A Vintage Lee Evans Profile — Part II

The ’68 Olympic final: Lee Evans (l) gets history’s first sub-44 as he and Larry James and Ron Freeman score a U.S. medal sweep. (DON WILKINSON)

IN THIS SECOND INSTALLMENT of our dive into the T&FN vaults to dig up a great Lee Evans article from the past, Managing Editor Dick Drake explores the gold medal race in Mexico and Evans’ life at San José State.

One bit of foreshadowing: near the end of the piece Evans says, “My dream is to go to Africa. I’d be interested in coaching over there.” He did spend many years coaching in Nigeria, where he suffered his stroke and died.

And in an eerie coincidence, Evans discusses working post-Olympics on halfmile training with young Jamaican Neville Myton. Myton died the same day as Evans, both aged 74.

And now, the conclusion of “Evans, To Run Or Not To Run,” by Dick Drake:

“I took out my aggressions on the US Olympic Committee.”

“The key to the Mexico City race was the third 100m. I released a lot of pressures in that race with the third 100. It was the hardest part of my race, and that was when I took out my aggressions on the US Olympic Committee. And I was actually thinking about the Olympic Committee as I entered the third 100. ‘Those bastards,’ I thought, and I just ran like hell.

“I didn’t care what I looked like. In fact, I always forgot what I look like. I just concentrate on my form and on winning. I usually slow up during this part of my race, but this time I didn’t. It was especially important in Mexico since Ron Freeman was in lane 1 and Larry James in 2 [Evans was in 6]. It’s important to be inside your competition. James could just watch me all the way. It was difficult for me.

“The third 100 made me tired, and those last 100m weren’t too hot in Mexico. I wasn’t my usual self. I can usually feel myself driving but this time I just managed to hang [to stay in contention or even] 40y from the tape. I usually find myself picking up the pace in the last 40y, and this is why my race was so close with James in Mexico. At Lake Tahoe, I was accelerating at the finish and passing them up. I took the lead at the top of the curve, and James began to pull coming off the turn. It seemed as though we were running even in the last 40.

“Right near the finish I remembered something Bud always emphasizes. He says to push hard off the ankle in the last two steps. I did it twice and ended up a couple feet ahead of him. I wasn’t sure I had won, though. The way I gauge it is to look for my competition. If they are even with me, I figure I actually lost. It would tear me to pieces if I learned I had lost when I thought I had won. The first thing I asked Howard Cosell was who won. But all he could say was, ‘Tell them how you did it, Lee.’”

But Lee had won. And he had sliced 2-tenths off his own pending mark or 7-tenths off the time prior to ’68 with his 43.8 clocking. Unlike most of his races, Lee was actually leading coming off the turn. In fact, by 3y by some estimates. Normally, he must accelerate fantastically in the final straight to overcome advantages built up by some mighty impressive finishers. In Mexico, he still had to put together a tough finish.

Lee tried to explain his drive that has brought him many a victory: ‘I’m not sure where I get my extra energy to drive to the finish. I train for the halfmile, which gives me confidence. When it comes time to really gun down the finish, I’m thinking that I’m physically stronger than the others as the result of my workouts. And I already know that I’m built more strongly than most of them. Like my leg muscles. It takes me a lot of time to get into shape, more than for most of them, but then I am stronger than they are.”

“I want to win so badly because I hurt so much if I lose.”

Lee paused, and once again pondered his seemingly inherent drive to finish 1st: “I wish I could tell you what it is that makes me want to win so badly. It’s probably because I hurt so much if I lose. Physically, I will hurt really bad for at least 2 hours after a race. I may throw up if I lose. Yet, I recover almost immediately with the same physical exertion if I win. Mentally, I hurt for at least 2 days. There’s a lot of pain for me when I lose.”

Without admitting it, Lee knows that he can’t put a finger on what motivates him to his tremendous victories. He knows he’s physically endowed and well-conditioned, but so are other athletes. And he even laughs at his explanation, however serious he is, that the avoidance of pain could be a primary motivating force.

(Art Simburg, a long-time friend of Lee’s, suggests this obsession with winning is a matter of self-respect. “Before he became interested in track, he had little self-respect. Whatever he did, particularly when he worked in the fields, it never seemed to please the man. The rewards for working harder weren’t commensurate with the additional energy expended. When Lee realized he had a certain innate ability for track, he began putting everything into it. He thinks in terms of long-range goals, and he figures when he is investing his time in training he should make the most of it. In practice, he usually puts a little more into the workout than is suggested. Psychologically, he believes this makes a difference when the chips are on the table. It gives him confidence. And the drive for self-respect furnishes the rest of the motivation come the homestraight.”)

Another big ’68 win: Vince Matthews is the victim as Evans wins his third-straight AAU. (ALAN SHAPIRO)

Lee is quick to lay credit at the hands of Bud Winter, his coach, and at the doorstep of San José State for his success and enjoyment of track: “I have traveled a lot and met many coaches. Considering everything, Bud is the best. When I first arrived at San José State, I didn’t get along with Bud especially well. Now I like him because I understand him. He’s really different from any coach I have ever met. He’s a great coach for two reasons — he knows his technical information well, but more importantly it’s his relationship to the athletes.

“This is really what makes Bud so great and so great a coach. Politically, he may be a conservative; at least I remember once that he didn’t agree with me that the U.S. was an imperialistic nation. But he treats his athletes liberally and respects their individual freedom. He doesn’t bug us about haircuts. He seems to understand us, and everybody gets along fine. And he doesn’t get bent out of shape about training and workouts. I have never heard of any athlete quitting San José State’s track team because of Bud Winter. Maybe for other reasons but not because of the coach.”

“It’s not just Bud, though. San José State has a great tradition built around a sound policy of liberalism developed by the administration. As for the Black students, there have been a lot of improvements at San José. We have a lot of Black Study classes. I’d say San José is a year ahead of any other school in the country in terms of race relations. Funny thing, though, Newsweek wrote an article recently about Black students and never mentioned San José State. Yet, we were the first school to institute changes academically, athletically and socially. That was a year ago last fall. There are no riots now.

“I do want to say something in defense of San José State. A number of white athletes seem afraid to come to San José because they think the Blacks are in a militant mood. I know some rival coaches recruit athletes by telling them that. But they don’t know the mood at San José. You ask any white athlete at San José, and you’ll find that we have a special relationship between Black and white athletes. As far as I can tell, it ‘s better than at any other institution in the U.S. Some new white athletes told me they thought we Black athletes hated the white athletes and they were surprised to find how everyone gets together.”

And then Lee said something that didn’t strike me funny at the time “Hell,” he confided, “some of Carlos’, Smith’s and my best friends are gray dudes.” Gray dudes are “good white guys.”

For all Lee’s interest and activity in controversial and humanistic issues, he seems to foster the idea that basically he would prefer to talk about track. Just when he seems to be getting to a meaty point on a non-track issue, he will switch to talking about running. In this case, we hadn’t concluded the Olympics, and there was still the 1600-meter relay.

“We wanted to run 2:55 real bad. It was so important to us that we made up dance routines and songs. At Tahoe, we actually practiced for 6 hours over different days with improving our dance routine that we intended to do in Mexico City right before the relay. We would line up like all the blood [Black] singers [as he stands up to demonstrate], and sing lines like, ‘We don’t jive, we don’t jive, we run 2:55. If you don’t think that’s fast, we’ll kick your ass.’ We even practiced in Mexico City but so much happened with Carlos and Smith that we gave it up.

“We were always talking about who would run the fastest relay leg. I really wish someone had been ahead of me on my leg. I had hoped to run 42 something. I really felt bad with my 44.1. I think I let the guys down because I think I could have run at least 43.8 and we would have run 2:55 something. All that singing and dancing, and we miss it by 2-tenths. If I had run just 2-tenths faster, we would have. I wanted 43.0, and then we would have made our exact goal of 2:55.5. I wanted to come around in 22-flat. I went out in 20.8. I tied up.”

And then you get out a beer and the subject changes again. “Right now, track is putting me through school. That’s not to say I’m losing interest but I’m not as excited as I was last year now.”

Which brings you to his future, a future perhaps inevitably affected by his participation in the Olympic Project For Human Rights.

“I caught hell from the Black and white communities.”

“When I came back from Mexico City, I caught hell from the Black and white communities. The first Black guy I saw on my return from Mexico asked me why I didn’t do as Tommie and John had done on the victory stand. I tried to explain to him that I did my own little protest, and apologized for not getting kicked off the team. If I had been kicked off, he would have been satisfied. As for me, that was the only difference between my protest and theirs. Mine was just as sincere.

“Strange, but I think Tommie was the only person whose reaction remained the same toward me after the Games. Tommie and I are pretty close in a crisis situation; that seems to be the test of our friendship. But some people thought Tommie and John were so much blacker than me because I didn’t get into the Black Power kick after the Games. But I didn’t let [white] people use me. The police department of San José had me wrong if they thought they were going to get me to work against the Black community in a job for them. It seemed as though most whites were angry at us for our thing at Mexico.

“But I figure in this world you’ve got to give a little to get ahead. And I’m interested in a job with RCA. It’s a versatile position, and it’s one that probably would have a role in improving the Black community.

“Right now, I have several alternatives outside of track. If I don’t get the job with RCA, I hope to make it in professional football. I will be playing ball at San José State this fall. I’m taking 18 units this semester and only 8 next fall when I will concentrate more on sociology. I’d also be interested in pro track. Or possibly to become an assistant track coach at San José State.

“But my dream is to go to Africa. I’d be interested in coaching over there. I feel I can help those guys, particularly in Kenya. Those guys really came on during the Olympics. You hardly even heard of their names, yet they ran 2:59.6 in the relay.”

“Is there any chance you’ll compete in the Munich Olympics?” I inquire. “Hell, no. I’m not running in any country like Germany. The Black movement could be out of sight by then, and maybe no Blacks will participate there.”

And this year? “‘My goal this year is to run the halfmile in 1:47 — probably in some invitational. I’ll try to come by the quarter in 51. I’m way ahead in my training than I was even last year before the Olympics. I’ve always been interested in the half-mile but I’ve never had the chance to train for it. And this year, I have been training with [young Jamaican halfmiler Neville Myton] and my endurance is way ahead. I haven’t done any speedwork [through February], yet I have run two relay legs faster than my 47.5 at the 1968 AAU Indoor.

“Neville is helping me a lot, especially mentally. He has been telling me what it’ s like when you’re tired and how to keep going at the 660. I think this 1:47 challenge is the stimulus that’s keeping me going in track, because I think I would be running even if I wasn’t in school this year. But I’ll keep running the quarter as well this year. My goal is to run 44-flat for yards.”

Even though his 880 goal is 1:47, you can be sure that that time and a 3rd or 4th place isn’t going to keep Lee contented: “If guys like Wade Bell go at a 1:46 pace, I’ll have to put it to them. I’ll definitely be out to beat them And that’s what gives me the confidence, because I’ll be in it to win no matter who’s in the field.

“I really think Mark Winzenried of Wisconsin is the dude to watch. He has a lot of talent. I think a year from now, he’s going to be kicking Jim Ryun in the 880 or mile. He has a lot of talent and has done a lot off little training.”

And that sort of blends into another related topic, and the conversation continues its cycle of assorted subjects: “To show you what kind of competitor I am, I hadn’t cared about the races that I eventually lost to Freeman. I went into those races laughing. I didn’t care, they weren’t important to me, yet I was in shape to run 44.5.”

And then Lee taps your shoe, for he’s about to lay it on the line with you. His directness should not be confused with cockiness. “Deep down I knew that if Freeman won these races [two at Lake Tahoe], it would give him the confidence to run well. I’m not sure if I had beaten him those two times that Freeman would have made the U.S. team. I was really digging on the guy at the time, and I was glad to be able to help his confidence. But I have never been so mad in my life as far as track & field is concerned as I was when I stood and watched Vince Matthews run 44.4 for the World Record [at 400m] at Tahoe.” Minutes later, Lee reeled off a 1:14.3 world best for 600m.

Then, Lee begins thumbing through a copy of T&FN’s Annual Edition. The past brings him up to the future again. In this instance, it’s seeing Martin McGrady’s name. McGrady was enrolled at San José State last fall before dropping out over a girl he now intends to marry. It galls Lee, for he wants to see San José State win the NCAA title this year and break as many records in relays as possible. “Can you imagine the mile relay team we could have had with McGrady, Carlos, Myton and myself? We would have been out of sight.”

Emmett Taylor is closest to Evans in his Semifinal Olympic Trials triumph. (SHEEDY & LONG/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED)

But he’s still talking about records. “Carlos wants that 880 relay record first, and Bud wants the 440 relay mark.” And they have the personnel. Lee would be in the halfmile relay, and he figures, ‘’I’ll run my 20, Kirk Clayton can do his thing, and Ronnie Ray (Smith) and Carlos will run 19 something. In the 440 relay, exchange Sam Davis for Lee.”

Before the evening is out, Lee has covered a lot of ground. Much more than you can squeeze into an article of this length.

He has described the experiences involving racism, compared London to Mississippi, complained of 70-year-old officials for whom athletes have stood on team buses and carried luggage, talked of his entrance into the Civil Rights Movement, expressed exasperation that Cal won’t meet San José State in a dual meet, credited former assistant coach Tracy Walters [Gerry Lindgren’s high school coach], claimed Chris Papanicolaou received a hero’s welcome in Greece for a 4th-place in the Olympics, quoted Villanova coach Jumbo Elliott as always telling him to “take it easy on my boy [Larry James] this time,” revealed that [Trinidad’s] Benedict Cayenne had trained for the Olympic 800 with the one goal of beating Jim Ryun, rated Edesel Garrison (freshman at Southern Cal) as perhaps the most promising newcomer in the quartermile, accused the AAU of preventing the more “militant” Black athletes from competing in Africa, and established that no college football coach is going to regulate the length of his hair.

And so it goes with Lee. He is very probably the greatest quartermile competitor history has documented. And perhaps not so coincidentally, he may go down in history, along with Tommie Smith, as the athlete who gave all athletes the courage to speak out on issues of individual rights and choice. Lee Evans has proved himself and made his point.

Read part I of “Evans, To Run Or Not To Run” here.