THE 1936 OLYMPICS provided one of the most dramatic performances in the history of the Games: Jesse Owens's four-gold-medal haul in Adolf Hitler's Berlin. But it also featured what New York Times columnist Arthur Daley called "as funny a race as this reporter has ever seen." In an event Daley said "had overtones of comedy slapstick," another black American runner—John Woodruff, who died last week at 92—won the 800 meters by stopping dead in mid-race.
After handily winning his first two heats, the gangly grandson of slaves—Woodruff stood 6'4" and had a nine-foot stride—failed to heed the warning of his coach not to get boxed in. But Woodruff found himself hemmed against the rail by the rest of the pack early in the race. Not knowing what else to do, the 21-year-old Pitt freshman hit the brakes, waited for the field to pass and then gunned past the best half-milers in the world. "I didn't panic," Woodruff told the Times in 2006. "I just figured if I had only one opportunity to win, this was it. I've heard people say that I slowed down and almost stopped. I didn't almost stop. I stopped, and everyone else went around me."
That race was the high point of Woodruff's career; World War II wiped out the Olympics until 1948. During the war Woodruff served in the Army, and he reenlisted during the Korean War. (He commanded two battalions, one of them integrated.) Later Woodruff, who had a master's degree from NYU in sociology, worked as a teacher, parole officer, welfare investigator and rec-center director.
Though Woodruff was overshadowed by Owens, the teammates remained close and Owens attended Woodruff's 1970 wedding. In addition to their gold medals, Woodruff and Owens received saplings from their Olympic hosts in 1936. Woodruff planted his in Connellsville. Last week his wife, Rose, said, "It now towers over 80 feet."