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CHAMPION OF THE ARMCHAIR ATHLETES

Feb. 22, 1971
Feb. 22, 1971

Table of Contents
Feb. 22, 1971

The Memory
Sapporo
Dr. Meriwether
Frazier
  • "I'm a small piece of leather but I'm well put together, and nobody commands me.... I don't see how he can survive, unless he runs." So says Joe Frazier in a rare interview with Morton Sharnik

St. Vincent
Track & Field
Boxing
Motor Sports
Body Surfing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

CHAMPION OF THE ARMCHAIR ATHLETES

Dr. Delano Meriwether, a mild-mannered hematologist, strips off his lab coat, dons a swimsuit and runs for fun

Walter Mitty, alias Dr. Delano Meriwether (see cover), was still in the running last weekend, but he almost woke up from the dream. The Baltimore blood specialist who has given indoor track a shot in the arm this season with his astonishing performances in the dashes, stumbled coming out of the blocks in the semifinals of the 60 at the Times Indoor Games in Los Angeles. Despite a courageous rally, he finished behind Bobby Turner and Mel Pender, the eventual winner, and missed out on the finals for the first time in his brief and wholly improbable career.

This is an article from the Feb. 22, 1971 issue Original Layout

Dr. Meriwether, who took up indoor track just last month when he ran in the National Invitational Meet in College Park, Md. (SI, Jan. 18), was the great favorite of the Forum crowd, just as he has been everywhere he goes. He was greeted by whistles, cheers and loud applause when he lined up for his heat. After his customary bad start, he was a full three feet behind at the midway point, but he came on to finish first. Unfortunately, he pulled his left hamstring in the process, and that affliction plus his stumbling start did him in in the semifinals. The following night in Louisville he pulled his right hamstring while winning his heat of the 70-yard dash and watched from the sidelines as Pender won the finals in 6.8, tying his own world record.

Will the injuries force Dr. Meriwether to give up track? "Even if I broke my leg or injured a nerve, I'd be thinking of running," he said stoutly. "It does two things for me—exercise and entertainment—and I'm not about to give it up. But I've been wondering how long I have left. You can't sprint the way I do—burn the last 20 yards—and expect to stay healthy or beat the good ones."

Even if he never ran another step Dr. Meriwether has compiled an extraordinary record this winter. Prior to last weekend, he had competed in seven meets, finishing first twice, second three times, third once and fifth once. His best time for the 60 was 6.0, one-tenth off the world record, and he won the 50 at the Boston AA meet, where he was chosen the outstanding athlete. More to the point, Dr. Meriwether has become the champion of millions of armchair athletes who know in their hearts they can knock a Bob Gibson fastball out of the park, kick the winning field goal with nine seconds showing on the clock or deck Muhammad Ali. In less than two months Dr. Meriwether has become an authentic folk hero: 27 years old, never a competitive runner until last summer, a distinguished medical researcher.

Dr. Meriwether is so new to track and so appealingly innocent that he doesn't realize what his presence means to meet promoters. Instead of demanding a first-class round-trip ticket, he gladly flies coach because he is delighted to be competing anywhere. His training time is ludicrously brief. When he can get away from his lab at the Baltimore Cancer Research Center, he has to train figuratively and literally in the dark. There are no lights on the outdoor tracks at Johns Hopkins or Morgan State, and there are no proper indoor facilities nearby. So twice a week, thrice if he's lucky, he sets off in the dark of night to run by himself. He has no coach to advise him, either. "To ask a coach to come out at night to see me run in the dark is a little ridiculous, needless to say," says Dr. Meriwether. "A coach could see very little and furthermore it's not safe to practice starts at night. I might get a volley in return."

The explosion of the starter's gun is still so strange to the doctor's ears that he had an acquaintance meet him on the morning of his race at the Forum last week to fire a blank pistol into the air. After nine rounds were expended in the empty arena, Dr. Meriwether announced that he had become accustomed to the sound. Up until then, he had heard a total of four rounds fired in practice. As he himself admits, his starts are atrocious. The gun goes off and away goes the rest of the field. Dr. Meriwether, who didn't choose to specialize in proctology, is left staring at five behinds. The main trouble seems to be his arms. "Both of them apparently go back together," he says. "I feel my pectorals tightening up and I think, hmm, that's odd for a sprinter. My deltoids should be more active." Starting is such a problem to the doctor that he has to think about routine procedures, such as which foot goes where in that strange contraption called the starting blocks. "I don't know when I make my biggest move," he says. "As far as when I catch my opponents, if I catch them, it's usually near the 45th or 50th yard, I think. Sometimes I never catch them."

Track nuts, who have watched Dr. Meriwether run, drool at the thought of what he could do with a little instruction. Jumbo Elliott, the Villanova track coach, saw him compete at the Knights of Columbus meet in Madison Square Garden a fortnight ago, and Elliott was both delighted and aghast.

"He's got to use his arms and move out of the blocks," Jumbo said. "If he does, he'll be fantastic. He's an economical sprinter—he doesn't have too much waste motion once he gets started, and he stays close to the ground. He has a light touch. I'd love to talk to him for just three or four hours."

Informed of this, Dr. Meriwether said in his very measured manner, "I certainly appreciate that. I respect him as a coach. I've heard criticism of my arm action before, and it's one of my real shortcomings. I did my internship at the Hospitals of the University of Pennsylvania, so I am familiar with the name Elliott. I followed Larry James during his career, and no doubt Elliott has a lot to offer. I am very happy to hear that he would be willing to give me pointers. I have a number of shortcomings. I may see him. It depends."

Somewhat to the doctor's surprise, rival sprinters have been free with pointers and praise. Says Dr. Meriwether, "Sprinters are supposed to be egotistical dudes who know they're good and have the right to feel they can beat the best around. But there have been no intimidating remarks at all."

Hasn't anyone tried to psych you? "Absolutely not." Have you tried to psych anyone? "I don't know how," Dr. Meriwether says, adding, "I have my work cut out for me when they say, 'Get into your blocks.' Every remark has been helpful. Charlie Greene has made some favorable comments and given me a number of pointers. He's emphasized ways of getting out of the blocks a little quicker, he's emphasized my arm action. I haven't had a chance to follow up on them. Pender has given me some very good pointers. Again, I haven't had a chance to work on them. Jim Green will point out that I let my knees drop in the last 10 yards, or something on that order. They all fully realize that I will get a chance to follow up on their pointers, but personally I don't want to know every secret they have. However, I certainly appreciate them making comments voluntarily that may be of help to me. It takes a very good spirit to say to me, 'You may beat me, but why not consider this?' "

A couple of hours before a race Dr. Meriwether goes into what approximates a trance, not coming out of it until perhaps 10 minutes after the finals. "I must concentrate," he explains. "Concentration is important to me. I review, perhaps in a very unorganized fashion, some of the things I have picked up. Hopefully, in time I'll be able to do these things automatically. At this stage, to do well in the caliber of competition I'm in, concentration is needed on my part. If the Buffalo Bills had to play the Los Angeles Rams on Friday night and come right back and play the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night, it would be a little taxing."

When Dr. Meriwether lines up for a race, he is a striking figure in his getup of gold swimming trunks, white hospital shirt and white and gold suspenders. "I wore this uniform at my very first indoor meet," he says, "and it has not changed in the slightest since. It will stay this way for the entire indoor season and I will stick with it whether I win or lose. Why the swim trunks? They are reasonably tight fitting, and I think that athletes who are well built should pride themselves on having some part of their body look reasonably well. It's hard for me to believe that the top sprinters in the country don't realize that their legs look really muscular. In an effort to emphasize this strong point, I felt that instead of wearing standard boxer-type, loose-fitting pants, why not put on something that's a little more appealing? As far as the hospital shirt is concerned, this is the only thing I had to run in. The suspenders are afunctional. They don't hold up anything. They're part of the uniform."

And why are the suspenders part of the uniform? Dr. Meriwether smiles and says, "They just happened to be something I wanted to wear. If there were a law passed saying I had to have a reason for the suspenders, I'd say they're to keep my hospital shirt from ballooning out. They're for vanity's sake, I guess. Showmanship? Hmm, obviously that element is there. Conceivably the suspenders could be an identifying mark. Now, the sprinter from Madagascar has a very long name [Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa], and so everyone refers to him as the guy from Madagascar. So runners can refer to me as the guy with the suspenders. For experienced sprinters to say of an upstart like me, 'I was beaten by Meriwether' is having to give something, and so if they say, 'I was beaten by the guy in the suspenders,' it's easier for them."

The suspenders may also be a concession to his age. Dr. Meriwether will be 28 on April 23. He was born in Nashville, and when he was 2 his family moved to Charleston, S.C. His father, W. R. Meriwether, had a degree in education, but when he first arrived in Charleston he worked as a pipe fitter in the naval shipyard. Shortly afterward he began teaching science at Burke High School, where he now is the principal. Mrs. Meriwether, the doctor's mother, is an elementary school teacher, and the only other child, Sue Francis, 23, is also a teacher.

"Perhaps I got my scientific interests from my father," Dr. Meriwether says. "I always have been interested in biology in particular. While I was in high school—no, my father didn't teach me—I wanted to do something with living animals, and there was an opening at a veterinary hospital. I was able to get a job there as a caretaker. This was fun, believe me. In fact, I entered the state science fair with an exhibit entitled Internal Parasites of the Dog. It involved all the numerous kinds of worms a dog can have. I collected them from stools down on my hands and knees with tweezers, and I collected heartworms at surgery or from an autopsy. Heartworms are common in the Charleston area; they are transmitted by a species of mosquito. It's exciting to detect the presence of the filarial form of this particular parasite. This exhibit went on to the National Science Fair and won an award from the American Veterinary Association. It was the first year they ever gave one. The following year I expanded the exhibit to include external parasites, and it went on to the National Science Fair, where it placed in the rankings of exhibits."

Dr. Meriwether received a small academic scholarship to Michigan State, where he took a preveterinary course. He was accepted into veterinary school at the end of two years but, he says, "I changed my mind and thought that perhaps I could contribute something in the field of medicine. I would have liked to have been a veterinarian, but I felt that medicine offered more of a challenge, and this was appealing to me."

At the end of his third year at Michigan State he was accepted for admission to Duke Medical School. He left Michigan without an undergraduate degree; indeed, his only degree is the M.D. he received from Duke in 1967. In his first year there Meriwether decided he would become a hematologist, a specialist in blood diseases. "I was quite fortunate," he says, "in having contact with Dr. Charles Mengel, who not only stimulated my interest in research but who also had a tremendous influence on my ultimately becoming a hematologist. He was very interested in young people."

Being the first black at Duke Medical School was, says Dr. Meriwether, contrary to what one might expect, in fact what he characterizes as "a comfortable situation. Medical school has its trying times regardless of who you are. As far as added stresses were concerned, I could detect very, very few if any. I was more concerned with learning as much as I could about taking care of human beings. I had little time for outside endeavors."

One of the few for which he found time was visiting Bennett, a black women's college 60 miles from Durham, where he would, as he says, "sit around on the lawn and look at girls." At Bennett he met Myrtle Capehart when she happened to be sitting on the hood of his car in the parking lot during a homecoming weekend. Always soft-spoken, Dr. Meriwether inquired, "Young lady, do you make a habit of sitting on someone's car?" They began dating and were married in 1968, two weeks after Myrtle graduated. They have one child, a girl 15 months old, also named Myrtle but called Mitzi.

During his internship at Penn and his residency at Ohio State University Hospitals, Dr. Meriwether would make it a point to visit other hospitals so he could widen his range of experience. "At the University of Pennsylvania hospital," he says, "we tended to have patients who said, 'I'm having that stomach trouble again, doctor,' but at another hospital a patient might be arriving in a coma."

At Penn and Ohio State the doctor began working on papers, either as junior author or on his own. He collaborated with Dr. Mengel on a series on an unusual blood disease that was published in such journals as Biochemistry, Blood and The Journal of Clinical Investigation and was the senior author of a paper published in the British journal Nature. On his own, Dr. Meriwether wrote a paper about a patient who came in from the cold at Ohio State with a body temperature of 84°. The article is due to appear in the American Journal of Medicine. "It was interesting to follow this patient along and note her general physiologic changes," Dr. Meriwether says. "Of course, any and every patient has some significance for virtually every doctor. A patient is a human being." The doctor has a number of other papers in press. He likes writing because, as he puts it, "writing requires clear thinking."

In 1969 Dr. Meriwether joined the Baltimore Cancer Research Center, a subdivision of the National Cancer Institute, which in turn is part of the National Institutes of Health. During his first year in Baltimore he was involved in the care of patients with leukemia and other malignant diseases, but he is now primarily concerned with testing experimental antileukemic drugs on mice.

Dr. Meriwether took up track last winter because it was, according to him, "relaxing physical exertion. I wasn't thinking about a drug dosage or a diagnosis. I owe it to myself to get away for a few hours from medicine and socioeconomic problems."

He began running in February of 1970 after attending a local track meet and did very well competing in sneakers on armory floors in a series of minor meets. One day last July he was at home watching the U.S. vs. France track meet on television. The U.S. sprinters had a bad day, and the doctor turned to his wife and said, "I could beat those guys." Myrtle sort of shrugged and said, "Sure, honey." That was all the encouragement the doctor needed. He campaigned briefly outdoors, running the 100 in 9.6, 9.5 and 9.4.

Dr. Meriwether's excursions on the boards have caused no difficulties with his colleagues at the research center. His boss, Dr. Nicholas Bachur, says, "We're enthralled. He has extremely good relations with his colleagues because of his easygoing competence and high ability in his scientific work. Next to his family, we're his biggest cheering section." Outside Dr. Meriwether's office door an associate has placed a star next to his name. Says Dr. Meriwether, "There have been absolutely no discouraging remarks in terms of upholding the image of a physician or putting in time in the laboratory. I think it goes without saying, among those who know me, that I stay until I'm satisfied with my work. Fortunately, my laboratory work has been coming along quite well. I've been extremely pleased with the way things have developed and, if anything, I may be a little ahead of schedule in terms of getting my laboratory work done. However, this still demands time, and in the past couple of weeks it has been particularly taxing. There have been a couple of nights when I've worked past midnight, and I've seen the sun rise on occasion. I've had a lot of support from my wife. She also knows that I realize I'm getting old. If I'm going to run, perhaps it's already too late. But still, if I'm going to get this out of my system, I might as well do it now. My wife helps remind me that although this new added dimension of competitive track is an exciting one, for me medicine comes first. There's no doubt that if I had to make the decision between a patient or my work vs. track, track would have to go."

Whether or not Dr. Meriwether will run outdoors is undecided at this point, to say nothing about any ambitions for the 1972 Olympics. "There are a variety of factors that will influence how much I will pursue outdoor running," he said early last week, "and outdoors is perhaps better suited for me. First of all, I have to get through the indoor season. I have to take it race by race. Certainly, my running program has been a little heavy compared to that of the more experienced runners. For example, Charlie Green is taking it easy now. He's been around, so he knows how it's done. He knows that two meets a week for three straight weeks is not the way to do it. But again, I'm very early, or perhaps very late, in my track career and I am eager to run.

"Secondly, I have to contend with injuries. After every race I'm a little sore. I'm not sure that this is shared by every runner. I've talked with some of the more experienced runners, and they say that they are sore, too. It's my legs usually, sometimes hamstrings, sometimes interior thigh muscles. This usually lasts two, three or four days and is gone by the following week. Thirdly, my work demands may change July 1. Then I will be in Boston at the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory, one of the major hematology laboratories in the country, which is a subdivision of Harvard. I will be on the staff of the Harvard service, but I'll primarily be concerned with laboratory research. If it's impossible for me to run, well, I will not run."

If he can run, the doctor expects to do better in the 100 than he has in the 60, because the start is not as critical. In Los Angeles last week, Mel Pender gave voice to the opinion that Dr. Meriwether could do 9.1 in the 100, which would mean he would tie the world record. The doctor himself says, "I would say I am best suited for the quarter-mile, but I would never run it competitively. It takes too much out of me in terms of a training program."

Whether or not the doctor continues depends, then, on several factors, of which medicine is the main one. But even if he doesn't compete after July 1, he certainly will take a couple of hours a week to get out and sprint on his own. "My body is exercising and my mind is relaxing," he says, "and I think these are the essentials of sport."

PHOTOIn a typical Meriwether start, his competitors are off and running with the gun while the good doctor slowly rises from the blocks.PHOTODr. Meriwether analyzes serum samples in his Baltimore Cancer Research Center lab.PHOTOOne of Dr. Meriwether's colleagues, who are his most avid fans, elevated him to star status.