Two men who influenced track and field a bit, one more than the other, passed away recently.
The first was Mel Hein Jr. a former USC Trojan and world record holder in the polevault at 16' 5 3/4" .
Here is an obituary on Mel Hein Jr. from the Los Angeles Times July 9, 2020 by Eric Sondheimer.
Gayle Sayers in his more familiar role
The other recent passing was that of Gayle Sayers, and you may wonder why we mention an NFL legend. Well, it's because Gayle Sayers ran track at the University of Kansas, and though he was not an All-American in that sport he was still an active participant who showed the way to many others when he competed. He was so good in football that he didn't have to run track, but he did. In high school in Omaha, Nebraska, he led the nation in the long jump going over 24 feet in 1961. His brother, Roger Sayers, was a very good sprinter for the U. of Omaha, and represented the United States in several international meets.
Gayle Sayers Jumping in High School
In 1964 while at the University of Kansas, Sayers led the Big 8 indoor standings in the long jump, 60 yards, and 60 hurdles. Unfortunately at the Big 8 indoor championships he had a bad night and did not win any of those events. But to me the highlight of that indoor season was when my Oklahoma Sooners went up to Lawrence, Kansas for our annual dual meet. The Sooners had a very controversial All American football player in Joe Don Looney, who to avoid spring football, decided to run track, both indoors and outdoors that year. He had led the nation in punting in the 1963 football season and was the star running back on the Sooner team. He weighed 220 pounds and was our top sprinter that indoor season. Big into weightlifting as well and some would say even bigger in egocentricity. So there was a lot of pre-race publicity about Joe Don and Gayle the two All Americans going head to head in the 60 that night. A much larger than usual crowd showed up that weekday evening to see the two go at it. As a miler, running a lot of dual meets I wasn't used to seeing a lot of people come into the arena to watch our team compete, so I was really getting fired up for my race which would follow immediately after the Looney-Sayers race, which was the first or second event of the night.
The two grid stars were lined up side by side in the middle of the track. The people in the stands all got quiet and seemed to be holding their collective breath as the starter's pistol was raised. The gun went off, and Sayers left Looney sitting in the dust looking more like a steam locomotive trying to get going while Don Garlits in his Double A fuel dragster burned rubber all the way down the track.. It was no contest. The Kansas crowd cheered and then went home. They had only come to see Looney get whipped by Sayers. I was in the next event, and suddenly I realized that no one had come to see the mile run or the rest of the meet for that matter. They had to get back to their studies or to the pubs. It was quite a let down, but still that night I ran my personal best mile indoors although I was edged out by one of a string of Kansas milers who took turns beating me over the years.
George, I ran my personal best in the Indoor 880 that night too. But the highlight of the night was not the 60 yard race itself. It was the moment Sayers and Looney stepped out from under the stands after taking their sweats off, and the crowd saw Looney’s physique, and a loud awed moan erupted from the stands as they saw what he looked like in track togs. He did weights big-time before it was fashionable, and you must remember that build. There were no others like him in those days. But Sayers dusted him pretty good that night. Walt Mizell
It should be remembered that Mr. Mizell set a Fog Allen Field House 880 record that night which stood until a youngster named Ryun took it down with a world indoor record on that same track. The vertical support beams came straight down along the inside lane of the track, so a guy running fast could not lean over even an inch or he would bang his head on them. The track in that fieldhouse is gone but the beams are still there and can be seen when you go through the sports museum under the stands.
On that same trip we stayed near a YMCA and Looney wanted to go over there and see their weight room. We ended up playing pool next to the weight room and for some reason Looney banged his pool cue into the door going into the room and some behemoth came out in a show of strength to see what the noise was all about. He made some threats and Looney stood up to him and said that "size isn't everything in a fight." The big dude asked him who he was, and Looney told him his name. The guy didn't say anything, did an about face, walked back in the weight room and politely shut the door. George Brose
If you care to read a bit more about Gayle Sayers and the recruiting process to get him to Kansas, that can be seen on the link below. One of the interesting little side lights was when Sayers went to visit the University of Iowa, he never met the head coach of the football team, because he was too busy hosting Henry Carr that weekend. Carr ended up going to Arizona State, not playing football, and winning the 200 meters gold medal in Tokyo in 1964.
George, there are a number of good things when you note the passing of the men and women who led the way for us. Among them are:
The great human interest stories.
The humor that existed midst all that competition.
The photos of dirt and cinder tracks that bring back so many memories.
The pride in knowing that we participated with and against some great athletes.
You do good work, George.
Those are two fine stories. I remember that Joe Don Looney played briefly for the Detroit Lions back in the mid-1969s. The coach asked him to carry a play into the huddle for the quarterback to call and he refused, saying something to the effect that he wasn’t “an errand boy.” The Lions got rid of him shortly afterward, although he had some good runs for them.
Following is a note from my college roommate, Mike Hewitt.
George, you may not (may not, most certainly not) recall, but in the OU/KU winter indoor meet at Lawrence, I beat Sayers! We were in lanes right next to each other. The gun goes off, and he is creating a gap between us rather rapidly. He hits the first or second hurdle and I "zoom" right by him. Zoom is a relative term.