In The Fast Lane Again

This season Stanley Floyd proved himself to be the No. 1 sprinter indoors. Now he wants to regain that same ranking outdoors
April 05, 1982

A drizzly Tuesday afternoon has driven two University of Houston teams into Hofheinz Pavilion to train. Cougar football players are running laps on a concrete walkway that rings the basketball arena. Stanley Floyd, a Houston junior, is up there, too, with his track teammates, waiting for the last lumbering lineman to finish and clear out. As several burly players thump past, Floyd reads their splits off an imaginary stopwatch. "Mon-day, Tues-day, Wednes-day!" he calls out, as if these are tenths. Everyone laughs. Floyd likes that. "Jan-u-ary, Feb-ru-ary, March!" he yells.

"You coming out for the team next year?" one of the football players shouts over to Floyd. Surprisingly, the player's tone isn't threatening but hopeful. Floyd, perhaps the fastest man in the world, could be devastating for the Cougars as a wide receiver or kick returner. He certainly could withstand the rigors of Southwest Conference ball; he's 5'9¾" and a thickly muscled 168 pounds. And he has outstanding leaping ability and is dexterous enough to type 60 words per minute. But what Floyd wants to play is pro football—that's where the money is—after winning the 100-meter dash at the 1984 Olympics. "Give me security first," says Floyd. "Treat me like Herschel [Walker]. He gets my publicity at track meets. Give me his $1 million insurance policy. Then I'll go out there for you. I'll go out there, point down to this leg and say, 'Break it!' " He laughs.

Finally the walkway is empty, and Floyd glides through a series of 60-yard sprints, preparing for an indoor meet four days hence in Cleveland. There, in the 55-meter dash, he will establish his third world indoor record (6.10) of 1982. "I've run several world records right here in practice," he says. "I've been timed in 5.5 for the 60 in here." Floyd is serious in making this claim. A 5.5 60 would be more than half a second better than his world record of 6.04. A conservative conversion of that time would compute out to an 8.2 100-yard dash. "Well," says Floyd, "I do feel I'm the greatest indoor sprinter ever to come along." Now, he's deadly serious.

As well he should be. Floyd won all but one of his seven indoor races this winter and now holds the world indoor mark for 50 yards (5.22), as well as for 60 yards (6.09) and 55 meters (6.10). The only indoor sprint records he hasn't broken are the 50-and 60-meter marks held, respectively, by USC's James Sanford (5.61) and the semiretired Houston McTear (6.54). Floyd's outdoor credentials are impressive, too. He was ranked first in the world at 100 meters in 1980, when he set a world junior record of 10.07, and he was rated fifth last year, with a best of 10.10, despite persistent hamstring injuries. Floyd is the early favorite to win the NCAA 100 title at Provo, Utah in June, and as the outdoor season gets into full swing this weekend, he'll begin working toward regaining the world's No. 1 ranking from his Houston teammate, Carl Lewis. "What I envision for Stanley won't happen until late May or June, when he peaks," says Cougar Sprint Coach Clyde Duncan. And what Duncan envisions "are some pretty big things."

It would appear that the outwardly ebullient Floyd has life by the tail. He's engaged to marry Delisa Walton, a halfmiler for the University of Tennessee, on June 26, and he's doing all right—a 2.9 average—in his studies toward a degree in communications. "I'm thinking TV," he says. "On radio, people don't see you. That's not me." He starts waving his arms wildly. "Cameras! Lights! Action! Fade in! Right here!"

And though Floyd's family isn't well off, he drives around Houston in his own Mercedes 240D diesel (license plate: FLOYD 1) and has an impressively furnished two-bedroom apartment all to himself. "Curious, isn't it?" he asks a visitor, with a smile. Floyd seems excessively conscious of money and material objects; this he denies—and denies and denies. He contends that except for his dozens of warmup suits and pairs of track shoes—his usual attire for everything from classes to semiformal dinners—none of his very apparent affluence has come through the broadly acknowledged system of under-the-table payments to world-class runners. Floyd says that his three older brothers—Louis, 28, manager of the West Building Supply Company in Albany, Ga.; Walter, 26, a technician at the Albany Procter & Gamble plant; Karl, 23, a mental health caseworker in Houston—have provided him with his luxuries. "They look at me like a pro football player," he says. "I'm at the top of my field, and they think I should live that way. They say, if the press won't build you up, we will."

There is, you see, disaffection beneath Floyd's ever-present grin. "You can go around with a smile on your face and nobody ever knows what's within," he says. Bitterness lingers in him from an unpleasant year he spent attending—and departing from—Auburn, and he feels he hasn't received enough favorable attention. "I'm the most underpublicized sprinter there is," he says.

Floyd is more content at Houston than he was at Auburn, yet he tends to stay in his apartment, watching TV, talking on the phone to his fiancée in Knoxville for several hours each night, listening to jazz and lifting weights in his spare bedroom. His closest friends are brother Karl and several cousins, all of whom live within a few miles of Houston's main campus. And though sprinting is Floyd's primary interest, he says, "I'll be honest with you. Meeting Delisa is the only true happiness I've ever gotten out of track and field."

Floyd grew up with his three brothers, his sister, Jennifer, now 19, and his mother, Rosa, a cook, in the tiny (pop. 750) southwest Georgia town of Putney. He was raised, he says, in "a neighborhood of relatives"; his grandparents and four families of aunts, uncles and cousins all lived on a 135-acre plot owned by Stanley's grandfather. Stanley's father, James, a career Marine, moved away when Stanley was a young child; he's bitter about that, too. "But my mother raised—I mean reared—us proper," he says. "It wasn't elegance but we ate well. All my brothers went to college, and none of us was a hoodlum." Here Floyd goes into a Richard Nixon imitation: "I am not a crook."

Floyd's playmates were, almost exclusively, brothers and cousins. "We were all brothers, really," says cousin Kelvin Terry, 21, who shares an apartment in Houston with Karl. The boys in this extended family were always together playing games or hunting rabbit and squirrel or racing on foot or motorbike around the quarter-mile dirt oval on the Floyd property. Stanley could keep up only for short distances in races with his older brothers, all of whom became outstanding high school milers or half-milers. He was also the sissy, the quitter of the group. "They said I had sugar in my gas tank," he says.

The first time Floyd and two of his cousins ventured from their closed social circle, to play Little League baseball, they were met head on by racism. "We were told straight out that we weren't wanted," says Floyd. "We were the only ones told. We also happened to be the league's only blacks." Floyd, who maintains his first love in athletics was baseball, has not played the game since.

Still, Floyd's whole life revolved around sports. He was a running back and defensive back in junior high and a flanker at Dougherty High, where "they didn't have anybody to throw me the ball." He won several local powerlifting and weightlifting titles in the 148-pound class. He drag-raced, too, on the streets of Albany, first in an old Chevy Malibu and later in a Vega. "This wasn't a normal Vega," he says. "The engine had been worked on and everything." Floyd also bowled in the 180s, came to dunk a basketball with ease and developed into a good swimmer.

Kelvin Terry says that "the Floyd name was known in running before Stanley came along," referring to the 880 and mile performances of Louis, Walter and Karl. Louis, for example, once ran a 4:06 mile while a student at Albany (Ga.) State and now is an excellent road racer. Stanley, however, struggled with even middle distances. "It was pure agony," he says. One day during his sophomore year in high school, Stanley's miling career suddenly—and mercifully—ended. He raced and defeated the school's sprint coach in a 100-yard fun run and was timed in 9.9.

The following year, on a dirt track, Floyd ran a 9.3 100 from a standing start. "I didn't use blocks until my senior year because I figured I was running fast enough without them," he says. By the end of his high school career in 1979, Floyd had won 54 straight sprints and state 100-and 220-yard-dash titles. None of Floyd's high school success, however, prepared anyone for what he would do in 1980 as an Auburn freshman.

"We'd expected Stanley to be a good sprinter," says Auburn Coach Mel Rosen. "He wasn't good. He was great." Floyd became the most valuable member of the Auburn team, consistently scoring points in the 100-meter dash, the 200, the 400, and the 400 and mile relays. He set his world junior record in the 100 and won every individual 100 he ran, including the SEC and NCAA championships.

In the summer after his first collegiate season, Floyd had 100-meter victories in The Athletics Congress outdoor championships, the Olympic Trials and 13 of 15 meets in Europe and China. Twice he defeated 1980 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Allan Wells of Great Britain. Floyd, who had been virtually unknown outside of Georgia just a year before, had become a celebrity: He was the world's fastest human.

That stunning development was succeeded by another shocker. In early September, a week after returning from China and two days after classes had begun at Auburn, Floyd went to the registrar's office and dropped all his courses. "The walls fell in," he says. "I was accused of taking money in Europe and getting a big head and being ungrateful. I was marked 'Brand X.' No good. Coach Rosen had created a monster, and that monster had rose up and ate Auburn."

Floyd just didn't like Auburn. He felt he'd been pressured into going there by family and friends back in Putney, which is 160 miles south of the school, where Tiger alumni are plentiful and persuasive. "The boosters held these meetings all the time to talk about what a nice college it was," says Floyd. His relatives found the meetings convincing. Though he could not decide between Auburn and South Carolina, everyone he knew preferred Auburn. "People were like, 'Hurry, stick the pen in your hand and sign,' " Floyd says. On May 1, 1979, the day he was scheduled to endorse a letter of intent to Auburn, Floyd was still having second thoughts. He called a friend, telling him he was reconsidering. Even when Auburn Assistant Coach Mike Muka arrived, Floyd was hesitant. A photograph in the next morning's Albany Herald showed Floyd at the signing, smiling thinly, pen in hand, with his uncle Joe James watching over one shoulder, grandmother Mary Floyd looking over the other and Rosa Floyd observing from one side.

Auburn is an isolated, overwhelmingly white—by a 30-to-l ratio—school, and Floyd, who retained a vivid memory of that day at Little League tryouts, did not feel comfortable there. He became depressed by what he considered the lack of social life. Floyd is normally an entertaining young man who speaks rapidly and with great animation and emphasis. At Auburn, however, he kept to himself. "It was dead" he says. "There weren't parties. Nothing. The closest place to go was Tuskegee, maybe 20 miles away, and my car was broken." The Vega had finally blown its motor from the strain of drag racing.

"Stanley kept talking about going into the Army," says Rosen, now in his 19th year as the Tigers' coach. "He's from a very poor family and he needed money to fix his car. He wanted some pocket money, too. He seemed very concerned with making money."

"I don't want to complain, but how does three dollars' meal money sound on trips?" says Floyd. "You can't buy eggs for that most places. Not eggs and toast."

Rosen says Floyd was an exemplary team member during most of Auburn's spring schedule. "Maybe he felt overworked, but Stanley never came to me and begged out of a single workout or race," he says. "Perhaps he's forgotten that we didn't run hard on weekdays. We only ran hard on weekends." Floyd recalls it differently, saying he felt he had to carry too much of the Tigers' burden. "Before a meet [Rosen] would go to a board and write out how many points he expected from each of us. Bam, bam, bam, bam. It was determined. If you didn't get your points, you had failed. He always had me down for some ridiculous number, like 18 in the conference meet." (Floyd, in fact, scored 18½ in the SEC outdoor championships.)

During his travels in the summer of '80, Floyd often asked Carl Lewis, who would be a sophomore at Houston that fall, why he chose the school. "You got the impression that he was shopping around," says Lewis. "I told him Houston was what you made it. The opportunities were there." Floyd also talked to Rosen, who coached the U.S. national team on the trip to China. "Stanley said that if he came back to Auburn he wanted to be able to pick and choose his races," Rosen says. "I told him that was impossible. He was part of the team, and he would do whatever the team needed. Otherwise he might as well start looking somewhere else." Former Auburn sprinter Harvey Glance, a friend and mentor of Floyd's, warned Rosen that Floyd was already doing just that. And when Floyd discovered that there would be no new sprinters to share the load, he made up his mind to leave Auburn.

Rosen, and many others, believe that Floyd's sudden success against world-class opposition and his tour of the lucrative European track circuit did indeed go to his head. "Let's put it this way," says Rosen. "If those things hadn't happened, Stanley would still be here." That Floyd had returned to Auburn driving a new Mazda RX-7—another gift from his brothers, he says—only made him seem all the more worldly. And Floyd admits he "was looking for a place where I'd get more exposure."

Actually, his withdrawal from Auburn got him plenty of pub—but not the kind he wanted. "I learned two things about leaving a school," he says. "One, you lose almost all your friends. Two, the press will do you in." Floyd claims he was misquoted frequently and that Rosen was being given all the credit for his rise to fame. "Coach Rosen didn't make me great," Floyd snaps. "I was a 9.3 sprinter coming out of high school. I had a gift of speed from God."

After his withdrawal from Auburn, Floyd was so incensed by Rosen's refusal to let him continue working out on the school's track that he thought about picking a fight with his former coach. "I was acting out of pure anger," says Floyd. "I had learned that the red carpet can roll up as easily as it went down."

Instead, Floyd returned to Putney in early October to decide about his future. He considered joining the Army or getting a job. But he knew from experience—the summers he had spent running a concessions stand at a public pool and toiling on a Putney road-paving crew—that work can be...a lot of work. After talking to Duncan and Cougar Head Coach Tom Tellez, he came to Houston in November of 1980.

"I never, ever got a transfer like that before," says Tellez, who more or less left Floyd on his own last year, while Floyd was going through the mandatory season of post-transfer ineligibility. Floyd liked Houston, school and city, almost immediately, even though he "still felt like: damn! Nobody in this world wants me," and even though his prized RX-7 was broken into and stripped of even its floor mats soon after he arrived. "I found that Houston was what Carl Lewis had told me it was," says Floyd. "That was good enough."

Floyd wasn't yet going out with Walton, but he had introduced himself to her at the April 1980 Penn Relays. She had responded by standing up and walking away. "She sure did," said Stanley, shaking his head at the memory as he and Walton sat side-by-side at the Ohio KC meet in Cleveland in February.

"Well, I thought you were giving me a line," said Walton. "I thought you had a lot of girl friends."

"I figured you had a lot of boyfriends" said Floyd.

Walton, the fourth-ranked woman 800-meter runner in the U.S. last year, is generally quiet but can be feisty. "How could I have boyfriends?" she asked. "You would always come up when a guy was around me and start saying, 'Delisa, I love you. I want to be your man.' " The two finally began dating while competing in Europe last summer, and Floyd proposed in October. "But he didn't get down on his he should have," said Walton.

"You were standing up," said Floyd.

"You should have told me to sit down."

Walton, a junior from Detroit, majors in speech pathology; she chose that field because she has a 10-year-old cousin who stutters. Around her, Floyd shows his sensitive side. Perhaps his strongest memory from high school, he says, is of a Special Olympics meet he attended. "The kids were having trouble running straight, and people in the stands were laughing at them. I wanted to yell at those people. I wanted to cry." He was similarly affected at a meet in Dallas in January, when he had to scratch from the final of the 60 because of a sore back. A young boy and his father came up to Floyd afterward. The boy was in tears. "He came here just to see you run," said the father. Floyd apologized. He also promised that at next year's meet he would bring the child down to the starting line with him.

"Stanley's been through a lot, but he's a very good man," says Duncan. He and Tellez have changed Floyd's start this year, shifting his weight back onto the rear block and changing the angles between his legs and his torso. "His forward lean used to be so much that he had to get a foot down quickly at the gun just to avoid falling on his face," says Tellez.

Floyd feels he fell on his face last year by dropping to No. 5 in the world rankings. "I heard it a lot: 'Floyd was a flash, but now he's gone,' " he says. "I intend to run my fastest 100 ever this year. I say, 'Who's gone?' "

Floyd smiles. "By the way, you haven't asked the big question about me and Delisa. After we're married, which one of us is going to move? Hmmm."

He laughs and strokes his chin. "Would it shock you if I moved again?" Floyd asks. "It would shock a lot of people. Oh, yes. But not me. A man has got to live his own life, you know, and he ought to be happy." Which is why the aspiring world's fastest human, once again, is not uncomfortable being a man on the move.

PHOTOFloyd won six of seven sprints and set three world marks on the indoor circuit in 1982. PHOTOFloyd may stand only 5'9¾", but on a basketball court he can become 10 feet tall. PHOTORosen's reliance on Floyd has cost him. PHOTOFloyd and Tennessee runner Delisa Walton look forward to a June meet at the altar. PHOTOFloyd is at home in front of, or in back of, a TV camera. PHOTOWhether Floyd will try pro football after the 1984 Olympics will be a weighty decision.

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