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Saturday, September 6, 2014

THE 1974 L.A. HIGH ROMAN TRACK & FIELD TEAM

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
The 1974 LA High Roman Track Squad May Have Been One of the Best in The City’s History – But We Will Never Know

Forty years ago, Los Angeles High School fielded a track and field team for the ages – an incredible collection of wonderful athletes and solid young men that made other schools green with envy.  The team was talented, with depth in every event.  It had great sprinters, fine distance runners and a super-deep field events team.  They were champions of the Southern League, and the Romans were poised to make a run at defending city champs Gardena High.

But it was not to be.  Fate intervened.  But we will get to that later.

First, let’s put 1974 in perspective.  With the publication of All the Presidents Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Richard Nixon was hanging on to the presidency by his fingernails as the investigations around the Watergate break-in and cover up intensified.  Bread was 26 cents per loaf.  A gallon of gas cost 55 cents.  The Los Angeles Lakers traded Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman and Dave Meyers to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who do you think got the best of that deal?).  The U.S. was in the final phase of its pullout from Viet Nam.

Meanwhile at L.A. High, the school was in the third year of its transitional period.  Gone was the classic collegiate gothic brick building with its famed tower; a victim of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and subsequent arson fire.  It was replaced temporarily by a series of boxy yet fairly comfortable bungalows at the east and west ends of campus.  Where the building once stood, there was a parking lot, volleyball and basketball courts.  The gyms, cafeteria, shop building, Harrison and Memorial Halls and the Housh Field (including the east bleachers which are now gone) were all that remained from the old school.  In 1973, ground was broken for the new building and the campus during 1974 - my senior year - was, well…..a mess, with construction fences closing off half of the campus.  With all of the distractions going on, L.A. High was still a beacon of academic and athletic excellence.  At that time, L.A. graduated 98% of its seniors with many of those going on to four-year colleges and universities.  Compare that to an abysmal 55% graduation rate at the school today.  But that is for another discussion.

And then there were the sports.  In the winter, first-year coach John Watson guided the football team to the league title behind all-city receivers Ricky Odom and Homer Butler, quarterback Baron Farwell and a host of others.  Hank Pollard’s tennis team, Robert Carey’s swim squad and Jim Panger’s cross country teams also won league titles.  We also had a pretty damn good girls’ basketball team staring the amazing Anita Ortega that finished third in the city playoffs.  But this was long before Title IX and girls’ sports got little recognition back then.

And then, there was our track team. Between 1930 and 1970, L.A. had been a traditional city power.  The 1969 Romans were the California state champions.  They were led by Albert Hearvy and Ronnie Welch who helped set the city record for the 440-yard relay with a time of 41.8.  That same year great Robert Pullard set the city record in the pole vault of 16-7 (a record that I believe still stands for the city section).  If that name sounds familiar, Robert’s brother Hayes (class of ’69) was a terrific basketball player at Rome and Hayes son - also named Hayes - is currently an all-Pac 12 linebacker at USC.  After a couple of mediocre seasons, L.A. came back with a vengeance in 1973, taking the Southern League title from the favorite Fremont and finishing third place in the state meet.  The ’73 team was a veteran squad that featured senior sprinters Charles Clement and Cornelius Pryor, hurdler and pole vaulter Jack Mosby, junior shot-putter Edwin Lewis and many more. 

But the unquestioned star of that team was junior Randall Jeffrey.  A freakishly gifted athlete, Jeffrey made the varsity in 1972 as a 10th grader (rare in those days) and despite battling back spasms and an ankle injury was still among the city’s best hurdlers that year.  In ’73, a healthy Jeffrey literally tore up the competition, winning each and every race he competed in that season.  Although we was terrific in the 120 high hurdles, it was 180 low hurdles where he became a legendary.  The 180 lows (which is no longer run in favor of the 300 intermediate), was a tricky event.  It was long for a hurdle race, a 180 yard straightaway all-out sprint that took both speed and endurance.    You would see runners just crumble halfway through the race and barely have enough energy to finish.  Randall was the exception in that he would get stronger during the later stages of the race.  He had it all.  He was great out of the blocks and had perfect form.  But it was his speed between hurdles that set him apart.  More often than not when the race was finished, he was five or more yards ahead of the second place finisher.  He ran and won with a flair, often raising his arms in triumph or sometimes much to coach Jackson’s chagrin, would turn and point at those trailing him before crossing the finish line.  This was the track equivalent to trash talking.

After L.A. shocked Fremont to win the league title, Jeffrey, Mosby, Pryor, Lewis and others competed in the state meet.  Jeffrey finished third in the 120 highs and then won the 180 lows in a time of 18.7, the best in the nation that year.  With his victory along with Mosby’s 5th place finish in the 180 lows, the Romans finished 3rd place in state, L.A.s second-highest placement ever.  Jeffrey’s victory was the first individual state championship for a Roman since the great Cornelius Johnson in 1932. 

The euphoria of the great showing at the state meet was tempered somewhat a few days later when it was disclosed by the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that Jeffrey, an 11th grader, was already 18 years old.  This was not a problem, but it did mean that he would not be able to defend his title as a senior because he would then be 19, exceeding the age limit.  Age is no longer an issue in high school sports these days as there are parents that purposely hold kids back a year (a practice which I am totally against), but back then it was strictly enforced.  When the 1973-74 school year began, Randall Jeffrey was not there.  No one seemed to know where he went. With the assistance of my Blue & White advisor Mr. Strumpf, we put out feelers to some of the sports agencies at the time and got word that he was running track at Delta Junior College in Northern California.  Randall Jeffrey is one of those intriguing mysteries; a talented athlete whose star shone brightly over the Roman horizon for a brief time and then, just like that, he disappeared.  But for those of us lucky to have seen him perform, we were part of a privileged minority.  He was spectacular.

With Jeffrey gone along with the graduation of Clement, Mosby, Pryor, Lawrence Washington among others, 1974 shaped up to be a rebuilding year for the Roman track team.  Coach Charles Jackson, whose favorite line was “Don’t go sellin’ wolf tickets,” had a lot of work to do.  Surely this would not be the year of the Romans.

Somebody forgot to tell that to the team itself.

Despite the personnel losses, a mixture of experienced seniors and talented underclassmen were ready to take L.A.s track & field baton and run with it.  Fleet-footed junior Tony Brown stepped into the void left by Charles Clement and became L.A.s lead sprinter.  Seniors Darryl Moss, Wyatt Smith were also outstanding runners who added depth.  In addition, the team sported quarter-milers Glenn Davis, Rene Sims and Derrick Cox, middle distance runner Larry Ford, miler Bernard Brown; two-miler Tim French; high jumper Thomas Webb, shot-put specialist Ed Lewis, and pole vaulter Kelvin Black.  Then the Romans received an unexpected gift with the addition of Fremont transfer James Perry.  James was a brilliant all-around sprinter and hurdler.  Not only was he fast, but he was also a quality long jumper.  He would take the place of Jeffrey in the 180 lows.  Tony Brown that got most of the publicity that season, and it was well deserved.  Tony could flat-out fly, and with that silky-smooth running style of his, he never looked like he was moving fast.  That is until he blew by you.  Although Brown got the lion’s share of the press, this was not like ’73 when the team relied on a handful of stars.  This team had multiple leaders and you never knew from week to week who would step up. But someone always did.

Tony Brown (left) and Darryl Moss finish 1-2 during a 1974 meet at Housh Field
The season got off to an uneven start, with L.A. losing two league meets – one to rival Fremont and the other to Washington.  We barely beat an inferior Manual Arts team (and their strange rectangular running track).  But the dual meets are nothing more than a prelude to the league finals.  It was there in the finals that you made your mark.  In 1973 for instance, Fremont ran roughshod over everyone (including us) during the regular season.  But in the league finals, the Romans beat the Pathfinders 64-56 for the championship.  Fremont of course thought it was a fluke and there was no way that L.A. would beat them again especially with all or the personnel changes.  But as the season progressed, the Roman track team slowly but surely gained steam.  Perry, Brown and the sprint team were clicking.  The distance runners were improving with each meet.  Lewis, Black and Perry led the field events.  Even a little known mediocre senior pole vaulter who kept bouncing between varsity and the Bee team was having a decent year.  That mediocre senior pole vaulter was me. 

And under the radar, there was one member of the Roman track team that that came out of nowhere and gave L.A. an unexpected boost while epitomizing the never-say-die Roman spirit.  His name was Homer Butler.

Homer was already a well-established star athlete at L.A.  He was an all-city football player and all-league in baseball.  With the departure of Randall Jeffrey and Jack Mosby, we were short on hurdlers.  The coaches were so desperate that they even tried using that mediocre pole vaulter in a few races.  The results weren’t good, so Coach Jackson enlisted Butler to come try out.  The first day of practice, Homer hit every single hurdle.  I mean he hit them hard.  And his form was bad.  But he never got discouraged and kept working.  I had never before or since seen this type of determination.  Homer was the first one on the track each day and was the last to leave.  His hard work paid off.  By the end of the regular season, he was one of the league’s top hurdlers in the 120 highs, running times comparable to that of Jeffrey and Mosby from the previous year.  As the Southern League Finals approached, the Romans were firing on all cylinders.  

It was showtime, and L.A. High was ready for its close-up.

The Southern League was a rugged and sometimes brutal six-team division featuring L.A., Fremont, Manual Arts, Jefferson, Washington and our geographic rival Dorsey, although for some reason Dorsey was never much for a threat to us in track.  Our track rival was Fremont.  They were big, strong and like L.A. had a great history.  The fierce league competition helped us and by the time of the league finals, we were ready physically and psychologically.

The league finals as always, were held at East L.A College.  Fremont was still under the impression that our victory over them the previous year was a fluke and based on the fact that they beat us in our dual meet, they came into the finals pretty confident.  They definitely had a swagger to them.  I remember jogging around the infield and they would pass you and give you a look, trying to intimidate you.  I didn’t work with me or my teammates.  We had a relatively quiet team.  But we were confident in our abilities.  We didn’t believe in talking.  No selling wolf tickets.  We were all about getting it done on the track.  And we knew that like ’73, Fremont underestimated us.  They overlooked our hearts and the overlooked our will.

Coach Jackson told us that if we could score between 66 and 70 points, we would win.  No easy task.  Even though Fremont was who we were focused on, you had to be careful because someone like Jefferson or Washington could sneak up on you.  One bad day by you and a good day by them would tilt the meet in their favor.  But we were definitely up to the challenge. 

The first race was the 440 relay.  Tony Brown had been a little banged up during football season and was having a little trouble finishing with his usual explosion.  Coach Jackson and sprinters Coach Ronnie Welch (an L.A. High grad) made a strategic decision to move Tony from the anchor leg to third and had James Perry run anchor.  It worked as L.A. breezed to victory in a season best time of 42.6.  That race set the tone.  The rest of the day was surreal.  Everyone was putting up PRs (personal records), and we seemed to be winning event after event.  Perry and Brown went 1-2 in the 220; Derrick Cox defeated James Lofton in the 440 – yes that James Lofton who went on to a Hall of Fame NFL career with the Packers, Raiders and Bills.  Derrick Cox and Larry Ford placed in the 880; Bernard Brown won the mile with Tim French finishing fourth; my buddy and mentor Kelvin Black finished second in the pole vault, Homer Butler placed second (by just inches) in the 120 highs: James Perry won the 180 lows with Butler finishing third; Big Tom Webb finished second in the high jump; Perry finished third in the long jump and Ed Lewis continued his competitive dual with Fremont’s Curtis Yarborough, finishing second in the shot put.  After our mile relay finished second in the final event, we had to wait or the official scoring.  It seemed like an eternity.  Personally, I felt we won, but there was no way of knowing.  Did we score between 66 and 70 points like coach wanted?  Had another school sneaked up on us?

Then, I got the word.  Distance Coach Jim Panger called me over.  Pager had been my 10th grade English teacher and we had a great relationship; he was one of those teachers you just really like.  He also knew that I was the sports editor for the Blue & White and would want to know the final tally.  Panger was a very soft spoken guy, in fact, he almost spoke in monotone.  He then told me in his typical very soft spoken manner,

“Glenn, we scored eighty-three points.”

I must have looked at him like he had two heads.  “Eighty-three points?  Are you serious?”  I asked.  “What did Fremont finish with?”  His reply was “forty-eight.  Go spread the word.”

That’s all he had to say.  I yelled to anyone and everyone:  “WE SCORED EIGHTY-THREE POINTS GUYS.  EIGHTY-THREE POINTS!”  Kelvin Black grabbed me by the shoulder and asked, “What did you say?” To which I replied, “Eighty-three points, man.  We kicked their ass!”  And suddenly, the stands were a smiles, whoops and hollers.  Everyone was slapping fives (no high fives in those days).  Eighty-three points were a new Southern League finals record.  Jerry Wiener, who covered prep sports for the Herald-Examiner (and he was a former journalism teacher at Rome) called it “One of the most dominating performances in city history.  With a little good fortune, this could well go down as one of the best track & field teams ever.”

The bus ride home was wild and crazy.  Usually when the bus got too noisy, a coach would tell us to quiet down.  Not on this day. They let us be as loud and we wanted and we let our emotions flow.  Someone, I don’t remember who, shouted:

We came, we conquered and we swooped!!

And then someone started the Hey L.A. chant.
Well I had a little rooster….
HEY L.A.
I put that rooster in a boat
HEY L.A.
I heard him talk about the Romans
HEY L.A.
And I cut that rooster’s throat…

Oh man, it was so much fun.  We were at the top of our game and things could only get better.  That Monday when I got back to school, I was trying to figure out what my headline for the Blue & White would be Romans crush Pathfinders or L.A. Wins in a Runaway or Southern League Champs….Again!

And then I asked myself, what would say more about this track meet than the score?  What would demonstrate our dominance that day more than a simple and clear headline?   Here is what I came up with.  Thank you to Edwin Lewis for saving this forty year-old Blue & White clipping:



As great as our performance was at the league finals, we still had work to do.  Now we took dead aim at the city championship.  The city competition was divided into three sections; the quarterfinals, the semi-finals or “Prelims” and the finals.  You had to qualify in one section to move onto the next.  For instance if you qualified in the quarterfinals, you moved onto the prelims.  The defending city champs was Gardena most of the so-called experts were picking them to win again.  But with the way we were performing, we knew could beat them.  There was no doubt in my mind or my teammate’s minds.  And I got a nice little surprise from Coach Jackson.  Coaches in those days were allowed to take one or two extra people to the quarterfinals.  It was mostly so the events could be filled out.  Although I had not qualified by finishing in sixth place, I did PR and coach rewarded that by taking me to the quarterfinals.  I was honored that he did that for me.  

The quarterfinals I think were held at Chatsworth High (although I could be mistaken) and L.A. picked up where they left off in the league finals.  Tony Brown, Daryl Moss and James Perry qualified in both the 100 and 220 yard runs, Derrick Cox and Rene Sims and did the same in the 440, Cox and Larry Ford moved on in the 880 and Bernard Brown advanced in the mile.  James Perry qualified in the 180 low hurdles and Homer Butler did the same in the 120 highs.  Kelvin Black qualified in the pole vault and Ed Lewis moved ahead in the shot put.  And the icing on the cake was the 440-relay team which ran an amazing 42.0, just a couple ticks off of L.A. High’s school and city record of 41.8.  The stage was set for the prelims.  Gardena was in our sights.  And then, fate intervened. 

We had all heard about an all-comers track & field meet being held at Cal State L.A.  Many of the area’s top athletes from high schools and colleges would be there.  It was great because you could compete against some of the best and stay sharp leading up to the prelims.  My high school career had come to an end at the quarterfinals when I finished eighth in the pole vault, so this was an opportunity for me to compete one more time.  I really wanted to go but I had to work that day (at Pup N Taco, my first job).  I don’t remember if it was Monday or Tuesday of the following week, but rumors began circulating around campus about the track team.  No one was talking, but something had happened.  I ran into Kelvin Black and I asked him what was going on.  He just shook his head and kept walking.  What the hell was happening?  I was about to find out. 

I was summoned from my first period class to Mr. Roulette’s office.  Going to Mr. Roulette’s office usually meant you were in some sort of trouble, so I had no idea what this was about.  Mr. Roulette, Coach Jackson and Mr. Strumpf were there and asked me if I had competed in the all-comers meet.  I told them no.  I wanted to, but I had to work.  Mr. Roulette then informed me that the all-comers meet had not been sanctioned by the city, therefore making it an illegal event for high school athletes.  Because of this, anyone who competed in that meet is ineligible for any further meets this year, including the upcoming city prelims.  My first response was well, I didn’t qualify for the prelims anyway so this doesn’t even affect me. 

And then it hit me.  I asked Coach Jackson, “Wait a minute.  Who was there?”  He looked at me and said on word that I will never forget.

“Everyone.”

“So, we won’t have anyone going to the prelims?” I asked.  Mr. Roulette replied “It looks that way.  We haven’t talked to everyone yet, but from what we have heard, most of the team was there.”

My heart sank.  I felt as if there had been a death in the family.  Then Mr. Strumpf, my journalism teacher and Blue & White advisor spoke up.  “Mr. Roulette and Mr. Jackson have asked us not to publicize this in the Blue & White and I agree with them.  There is nothing to gain by doing this.” 
Mr. Strumpf was big on reporting and writing the truth.  He encouraged us to be honest, even if it meant hurting some feelings.  But here, was telling me not to even go there.

And I agreed with him.  After all, these weren’t only my teammates, they were my friends.  Even more devastating was that fact that we a shot – a real shot - at a city championship.  And just like that, it was gone.  Up in smoke like a David Copperfield illusion.

Then the questions started to be asked.  How did this happen?  Why didn’t our coaches warn us about it being a non-sanctioned meet?  Who snitched?  When something like this happens, someone has to be held responsible.  There has to be a villain.  Everyone seemed to point their fingers at Roulette.  It was he who called the City Athletic Commission (forerunner to the CIF City Section) and blew the whistle on us.  But in reality, and hindsight being 20-20, he was just doing his job.  If he had this information and did not disclose it, it could have meant sanctions against the entire track team for the following year.  It would have come out at some point.  What if we had won city and then been stripped of the title?  That probably would have been worse.  But either way, it was disastrous.  The one piece of positive news was that shot put specialist Ed Lewis did not go to the all-comers meet. 

Ed would go to the prelims and finals as the lone representative from L.A. High. 

We had a good team. We had a shot at City that year, says Ed Lewis.  “But a bunch of guys went to a non sanctioned meet at Cal State LA and were deemed intelligible. I stayed home and was the only member of that team that went on to the City prelims and finals. Barring that event, we had a good shot at Gardena and the City title.”

Larry Ford agrees.  “Definitely could have competed for the city title that year.  It was a great team.”

Forty years have passed since that magical spring of 1974.  For the seniors like myself, we went onto college or began working or both.  For the underclassmen, they would continue the Roman track & field tradition with fine teams the next few years.  But never again would the Romans come as close to a city championship as they did in 1974.  So what was it about that team?  What made it so special?

First, there was the legacy.  It was around us every day at L.A.  We knew that we were following in the footsteps of great Romans of the past and we had a responsibility to uphold that tradition, like the 1969 state champions and the 1973 team that finished third in state.  We wanted to equal and surpass what they had accomplished.

Second, we had very good coaches.  Charles Jackson was a guy that I appreciated more after I graduated.  He was sharp, highly organized and funny.  But he was about discipline which I related to.  Terrell Ray, Ronnie Welch, Fred Ealey, Jim Panger and although he wasn’t there in ’74, I would be remiss if I did not include the late great Ollie Matson who I had the privilege of working with my first two years.  He had a tremendous influence on me.  How many people can say that they were coached by a pro football Hall of Famer and Olympic gold medalist?

Last but certainly not least were the athletes.  The 1974 Romans.  We had some fabulous athletes on that team.  If I close my eyes I can see Tony Brown and Daryl Moss – afros flying in the breeze – going 1-2 in the hundred yard dash.  I can see James Perry and that great acceleration motoring through the 180 lows.  I can see Ed Lewis pushing that shot put with all his might.  I can see my friend Kelvin Black clearing the height with ease in the pole vault.  And there were so many others.  As good as they were as athletes, they were even better as young men.  It really was a great group of guys.  I don’t remember there being any issues or infighting.  Everyone pulled for each other and we really were a team.  And it did not matter if you were varsity, bee or cee, you were part of the team.  

One school, one team.

No one will ever know what this team could have achieved.  A city championship?  Certainly a possibility.  A state championship?  Perhaps.  But one thing is certain.  This was indeed a special group.  Maybe the best in L.A. High’s storied history.  My guess is that current L.A. students and coaches know nothing about 1974 Roman track team.  And that’s a shame.  They should.   For this was a truly great team of talent and integrity.

We came, we conquered and we swooped.

And, we didn’t sell no wolf tickets….

THE 1974 SOUTHERN LEAGUE CHAMPION ROMAN TRACK AND FIELD TEAM


James Adams, Derrick Allen, Michael Anderson, Mark Andrews, Kelvin Black, Chris Brake, Bernard Brown, Mark Brown, Tony Brown, Wayne Brown, Kim Burton, Tony Butcher, Dwayne Cannon, Lloyd Carter, Marty Coleman, Harvey Conley, Curtis Conner, Derrick Cox, Glenn Davis, Larry Ford, Timothy French, Eddie Glenn, Willie Griffin, Paul Hiramoto, Hanlon Holmes, Gregory Jacobs, Gregory James, Jerry Jefferson, Kevin Johnson, Sterling Johnson, Carl Jones, Causey Kascadre, Robert Lacefield, Eddie Langford, Peter Lee, Anthony Leslie, Edwin Lewis, Raoul Loring, Mark Lott, Kevin Manor, Anthony McClain, Darryl Moss, Lyle Nixon, Graylin Patin, James Perry, Dearryl Rabb, Walter Ricardo, Allen Robertson, Gregory Robinson, William Shields, Shinji Shinfuku, Eugene Sims, Rene Sims, Roger Smith, Wyatt Smith, George Spell, Robert Taylor, Frank Warren, Quinten Washington, Thomas Webb, Anthony West, Glenn Wilson, Toran Wright

Dedicated to Lloyd Carter, Kevin Manor, Tony Brown, Kelvin Black, Coach Ollie Matson and Coach Charles Jackson. Rest in peace.  Romans Forever!

1 comment:

  1. Great article ... I never saw that team ... but, I'm a LAHS Roman ... so I read the article with much pride!

    ReplyDelete