Charlie Greene will have that extra E, if you please, because it is distinctive. As if he needed it. He is on public display for approximately six seconds at a time during the winter and just over nine seconds in the spring—about long enough to consummate a good sneeze, if you get on with it. Yet in those few, blustery instants Charlie Greene manages to convey two indelible impressions: that he is supremely fast and that he has pizzazz. Greene is the kind of athlete who would make P. T. Barnum, Florenz Ziegfeld and Cecil B. DeMille bolt out of their graves—pen and contract at the ready.
It is, in part, his physical appearance that causes the excitement. Greene is a little fellow (5'7" and 151 pounds) who races hidden behind a foo-man-shoo mustache, dark horn-rimmed glasses and what looks suspiciously like a potbelly. But Greene is not fat. He has, in fact, not been beaten in a 60-or 100-yard dash (except on two occasions when he pulled up lame) since he was a sophomore two years ago at the University of Nebraska. He is the man most likely to explode across the finish line first in the 1968 Olympics (a pulled hamstring tendon kept him out of the Tokyo Olympics), the fellow who seems infinitely capable of being the first to round off the 100-yard-dash record at nine seconds flat and the latest to lay claim to the title of "world's fastest human." On close inspection he reveals yards and yards of the tautest kind of muscle, but no matter. He carries off the impression of having a pot—and that is part of the act.
The pith of the act is the race itself. Pop goes the gun, and within three strides Greene has violated all acknowledged scientific laws by getting a four-stride lead on the field. Now the cool. Greene is devastating the field, not with the brute power of a Bob Hayes, but with a nonchalance that suggests a man roller-skating to organ music. He glides to the finish, flips his thumbs in the air as if to say, "That's all there is to it," and if you did not pinch yourself you would swear that you were watching a man in a sporting beret and Bermuda shorts ambling up the Via Veneto with a cigarette holder in each hand. At the end come the others, teeth gnashing, bodies straining, arms flailing—the gang of them snapping and yapping at Greene, well clear of the fuss.
This sprinting business is all very compulsive with Charlie Greene, who got the urge early, as an undersized adolescent in Seattle. If he could not whip any kid on the block he knew that he could run faster than the big fellows. Indeed, he never lacked confidence, which explains how, on his first day in high school, he had the nerve to show up at football practice—all 103 pounds of him. He was the starting halfback for four years at O'Dea High School and as a sprinter lifted the track team from a pack of also-runs to the Catholic high school championship in Seattle. By the time he was a roaring 140-pound senior, Greene was whipping off 9.5 hundreds, and every track-conscious college in the country was making the usual overtures. Charlie chose Nebraska partly because his high school coach was a Nebraska native and partly because he liked Nebraska Coach Frank Sevigne.
March 6, 1967
The fawning attentions lavished on him did nothing to foster humility in the 18-year-old Greene, who quickly established himself on the Nebraska campus as the most obnoxious undergraduate of 1963. "I didn't know much about Charlie, except for his records," said a classmate, "but after five minutes with him I was pretty sure he had invented egotism. Arrogant? Wow! All you had to say was 'good morning' and he'd look at you as if you had done something immoral."
The one thing going for 18-year-olds, however, is a birthday. Eventually they get to be 19. And whether it was the guidance of Sevigne, the heavy hand of Bob Brown—the all-America tackle now playing for the Philadelphia Eagles whom Charlie idolized—or just a wholesome awareness of his own that high school hotshots rate no salutes on a big college campus, Charlie Greene so thoroughly outgrew his early petulance that even the critic who got snubbed in the morning became an unblushing fan. "Oh, he's still cocky," he said, "but now it's fun, not obnoxious."
Cocky is just the word. His first major indoor meet was in New York, where his opposition was no less than Hayes. And did this impress Charlie Greene? "Bobby," he said, "you know what you're going to have to do to beat me tonight? Break a record, baby, that's all."
It is not the sort of lip a reigning Fastest Human usually gets from a freshman, and to say that this particular venture into psychological warfare upset anyone's applecart would be stretching a point: Hayes won, as expected, but he had to sprint the 60 yards in 5.9, which was a record, and it was just a clippetyclop in front of Greene.
Records, however, are only of passing interest to Greene. "Looky, here," he said, reeling off a list of people who had recently run 60 yards in six flat. "Now will you please tell me where all those rabbits go in a big meet? If they can do a six flat in Hicksville, why are they always 6.4 whenever they get up against somebody good?"
Greene, it so happens, does have a world record to his name, or at least a share of it. Last year he ran a 60 in 5.9 to tie Hayes and several others, but the time is incidental. He merely had to go that fast to beat the next best man in the field. Greene's idea of being the champion is to beat everybody he runs against. "I'm convinced he can run a nine-second 100," said Sevigne. "Someone is going to be turning on a 9.1 at the same time, though."
Last year in Albuquerque, one sprinter jumped the gun in a 60-yard race, but there was no recall. Greene did go with the gun, however, which meant he started several yards behind the leader. "A hundred is one thing," said Charlie. "I'll catch you later. But in a 60, schee." Greene not only caught his man; he finished comfortably in front. The one judge who did not freeze in the face of that strange start caught him in 5.7. The dash was run again, and Charlie breezed home in a casual 6.0, one-tenth of a second faster than he ran this weekend against New Mexico and Iowa State to win his 32nd straight dash.
It is odd, but Greene does not even hold the record for the 60 in his own conference. A fellow by the name of Jim Jackson has it. Greene says the explanation is another case of gun-jumping.
"There I was," said Charlie, "sitting in the blocks waiting for the gun to go off, when I saw this boy running down the track. So I says to myself, 'Charlie Greene, you better get to running,' and then the gun does go off."
Greene did not catch Jackson, but that was a heat. In the finals he wiped Jackson out, earning the championship but no record.
But speed and showmanship aside, Charlie Greene's greatest talent might yet turn out to be his ability to disarm his opposition before a race. There is a rumor, for example, that Greene trains in a prone position, contemplating the ceiling and stuffing himself with a frightening array of indigestible items, and that he only begins to think about a race 30 yards up the track. "If that's what people think," says Greene, "well, groovy," meaning that he is as content to win a race before it starts as after. Among master psychers, Greene may be the best of all. He will run lickety-fast practice starts in sneakers and a rain hat, and he always sports those dark glasses—"gotta have the shades, baby." On one occasion, a prominent sprinter approached Greene before a race with well-meaning exuberance. "How are you, Charlie?" asked the challenger.
"Just fine," said Greene. "Incidentally, my name's Greene. What's yours?" The challenger was still muttering to himself when the gun went off.
As for losing, Charlie Greene would gladly sprint across a field of Claymore mines before he would ever think of that. The last time such a calamity occurred was at Bakersfield, Calif. during his sophomore year. Greene took the baton in the final leg of a 440 relay, with Nebraska in the lead. Then Tommie Smith of San Jose State zoomed by. The fact that Smith was the fastest man in the world for 220 yards was no comfort at all. The next day Sevigne took his team to Berkeley to prep for the NCAA finals the following week only to find the stadium gates locked. Sevigne shrugged and started herding the team back onto the bus, when he heard a clatter. Greene was climbing the fence. Before the blood finished draining from the coach's face, his star runner was on the track.
Obviously Charlie Greene won the NCAA 100. And suffice to say, those who saw him do it will never, never forget the extra E.