Watching the Olympics opening ceremony Friday night sparked memories for me of growing up in Des Moines. For track and field enthusiasts the Summer Olympics is the A#1 event for such activities. I was obsessed by all things sports-connected anyway, but having the Drake Relays in Des Moines (and the 48th Annual NCAA Track & Field Tournament, which I went to with Chris Kaul, son of Donald Kaul, who wrote the Over the Coffee column for The Des Moines Register) plunged me in deeper. Heck, I even paid attention to shot putters and javelin and discus throwers, knew their stats and everything (to me they were cool because they seemed so ancient Greece), and as for everyone else, including the runners and the long jumpers and high jumpers, they were like rock stars.
Watching the Drake Relays (and the NCAA Tournament) wasn’t a matter of just sitting down and seeing other people get all athletic. In fact, I always got plenty of exercise every time I attended. After waiting for the exact moment when security looked the other way, I’d make a quick dash for the infield, where I’d wander from athlete to athlete asking for autographs (and just chatting it up with them). I always got kicked out of the infield, but I always came sneaking back. Although I got plenty of signatures when I sat in the stands, there were those athletes who never seemed to circle the track like everyone else. One of those was Jim Ryun, a Kansas runner who along with holding the world record in the mile was exciting to watch, seeming way too far back to challenge until that amazing kick that occurred during the last lap. I ran right up to him and asked for his autograph—and he told me to find him later. He seemed very inside himself and intense, like the qualifying race he would run later that day was running through his head. I never did get an autograph from him (my brother did, though, the year before), but I did meet Dick Fosbury, and he signed my autograph book. In fact, he signed two years in a row, and if memory serves the second year he looked a lot different, with long, wavy hair.
The better-known athletes I asked to sign my autograph book more than once, and no one seemed troubled by that request. I got repeats of Mel Gray and Jack Bacheler and Frank Shorter and Marvin and Curtis Mills as well as Rick Wanamaker, a Drake athlete who placed second in the high jump one year (behind Dick Fosbury), won some decathlon awards, and, like the rest of his teammates, fought hard when, during the NCAA Basketball Tournament quarter finals, Drake lost 85–82 to UCLA, who went on to smoke Purdue. Drake fans will always remember when Wanamaker blocked a shot by Lew Alcindor. I watched that in the basement of our house on 45th Street, and the message that block sent to our team and their team and the fans was, “We’re in this for real.” We almost won it.
I would talk endlessly with the athletes, and I think they enjoyed the company of such a huge fan who rattled off an endless list of stats. (The Big Peach contributed much to my early education.) Once I asked the two-mile relay team for Oregon if I could have their baton. Their counter-offer, which I considered a worthy compromise, was to have me sign the baton, which was pretty cool because they were going to use that baton for the final round of the relay. Well, they came in first, and since then I have always taken partial credit for that victory.
Of all the years that I went to the track and field tournaments—I started in fourth grade, and our family moved to Storm Lake at the start of eighth—the peak experience had to be meeting Curtis and Marvin Mills, runners #3 and 4 for the Texas A&M 880-yard relay team. Texas A&M was on a tear at that time, and the general consensus was that some sort of major record might be broken that weekend. When it came time for the 880, I sat right where Marvin Mills was going to hand the baton to Curtis Mills. They broke the world record that day, and the next day there was a photo in the Des Moines Register where Marvin handed the baton to Curtis while I was standing behind them with my mouth wide open.
Watching Texas A&M break a world record, seeing the ancient Greeks toss their javelins, signing a baton…those are good memories. And so was seeing Dick Fosbury do the high jump. You really had to pay attention to what was going on to know when a high jumper was getting ready to take his turn, especially when you had someone like Dick Fosbury, who skipped several rounds before approaching the bar. But it was worth all figuring out when Fosbury would go in the air. Nobody jumped like he did. At that time one else turned around completely and somehow got his head then neck then back then legs then knees over that bar by a fraction of a fraction of an inch like he did (and once his knees were over all he had to was straighten his legs). By sixth grade I loved slapstick comedy, and what he did reminded me of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; it didn’t seem like he should be able to go that high, somehow defying gravity momentarily like pole vaulters did or like Bob Beamon did in Mexico—and like his teammate, Fosbury he won gold there.
I liked the Fosbury Flop so much that I decided to see if I could master it. There was a carpet store down by Place’s where someone told me you could get carpet and (more importantly) foam rubber in the dumpster. How many times I drove my red Huffy stingray down to that dumpster I can’t say, but eventually I got enough to create a mat where somehow all that foam rubber got squeezed into a (well, there I’m drawing a blank). After that, all I had to do was balance a bamboo pole that under normal circumstances was part of the fishing world and start jumping. I tried my best, but I never came anywhere close to defying gravity. I had to try, though.
I lost all my autographs, and I had hundreds. I even had Bob Beamon’s autograph, not because we met but because I got to know one of his teammates, who ended up mailing me Beamon’s autograph. Bob Beamon was the long jumper who, after getting off to a bad start, made a jump at the 1968 Olympics that was positively epic. His autograph was a small scrap of paper torn off a larger sheet—perfect. But I lost it and all the other autographs and the photo of me watching Marvin Mills pass the baton to his brother Curtis. While it would be nice to have that memorabilia, the most important thing about my autograph hunting was that it gave me an excuse to talk to so many athletes, some famous record holders and some (many, actually) not. It was all Big Fun.