My Longest Day and How I Became a Team of One

In 1966, I went to the regional NCAA championships for Middle Tennessee State College. They were held at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., one of the Quad City towns. I was doing double-duty at the time, because I also was competing for the University of Chicago Track Club at various AAU events. You weren’t supposed to do that back then, but the NCAA world just wasn’t big enough for me.

It was in early June, college was out, summer was ahead and I was just beginning to realize my potential. I wasn’t from Tennessee so I drove my grandmother’s 1948 Pontiac Silver Streak to Rock Island. It was blue and had a rear windshield wiper, a rare accessory at the time. I was proud of it and thought it was the bee’s knees.

The meet was on Saturday and I drove out on Friday afternoon from Elgin, Ill., my hometown. Like Rock Island, Elgin at the time was a Midwestern river town on the verge of economic collapse.

I didn’t know it at the time, but on this weekend I would become an army of one long before the U.S. Army ever bought into that ad campaign. I would have been the prototype for that except that I had already failed my draft physical because of my back problems. It sounds strange, since I was competing in heavy throwing events at the college championship level, but I had had recurring problems with my back since my teen years and never knew when it would give out and immobilize me for days at a time. I could throw and throw and throw, but then just the slightest twist or movement off center would send shooting waves of pain through me. I remember one time I literally had to crawl for blocks on my hands and knees to get home.

So there I was tooling along in my ‘48 Pancho, heading for a weekend of top level competition in the shot-put, my favorite thing in the world. It would be a glorious weekend.

I pulled into Rock Island in the late afternoon and checked out the athletic field. Augustana is a nice place, has a good balance of athletics and academics and is one of those picturesque, highly regarded colleges. I looked around campus and then headed downtown to see what kind of activities were available in the Quad Cities, if which Rock Island is one. The others are Moline, Ill., and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa.

Naturally, I wandered into the local pool hall in Rock Island. There is a song about pool and pool halls and one of the lines says, and I paraphrase here, “Soon your son will be drinking beer from a bottle.”

I started playing pool with a firefighter from the area — I don’t remember his name — and soon we were cruising the Quad Cities in his 60’s muscle car, rumbling down the main drags, drinking beer, chasing skirts. I realized had hooked up with a maniac with a hot rod. We hit all four towns of the Quad Cities. It was my version of “American Graffiti,” the George Lucas film that is a tribute to the 1960s teen lifestyle.

I finally had to call it a night. The firefighter dropped me off at my car and I drove to the field at St. Augustine and parked in the lot. I went to sleep in the back seat, which was large, but still cramped my style. I felt like I was on spring break in Ft. Lauderdale, rather than at a track meet in the Midwest.

In the morning, as team buses were pulling in and the sun was coming up, I awoke and realized how uncomfortable and hung over I was. I was all crunched up. I think my eyes were bleeding. My head throbbed. There is nothing like a good hangover to make you realize how delicate our body chemistry is.

I began looking for the rest of the team. I figured they would pull in on a bus, too. I waited. And waited. Finally, I went over to ask the meet officials where the Middle Tennessee team was. The official said they weren’t coming. That was it. No explanation. I don’t know what happened to them. They got lost maybe. They slept late. They got drunk the night before and they were hung over, like me. Maybe they got arrested.

A lot of people might have gotten in the car and went home. But not me. After the officials said the team wasn’t showing, I open my big mouth and said, “No, that’s not right. The team is here, right here, standing in front of you.”

They smiled. Go ahead smile, I thought. I’ll show you.

I signed up for all the throwing events plus the high jump, long jump, 100 yard dash and 110 yard hurdles. I didn’t sign up for the distance runs. I knew better.

The shot-put was the first event so I got that out of the way. I threw about 61 feet. The javelin was next. I was still trying to figure out how to throw that, so it was experimental for me, but at least I didn‘t hit anybody with it and heaved it about 150 feet.

Then the discus. I remember the wind was blowing right into my face. I just wound up and threw as hard and as strong as I could for a throw of about 146 feet. Not great but respectable. I had no technique in javelin and discus, they were just yee-haw throws.
I hit 21 feet in the long jump, about 6‘2“ in the high jump, did a 10.5 in the 100 yard dash and 16.8 seconds in the 110 hurdles.

Our team took second overall. I got second place overall. That was without breakfast. It was the longest day of my life, but by the end of the meet my hangover was gone. I like to think that Jim Thorpe, my idol and his own team of one, would have been proud.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 4/21/2010)

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