Hurdling is not a very ancient sport, the first recorded race run under any semblance of rules having been contested on a playing field of Eton about 100 years ago. Then hurdles were solid barriers otherwise used for folding sheep, and they were driven deep into the ground. As a consequence, the primary-concern of the 19th century hurdler was to safely clear the top, and victory often went not to the fastest but to the most circumspect. Of course, nowadays, when hurdlers don't have to worry about breaking a toe or a shinbone, you have to be able to go—and nobody goes faster than Willie Davenport.
A fortnight ago Davenport—Wondrous Willie! Wonderful Willie! Wee Willie Wisp! Dangerous D! Or just plain old Breeze—won the 60-yard high hurdles at the National AAU Indoor Track and Field Championships in Philadelphia. It was his 15th straight victory, 16th if you count his win in the 110-meter hurdles at the Olympics, and the only thing Davenport has broken is three world records.
However, Willie Davenport is the world's best hurdler only on weekends. During the week he is a student teacher at Capitol High School in Baton Rouge, another black face in the tough, glib, brash world of schools like Capitol.
On a recent Wednesday night he was standing in the doorway of the gym watching the basketball team warm up. "Hey, coach!" a student yelled from the popcorn stand. He walked over and put his arm around Davenport. "You know, man, those push-ups you made me do this afternoon. Man, they killed me. You can't do that to me."
March 17, 1969
"Get your hand off me," Davenport said. "Go back where you belong or I'll make you do 50 more right now."
"It's a rough school," Davenport said later. "They have some respect for me because of my name. But still they had to test me. My first day, when I was taking roll, they kept making noise. So I put my pencil in the book, closed it, laid it down, then grabbed some kid and put him up against the wall. There hasn't been any trouble since.
"But then I can understand a lot of them. I've been through the whole thing. I was really on my way out. When I was a kid I was nothing but a young thug. I had a terrible temper. Like I had my own seat on the bus that took us to school. If I got on and someone else was sitting in it—well, no one took my seat."
Fred Johnson, who taught Davenport at mainly white Howland High School in Warren, Ohio, remembers well. "The first day I walked up to the classroom," he says, "I opened the door and a kid came sliding out on his back. Then I walked into the room and saw one kid poke another and knock him down. It was Willie Davenport who threw the one fellow out and knocked down the other. He certainly wasn't the best person in the world then. That first year, I don't know how many times I had to use a paddle on him."
Davenport has, of course, come a long way from Howland. He graduated, spent three years in the Army as a paratrooper and now, at 25, is a semester away from a physical education degree at Southern University in Baton Rouge. But just as certain as his present success is his awareness of who he was and where he has been.
Two days later Davenport got up early and went to a neighboring junior high school, at which the principal had asked him to speak. "Because of my reputation and all I have accomplished," Davenport says, "I feel a responsibility to young kids. I think they look up to me and listen to what I say. I emphasize just one thing and that is the need for goals. I tell them to set themselves some and work toward them. You see, I didn't have any for myself until my junior year in high school, when I got interested in running track. Up until then I was wild. What would have happened to me if there hadn't been track? Well, I don't know. But it is something interesting to think about."
More intriguing is the present Willie Davenport, a perfect model of consistency who went through the indoor season undefeated, unthreatened and, it often seemed, unrecognized. He first experienced relative obscurity at the Olympics, when his gold medal was overshadowed by a pair of black gloves and then almost forgotten when he simply, and sanely, stated at a press conference, "I didn't come to talk about Black Power or anything like that. I came to talk about the race." And, despite his win streak in races from 45 to 120 yards, in which he tied four world records besides the three he broke, he received the outstanding athlete award at only one meet.
"Sure it bothers me," he says, "but the hurdles is an early race and a lot of people aren't there and it happens so fast...well, by the time the end of the meet comes along, they're all thinking about how good George looked winning the two-mile or how good Sam looked winning the mile and they forget about Davenport setting that new world record."
But those he beats don't forget. Ery Hall, who was second to Davenport in the Olympics and somewhere behind him every time they raced this winter, says, "Actually, I have a little more incentive when I run against Davenport. A lot of the pressure is off of me because I have nothing to lose. There's more on him. But he's just a great hurdler. He's always been that way."
Leon Coleman, fourth behind Davenport in the Olympics and a nine-time loser this winter, talks a bit more bravely. "Sometimes I just try too hard," he says. "It might be a psychological thing. But I still think he can be beat."
Davenport himself doesn't have any real explanation for his newfound consistency. "The only thing different," he says, "was that up to the Olympics I was strictly a competitive runner. Now that I'm winning so regularly and setting world records with other runners two- or three-tenths of a second behind, I'm more confident and relaxed when I go to the line. I'm not sure I'm going to win, but I think some of the other runners might be psyched out."
Whatever the answer may be, it certainly isn't training, a ritual Davenport religiously avoids. This attitude conflicts with that held by Dick Hill, the track coach at Southern, and before the 1968 outdoor season began Davenport quit the team. "It was just a lack of communication," he says.
Hill says it was more because of Davenport's training—or nontraining—methods. "I maintain certain disciplines on the team," Hill says, "and one of them is that the runners show up every day for practice. Willie doesn't train that way, and I don't think it's right to make special rules for anyone."
As a matter of fact, Davenport doesn't even train every other day. He practiced twice during the indoor season—once on his start, on Jan. 8 and again, on getting more snap over the first hurdle, the following week. "I've studied hurdles well enough," he says, "and I know the techniques well enough that if I make a mistake in a race, I can pick it up by myself. Then I'll practice it. Like I said, I had to work once on the start and once on the first hurdle. But other than that, well, everything just fell into place."
However, there was a time, shortly after he quit the Southern track team last April, that the Davenport Method was sorely tried. Tennessee's Richmond Flowers, himself an outstanding hurdler, was at Southern for the school's Pelican State Relays. It was the first time in the nine-year history of the meet that the field had been integrated and the first time, as Southern Publicist Bennie Thomas remembers, "You could look up in the stands and see salt and pepper."
The day turned out to be disastrous for Davenport. He not only got beat by Flowers but by Southern's Harvey Nairn as well. "Well," Thomas says, "Willie saw all the kids running to get Flowers' autograph, surrounding him, and there he was, nothing more than an also-ran walking with his head down. On Monday he came to me and asked if he could go on television and apologize. I got him on. And he apologized."
"Some of the criticism I received then was unjustified," Davenport says now. "I had been hurt, that was the first outdoor race I ran that year and Flowers already had some competition. But still, yes, my pride was hurt, especially because I had gotten beat in front of the student body. When I got on TV, I just promised them I wouldn't lose again."
He kept his word well enough to win the Olympic Trials at Lake Tahoe and, of course, the gold medal in Mexico. "Willie has studied the hurdles and mastered all the techniques," says Hill. "His form as a hurdler is as perfect as any I've ever seen." Villanova Coach Jumbo Elliott agrees. "What makes Davenport great is that he works over the hurdles," he says. "He doesn't just float over. This gives him more efficient time on the ground to do the running."
But despite Davenport's success, Hill is not fully convinced. "You always have to wonder. A man can get this far," he says, moving a knife across the lunch table, "without training and without coming out for practice. But could he get this far"—and the knife moves a little farther—"if he did train?"
Davenport disagrees. "I know this is best for me," he says. "I've tried both ways, training and nontraining. But it's like Ralph Boston said at the Olympics. Leon Coleman was telling people how he didn't think Davenport was going to do anything because he doesn't do any training. Boston told him to relax—that the only time you worry about Davenport is when he does train."
This singular posture is, in a way, a reflection of Willie Davenport himself—a proud, enigmatic person shaped and formed at Howland in that world of so many white faces with so much money and so little time. He became a loner in school, a hustler out. And he became sensitive to those he learned to trust, listening to them, appreciating them, and, most of all, respecting them.
"Howland is made up of a very large amount of the very wealthiest people in the area," says Johnson, who still teaches there. "It also has very high academic achievement, and I'm afraid in Willie's case it was a guy not keeping up with the next one and just getting pushed around, ignored. So he developed a plain sour attitude toward the whole world." Although Davenport credits Johnson with "pulling me together," Johnson demurs. "I don't think it was me specifically who changed him," he says. "It was just that he needed someone to pay attention to him, and I happened along."
The deference Davenport pays Johnson is shown those closest to him today. He gave Dr. G. Leon Netterville, president of Southern, a pen set fashioned from a trophy he won at the Texas Relays. "I admire and respect the man," Davenport says. "I just wanted him to have it." He puts his arm around Doc Williams, the Southern trainer who fixed him up for the Olympic Trials, and says, "I could never have done it without Doc. Make sure you say something nice about him."
"I was attracted to Willie," Dr. Netterville says, "because he has the qualities I'd like to see in my own son. He's quiet and reserved, actually sort of shy. He's not namby-pamby by any means. No one runs over him. But he doesn't walk around with that attitude of Here I Am. Willie Davenport. Olympic Champion. As a matter of fact, it's very hard getting him to speak of himself."
His reserve disappears, however, when Davenport is among friends, having a drink or two (rusty nails and German beer are his current favorites). Then he likes to tell stories from his past or, preferably, from the past of those he is with. "You know my old lady here," he said one evening, referring to Marian Calvey, his fiancée. "Well, when we first met she couldn't remember my first name. So she kept calling me Davenport, Davenport, Davenport. Of course, the real reason was when she looked at me, that was all she could think of."
He is also himself as Davenport the businessman or, bluntly, Davenport the hustler. "When I was growing up," he explains, "my parents were well enough off to give me most of what I needed, but they made me go out and make my own way." So Davenport started "hustling honest money" at 13, sweeping out a hardware store. Since then he has been a printing press operator, everything from a stock boy to a salesman at Sherwin-Williams in Warren, a popcorn vendor at Southern football and basketball games and, even now, a clerk in a Baton Rouge discount house and sole owner, operator and manpower of something loosely called Davenport Maintenance Service. "I have this car and an apartment and a console color television to take care of," he explains. "Well, you figure it out. The money has to come from someplace."
If everything works out the way Davenport has planned, his newest hustle—pro football—will put an end to selling discount hardware. He was the 16th-round draft choice of the San Diego Chargers, and though he has limited experience, both he and Charger Coach Sid Gillman are optimistic. "He's a risk, but a risk well worth taking," Gillman says. "The big question is whether he can catch the ball." Says Davenport, "If I work, I think I can make it."
So, in contrast to his hurdling beliefs, Davenport goes out on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to run patterns and learn cuts and catch the football. His coach is his best friend, Bob Bennett, who was a quarterback for Southern. "He has come a long way," Bennett says. "The other day, after 2½ hours, his tongue was dragging. By the time I'm through with him, he'll be ready. If they give him a chance, he'll stay. He's that kind of a competitor."
On a recent Thursday, Bennett and Davenport were out—even though it was raining. They did sideline patterns, hooks, curls, slants, posts. For every one Davenport dropped he had to run two more. "C'mon, coach, ease up, will you?" he said. "Keep running, Davenport," said Bennett. "It's the only way you're going to learn." "Dammit," said Davenport. Then he took off on his sixth straight Go pattern, catching the ball some 60 yards downfield.
Most of Davenport's experience in football has been at defensive halfback. At Southern he played cornerback as a sophomore and junior, switching to flanker for the final half of last season, after he returned from the Olympics. "I prefer defensive halfback," he says. "I'd much rather hit than be hit." Gillman, who is naturally planning to try Davenport at split end (he is 6'1", 185), says, "He can have a shot at offensive tackle if he wants it."
However, before football camp comes the outdoor track season. "By the time I'm through in track," Willie Davenport said on a recent evening, "I want those hurdling records to have no one's name on them but yours truly." Except for two high hurdles records, the 120 outdoor and the 60 indoor, which he shares with people like Lee Calhoun, Earl McCullouch and Hayes W. Jones—they do.
But, he realizes, this glory is ephemeral. "Sure I like the attention I get and I'm proud of my success," he said that evening. "It makes me feel good to realize I've accomplished something. But this is a dog-eat-dog world, man. If you want something, you have to go out and get it or you'll be eaten alive." He laughed. "This won't happen to me. Because, you see, by the time I'm 35 I want to do nothing but retire and have babies."