When Houston McTear was 14 years old he won the 100-yard dash in a junior high school track meet, running in sneakers, a T shirt and a worn pair of cut-off blue jeans. He was timed in 9.8 seconds, a performance made more dazzling by the fact that he didn't even have a set of starting blocks.
McTear (rhymes with McVeer) is now 18, a high school junior, the most promising young sprinter in the U.S. and a bona fide candidate for the 1976 Olympic Games, a marvelous prospect for an athlete who has been traveling on a no-frills ticket all his life. McTear is still doing without, but because of his astonishing athletic talent, and some kindly folks in Florida's Okaloosa County who recognize it, he also is doing himself proud.
On six occasions this season McTear has run the 100 in 9.3 to equal the national high school record. In one of those races, at the Florida Relays in Gainesville, he didn't have time to warm up properly. In the long jump, an event he practices about as often as Howard Hughes holds press conferences, his 24'6" mark is the best in the country this year for a high-schooler.
McTear's credentials as a sprinter were solidly established against world-class competition during the indoor season. He ran 50 yards in 5.1 (another national scholastic mark), twice covered 60 yards in 5.9 (one-tenth off the world record) and finished first in the 60 yards in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. meet in Richmond.
All of which isn't half bad for a somewhat bowlegged sprinter with slightly ragged form. For an untutored runner McTear's start is pretty good, although he sometimes comes out of the blocks too high, and he has explosive acceleration through the first 50 yards. Mel Pender, who calls McTear a "born sprinter," says Houston also carries his arms wrong. But after the gun McTear's pistonlike stride is a study in brute strength, one that attacks a race, leaves scorch marks on the track and gives observers the impression that he drives his body too hard for the resiliency of muscles and ligaments. McTear, however, has never suffered a hamstring pull or any other injury.
Despite being 5'7" and 155 pounds, McTear compares himself, as do others, to the much bigger Bob Hayes, whom he resembles in pigeon-toed gait, the kind of raw speed that obliterates flaws in form, bulging calf muscles and proficiency in football. As a running back for the Baker High Gators, McTear gained 1,380 yards on 96 carries last fall. That's a 14.4-yard average, and when Baker occasionally abandoned its Wishbone running attack to throw forward passes, four of them were to McTear for touchdowns.
For a high school junior—indeed, for a collegian or an internationalist—his performances are remarkable. They are even more remarkable when they are considered against the background of his training facilities, which are nonexistent, and his home, which is an indictment of the American Dream.
It is doubtful that many world-class athletes know a world with fewer material advantages than McTear's. Home is a place called Milligan, an off-the-map hamlet set among the soybean farms and pine forests of the Sunshine State's panhandle. McTear's Florida is more like backwoods Alabama than Palm Beach, and it is grinding poverty however you look at it.
Houston lives with his parents, Eddie and Margree (who have seen him run only once), and seven brothers and sisters whose ages range from 19 to four, in a dun-colored, squalid shack at the end of a dirt road. It is first in a row of six similar shacks that run parallel to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks some 75 yards from the front porch. What sets the McTear shack apart from the others is a front-room shelf stacked with Houston's track trophies. The yard is bare dirt with an occasional weed clump, and is littered with old tires, broken boards and the sad assorted flotsam that drifts over places no one really cares about.
The McTears live a quarter of a mile from a local fishing stream called the Yellow River, but its proximity is a dubious blessing. Rising after heavy rains a few weeks ago, it left almost five inches of water in the house.
"They haven't got many screens, if any, on their windows," a concerned friend says, "and I don't know how any of them can stand it in the spring and summer. The mosquitoes that come off the river then are big enough to carry you off."
Not more than 200 yards away on the other side of the tracks, bombarding the McTear home with the daylong, head-splitting clangor of its machinery and the acrid smoke from its kilns, is the Fleming Sawmill Co., where Houston's father has worked for more than 10 years. Friends estimate that he makes $400 a month when the work is steady, driving a fork-lift truck.
Speaking of his son's athletic ability and Olympic hopes, Eddie McTear says, "I'm proud of him. I hope he makes it. Then maybe he won't have to work in a sawmill the rest of his life."
The family's economic plight struck Baker High Principal C. Douglas Griffith in a most poignant manner one day when he prepared to discipline Houston and his older brother George. Griffith is a no-nonsense man and a practitioner of a Florida-sanctioned punishment called "boarding." Boarding is spanking, which Griffith does with a friction-taped plywood paddle.
"Houston and George got in a fight on the bus one day," Griffith says, "and when I got them both in here I said, 'What am I going to have to do, board you kids to stop you from fighting?' Then I asked George if his mama punished him at home, and he said, 'I get whipped almost every day. When I get home, I'm just so hungry that I forget, and I eat too much.' " It is the down-home country custom of the McTears and other families in the area to give the kids an after-school snack from the food that will be served for supper. Mrs. McTear was annoyed when it appeared that her son's ravenous appetite would leave no food for her husband's meal.
Houston recently discovered that not even his track success against the Russians, who rank behind boll weevils in Okaloosa County fan support, could win him a pardon from the paddle. Returning to Baker the day after his celebrated victory, McTear attended one class but cut his next.
"I called him in here," Griffith says, "and he told me, 'I was so tired from the trip home I just didn't go.' Then I said, 'You know I can't let you off,' and he answered, 'O.K., I guess I got it coming.' So he leaned over the desk and I gave him his three licks."
Of McTear's academic work Griffith says, "The good Lord didn't bless him with all the talents, but Houston's come a long way. If he had some of the advantages other kids have, his potential would be unlimited. There's not a boastful bone in his body. He takes everything he's done in stride and with a lot of humility."
McTear's favorite subject is home economics. "I like it," he says. "I learned how to cook, how to set the table." Then, grinning, "I already knew how to wash dishes."
If the thought of a world-class sprinter favoring home ec and being spanked isn't unsettling enough, McTear's training facilities are. Baker High does not have a track, although it should have one soon if the rains that deluged the panhandle this spring don't cause too many construction delays. The track will be of bastard size, a 340-yard oval, but nonetheless a decided improvement over the school's football field, where workouts were previously held.
Baker is the smallest Class 2A school in Florida, with approximately 800 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Owing to the paucity of its athletic facilities, McTear probably holds a world record already—for the 180-degree-turn 220. Starting from one goal line, he races to the other, grabs a goalpost, spins around it to change direction and sprints back to where he started. It is not a style recommended for learning to run the curve.
On Sundays McTear works out near the L&N tracks, sometimes with a teammate named Al Simon, who practices the 120-yard high hurdles over a flight of straight-backed chairs. You've got to be adaptable to be a Gator.
But it helps if there are as many people looking out for your athletic future as McTear has in his corner. Chief among them is Track Coach Will Willoughby, a self-effacing man who may really know as little about track technique as he says he does, but who often pays for McTear's clothes, food and track trips out of his own pocket. A native of Mississippi, Willoughby helped get George McTear a football scholarship to Jackson State, which he will attend in the fall, but Willoughby is determined to protect Houston from the college recruiters who will descend on him next year. Willoughby has already rejected one offer, contingent on delivering McTear, to become an assistant college coach. He and his wife Caroline also try to help Houston and his teammates with speech problems and manners.
Willoughby's biggest contribution to McTear the athlete has been getting him entered in tougher, invitational competition. Toward that end he has had the unflagging support of the Okaloosa County school board and its superintendent, Max Bruner.
"We've spent thousands of dollars sending Houston to various meets this year and we've never had one bit of criticism," Bruner says. "While we try to be as prudent as we can with tax dollars, we realize that this is a once-in-a-lifetime situation, and since track is an individual sport it's possible to do more for him than you could, say, for a great running back or basketball star."
Considering the board's support and the continuing interest of meet promoters, it is probable that McTear will run in big outdoor meets later this year after his high school season is over. The International Freedom Games in Kingston, Jamaica, the California Relays at Modesto and the AAU Championships in Eugene, Ore. seem likely bets.
The school board also has deliberated the wisdom of McTear playing football, which obviously could jeopardize his track future.
"If it were up to me," Bruner says, "I'd tell him never to step on the field again. But Jake Gaither of Florida A&M spoke here not too long ago, and he told Houston that while Bob Hayes got his world recognition in track, he made his dollars playing football for the Cowboys. We've talked about sitting down with the coaches to get him out of the, football program, but you can't make decisions for another person's life. Coming from an economically deprived background like he does, he might want to give that pro game a lick."
"I kinda thought about it," McTear says in a slow, guttural baritone. "I thought about not playin' and then I thought about playin', and I made up my mind I'm gonna play if I can be a receiver instead of a running back."
If either football or track brings him any money, McTear says, "I'd probably save up and help Mama and them out. I've heard her talk about gettin' a house trailer. I'd probably help her get it."
Griffith says McTear has already left a legacy to Baker High. "We'd been after a track even before Houston came here," he says, "and now you see the one they're fixing outside. The school board might not like me saying this, but if we didn't have Houston and if our team hadn't made a good showing, well, I wouldn't say we might not have the track, but it would be easy to forget about us. That will be a contribution that Houston and some other kids have left to his school. He is going to help a lot of kids that way."
"The biggest thrill I've had out of Houston," Bruner says, "was last February when he won the all-sports trophy for northwest Florida. Seeing him walk up in front of 600 people and make his acceptance speech, out of his cultural background, showed me that he was maturing, and that this was what education was all about. That was an accomplishment."
Even so one worries about the vulnerability of McTear and his disadvantaged family. At the subsistence level a few dollars can seem a fortune, and no great imagination is necessary to foresee the temptations, if not pitfalls, that lie ahead. It would be a shame if the frills tempted McTear, just as he was starting to go first class.