Reading, Mass., a bedroom community of about 23,000 people 12
miles north of Boston, is in almost every respect a typical New
England small town. There is a lush village green and a
wind-blasted graveyard, lanky steeples sit atop somber churches,
and quaint shops line a tidy main street. Reading is 351 years
old, but even such heady anniversaries are common stuff in this
part of Massachusetts. To see what's distinctive about Reading,
you need to look for life on the hill next to the graveyard.
Each year as winter thaws into spring, teenage boys run up the
road alongside the graveyard. A graveyard can be an unsettling
place, but no member of the Reading Memorial High School track
team spends these training runs fretting about ghouls. On the
mind of every runner is a very real and gruff 51-year-old
ex-Marine sergeant who has been known to hurry a lagging runner
through his paces with a sharp, well-placed word or two.
If truth be told, however, there aren't many dawdlers on Hal
Croft's track teams. Since 1973, two years after he took over as
the boys' team coach, the Rockets have gone 207-0-1 in dual
meets against teams in the Middlesex League. Thirteen times in
those 22 years, the Rockets have won the Class B state
championship, most recently in 1993.
``You gotta be a humble icon,'' Croft will tell you, adding that
he doesn't ``give a rat's tail'' about all this success, because
``I'm an English teacher first.'' Fair enough, except that you
don't become a highly successful coach without caring about
winning more than most.
In the stands at Reading meets, fans from rival schools whisper
that Croft is ``a tyrant.'' In the hallways at Reading High,
however, Croft can't get to the library without someone stopping
him to ask how to sign up for track. In all, 15% to 20% of the
boys at 1,000-student Reading High routinely join the boys'
track team and not many quit. Instead, gangly types who can't
shoot a basketball or hit a baseball develop into formidable
middle-distance runners, sprinters and jumpers because they have
one of those rare coaches who can make a boy believe that if he
tries hard enough, he can become whatever he likes, on the track
and beyond. ``Why do you think I'm so tough?'' Croft will ask
after one of his famously brutal Saturday-morning workouts.
``Because I'm mean? No. It's that out in the real world
everybody's a tiger.''
Croft, the son of a house painter, grew up in Malden, Mass.
``Since I can remember,'' he says, ``I've admired the drama, the
beauty and the intensity of track.'' When he was about 11 he
read about Villanova's legendary track coach, Jumbo Elliot, and
several years later about Villanova's great miler Ron Delany.
``I became fascinated with what Villanova was--the courage a lot
of those guys showed on the track,'' Croft says. At Malden High
School, Croft was a reasonably talented sprinter who could run
100 yards in about 11 seconds. When he got to Villanova, amid
the likes of Olympian Frank Budd and future Olympian Paul
Drayton, Croft became, he says, a stiff.
He left college during his junior year and signed on with the
Marines, which is how he found himself in Vietnam in 1967.
``That's where I learned about human nature, endurance and
tolerance,'' he says. ``I learned about individual motivation,
young men taking advantage of their potential while they have
it.'' Croft was awarded the Silver Star following a battle near
Conthien, in which he killed six North Vietnamese troops with
hand grenades. He was given the Bronze Star for patching up
wounded soldiers and saving four lives after his corpsman was
killed in a battle on Hill 861, near Khe Sanh. He was one of
fewer than 30 Americans out of a company of 90 men who survived
the night. After a year of war and two bouts with malaria, Croft
returned to Villanova, where he completed his degree in English.
Then he went home again to Massachusetts.
The Reading track team was 0-9 in the spring of 1970. Croft
began teaching English and coaching the Rocket runners the
following school year. In Croft's first season the Rockets
finished 3-6. ``It was humiliating,'' says Croft. ``I could see
the reason we were getting our tails kicked. We lacked respect
for the sport.'' In 1972 the team was 9-0, and since then, save
for tying Wakefield in 1973, it has won every one of its dual
meets against Middlesex League teams.
All of this has opposing coaches craving Croft's recipe for
helping kids maximize their abilities and turning them into,
well, rockets--or at least into winners. It's true that Reading
workouts are strenuous. But Peter Rittenburg, the 1979 Reading
captain who went on to set Harvard's indoor pentathlon record
and is now back at Reading High teaching English and assisting
Croft as track coach, is probably right when he says, ``I don't
know that there's anything different here. He holds kids to
In addition to giving his track athletes workouts that build
endurance and speed, Croft teaches technique and guile. ``I see
kids who can jump just as high as I can,'' says Tim Nelson, a
1995 Reading senior captain. ``I say, `Jeez, if they had Mr.
Croft, they'd be six inches higher.' He really understands
form.'' Croft is also adept at looking over the motley ranks who
turn out each spring and finding events to match his personnel.
``Every year you hear that after you're gone the program will
fall apart,'' says Jason Gracilieri, who threw the javelin for
the Rockets in 1994. ``But Mr. Croft turns kids who can't walk
into great sprinters and distance runners.'' What this means is
that the Rockets may not win every event, but they pile up
enough second- and third-place finishes to prevail in meets time
And the Rockets are motivated. Rittenburg says that for Croft,
``track becomes an extension of the classroom.'' Each year
approximately 70% of Croft's Rockets make the honor roll. And
just as Croft's English students may hear something about the
relentless will of champion U.S. distance runner Lynn Jennings,
out on the track Croft sometimes tells his athletes about
Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea to illustrate grace under
pressure and about Melville's Moby Dick to put obsession and
long winning streaks in perspective.
Yet, ever the curmudgeon, Croft is quick to add that his runners
and jumpers ``don't sit around in literary kaffeeklatsches.''
Indeed, before most of the team's important meets, Croft--an
avid scouter of the opposition--outlines each event on a
chalkboard, giving a worst-case scenario in which Reading loses.
He lets each boy know what sort of special performance is needed
to prevent the unthinkable. And he gets it. Usually, that is.
One year a high jumper performed so poorly that he crept beneath
the bleachers and cowered there for the rest of the meet--a full
Last April, Croft did a bit of retreating himself. After several
of his runners skipped practice to prepare for the junior prom,
the coach resigned in disgust. A few days later he stayed home
while the team competed against Wakefield, winning 82-63. The
next afternoon Croft was back. ``He told us when he came back
that he had heard the loudspeakers, and he couldn't stay away
from the aroma of track,'' says Andrew Schena, a pole vaulter
and one of the team's 1994 senior captains.
By resigning and then returning, Croft tried to demonstrate in
his own way that you don't help young people by acquiescing to
their peccadilloes. ``Some of our kids are drinking and smoking
grass,'' he says. Croft is the father of four children, a lean
man, buttoned-down and creased, the sort who always wears
matching socks and who squints even when there is no sun. ``We
do have our little problems,'' he continues. ``We're a public
high school. We try to show the kids they're human beings. We
talk to them. They know they can trust me. I tell them to be
aware of the moment. Seize the day. Hold on to it. Don't waste
Very few members of the Reading track team become college stars.
Reading has never had an Olympian. But there are other things a
good track program will teach. One junior on this year's squad
is a short, stocky sort named Mike Thompson. He throws the
discus and the shot and has yet to make the Reading varsity.
He's the president of his class and an A student; track,
however, is his passion. ``We have diets,'' Thompson says with
approval. ``We have workouts. We have off-season programs. You
will hear Mr. Croft every day telling you to take care of
yourself. Eat. Get some sleep. Stretch. It all has to do with
track--and everything else.''
Thompson has two ambitions, he says. One is to go to college and
make the track team. The second is to teach high school English.