Owens was "born special"   

Updated: March 6, 2007, 11:28 AM ET

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Editor's Note: Excerpted with permission from "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Ownens and Hitler's Olympics" by Jeremy Schaap published by Houghton Mifflin in February. Copyright © 2007 by Jeremy Schaap. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Chapter Two: Out of Alabama
CLEVELAND: 1929

The legs. They were what Charles Riley first noticed. They were perfect. Before he knew the boy's name, before he knew whether he could run, before anything else, there were those legs. "My father's long, lion-spring legs," Jesse Owens called them.

With his father's "long, lion-spring legs," Jesse Owens made history.

A fifty-year-old coach and physical education instructor at Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland, Riley had observed thousands of boys and girls. But he had never seen legs like these. Even when Jesse Owens was just walking, his oddly symmetrical and powerful legs made it seem as if he were moving more swiftly than everyone else. Immediately Riley knew there was something special about this Owens kid.

Born on December 11, 1878, Riley had grown up in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, and as a young man had worked in its mines. At the turn of the twentieth century, Mauch Chunk was one of America's richest cities -- the so-called Switzerland of the United States -- with more millionaires per capita than anywhere else. But the Rileys were no millionaires. (Oddly, Mauch Chunk is the only town in the United States deeply associated with America's two greatest track-and-field athletes -- probably the two greatest track-and-field athletes anywhere, ever. In 1954, in an effort to attract tourists as its economy stagnated, Mauch Chunk and neighboring East Mauch Chunk agreed to merge and become Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, despite the fact that Thorpe had never been to either Mauch Chunk or East Mauch Chunk.) Riley was slight, pale, and nearsighted, but physical exertion thrilled him. When he saw Jesse's legs, he recognized in them limitless potential.

For about a year Riley simply watched and waited. When Jesse was running and jumping at recess or in his gym classes -- naturally, no one could catch him -- Riley was there, taking mental notes, planning the boy's future without the boy's knowledge. Then finally, one day when Jesse was thirteen, Riley decided it was time to introduce himself.

"Your name's Jesse, am I right?" he said.

In Alabama, where Jesse had been born and had spent the first nine years of his life, it had been rare for him to be addressed by white men. In Ohio, that had changed. Still, he was too nervous to speak. He could only nod.

"How would you like to be on the track team when you get into high school?"

"I'd like that plenty," Jesse said. He had noticed the coach watching him. He had hoped that he would make him an offer.

"Well, then," Riley said, "you'll have to do more than we do in gym class. Are you willing?"

"Yes, sir," Jesse said.

Riley explained that if Jesse agreed, he would spend about ninety minutes every day after school learning the finer points of running. Unaccustomed to the attention of adults other than his parents, Jesse was thrilled to have someone paying so much attention to him and simply kept nodding.

"Well, then, see you tomorrow, Jesse," Riley said, and walked away.

In his eagerness to run, Jesse had forgotten that he could not train after school. He had a job delivering groceries and another working in a greenhouse. He didn't work just to have pocket change. These were jobs that helped feed his family. Now, in an instant, his elation turned to anxiety. In his thirteen-year-old mind, he could see his whole life falling apart because of a scheduling conflict. He chased after Riley, caught him -- of course -- and laid out his dilemma.

Riley said, "That's no problem. You'll run before school, won't you?"

FORGOTTEN GLORY

In the same Olympics where Jesse Owens captured four gold medals, the grandson of Virginia slaves won gold in the 800 meters.

John Woodruff is 91 years old and living in Phoenix. George Tanber tells the story of Woodruff's extraordinary run in Berlin.

"Yes, sir," Jesse said.

Charles Riley had five children of his own, three daughters and two sons. One son was not interested in sports, the other disabled. Naturally he pinned his sporting hopes on his students -- and none ever received more of his attention than Jesse Owens.

At first Jesse felt guilty spending so much time practicing a skill that seemed to have no practical application. He needed to work to help his family, and all the time he spent running he could have been spending at work. But he loved running because he knew he was good at it, and Riley had rearranged his hours to make it possible for Jesse to train with him. Together they spent hours in the school gymnasium, Jesse harnessed to the wall, running in place, perfecting his form. Riley had a monkish devotion to the value of repetition. It wasn't enough for him that Jesse was incredibly gifted. He wanted to harness the boy's gift, hone it, perfect it. Sensing this, Jesse never rebelled against Riley's increasing demands. Without Riley's ever having to say it, Jesse knew the coach was only doing what was best for him. As he exhausted himself in the gymnasium or running on the muddy track around the football field, Riley was right there with him, his eyes focusing on his stopwatch and then on Jesse's form. "Knees up! Head up! Watch your form!" Riley would say. He would not allow Jesse to drag his feet or arch his back. He would not tolerate bad habits. He would not let their gift go to waste.

It was an odd feeling for Jesse to have someone take so much interest in him. His mother had always told him that he was special, but that was his mother. Now, having that idea reinforced by an authority figure -- a white man, no less -- he blossomed. With each blistering lap on the track, with each pat on the back from Riley, Jesse allowed himself to believe that there was a future for him in running, in simply doing what felt as natural to him as breathing. With Riley pushing him, he was empowered, and for a black teenager in the 1920s, that in itself was an achievement.

Like most great heroes, Jesse Owens had his own creation myth -- which is not to suggest that it was untrue. By his own reckoning, he was more or less molded by the tragic events and desperate circumstances of his childhood in Alabama and then Ohio. Born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, James Cleveland Owens was the tenth and last child of Henry and Mary Emma Owens. He sometimes said later in life that his early childhood in Alabama was essentially happy, because he had no idea how poor he was. But there was nothing genteel about the Owenses' brand of poverty. For sharecroppers like Henry Owens, every day was filled with struggle. If there was too much rain or not enough, if there was too much frost, a crop could fail -- and then it would take all his resourcefulness merely to feed his family. For the Owenses, everything but food, shelter, and the simplest clothes was a luxury that simply could not be afforded -- even medical care.

For Jesse Owens, the defining moment of his youth -- the story he told over and over -- revolved around a fibrous bump he noticed on his chest the day after he turned five. At first he thought it would just go away. But within a few days he could see it growing and feel it pressing against his lungs. Eventually, J.C., as his parents called him, could no longer bear the discomfort. He told his mother. Not always the most reliable narrator of his own life story, Owens later reconstructed the subsequent conversation he claimed he overheard between Henry and Emma Owens:

"We've got to do something," Emma said to Henry.

"You took one off his leg once, Emma."

"But this one's so big. And near his heart."

"Emma -- "

"Don't say it, Henry!"

"I'm going to say it. If the Lord wants him -- "

All these years later, it is impossible to say who had the greater talent for melodrama, Henry Owens, in his fatalism, or Jesse Owens, in his storytelling. Certainly it is possible that Jesse misrepresented Henry's exact words, but undoubtedly Henry was a man who had come to expect the worst in any situation.

The son of former slaves, Henry Owens had grown up in Oakville, not far from Georgia but a world away from the nearest big town, Decatur, which is 20 miles to the northeast. He spent most of his life scratching out a living as a sharecropper. By most accounts, he lived in mortal fear of his landlords -- and other white men. For southern black men of his generation, deference to white men was nothing less than a survival imperative. Between 1882 and 1902 there were more than one hundred lynchings each year in the United States, the vast majority perpetrated in the South. All his life, Henry Owens avoided making eye contact with whites.

Emma Owens was as ambitious as her husband was timid. Against all odds, she held out hope that her children's lives would be less bleak than hers. She had grown up in less desperate circumstances than her husband. She knew that there was a world outside Oakville, even if Henry didn't. From the beginning, Jesse took after his mother, not the father who had long ago learned to keep his expectations low -- even when the subject was his son's health.

A few nights after little J.C. brought the growth on his chest to his parents' attention, he was lying in bed. His mother came to him and said, "I'm going to take the bump off now, J.C." The Owens family could not afford the services of a physician.

As Henry Owens wept quietly in the corner, Emma Owens sterilized a kitchen knife over a flame. Then she started cutting into her son's chest. J.C. bit down hard on a leather strap. No sound penetrated the strap, but tears flowed down his cheeks. Dark, thick blood started pouring out of him. Emma moved the knife around the edges of the lump, searching for its contours, trying to determine its size and consistency. It was bigger than she had thought. It seemed to her as if the blade was inching too close to J.C.'s heart. Still, she kept cutting. Finally it was done. She extracted the gelatinous lump, and in its place was a hole the size of a golf ball, not oozing but spurting blood. Emma tried to stop the bleeding, but for days it continued.

Three nights after the makeshift operation, J.C. rose from his bed and walked to the front door of the tiny house. He later said that he could hear his father praying outside. "Oh, Lord Jesus," Henry said, "Please, please, hear me. I know you hear everything, but this saving means everything. She'll die if he dies -- and if she dies, Lord, we'll all die -- all of us."

As he listened to his father's desperate prayer, J.C. was getting weaker. "My body was emptying of blood," he later wrote.

"He's my last boy," Henry continued, still on his knees. "J.C.'s the one you gave me last to carry my name. She'll die if you take him from me. She always said he was born special."

Then J.C. walked into the night, into his father's arms. "Pray, J.C.," Henry Owens said. "Pray, James Cleveland." Together, father and son knelt and prayed.

Within minutes, Jesse Owens later wrote, the bleeding stopped. The growth was probably a fibrous tumor.

As an adult, Owens usually described his hardscrabble youth in Oakville as beyond miserable -- an endless cycle of poverty, hunger, and humiliation. But on other occasions he said that he had been happy in Alabama. Knowing nothing of the world beyond Lawrence County, he never considered himself deprived. "We never had any problems," he said. "We always ate. The fact that we didn't have steak? Who had steak?"

J.C. and his six brothers and three sisters were forced to spend about one week each year picking cotton, but most of the time they were free to play out in the fields that Henry Owens farmed.

Religion was a constant for the Owens family. They were devout Baptists, regular congregants at the Oakville Missionary Baptist Church, where Henry was a deacon. During the week it was the schoolhouse for Oakville's black children. J.C., though, like most of his siblings, wasn't there enough to learn much more than how to read and write. More often he was out in the fields, running barefoot, running because he loved it and because there was little else to do.

"I always loved running," he said about his youth in Oakville. "I wasn't very good at it, but I loved it because it was something you could do all by yourself, all under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs."

In 1922, when Jesse was nine years old, Emma Owens again took the initiative and made a decision that forever changed the family's fortunes. Her daughter Lillie had already joined the vast migration of southern blacks to the industrial North. Like thousands of blacks from Alabama, Lillie had moved to Cleveland, which had a reputation (not entirely deserved) for racial progressiveness. In Cleveland, Lillie had thrived. She wrote to her mother, urging the entire family to say farewell to its dead-end existence in Oakville. Emma was instantly eager. She refused to settle for what life offered in Alabama -- little more than subsistence and the comfort of familiarity. But Henry Owens was, understandably, scared.

"It's crazy to go on like this, Henry," Emma said to her husband one day. J.C. was again within earshot.

"We've got no choice," Henry said. Jesse later said it was the only time he heard his father raise his voice.

"Folks have done it," Emma countered, meaning not just Lillie.

"Who?"

"You heard about it, same as I have. Folks have done it!"

"And never been heard from again!"

"We're nearly starving here," Emma said, her tone softening.

"It can't be done, Emma. So we're not going to do it. That's my final word."

Eventually, Emma got her way. Soon enough, the Owens family was packing up for Cleveland. Jesse said his father was so nervous that he couldn't stop shaking. When it became clear to Jesse that the family really was leaving Oakville, he said to his mother, "But where're we gonna go, Momma?"

"We're going on a train," she said.

"And where's the train gonna take us, Momma?"

"It's gonna take us to a better life."

In Cleveland, J.C. enrolled at Bolton Elementary School. It was there that J.C. became Jesse. One day in class, a teacher asked him his name. Speaking in his Alabama twang, J.C.'s reply sounded to the teacher like "Jesse."

"Jesse?" she said, just to be sure.

"Yes, ma'am, Jesse Owens," J.C. said. He was in no position to argue the point.

Life in Cleveland was better for everyone in the Owens family, except Henry Owens. Even as his wife and children found work, Henry struggled to get a good-paying job. He was forty- five and had known nothing but sharecropping. He found work in a steel factory, but it was irregular. He was too limited. Outside Oakville, he simply wasn't comfortable in his own skin, and that was apparent to everyone. Emasculated, in his own mind, by his inability to support his family, he grew increasingly bitter. There was so little he could offer his youngest son, who, despite his father's gloominess, somehow managed to maintain his innate enthusiasm for life, enthusiasm he soon focused on running under Charles Riley's approving eye.

One day when Jesse was fifteen, a 100-yard race was arranged on the sidewalk on East 107th Street. Riley had his stopwatch out. He was measuring Jesse less against his opponents than against time. As usual, he wanted to measure his student's progress.

"All right, boys," Riley shouted from the finish line. "On your marks, ready, set, go!"

In his leather-soled tennis shoes -- a gift from Riley -- Jesse flew down the pavement, far outpacing his schoolmates, pulling up only when he reached his coach. He had wanted to impress Riley, and he was breathing hard because it was hard work trying to outdo yourself when you were Jesse Owens. The coach was not surprised that Jesse had won easily. But he was surprised when he looked at his stopwatch.

"It can't be," he said. "I must have punched it too soon."

"How fast, Mr. Riley?" Jesse asked, still panting.

"It can't be," Riley repeated.

"How fast?" Jesse was now curious.

"Eleven flat," Riley said, removing his glasses as if they had just lied to him. "Eleven flat."

"Is that fast?"

"Too fast," Riley said, shaking his head. "No eighth-grader can run that fast."

Eleven flat. In other words, at fifteen years old, in cheap shoes and street clothes, Jesse Owens was more than just a strong local talent. He was world-class -- and not just for his age. The world record was 9.6 seconds -- held by eight sprinters, all adults, who had set it in spikes, on real tracks, with real competition.

To confirm his findings, Riley had Jesse run the same distance the following day. Again he timed him at 11.0 seconds, which proved that Jesse was one of the faster people on the planet, regardless of age.

Soon after his sprint down East 107th Street, Jesse ran his first official race. It was a quarter-mile -- not his best distance, but one he had run many times training for the sprints. Unsurprisingly, he ran the race like a sprint, dashing to the front of the field, only to be overtaken, 50 yards from the finish line, by two of his competitors. At the tape another runner overtook him, so he finished fourth.

Embarrassed, Jesse could not face Riley for almost thirty minutes. Finally he approached his mentor and said, "I thought I'd win, Mr. Riley. I should have. Why didn't I?"

"Because," Riley said, "you tried to stare them down instead of run them down."

"I don't get it," Jesse said. "What do you mean?"

"I'm not going to tell you," Riley said. "I'm going to show you. Do you work Sunday afternoons too?"

"No, just in the morning, and then I can do what I want the whole day."

"Well, I'll pick you up in front of your house at one o'clock."

"Where are we going?" Jesse asked. His T-shirt was still wet, but he'd long since stopped sweating.

"We're going to watch the best runners in the whole world. I'll pick you up at one."

By this time the Rileys had become Jesse's second family. He dined with them often and was so frequently in his coach's company that he was kidded about his "other" father. In his melancholia, Henry Owens did not seem to notice that his son was never around much. Emma was pleased simply to know that Jesse was being treated well. Riley had told her that Jesse was capable of greatness, confirming what she had always said about her baby boy. So there was nothing unusual about Jesse's spending a Sunday with Charles Riley -- it was just another day on which he would be trained and encouraged.

For his part, Jesse waited eagerly for Riley to pick him up. Of course, he was expecting that they would be driving to see Charley Paddock, the great Olympic star, or Eddie Tolan, another Olympian. He was expecting a lesson in form from one of the men he aspired to emulate. Instead Riley took Jesse straight to the track -- the racetrack. He wanted him to see the thoroughbreds. Riley wasn't a gambler -- nor was he particularly fond of the seedy scene at the track -- but he had an Irishman's passion for beautiful horses. He loved watching them run, their muscles rippling under their shiny coats, the flare of their nostrils as they reached top speed. To Riley, horses were the purest runners on earth, unburdened by human flaws such as vanity and egotism. He hated runners who showed up their opponents with their body language and facial expressions. He hated showmanship.

Riley walked Jesse straight up to the rail, where together they spent the entire afternoon just watching the thoroughbreds run race after race. "Don't talk, Jesse," he said. "Watch."

And Jesse watched. He watched the horses as they galloped effortlessly down the stretch. He too couldn't help but admire their form, the way it seemed that all their energy was expended but none wasted.

Finally, after the tenth and final race, Riley turned to the boy and asked, "Well, what did you learn today?"

"Well," Jesse said, his hand still clasping the rail, "the way they move -- the legs and the whole bodies of the horses that can get the lead and keep it -- is like they're not trying. Like it's easy.

But you know they are trying."

"And what about their faces?" Riley asked, getting to his primary point.

"I didn't see anything on their faces."

"That's right, Jesse," Riley said, lifting his bony finger to Jesse's chest. It was an accusation. "Horses are honest. No animal has ever told a lie. No horse has ever tried to stare another one down. That's for actors. And that's what you were doing the other day. Acting. Trying to stare down the other runners. Putting your energy into a determined look on your face instead of putting it into your running."

Soon thereafter Jesse found himself racing some local teenagers in a 220-yard dash. He went all out in the first 100 yards; then, just when he expected to find himself tiring, he realized that he still had more to give, more than he had ever known he had. He kept pushing, and pushing harder, and then, to his surprise, he was overtaken. He had pushed himself too hard. Still, though, he kept pushing, fighting to catch up. He nearly did, but not quite. Frustrated, he kept running after the race was over, until he passed the two teenagers who had outsprinted him.

"Congratulations, Jesse," Riley said. His face was somewhere between a smirk and a smile.

Jesse, panting, thought Riley was making fun of him.

"You think you lost today, but you're wrong. You won. Even when the race was over, you didn't stop. You won -- and you overcame your greatest opponent."

Jesse knew that he meant himself.

From that point on, as Owens would later recall, he rarely lost a race. Eventually his style would be called effortless, emotionless. He never appeared to strain, and his face rarely betrayed his thoughts or feelings, whatever they may have been. He ran the way Charles Riley taught him to run -- like a thoroughbred.

In 1928, when Jesse was still fifteen, Riley arranged for Charley Paddock to speak at Fairmount. After his speech, Paddock was introduced to the young man who worshiped him. Jesse knew all about Paddock because Paddock had been the first great sprinter to alchemize Olympic gold into international fame. He was living proof of the worthiness of Jesse's aspirations. In 1920, at the Olympic games in Antwerp, Belgium, Paddock had won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash and the silver medal in the 200-meter dash. Four years later, in Paris, he won a gold medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay and again won the silver medal at 200 meters.

Like so many young men momentarily in the presence of a significant figure, Jesse was profoundly influenced by his brief encounter with Paddock. Here in the flesh was the man whose records he sought. Paddock had an aura; Jesse could sense it, and he wanted one too. It mattered not a whit to Jesse that Paddock was a white man, to whom, unlike Jesse, no doors were barred at that time.

Jesse Owens

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An African-American dominating on Hitler's stage still resonates today.

In the fall of 1930, just as he was turning seventeen, Jesse finally entered Cleveland's East Technical High School. He and Riley were not parted, however. Edgar Weil, East Tech's novice track coach, asked Riley to assist him. Riley, of course, eagerly assented to Weil's request. For the next three years Riley continued to develop Jesse's form, as Jesse Owens became a world-class sprinter and broad jumper. By the spring of 1932, when Jesse was eighteen, he had progressed to the point where it was not unreasonable for him to think he might qualify for the American Olympic team that would be competing in Los Angeles that summer. In fact, on June 11, in Cleveland, he ran 100 meters in 10.3 seconds, breaking the world record Paddock had established in 1921. Meet officials, though, did not allow the record, because the tailwind was too strong. Still, Jesse's performance qualified him for the semi-final central Olympic track-and-field tryouts at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, the following week.

In Evanston, Jesse Owens was exposed for the first time to world-class competition on a grand scale. Three hundred of the best track men in the Midwest and a few from the South assembled at Dyche Stadium, including Tolan and the hurdler Glenn Hardin. At eighteen, Owens was younger than most of his rivals but hardly a child. That day, though, for perhaps the only time in his life, he was out of his league. Tolan, the first black man to win two Olympic gold medals, was twenty-three. It is unlikely that he had ever paid any attention to the exploits of East Tech's Jesse Owens.

Racing against America's best that day in Evanston, Owens failed to make much of an impact. He did not qualify for the Olympic trials in Palo Alto. He could not defeat Tolan. This time, he could not emulate the thoroughbreds Riley had shown him. Still, he could not help staring at the men he was racing against, the only men he had ever encountered who were so clearly faster than him. At the same time, he saw something that encouraged him. Like most great winners, Owens, even before his accomplishments caught up with his gifts, was blessed with remarkable self-awareness. He was analytical, even if at this time he did not quite know how to communicate to anyone else what he was thinking. That day in Evanston, he looked closely at Tolan and James Johnson and George Simpson and saw that they were human. He saw flaws in their styles. He recognized weaknesses that Riley had pointed out in other runners. Most important, he saw that a day would come when he would be able to compete against them, indeed, a day when he would defeat them. As he gathered his few belongings and walked off the field, he could not help noticing all the people who had crowded around Tolan, who had, as expected, won the 100-meter dash. One day, he thought, the crowds will gather around me. One day, after I gain a little weight and grow an inch or two.

While Owens weighed barely 140 pounds, Tolan was thickly muscled. Owens understood that with a little more power, he would rise to his level. And even as he lost -- a strange, unpleasant experience -- he could sense that it was all just a matter of timing. His innate optimism and his burgeoning self-confidence helped him realize that in four years, when he was twenty-two, he would be the sprinter against whom all the others would be measuring themselves. All it would take was dedication. It was clear -- to him, and to everyone else -- that he had the talent.

Still, he was disappointed -- and embarrassed. When Alvin Silverman of the Plain Dealer reached him after the meet, Owens said, "I haven't got the heart to see Mr. Riley. He must be terribly ashamed of me. I don't know what was the matter. I ran as fast as I could, and Lord knows, I tried. But I just didn't have it. I'm going to work my heart out from now on. I betcha." Owens even felt that he had let Silverman down. "It was nice for you to try and make me feel good," he told the reporter, who had followed his high school career closely, "but I'll bet you're as much ashamed of me as anybody else."

One issue had been weighing heavily on Owens as he tried to keep up with Tolan and Johnson. His girlfriend, a lively, pretty girl named Minnie Ruth Solomon, was eight months pregnant. Ruth, as she was called, was only sixteen. In Cleveland's black community, her pregnancy was not quite scandalous, as it would have been in white society. Still, it was not exactly something either family was thrilled about. But both families had for years assumed that Jesse and Ruth would eventually build a family of their own. "I fell in love with her some the first time we ever talked," Owens later said.

What he liked most about Ruth was the way she carried herself -- with dignity, like a princess, which is how he treated her. Her family had come from Georgia, and though the Solomons were poor, as poor as the Owenses, Ruth, well dressed and immaculate, seemed untouched by poverty. When they first met, in junior high school, Jesse carried her books and asked her to marry him. She told him yes, but said they would have to wait. In fact, even as Ruth's delivery date approached, there were no plans for a wedding. Nevertheless, it was assumed that they would stay together and that Jesse would find some way to help support his child -- although it was clear that the child would be supported mostly by Ruth's parents.

On August 8, 1932 -- five weeks after the regional Olympic trials -- Ruth gave birth to Gloria Shirley Owens. In later years, Jesse would frequently claim that he and Ruth had married a few weeks before Gloria's birth. But no contemporaneous records exist anywhere showing that they married in 1932.

Thirteen days after becoming a father, Owens was back on the track, at an invitational meet in Cleveland that included several elite European runners who were on their way from the just-completed Olympics to the East Coast. More than 50,000 people crammed Municipal Stadium to see the stars from the games -- and their own Jesse Owens. Fatherhood apparently agreed with him. He ran 100 yards, on a curved track, in 9.6 seconds, shattering the field, which was reduced to reverence. Erich Borchmeyer of Germany, a silver medalist in Los Angeles in the 4 x 100-meter relay, and Gabriel Salviati of Italy, a bronze medalist in the same event, "hunted up interpreters to extend lavish praises."

For the Olympians, it was time to head home. For Jesse Owens, it was time to head back to East Technical High School for his senior year. His athletic achievements had made headlines across the country, and now coaches interested in procuring his services would be swooping down to claim him for their teams. In the black press in particular, the subject of Owens's choice of college was an important story. It was hoped by some black journalists that the athlete would make a political statement by choosing a progressive school, a place where blacks had been made to feel relatively comfortable. Even the far-off Chicago Defender entered the debate. "He will be an asset to any school," a Defender editorialist wrote, "so why help advertise an institution that majors in prejudice?"

But Ohio State -- far from a bastion of progressiveness -- was the power in collegiate track and field in Ohio, and Owens was an Ohioan. It also didn't hurt that in Larry Snyder the Buckeyes had an eager and innovative coach who met with Charles Riley's approval.

In just one year as the head coach in Columbus, Snyder had become well known for some of his quirky training theories. It was considered highly unusual, for instance, that he had his athletes train to the strains of music being played on the phonograph. Snyder said the musical rhythm helped his runners relax and find their own personal rhythms. He also made a point of converting his middle- and long-distance runners to the heel-and- toe style of running, which had been so expertly practiced by Paavo Nurmi and the other Flying Finns of the 1920s. American distance runners had always run more or less flat-footed.

Snyder did not personally recruit Owens. That task was handled by some boosters in Cleveland. Like everyone else in track, though, Snyder was watching closely when, on June 17, 1933, in Chicago, his future charge delivered on all the promise of his talents. In a performance that presaged the miracle day at Ferry Field, Owens equaled Frank Wykoff's 9.4-second world record at 100 yards, despite stumbling out of the blocks, and set scholastic records in the 220-yard dash and broad jump. But Snyder knew Owens only by reputation when they first met, in early 1934. Like all freshmen at the time, Owens was barred from intercollegiate competition. Nevertheless, on the first day of practice for the spring season, he reported to Snyder's office, ready to run.

"Coach, I'm Jesse Owens." He was, typically, immaculate.

His sweatshirt, his shorts -- they both looked like they had been pressed by Emma.

Snyder looked him up and down. "The great Jesse Owens." He paused, admiring his legs. "I want to know all about you. First, let's get you out on that track."

They worked together that day, just getting acquainted, not knowing, of course, where their partnership would take them. But the bond was immediate. They liked each other -- and soon enough respected each other.

Eventually, inevitably, Snyder would come to be remembered not for the music or the heel-and-toeing. Instead he would be remembered for nurturing the skinny kid from Cleveland, the one who would become the greatest track star ever.


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