind balanced against his future and security for his old age.

I told myself, “They’ll never hold a benefit for him if I have my way. If he grabs off any of this world’s goods, I’m going to try to see to it that he socks it away in annuity bonds.” He wants to come back to college and get his degree, and after that he’s got his eye on a coaching job at one of the colored universities or a berth as a sports supervisor for a colored public-school system.

I was in a funny position when I was going to the mat with the theatrical bookers in an effort to get Jesse the best possible deal. Inside of me, I was hoping all the time that he wouldn’t get to be too good as an entertainer. I didn’t want him to stick to that life after he had made his pile.

I thought I had had a headache at Randall’s Island and a nine-day headache on the Berlin-bound boat, but after Jesse hung up his quadruple world championship, I found out what a headache really was. Cablegrams began to arrive from every part of the U.S.A., saying:

DON’T DO ANYTHING UNTIL YOU TALK TO ME STOP I WILL DEPOSIT TWENTY GRAND FOR YOU

We didn’t know what for, and don’t yet.

HAVE OFFER FROM SO AND SO WHO REPRESENTS JOE WHOSIS TOPPING COMBINED OFFERS OF OTHERS STOP SUGGEST SIGNING AT ONCE APPOINT ME YOUR PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE STOP I REPRESENT — WHO REPRESENTS — — AND — WILL HAVE REPRESENTATIVES MEET YOU IN NEW YORK STOP DON’T SIGN UNTIL I TALK TO YOU

There were lots of them, but these will give the general idea.

But they were only warming up for the main event. When we arrived in New York they really turned on the pressure. We had been warned about the stunts they would try to pull on us. We had schooled ourselves to be cagy. But we needed three firms of Philadelphia lawyers before we got through.

Friends of friends wrote, giving advice, tipping us off about this company and that company. Then the friends’ friends began to arrive in droves. Some of them were as honest and fine as anybody I have ever met. There were plenty of others whose working tool, the chisel, was evident in every calculating phrase.

An Olympic Winner Comes Home

It was mighty interesting to this Buckeye track coach to see them go into action. Going into action with them meant finding out what other offers Jesse had and then tearing the rival bidder to small and bleeding pieces before our eyes.

Bill Robinson — better known as Bojangles — was our strong and sturdy rock through all the negotiations. He advised Jesse and helped him, even putting through a shore-to-ship telephone call to the Queen Mary when we were on our way home, to tell Jesse to sit tight and think everything over before he jumped.

Jesse is the only man who ever beat Bojangles at his specialty, which is running backwards. Bo would race any man in the world, running 75 yards backwards while his opponent was running a full hundred in the regular way. He held a record of 8.5 seconds for the odd event. He beat Ralph Metcalfe and Frank Wykoff, but he couldn’t beat Jesse.

Jesse gave Bo one of his four big round golden Olympic medals in gratitude for all Bo had done and was trying to do for him. Jesse has won 25 trophy watches in his time, and he doesn’t have any of them left. He gave them all away.

It was not Bojangles’ fault that all the negotiations and little squabbles and petty chiseling led nowhere, and in the end it was decided that Jesse should swing around the old big-time Nurmi circuit, competing with a lot of the Olympic stars, as the feature attraction. That is, always provided he could manage to get reinstated by the A.A.U., which, at present writing, seems somewhat dubious. It should be a great show, and it will be better for him than running against greyhounds and motorcycles, as some promoters suggested. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesse would be a great hit on the stage or in the pictures. His infectious grin, smile, and winning personality will put him over any time any place. However, he loves to run and jump and will probably go on breaking records for another year or so, if reinstated. If he is not, maybe he can reconsider some of those entertainment offers.

No piece on Jesse or about Jesse would be complete without some effort being made to explain the sudden rush of the colored race to the front in track-and-field athletics. Of course there were great ones in the past — Howard Drew, Ned Gourdin, and De Hart Hubbard, among others. But this year, with nine of them on the Olympic team and half of our Olympic victories scored by them, it must be more than a coincidence.

A New Race of Stars

As I see it, there are a number of explanations. Put them all together and you will come close to having the answer.

1. There are more colored boys in college today than ever before. At Ohio State, for example, ten years ago there were around ten enrolled as students. Today the number is closer to a hundred.

2. There may be an answer to the question in the striation of the muscles of the race and the cell structure of the nervous system.

That strong stimulus, that energy released all at once, must come from an extra-sharp nervous impulse.

As far as bone structure is concerned — and I have heard that theory advanced, too; something about the feet being hung onto the leg in a novel manner — Jesse’s legs are no different from any other athlete’s legs, except that they are better formed than any legs I have ever seen in eight years of running and ten of coaching.

Jesse’s coordination is perfect. There is no pounding of the track when he runs; his feet kiss the track like a billiard ball when it clicks; he doesn’t bruise the cinders.

3. Most colored boys take to coaching very readily. They have perfect confidence in their coach, as a usual thing, and are willing and glad to leave their training, their form, and the perfection of their technique up to him. They can watch you showing them how to do a thing and imitate you perfectly. They will try anything, not once, but many times; and if it turns out that you have been wrong in asking them to do it, they will forget about it and start all over again with never a backward look or brooding over their coach’s mistake.

4. Perhaps the fact that colored athletes have excelled at sprinting and jumping naturally puts it into the heads of growing colored boys to go out and do likewise. They want to be another Tolan or Hubbard. If Tolan and Hubbard and Metcalfe can do it, they can do it, they figure. Now that Woodruff, of Pitt, and Fritz Pollard Jr., have demonstrated that their race can run the half mile and the high hurdles in close to record time, I expect to see a rush of colored athletes take up these two events. Perhaps this reason is more important than all the others put together. I have a hunch that it is.

There is a widespread belief that colored boys are constitutionally and temperamentally happy-go-lucky and are possessed of the bounce of a tennis ball. If it’s true it’s all right with me, for there is something mighty appealing about the simplicity of that kind of mentality. And I hope Jesse never loses it if it means that he is going to change to the smart-alecky, know-it-all type.

Somehow, I don’t think he’s going to, and one of the reasons why I feel that way about it is tied up with what happened at Princeton when we were working out there for the Randall’s Island tryouts. For the final Wednesday workout before the trials, I told him to take half a dozen starts, rest for a while, then a trial at 300 yards just about as fast as he could go.

I got to the track half an hour before he showed up. I was working on the opposite side of the field with Charlie Beetham, our half-miler. When Jesse arrived, he got in his practice starts before I could finish with Beetham. When I finally got over to him, he had taken five of them. I didn’t have to talk to him to find out something was wrong. That dazzling smile was gone.

As a usual thing, he would ask me about his body angle and arm action. “How they doin’, coach?” he would say, but this time he just worked in silence. I said, “Just take one more start, then rest. Then we’ll get that 300 out of the way. If you do it right, you’ll know you can pour plenty into that 200 meters next Saturday.”

Still he didn’t say anything.

He took his start, picked up his sweater and clothes, and started down the field. I yelled after him, but he mumbled something that sounded like “I’m not goin’ to run any old 300.”

I thought I knew what was bothering him, but I figured that a private conversation was indicated rather than a cross-examination on a crowded field. As soon as he had taken his shower and had put on his clothes, I said, “ Well, Jesse, let’s have it. Get it off your chest, whatever it is.”

He said, “Why, there’s nothin’ the matter with me, Larry, except I ate some ice cream about an hour before practice and I didn’t feel very good.” I looked at him for a while. Then I said, “That’s too bad, but we’ll get up at seven and get that 300 in the morning.” We didn’t talk any more about it.

About 6:30 the next morning he came in and said, “Larry, I know you can’t give me all your time and I know you wanted Charlie to be right for the tryouts, but when you stayed over there on the backstretch with him all that time and didn’t pay any attention to me, it made me mad. I guess I was jealous or somethin’. But I got some sense about it now. Let’s go over and get that 300 over with.”

I didn’t let him run it hard — it was too close to the tryouts; a lot closer than the night before — but he strode through a pretty good one and we both felt a lot better.

I told him that coming to me that way and telling me the truth meant more to me than anything he had ever done, and that included setting ten world’s records. And I wasn’t just sounding off. I meant it.

That’s why I’m not worried about him getting his head turned by all the hullabaloo in Berlin and London and New York. He’s got his head screwed on right, and I like to think I helped screw it on for him.

Read More:
You might also like ...