John Shearer: Walking On The Georgia Track Team 40 Years Ago

Saturday, September 19, 2020 - by John Shearer

As I have written about during the last two years in some personal 40th anniversary reflections, I was a walk-on football player at the University of Georgia in the falls of 1978 and ’79 and received the exciting opportunity to play in the freshmen/JV team games at various big stadiums.


Then, in September 1980, I decided to try out for the Bulldog men’s track team.


I was not particularly great in either sport, at least on an SEC level, but I was a big dreamer.


My shift to the sport of track came about after my football career ended two or three weeks into the off-season workouts in the winter of 1980, when I decided I was ready to become a regular student, which I thought meant drinking beer and trying to find in my shy manner a cute sorority girl to date.

Oh yeah, and there was another activity called academics, which was probably somewhat low on my priority list.


But a few weeks into spring quarter of 1980, I began to get a little restless. As a result, I came up with a grand plan to try another sport on the intercollegiate level – track. I had probably just been a little above average at Baylor School in the 220- and 440-yard dashes (now 200 and 400 meters), but I figured I could get in a little better shape and be good enough to compete on the Georgia varsity.


So, starting that spring and through the summer, I began to do a lot of sprints and other types of running – although it was probably not every day, as my inner temptation to be lazier on some days would occasionally take over.


When I arrived for the fall quarter in mid-September, I went by and met the track coaches at their Coliseum offices with the help of an introduction from one of the pole vaulters named Bill Butler, a nice and easily approachable athlete from the North, who was also an accomplished pianist. I had known Bill from living in the athletic dorm, McWhorter, the year before.


I think Bill first introduced me to a blond-haired assistant coach whose name escapes me. He coached the middle-distance runners – probably the 800 and mile competitors – and he seemed nice but also seemed to have a determined manner about him. He asked me what my track event specialty was, and I said the 440. He then tried to mention that they had several quality sprinters, but were looking for 800-meter runners, adding that one had a little more chance for improvement in that event through practice and work.


I think I realized 800 runners would have to practice some during the mornings as well as the normal afternoon practice time, and because of that and the fact I had a naturally stocky frame and did not see myself as any kind of distance runner, I politely declined his pitch.


Seeming a little disappointed but understanding, he took me back to head coach Lewis Gainey, who had been a champion hurdler in the 1960s under former Olympic gold medalist and coach Spec Towns.  


Coach Gainey seemed nice and quickly got away from whatever he was doing to talk with me at his desk. He pulled out an information sheet, and in a strong South Georgia drawl that I think came from having been raised in Cairo, asked me what event I did. After I said the 440 or 400, he asked me what my time had been, and I said about 50 seconds.


I think the fastest time I had run a mile relay split in high school was around 51 or 52 seconds, but I figured I was a little faster after having played a couple of years of college football. 


When I said that time, he tried to be polite and said something like “OK,” and simply wrote it down, but I could tell he was probably not ready to sign me to a scholarship. He probably needed people who could run two or three seconds faster than that to compete in the SEC.


But I appreciated the open reception they gave me, and that was all I was asking for at that time. 


So, I left the building, but continued to think about the assistant coach’s comment regarding an 800 runner being made more than born. In fact, that seemed like a good metaphor for life. And once practice began less than a week or so later, I started realizing maybe I should have taken him up on his offer.


The fall practice of running and lifting weights was challenging, although parts of it were obviously not quite as intense as football off-season workouts had been.


The team had a healthy mixture of Black and white athletes, and I quickly found that I enjoyed being around most of the runners and field event competitors, as they did not seem to be quite as aggressive or as Alpha male as some of the football players. As more of a laid-back and introverted person, I probably enjoyed the track guys more.


Some came from up North and Florida, so it was a healthy mixture geographically as well. I also slightly reacquainted myself with Rick Crawford, an old Bright School friend, who had moved to Atlanta after our eighth-grade year together at Baylor. 


He would make the Georgia team as a contributor on the cross-country team and as a long-distance track runner, and he later became an outstanding triathlete and had helped train Lance Armstrong during his early years. I actually had an opportunity to interview him for a story this summer.


There were two other white walk-ons who ran the longer sprints as well, and I especially gravitated toward them. They were both slightly faster than I at events like the 400 or 600 run, and they had more of the naturally slender frame of a track runner.


The Georgia girls team practiced about the same time we did, and among the competitors were Veronica Walker, football great Herschel Walker’s older sister, and a girl from up North, Cindy DeAngelis, who would become Herschel’s first wife. 


While I enjoyed the camaraderie overall, I realized I could not quite keep up with the male runners, and maybe even a lot of the girl runners, either, if we had trained together. 


I initially felt pretty good during the workouts, and even drew a quick look from coach Gainey on one occasion. But in a first timed run, I ended up finishing last among all the sprinters. It quickly became obvious I was a little below the skill level needed to compete for an SEC school. 


I was slow to accept that, though, and I remember particularly after the first of January, I started doing an additional workout after the track one. I would go back to the Coliseum feeling humbled once again, and after sitting in the gym and watching coach Hugh Durham’s basketball team practice some, would run up and down the steps of the upper section of the horseshoe-shaped arena. I would then turn around and come back, being quite winded at the end.


It was probably part frustration and part desire that made me train like that, but for the first time in my life I realized I was willing to work hard for something I wanted.


However, I still did not show any sign of improving. In fact, I think by the end of the spring, I started going to the track meeting room, seeing the workout for the day, and after getting an OK from one of the coaches, would just do it on my own. 


I guess I lost touch with the team a little doing this, because I think they had a track meet at the school one day in the spring and I went to watch it, and one teammate asked why I was not running in it. Maybe if I had gone ahead and practiced with the team, they would have told me about that opportunity.


When I went home for the summer in 1981, I felt re-energized about still getting to compete for Georgia on the team, though, and ran hard. I often did two running workouts about an hour apart in the evenings after working at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club, and maybe even ate supper in between them. Looking back, I should have just done them both before I ate!


As the fall semester approached, I decided not to go back out for track, however, perhaps concluding I would probably not do much better. Finally, I did become a regular student and eventually moved from an apartment back into the Myers Hall coed dorm, where I enjoyed my happiest time socially as a collegian.


But the doubts about not continuing to train and work hard and figure out some way to break onto the track team continued to bother me for a few years, as did my decision not to try and play football at least another year or so.


The track experience I went through did teach me a valuable lesson: life is a lot more rewarding if you are following not only your passion, but if you also have a talent or gift for it. I had the passion, but not quite the skill athletically at that high a level. 


Late in my college career, I discovered a love and interest in writing, and that made me realize I should try to find a writing-related career. I would within a year after graduating, and since then that vocation has brought me the satisfying feeling of accomplishment and occasional compliment that I could never attain as a frustrated track runner.


But I am glad I ran track. It taught me some valuable lessons, and it helped me get to know at least slightly such well-known athletes as sprinters and football standouts Lindsay Scott and Herschel Walker, with whom I also took a political science class that year. I had also known Lindsay a little playing football.


Of course, Herschel and Lindsay had been two big reasons why Georgia won a national football championship in the fall of 1980 and gave me quite a thrilling diversion from running track.


And I also became acquainted that year with McCallie School graduate Jeff Gaither, who was kind of like a student volunteer assistant or manager and would call out the training times, including my slow ones. Unlike me at the time, he already had his career path figured out and would go on to be a successful cross country and track coach at such schools as Baylor and Girls Preparatory School and would be inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame.


I might have been inducted into a hall of athletic performance shame that year, but I learned a lot and simply changed my goals and dreams, not my optimism.


May everyone reading this happily find his or her called place in life as well!

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