On June 21, 1947, in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships at Salt Lake City, one of track and field's legendary figures ran a spectacular quarter mile. Fleeing around the University of Utah track like a lengthening shadow, Herb McKenley of Jamaica, by way of the University of Illinois, demolished the old NCAA 440-yard-dash record and equaled his own world mark. The time was 46.2 seconds.
Yet if Herb McKenley were somehow able to gallop down through the years and duplicate that performance in the 1961 NCAA meet this weekend at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, upon reaching the finish line he almost certainly would discover that someone else had arrived there first. Waiting to shake his hand would be a towering, 20-year-old Californian wearing a burr haircut, a pleasant smile and the purple and white uniform of a small west Texas school. This would be Earl Verdelle Young of Abilene Christian College. He is one of the U.S.'s crop of bright new stars, and he can run like the red, white and blue blazes. Some people feel quite strongly that he is going to become the greatest quarter-mile runner of all time.
Earl Young is huge, for a dash man, standing almost 6 feet 4 inches tall, with broad shoulders and long, beautifully muscled legs, which carry him over the ground at eight feet a stride. The 440 is a picture race, combining as it does in one violent, whirling lap the blistering speed of the shorter dashes and the first delicate nuances of pace. Many of the great quarter-milers were picture runners, too—Bill Carr was one, so were McKenley and Grover Klemmer—but Young is not one of these. He is smooth enough, but the main impression one receives while watching him run is of tremendous power. He looks as though he could run right through a brick wall.
Times in the 440, as in other track events, are constantly being hammered down under the mass assault of better equipment, superior coaching methods and more scientific training techniques, all lavished upon an endless horde of bigger and stronger and faster kids. In the middle of April a high school senior from Andrews, Texas named Ted Nelson ran 440 yards in 46.5 seconds, setting a national scholastic record. A month later a high school senior from Compton, California named Ulis Williams broke that record by running 46.1. Allowances must be made for high school tracks and stop watches (Young, for example, later beat Nelson by almost 10 yards in 46.3 at the Compton Invitation), but the performances of both Williams and Nelson indicate what is happening to the 440-yard dash.
June 18, 1961
Already Young has run 400 meters, the metric equivalent of the quarter mile, which is used throughout Europe and in the Olympic Games, in 45.7 seconds; on the record-setting U.S. 1600-meter relay team at Rome, with the benefit of a running relay start, he ran 400 meters in 45.5. He has run 440 yards, which is 2½ yards farther than 400 meters, in 46.2, and he has done a 440-yard leg on a mile relay in 45.7. But most of these times were made last year, when he was only 19, and now Young is just getting into top shape for the big meets of 1961 which lie ahead: the National Collegiate championships this weekend, the National AAU at Randall's Island in New York on June 24-25 and, if he qualifies there by placing first or second, the series of dual meets in Moscow, Stuttgart, London and Warsaw during July.
Fast field at Philly
Ready to challenge Young this weekend at Philadelphia is a double handful of runners capable of pushing the Abilene Christian star down below 46 flat: Dave Mills of Purdue, Walt Johnson of North Carolina College, Ollan Cassell of Houston, Kevin Hogan of Southern California, Adolph Plummer of New Mexico, Jim Heath of Colorado, Jim Baker of Missouri, Dick Edmunds of Princeton, Charles Strong of Oklahoma State. The 1960 NCAA champion, Colorado Fullback Ted Woods, is scholastically ineligible, the USC's wondrous sophomore, Rex Cawley, will doubtless choose to run the 440-yard hurdles, where he is far and away the class of the collegiate field. But with or without Woods and Cawley, Earl Young appears capable of running as fast as is necessary to win. Given a fast track (which he may not find at Franklin Field), a good day and the proper competition, Young could equal Glenn Davis' NCAA and world 440-yard record of 45.7.
"Before that boy is out of school," says George Eastment of Manhattan, one of the 1960 U.S. Olympic coaches, "he is going to run 400 meters in 44 seconds flat."
This, of course, is for the future. Young must first prove that he is America's premier quarter-miler, and as long as Otis Davis is around the issue will be in doubt. Davis, who won the 400-meter dash at Rome in the incredible world record time of 44.9, is aiming for the AAU meet and the European tour, too, and recently set an American record of 32.7 for the seldom-run 300-meter dash. But Davis has been teaching school in Oregon, with little time for serious training or tough competitive races. Now almost 29, he perhaps will compete only through this year. Young, on the other hand, is just getting started.
Last year he kept popping up where no unknown sophomore had any right to be. He won no major championships, but he finished fourth in the AAU, second in the U.S. Olympic trials at Palo Alto and, after three qualifying rounds against the toughest field of 400-meter men ever assembled, he gained the Olympic finals at Rome. There he finished sixth, but four of the five older, more experienced runners who beat him were clocked in the best individual times of their respective careers, and Earl's 45.9 equaled the old Olympic record. In appreciation, Governor Price Daniel made him an honorary citizen of the State of Texas, which is not to be confused with an Olympic gold medal but demonstrates what hard work can do for a Californian in a few short years.
When Young, the son of a radiator repair shop owner who once ran the quarter in 53 seconds, graduated from San Fernando High School in the spring of 1958, he was one of the most unsought-after athletes in southern California history. He could run the 100 in 10 seconds, the 220 in 21.6 and the 440, which he didn't particularly enjoy, in 49.6, a set of statistics that might knock their eyes out in Pocatello, Idaho or Bangor, Maine, but only led Californians to assume that the boy had spent all season running uphill. Only Occidental, of all the famous West Coast track schools, showed any interest, and Occidental wanted Earl to attend junior college first for a year.
So Earl went to Abilene Christian. It was simple. His grandmother picked up the telephone one day and called Oliver Jackson, the ACC coach. "The whole family talked it over," says Earl. "She just made the call. We belong to the Church of Christ and we knew about ACC. We also knew about the track program down there."
"The first time I saw Earl," says Jackson, "I wanted him. Everybody I talked to told me what a good boy he was, how he liked to run and how he worked at it. I figured he had great potential. Shoot, a big old boy like that, only 17 and still growing, who can do the 100 in 10 flat can't help but run a good quarter mile."
The first thing Earl did at Abilene was shoot himself in the leg. Out popping away at jack rabbits one day, he took aim on a skunk, changed his mind, and drew the .22-caliber automatic pistol back inside the window of the car. It went off, sending the little hollow-point bullet into the back of his heavily-muscled right calf and out the front, missing the bone by a fraction of an inch and leaving an ugly, nickel-size hole which is now a shiny, nickel-size scar. He was running again within two weeks.
Under Jackson's intensive conditioning program, Earl began to live up to his potential right away. He lifted weights to fill in his chest and build up his arms, he ran cross-country to develop endurance, he practiced explosive stationary running to increase leg speed. He grew an inch in height and went up from 165 to 180 pounds. That year, as a freshman, he ran the 100 in 9.7, the 220 in 20.7 and the 440 in 48.5. Once he ran a 46.6 leg on a mile relay.
But it was at the beginning of Young's sophomore season that Oliver Jackson, who coached Bobby Morrow to three gold medals in the sprints at Melbourne, realized that he might have another of that very rare breed. Just past his 19th birthday, Earl ran the 100 in 9.6, the 220, around a curve, in 20.9 and the 440 in 46.2. Then he went on to make the Olympic team and win a gold medal for his relay leg. He visited Bern and Athens (where he got so sick eating snails that he wished he could die), and he visited Turku and Helsinki and Dublin and Glasgow. He returned to Abilene to find that he had been adopted by the State of Texas; later he was voted the Dean's Award as the student who had made the greatest contribution of the year to ACC. And then, instead of sitting back to admire his accomplishments, Earl Young really went to work. During 1961, he decided, he would do even better.
Brilliance and bugs
At first, it appeared that he would—in a breeze. In March he ran a 220-yard dash at the Border Olympics in 20.3. Since he was aided by a tailwind, the time was unofficial, but there have been famous sprinters who couldn't run 220 yards that fast when pushed along by a howling gale. "He's too big," says Jackson, "to get a real sprinter's start, so you can imagine how fast he must move to run 20.3. I don't see how he can miss 45.5 in the quarter before the year is out." Jackson, who looks like Bing Crosby, knows quite a bit about running, having produced not only Bobby Morrow but some of the finest college relay teams of all time, so no one really questioned the casual way in which he had just awarded his prize pupil a new world record. But Oliver Jackson doesn't know much about bugs.
One got into Young, causing a liver infection which left him feeling lethargic and completely worn out. The team physician, fearing the liver ailment would turn into hepatitis, took the boy off his rigorous training schedule. "So I eased up," said Earl. "Maybe it was all in my head, but I was pooped out all the time."
But the second week in April he had recovered enough to anchor three winning teams at the Texas Relays and earn the meet's outstanding-athlete award. With Cal Cooley, Dennis Richardson and Bud Clanton out ahead of him, he ran 20.2 to help ACC equal the world record of 1:22.6 for the 880 relay; following Richardson, Pat McKennon and Clanton, Young ran 45.7 as the ACC mile relay team took the collegiate record down by more than a full second to 3:07.9.
"How do you feel?" someone asked. "Pooped," said Earl.
Three weeks later, his liver still not completely well, Young tried to overcome an eight-yard deficit against Villa-nova on the anchor leg of the 880-yard relay at the Penn Relays. He made up 7½ yards by running 20.1—and strained his left knee. Bursitis developed in the inflamed joint and Earl was out of competition for a month, his usual merciless workout schedule reduced to pastoral jogs around the Abilene Christian football-stadium grass.
"I was about ready to write this year off," he says now. "I didn't see how I could get in condition for the big meets."
"If you think Earl was worried," said Jackson, "you should have seen me."
But Young tested the knee in the mile relay at Modesto on May 27 and ran an easy 46.7 lap. The next weekend, at the famed Compton Invitation, he received an answer to the other question which had been plaguing him: How would he react to tough competition in the 440-yard dash after spending most of an off-and-on season running only on relay teams? The answer was another medal. Coming around the final turn, Earl turned on the power to simply run away from a rather fancy field of quarter-milers and win by seven yards. The time, on a cool California night, was 46.3. The closest man to him was Mai Spence, one of the Jamaican Olympian twins from Arizona State. Keith Thomassen, the Santa Clara Youth Village runner who had previously done 46.1, best time in the world this season, finished fourth; and Ted Nelson, the schoolboy whiz, was fifth. Later Earl ran a 46 flat anchor as ACC regained a share of the intercollegiate mile-relay record of 3:07.6 it had lost to the University of Southern California a few weeks before. And last weekend, in the Meet of Champions at Houston, Young broke Glenn Davis' meet record with a 46.7 on a slow rain-soaked track.
Earl Young is not only big and fast and determined, but he is something of a physical freak. He has the abnormally low pulse rate of a great distance runner. The average dash man is as high-strung as a Thoroughbred, his heart pounding even when the body is in repose at something above the normal 72 beats a minute. Young's pulse is usually about 52. Once ACC's red-haired Australian miler, John Lawler, was wandering down the aisle of the team bus on the way to a meet, testing people's pulses. It is a hobby track men have, like politicians planting trees, and no one thinks much about it any more. But when Lawler reached Young, who was dozing in his seat, he came up with a count of 31. Three other team members checked and arrived at the same figure. "They told me," says Earl with a grin, "that I was breathing only five times a minute. Somebody said, 'Man, you weren't asleep. You were hibernating.' "
The way to run 45.5
In any event, Young thinks this is one reason he is someday soon going to run 440 yards in 45.5 seconds. "A couple of times a week, in workouts," he says, "I run repeat 220s. First, I start at 24 flat. Then I walk 220, then run 23.5. Then walk 220, then run 23 flat. I keep going down until I'm running in the 21s. If I can do that—if I can recover that quickly to run again that fast—then in a quarter-mile race I should be able to run the first 220 in 22 flat and finish in 23 or a little above. That's all that it takes to run a 45-second quarter. And on the second 220, you already have your speed built up. You just have to hold it.
"My problem has always been in running that first 220 too slow. I really have to concentrate on coming out of the blocks fast and opening up right away. I don't want to run 21.5, like McKenley and George Rhoden and Lou Jones used to do. I think that's too fast; 22 is about right for me. Then I try to stride down the backstretch, not easing up, not losing any speed, but trying to conserve as much energy as I can. Then, at about 300 yards, I try to lean into it a little and begin to dig. I don't shorten my stride and run harder. That isn't my style. But I try to reach out a little farther, try to go a little faster. At the 300-yard point in a 440-yard race, I don't believe anyone can really sprint. You don't have that much left. But you can make yourself go a little faster.
"Right now," says Young, "I don't think it's a question of finding the right track and the right day for me to do 45.5. It's simply a matter of getting into shape. Then I should be able to do it any time.
"I know that's awfully fast, and I don't want to sound cocky about it," he says with a serious little smile. "It's just a thing I know."