Jesse Owens arrived in Lincoln, Neb., on a roll. It was July 4, 1935, six weeks after the Ohio State sophomore had burst onto the scene at the Big Ten championships, where he set three world records and tied another in less than an hour. The 1936 Olympics were 13 months away, but Owens’s stunning performance in Ann Arbor, etched into sports history as “the Day of Days,” made his success in Berlin a foregone conclusion.
It was hot in Lincoln. One hundred degrees, according to some reports. Others said 102. A rare photo shows the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium in an unplanned white-out: 15,000 white faces and white shirts glowing under the midday sun, everyone braving the heat to watch America’s new marvel dominate the AAU championships.
The photo shows only four black faces amid the throng. One belonged to a short man peering from behind a starched shoulder about four rows back, the others to three of the six men racing in the 100-meter final. Arthur Daley, who covered track for The New York Times and would sail to Berlin the following summer as the first Times sportswriter to receive a foreign assignment, called the sprinters who took their marks that day the greatest field ever assembled.
Foy Draper of USC, the 5-foot-5 world-record holder in the 100-yard dash, was in Lane 1. George Anderson, the long-legged 10.4 man from Cal-Berkeley, was in Lane 2. Owens, approaching the starting line in Lane 4, his spikes leaving tiny volcanoes in the parched soil, was probably most concerned about the man on his left, in Lane 3. Ralph Metcalfe had won silver in the 100 at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, and two straight AAU golds. “The clash in this AAU championships meeting was supposed to be Owens (the new star) v. Metcalfe (the champion),” wrote Neil Allen of the London Times.
Owens had no fear of the man on his right. He had blown Eulace Peacock off the track while winning the NCAA Championships in Berkeley two weeks earlier, after which he’d gone out dancing to celebrate. He had beaten Peacock and everyone else in San Diego a week after that. There was no reason to expect a different result in Lincoln.
There were no starting blocks. Nineteen thirty-five lies closer to the Civil War than the present. Owens and the others dug holes in the cinders and tossed their hand-shovels to the infield before pressing their spikes into the footholds and their fingertips behind the chalked starting line.
The starter, Johnny McHugh, fired his gun. The runners convulsed forward, then relaxed into a canter. False start. Then 10 more false starts. There were no disqualifications in those days. “McHugh finally walked over and talked to the finalists,” reported William Weekes of the AP, “then tried again. This time they got away in perfect order.”
The gnat-like Draper darted to the lead, a hair ahead of Anderson, the loping F. Scott Fitzgerald look-alike from Berkeley. Not two seconds later, symbolic of the black man’s takeover of the sprints, Metcalfe, Owens and Peacock, in the middle three lanes, moved past the white men as if riding a segregated conveyor belt.
“At forty metres the three Negroes were level,” Allen wrote. At 60 meters Metcalfe found the extra gear he was known for and shoved Owens behind him. Judging from the crude film of the race and records of previous meets, it’s safe to assume Metcalfe was surprised to find himself still a step behind Peacock.
A woeful starter, Metcalfe stands with Usain Bolt as perhaps the greatest finisher in sprint history, and he proved it again in Lincoln, finding yet another surge, his long strides eating track in huge chunks. Peacock did not respond with his own burst as much as he continued the steady acceleration that began with McHugh’s 12th gunshot. He was the only man who appeared to gain speed throughout the race, like a coin dropped from a skyscraper.
The whiteout photo was taken at the finish line. The first thing to breach it was the M on Peacock’s TEMPLE tank top, in a time of 10.2 seconds. A virtual unknown outside New Jersey and Philadelphia, the Temple sophomore had just broken one of sport’s most hallowed records (although it would later be ruled that “the Colored Thunderbolt was helped by a favoring wind,” as a journalist from West Virginia put it). Metcalfe finished second, Owens third.
Peacock recalled 50 years later that his first words were, “I won?”
Owens tried to redeem himself in the long jump, where he twice surpassed the rare 26-foot mark. Then Peacock leapt 26-3 and won that event, too. The next time a long jumper exceeded 26 feet in a losing cause, the calendar read 1960. Daley called what he witnessed in Lincoln “one of the greatest double upsets in the history of track.”
Neither Daley nor anyone else could have foreseen that Peacock defeating Owens was about to become commonplace. Or that after Owens attained immortality in Berlin, Peacock’s string of successes against him would fade into obscurity, as would Peacock himself. Owens, according to his biographer William Baker, did not dance that night. Instead, he “spent a restless Fourth of July night in Lincoln.”
Much of what we know about Owens today is myth, a tapestry of inaccuracy woven by sportswriters typing unfettered about a man who was both a once-in-five-lifetimes athlete and a people pleaser. Much like Satchel Paige, Owens generously wanted every scribe to have his scoop, such that he often gave several versions of the same story, each one tailored to whoever was listening.
Owens had recently died when Baker, a history professor at the University of Maine with no experience in either journalism or track, began working in the early 1980s on what would become the definitive Owens book, Jesse Owens: An American Life. Baker did not seek to dispel the myths about Hitler “snubbing” Owens during the Olympics, or Owens receiving congenial advice from German long jumper Luz Long on that Berlin infield, but he ended up dispelling them anyway, the unavoidable result of an exacting historian conducting years of research. Baker also, for the first time, devoted more than a passing mention to Eulace Peacock.
On May 31, 1983, the elderly Peacock, true to his reputation as a consummate gentleman, drove from New Jersey to Manhattan for an interview with Baker for a biography that not only wasn’t his, but also one that he knew would exhume his most painful defeat. Baker, now 74, no longer has the audio cassettes from that interview, only a fraction of which made it into his book. Fortunately, the University of Maine archived them. Along with a filmed interview of Peacock from 1985 (recently preserved by Washington University in St. Louis), these conversations offer a fleeting glimpse -- like a passing sprinter -- of the man whose defeat of Owens in Berlin wasn’t just possible, but probable, had Peacock somehow been able to outrun the Fates.
They were born a year apart -- Owens in 1913, Peacock in 1914 -- in opposite corners of rural Alabama. By 1923 their families had left the sharecropping life and moved north -- the Owenses to Ohio, the Peacocks to New Jersey. In 1933, in the last meet of his high school career, Peacock set the national scholastic record in the long jump. He went home, clicked on the radio, and learned that a kid in Cleveland had just broken the world record. Name of Owens. It was the first time he’d ever heard of him. It was the first time anyone had heard of him. “I had that record for two hours,” Peacock joked to Baker.
Peacock’s first love was football. He grew up wanting to play for legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner. When Temple hired Warner away from Stanford in 1933, Peacock’s stars seemed to have aligned, for his older brother, James, was the Owls’ captain.
On the first day of fall practice in ’33, Warner put Eulace and the other Temple freshmen through a series of fitness tests. Ben Ogden, Temple’s track coach, meandered by as Peacock sprinted the length of the field. He did not need a stopwatch to realize what he’d witnessed.
Over the next few days Ogden somehow wrested Peacock from Warner, robbing him of a weapon who had scored 138 points, the equivalent of 23 touchdowns as a high school senior. “That broke his heart,” Peacock’s daughter, Linda Freundlich, said recently of her father’s disappointment. “’So I can run fast, so what? I want to play football.’ That hurt him more than what happened with the Olympics.”
Owens and Peacock first met at the AAU Indoor championships in 1934, where neither man sprinted but Owens outjumped Peacock by a full foot. There or soon afterward, their laid-back dispositions melted into a friendship that would endure until both men were gray and their records were being tested by hypertrained athletes sprinting across rubberized tracks.
Hundreds of congratulatory telegrams arrived for Peacock in Philadelphia after his victory in Lincoln. Owens, meanwhile, was paying the price for his growing popularity. Responding to a media storm that had erupted a month earlier when he was photographed with a beautiful socialite in Los Angeles, Owens had hopped the first train from Lincoln to Cleveland and married his longtime girlfriend Ruth Solomon, the mother of his two-year-old daughter.
The morning after that, Owens was on another train, this one headed north, where he intended to set straight the loss he’d suffered in Nebraska. The sporting world lifted its binoculars. Owens and Peacock would race twice more in the next five days.
Every vision Owens held for his future depended on winning big in Berlin, and for the moment, at least, he wasn’t even the best sprinter or long jumper in his own country. Peacock would have myriad career options, and Metcalfe would go on to serve four terms as a U.S. Congressman, but Owens knew he was neither a scholar nor a businessman. He and his first coach, Charles Riley, had been plotting victory at the 1936 Olympics since Jesse was in middle school. “For Owens, the Olympics would mean either glory or a future pumping gas at the Sohio station,” Jeremy Schaap wrote of in Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics.
As Owens’s train hissed to a stop on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, not a day removed from his wedding, and two from his defeat in Lincoln, he must have felt what no camera would ever capture him feeling: pressure.
Crystal Beach wasn’t Nebraska, and it definitely wasn’t Berlin. It was a quirky Coney Island built on a waveless lakeshore, 15 miles from Buffalo, its main attraction a massive roller coaster that kept a nurse on hand to tend to the woozy. The athletic field was across the street from the rumbling “Cyclone,” and the sprinters who appeared there as part of the local police carnival were as much of a sideshow as the ride, whose latticework reached that day toward what the local paper said was “a broiling sun.”
The Crystal Beach race took place in a vacuum. Not much was written about it. There are no known photographs. The area’s foremost historian, William Kae, recently dug up a damaged microfiche of that weekend’s Buffalo Courier-Express, which introduces us to a local track hero named Isaac Meadows who also ran that day -- the “third Negro of the starting field of three.”
“Before a crowd of 5,000 made up of Buffalo policemen and their friends,” Meadows got off to a perfect start, “but the others drew away from the Buffalo youth quickly.”
The tide had turned so thoroughly that when The New York Times touted that Tuesday’s meet at NYU’s Ohio Field, it mentioned Peacock as the attraction, not Owens. The photos from that evening show a cloudy twilight brooding over the Bronx like a film noir set, complete with rain-flecked trenchcoats and fedoras on all the extras. The track was like damp cake.
Someone shot a film of the race from on high, with the five runners coming toward the camera. It flutters to a start with the runners already 20 meters in, the smoke from the starter’s gun drifting toward the sky.
Peacock is in Lane 2, Owens in Lane 4. As they pull away from Draper, Anderson, and a man named O’Sullivan, the field takes the shape of a perfect W. Owens is a picture of calm symmetry. Peacock swerves all over his lane, head wagging, no stride looking the same. The W grows taller and skinnier as Owens and Peacock surge ahead.
The news stories describe Owens making a final push, but the film shows their positions staying the same over the last half of the race: Peacock a hair ahead, Owens running more efficiently but gaining no ground.
The flurry of snapshots taken at the finish show Peacock throwing his arms up, wearing an exultant, wide-eyed look. The film, however, reveals that this was not joy, but panic, for he was about to crash into a cluster of photographers kneeling in the runners’ path to capture the moment of truth.
The most telling image recorded by those kamikaze photographers -- the one that flies in the face of everything we would later come to believe about Owens -- is the look on his face. It is the slightly embarrassed expression of a man unaccustomed to finishing second, but being forced to get used to it.
Even Owens’s hero, three-time Olympic medalist Charley Paddock, was jumping on the Peacock bandwagon. “I can only see Peacock as a certain performer at the Games in Berlin,” Paddock said after the New York race. “ ... I can’t help feeling that Owens is pretty much burned out... the Ohio State boy is far too slow off the marks to do much good in the 100.” America’s head track coach, Lawson Robertson, was even more blunt. “Peacock is the fastest and most consistent of all our sprinters,” said the man who would fill out the U.S. lineup card in Berlin. “He also has a better finish than Owens.”
“Eulace is a great runner, and a very good jumper,” Owens graciously told New York Times writer John Lardner. “This boy has been right behind me for quite a while. It looks as though he’s more than caught up now...
“[H]e caught me after I done my best work for the year. You know, a man has only got so many record jumps and record sprints in his system for one season... Maybe he’ll make me run and jump better. Maybe he’ll drive me right on to some new records. You can’t tell.’”
Owens was more prophetic, and more candid, with Harlem’s Amsterdam News: “I don’t know whether I can defeat him again.”
As it turned out, he never would.
After the New York race, Owens returned to his wife and daughter and their spare bedroom at the Solomons’ house in Cleveland. He resumed his job pumping gas at the Sohio station on the corner of Cedar and 92nd Street.
Peacock, meanwhile, departed for Europe with nine of the best track athletes in America. With the AAU providing meager meal money, Peacock and his teammates competed in Luxembourg, then the French village of Nancy, then in the massive stadium that had staged the ’24 Paris Games. On Aug. 6, 1935, Peacock tied the world record in the 100 meters in Basel, Switzerland. This time there was no wind, and no one called him a colored Thunderbolt, either.
On he went to Zurich. Biarritz. Lyon. Strasbourg. Brussels. Paris again. Victories all. A French photographer captured Peacock’s opponents straining against the last 10 yards while the tape whipped behind Peacock like a kite tail. When he boarded the train to Milan, the Berlin Olympics were less than a year away.
Twenty-five thousand people attended the track meet at Arena Civica, which was 128 years old but looked older, its arches and ivy evoking the days when the 100 meters’ ancestor, the “stadion,” was run in the nude by the earliest Olympians.
It was 79 degrees and muggy. The venerable La Stampa newspaper described the sky as disturbato dalla pioggia -- disturbed by rain. The sprinters awaiting Peacock on that soggy oval were the strongest he had faced in Europe, and were led by Edgardo Toetti, who had won Olympic bronze in 1932 as part of Italy’s 100-meter relay team. Peacock, the youngest man running, could not coast the way he had at his other European stops.
He was comfortably in the lead at the 80-meter mark when what he would later called “the beginning of the end” found him.
The initial pain of tearing a hamstring is not as searing as it is confusing. It probably felt the same for Peacock as it did for Houston McTear, the 100-meter prodigy whose hamstring ruptured at the 1976 Olympic trials, and contributed to his living most of the ‘80s as a homeless addict on a California beach. The athlete usually hops once -- a weird, involuntary spasm -- the moment the muscle gives way. There is often the sensation of a windowshade rolling up the back of the thigh.
Peacock bounced home on his good leg, in last place. A tattered photo, recently unearthed by his daughter, shows him being carried off the track by two Italian officials and American hurdler Tom Moore -- Peacock’s arms over their shoulders, their arms under his legs, Peacock wincing at the muscle that had just betrayed him.
La vittoria di Toetti sui centro metri non ha valore... poiche Peacock, vittima di un malaugurato incidente, non ha potuto battersi come avrebbe voluto...
[Toetti’s victory in the 100 meters held no value... because Peacock, the victim of an unfortunate accident, could not fight as he wished ...]
A sprinter tearing a hamstring is like a car snapping its drive shaft. The only remedy for the injury is time, and therein lay the only silver lining for Peacock. His injury had coincided with the beginning of his offseason. A few days after his 21st birthday, he sailed home to a winter of heat compresses, rest and crossed fingers.
He and his rival kept in touch that winter. In December, Owens, Peacock, Metcalfe and two other black athletes wrote a letter to the American Olympic Committee stating their eagerness to compete in Berlin, despite the demonstrations across the U.S. calling for a boycott of Hitler’s Games. By New Year’s Day the issue was settled. The Americans were going.
Owens held home-field advantage for his first showdown against Peacock since Peacock’s injury. The race in Cleveland’s Public Hall (home today to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony) was unique from most other Owens-Peacock races because it was indoors and because it featured makeshift starting blocks. Owens’s strong suit, his starts, would be made stronger. And because the race was just 50 yards, Peacock would have less time to catch up.
The new blocks and the urgency of the distance probably contributed to Peacock’s slipping and falling out of the gate. As Owens sprinted to victory, all Peacock could do was rise from the floor and watch.
The Call and Post reported that Owens then offered “one of the grandest exhibitions of sportsmanship ever witnessed” a gesture that cemented one detail about him which was not myth: he was as graceful a person as he was an athlete. “[H]e immediately put his arm around Peacock’s shoulder and led him back to the starting line. He insisted that the race be run again.” After all, none of the 5,700 spectators on hand had come to see Owens outrun Dave Politzer and Bob Lewis.
A “half-hour” passed between races, according to the Associated Press. Plenty of time for Owens to recover from his first sprint. This time Peacock’s start was clean. He and Owens exploded from the blocks in lock-step.
“Owens forged to the front but Peacock caught him halfway down the floor,” wrote AP track editor Allan Gould. The final margin was “less than a foot... as the Philadelphia Negro outdistanced his Buckeye rival for the fourth straight time.”
Peacock and his hamstring were back. In his own gesture of sportsmanship, Peacock wrote a letter to meet officials declining to accept first place: “Jesse, one of the finest sportsmen I have ever met, is entitled to the medal more than I.” As admirable as both of their gestures were, Owens and Peacock were far more focused on the race that would be run at the Olympic trials in three months, and in Berlin a month after that.
The day that would end their rivalry was “chilly,” said Dave Johnson, longtime director of the Penn Relays, and curator of its rich history. “Overall the performances were not good.”
The exception was the University of Texas’s 440-yard relay team, which ran “like scared jackrabbits,” according to Gould, and were led by All-America anchorman Harvey Wallender. The Longhorns’ greatest challenge in the relay came from Temple and its possible Berlin-bound anchorman.
Peacock assumed his starting position in the fourth and final transition box, where he watched Temple’s first three runners fall desperately behind. When Wallender received the baton, he had a lead that most estimates placed between 30 and 40 yards. It was a 100-yard showdown now, but one man was nearly halfway done while the other was just starting.
Peacock thought he could fetch him. “And as I felt myself closing in on him,” he told Baker, “I said, Well, maybe I can catch him before hitting the tape.” That’s when “a look of pain and surprise spread over his features,” Daley wrote. This time it was Peacock’s right hamstring, and the rip in it was deeper and more jagged than the one his left had suffered in Milan. Peacock hopped home in second place, having pushed Wallender and the Longhorns to a meet record that would last 23 years. Peacock was taken to Temple University Hospital, where the doctors found a muscle so flayed that they kept him there three more days. Owens won the 100-meter final in a walk.
For nearly 50 years, Peacock kept his deepest feelings about the aftermath of that day to himself. To his family and everyone else, he provided the equivalent of a brief press conference. Sure, I almost made it to the Olympics... Who knows if I would have beaten Jesse over there? He was awful fast...
He shrugged off Baker’s questions on the subject, dismissing his missed chance to have books and movies and awards created in his honor as “just one of those things.”
For reasons only Peacock knows, the interview he sat for on Feb. 13, 1985 -- just 15 seconds of which appeared in Bill Miles’s acclaimed PBS documentary Black Champions — was different. It features a man frustrated by how emotional the recollection was making him, and unable to stanch the flow of a river he thought he’d dammed a half-century earlier.
“Well, I ran anchor at the Penn Relays,” the 70-year-old Peacock said, “and uh” — here he paused, near tears, and took a deep breath.
“When I received the baton I was about 20 yards behind the leader, and I thought that I could overtake him after I had run about 35 to 40 yards.” A beleaguered look and another deep breath. “Because I was closing in, and when I really poured it on, because I was overcoming the lead, that’s when I pulled the muscle.” His eyes wet now, Peacock raised a hand to his face and looked away. “And of course I went up in the air and I landed on my opposite foot and I hopped across the line.”
The cameraman pushed in, eager to capture the wetness of Peacock’s eyes. Peacock did not look keen on continuing. The next question was about his subsequent attempts to qualify for Berlin. Peacock’s answer does not live today on film, and is noted on the transcript only as “cross-talk” between him and the interviewer, along with the notation “NG.” Not good.
With just two months until the Olympic Trials, time was now Peacock’s enemy. An elderly trainer from Newark named Maney Gordon massaged Peacock’s leg daily as priceless pages fell from the calendar.
Peacock said very little to reporters during this time. Two months after his injury he limped onto Harvard’s track for the regional Olympic Trials -- “his right thigh taped up like a baseball bat,” Daley wrote. There he failed to qualify for Berlin in the 100 and the long jump, his leaps falling three feet shy of his personal best, his sprints abandoned at the halfway point because of the divot behind his thigh that made accelerating impossible. The normally pitiless Olympic bosses made a rare exception for the man Neil Allen called “the only man Jesse Owens ever feared,” allowing Peacock to try once more at the final Olympic trials the following week.
Peacock’s last chance came at Randall’s Island, N.Y., during a heat wave that made Lincoln in ‘35 seem nippy. Nineteen thirty-six was the hottest summer on record in America. The week of the trials, the heat killed 40 people in Manhattan alone.
The Olympics, for all its sentimentality, is not about sentiment at all once the athletes’ knuckles find the starting line. The Games are about the moment, and at that moment Peacock could barely crouch next to Metcalfe for their preliminary heat. Old Johnny McHugh, whose pistol had started that momentous race in Lincoln one year and one week earlier, raised it skyward again.
Metcalfe won. Draper, who would die a soldier’s death in Tunisia in 1943, finished second. A runner from Pasadena named Mack Robinson -- Jackie’s big brother, destined for Olympic silver in the 200 -- finished third. They were catching their breath when Peacock hobbled home last.
A week later, these men, and others to whom Peacock had once shown the back of his jersey, would board the USS Manhattan, bound for Germany.
“Naturally I am sorry that I am not making this trip since so many of my friends are going,” Peacock said before collecting his bags from the Hotel Lincoln and catching his train to anonymity. “But I wish them all the luck in the world and hope they bring back the championship in their events. They have the stuff.”
John Woodruff had it, winning 800-meter gold in Berlin before growing gray with Owens and Peacock, two of his closest friends. In a conversation with Frank Litsky shortly before he died at 92, Woodruff told the Times writer a secret: “Jesse was kind of glad Eulie didn’t make the team.”
Herb Douglas, who won bronze in 1948 and was probably closer to Owens than anyone, said recently: “Jesse never discussed it with me. But I feel as though psychologically, those two in that position, if either one of them gets hurt -- just put yourself in that position. You’d probably feel a little relieved that Eulace got injured. You might not say it, but...”
There are myths about Peacock, too. The most common one is that he beat Owens in seven of 10 races at one point. Peacock said it to Baker. It’s been printed as fact in several reputable publications. It isn’t true.
Eliminating all of the heats they ran against each other -- races that served as a means to advance toward a final, not win one -- Owens and Peacock ran 10 sprints in which both men were uninjured and both men crossed the finish line. Peacock finished ahead of Owens in five of those 10 races. Owens finished ahead of Peacock in five.
Peacock won five of those races outright, beating everyone else in the field, too. Owens won four.
Is it far-fetched, then, to envision a healthy Peacock nipping Owens at the tape in Berlin, affixing “World’s Fastest Man” behind his metaphor-ready last name? Is it sacrilege to envision a face other than Jesse’s in those iconic black-and-white images snapped from beneath the podium at the Reichssportsfeld?
“I really thought if Eulace hadn’t pulled a muscle there was a 50-50 chance,” said Douglas. “I truly believed that.”
“It’s one of the great mysteries in the history of sports,” Schaap said in a 2007 interview. “If Eulace Peacock is healthy, does he dominate the Games the way that Jesse Owens did?... [Owens’s] best times were better than Eulace’s, his best long jump was better than Eulace’s, but whenever they competed against each other, Eulace beat him... Just knowing that Peacock was standing next to him in the finals of the 100 meters might have made him more nervous.”
Might Owens have been even more nervous if Peacock’s winning streak against him had continued through the 100 meters in Berlin, headed into what would already prove to be an erratic long-jump showing for Owens? History might have hinged on where they landed in that sandpit, with a third gold going to the man who, in this alternate universe, would end up with two each in other events -- Owens in the 100-meter relay and the 200 (where he was untouchable), Peacock in the relay and the 100. (A healthy Peacock would have almost certainly joined Owens and Metcalfe on the gold-winning relay team, displacing Draper or Frank Wykoff.)
To Bill Cosby, it isn’t speculation. Granted, Cosby is a Temple man (conference high jump champ in 1962), and he knew Peacock when the great runner was graying, but Cosby is also a rigorous track historian not prone to hypothesizing. “The mystery of whether Peacock might have beaten Owens in Berlin,” Cosby said recently, “sounds like a fluke or a reach, but the greater question is whether -- in that setting, with history waiting for something remarkable to happen, and with their rivalry being what it was -- we might have seen a record that is much closer to what sprinters on today’s surfaces are running.”
Litsky, the Times writer, was more succinct: “Eulace could have been Jesse.”
There were no Olympics in 1940 or 1944 because of the war. Peacock would have been 34 at the London Games of 1948, but the question of his success there is moot because his sprinting was never the same after his hamstring tore at the Penn Relays in ‘36.
In 1937, however (the year before Hitler was named Time’s Man of the Year), Peacock won his third national championship in the pentathlon. He would win three more -- in ‘43, ‘44, and ‘45, each time building huge point leads in the leaps, throws and the 200, then ignoring the last event, the arduous 1,500, for which he never bothered to train. “I would ask whoever was in second or third, What do you have to run to beat me?” Peacock told Baker. Their desperate answers would allow him to “just jog along” in the 1,500.
He financed his extended amateur career by working for the IRS, then as a trainer in the Coast Guard during the war. His greatest career success was the liquor store he owned in Harlem. It was a skinny business --just a stoop, a door and a wall of bottles -- but it was neat as a pin. By then he had married a whip-smart, college-educated knockout named Betty. Their love was by every account pure and real, and it lasted even after cancer took her from him in 1989.
In the early ’50s they had adopted a boy and a girl and settled in a modest home with a big yard in Yonkers. On summer weekends they entertained Eulie’s friends from the city, men the Peacock kids knew only as Uncle Nat (Nat King Cole), Uncle Paul (Paul Robeson) and Uncle Gene (Gene Krupa). One of their most frequent guests was a quiet, stooped man who was introduced to them as Uncle Jesse.
When Linda was in fourth grade, during what was then called Negro History Month, she and her classmates were given a book to read. “I thought, Man, the guy in this book looks like Uncle Jesse,” said Linda, who is now gracefully entering her mid-60s in Arizona. “I came home and said, ‘Daddy, is Uncle Jesse Jesse Owens?’
‘You figured that out, huh?’
“And that’s when I thought, That must have been a really big deal, not to make it to the Olympics,” Linda recalled. “He could have been Jesse Owens.”
Owens’s life wasn’t always enviable. He’d been banned by the AAU before he even got home from Berlin -- for declining to take part in a hastily arranged and exploitative tour of Europe. He never ran competitively again. To feed his family, Owens performed onstage, sprinted against horses and agreed to other stunts and promotions that would soon prove empty. The masses criticized Owens for chasing money instead of more medals, but Peacock, who knew the hand-to-mouth world of American track, defended his friend. “After the glory is gone, what have you?” Peacock said in the fall of ‘36. “Jesse made a smart move.”
Owens peddled his celebrity across the world for the rest of his life. He continued to wave the stars and stripes as he fought tax problems and survived the jabs of Civil Rights soapboxers who called him an Uncle Tom, his family life fraying throughout.
Each time Owens left the Peacock home, Linda’s dad would always mutter to her mom: “Jesse’s gotta quit smoking.” Owens had been a chain-smoker since the 40s. He died of lung cancer in 1980, at 66.
One of Linda’s most vivid childhood memories is of walking through the front door of the Yonkers house to find her father “sitting there with a cup of coffee the size of Montana,” chatting with Uncle Jesse while they listened to Sinatra playing low on the hi-fi.
“Hi Linda!” Owens would say. “Come over here and let me see how big you’ve gotten! Eulie, she’s gotten so big!”
Her biggest thrill came on days when her parents couldn’t find a sitter and her Dad was forced to bring her to the liquor store with him. School was where she’d learned about Uncle Jesse, but she learned who her dad was on a Harlem sidewalk. “Fastest man in the world?” she said, hearkening back to that day. “No, no, no, my dad lives in Yonkers and owns a liquor store.”
Her dad had never told her any different.
Litsky recalled running into Peacock 20 or 30 times over the years, when Peacock officiated college track meets. Asked for one word to sum him up, the Times writer paused several seconds.
“Classy,” he said.
Shortly after her mom died, Linda noticed that the family dog looked emaciated. She asked her dad why. He stared at her blankly. He’d forgotten to feed it. For several days. It was Alzheimer’s.
Peacock moved in with Linda and her husband until it became clear that he’d be better cared for by professionals. He became the toast of St. Joseph’s Nursing Home in Yonkers. The middle-aged caregivers were old enough to remember his track days and were honored to have him. Nearly all of St. Joseph’s residents were women. Eulie was the big man on campus again, lifting things for his weaker friends (he had the body of a 50-year-old), asking them to time him as he ambled around the hallways, swing dancing slow to his beloved Sinatra.
It didn’t matter that he had no memory of being the fastest man in the world. If a staffer mentioned it, “he’d just go along with it and he’d get really happy,” Linda recalled, “because it usually meant it was exercise time.”
Peacock died peacefully in 1996.
The word Linda uses most often when talking about him is generous. When she was a teenager, he gave her two passes to watch her Uncle Jesse hold court at a fancy event in some big Manhattan hotel. The attendees were asked to scribble questions and pass them up to the emcee, who read them aloud to the great Olympian. In the back of the ballroom, Linda scrawled: Who was really the fastest man in the world, you or Eulace Peacock?
“He answered a few questions -- there were some double questions in there, everyone was asking the same thing -- then they came to mine,” Linda said. “Uncle Jesse looked up and said, ‘Who asked that question?’”
With a smile and a big wave, Linda yelled, “I did, Uncle Jesse!”
“He just smiled back at me and said, ‘Ohhhh, Linda.’”
After a chuckle and a quick explanation to the crowd, Owens resumed the Q-&-A.
Linda’s laughter at the memory trails off into one of those long sighs that punctuates a good story. In the silence, her brow wrinkles.
“I don’t think he ever answered the question.”