If you were to go to Oakville, Ala, a little ways from Decatur, about the biggest thing you’d find would be some 20 or so Indian mounds, where the early tribes would bury their dead many centuries ago. But if you sniffed around a bit, you’d learn it was the birthplace of James Cleveland Owens, a man whose name is of no consequence to anyone.
I’m proud to say I talked to him three or four times and can attest he oozed greatness. There will never be a spring that the afternoon sun on freshly-mowed grass doesn’t remind me of him because once long ago I ran track on a cinder track and the great guy was still every runner’s idol. (Cinders? Think burned coal, crushed and rolled so your spikes could dig.)
Henry Owens, back in 1920 when 1.5 million blacks from the Deep South took part in “The Great Migration” and moved north, happened to settle his family in Cleveland, Ohio. When 9-year-old James reported to elementary school the first day, the teacher called him forward to enter his name in her roll book. “I’m J.C. Owens,” smiled the youngest of Mr. Henry’s 10 children but he spoke with such a distinctive Alabama drawl that the teacher wrote, “Jesse,” a name that would stick with him the rest of his life.
I’ve got a picture somewhere with me balling up my fist and Muhammad Ali looking scared. I’ve played golf with Arnold Palmer and loved it when Jack Nicklaus was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal this week. Believe this, I’ve known hundreds of great athletes and even greater Americans, but Jesse Owens has to be among those at the very top of the list.
Somewhere high in the heavens above, there is an angel named Charlie Riley. He was the thankless track coach at Fairmount Junior High in Cleveland and he’d been watching Jesse. He asked him if he’d like to be on the track team – the kid had speed – but Jesse said no, that he worked after school bagging groceries when they didn’t need him at the shoe repair shop. His folks, said young Jesse, needed the money too much.
Well, Mr. Riley told Jesse he’d come to school before it started every day if Jesse would. So it was that soon afterwards the white coach and the black kid would greet each dawn. That’s when they both found out Owens didn’t run, he could absolutely fly.
Mr. Riley was in the stands several years later at the East Technical School in Cleveland when Jesse ran 100 yards in 9.4 seconds to tie the world record at the time. Later, at the 1933 High School Championship in Chicago – called “The Nationals” -- he shattered another world record with a 24 foot-9 ½ inch long jump. I’m telling you he was something … but he was also black and America had just suffered a Depression.
Because of his skin is why Ohio State never gave him a scholarship. He couldn’t sleep on campus and had to live with the other “colored” athletes off campus. And when he traveled with OSU he had to eat carry-out and find “a black hotel” but, on race days, he was a Buckeye. When the 1935 Big Ten meet was held at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor it was “The Buckeye Bullet” who put on quite a show.
In what is still referred to by old-timers as “The Greatest 45 Minutes in Sports,” Jesse ran a 9.4 “100” to tie the world’s record, set another world’s record with a 26 feet, 8 ¾ leap in the long jump (a record that would stand for 30 years,) ran the 220-yard sprint in 20.3 seconds (a world record) and was timed at 22.6 seconds in the 220 low hurdles, which was the very first time a sub 23-second run had been recorded by a human being in history. (In 2005 University of Florida Professor Richard Crepeau, who specializes in sports history, called that afternoon “the greatest achievement ever” in sports.)
No, maybe the greatest week – or is it the sweetest? – came the next summer in the 1936 Olympics. Adolph Hitler was determined to use the Berlin games as a display of “Aryan racial superiority” but the incomparable Owens promptly and most efficiently disproved such a theory by winning four golds as “the Fuhrer” sat and glumly watched.
He won the 100-meter sprint in 10.3 seconds. The next day he won the long jump with a 26-foot, 5-inch leap that he quickly credited to Germany’s Luz Long, a white opponent who had freely shared a timely technical tip. Owens’ leap would stand for 25 years until Ralph Boston bettered it in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, with Jesse in the stands.
The next day Owens won the 200-meters in 20.7, beating fellow American Mack Robinson for the gold. Mack, incidentally, had a younger brother, Jackie, who became a baseball player (!) of note. Then came the relay where Owens anchored the final leg for a world-record 39.8 seconds.
An interesting note is that a German named Adi Dassler visited with Owens in the Olympic Village before the games and successfully talked Jesse into wearing some revolutionary Gergruder Dassler Schuhfabrick shoes. Since Jesse worked in a shoe shop as a little kid, he soon came the first black man in history to ever endorse a product. And it was a great bet – it worked. Soon the then-successful company shortened its name – Adidas.
One of the greatest mysteries that was never resolved was whether Hitler congratulated Owens. The popular belief was that Hitler snubbed him because he was black but in an interview Jesse said it was just that their paths never crossed. “I passed near his box and I waved and he waved back,” the athlete would always say.
But Owens was always bitter that a bigger snub came from someone more revealing. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt never invited Jesse to the White House, and, according to a very hurt Owens, “didn’t even send me a telegram.”
No matter, during a New York City ticker-tape parade a short while later, somebody handed Jesse a paper sack and he casually put it aside, almost forgetting it when they got to the hotel and his wife reminded him to grab it. Inside was $10,000 in cash, considerably more sizable then than it is today.
In the years that followed Jesse would go broke, and be found guilty of tax evasion before he rehabbed, then work for Ford Motors and the Olympic Committee. He died in 1980, one year after it was learned he had lung cancer after smoking for 35 years. He was 66 years old.
Wow. I’ll never forget Jesse Owens. He didn’t run. He could fly.