Wednesday, April 25, 2012

LeRoy Walker inspired us to run

I know a few things about track and field.  I also know a few things about unfulfilled dreams.  Those words – could have been, should have been, and would have been – come to mind whenever I watch young folks run around a track.

Making it to the other side of disappointment requires people capable of inspiring you to keep running.  You have to run past the ache of a lost race.  You have to get up when the muscles aren’t strong enough to get you to the finish line.

Leroy Walker knew how to arouse faith in victory. Walker died on Monday at the age of 93.

Walker was the first African American to lead the U.S. Olympic Committee and the first black man to coach an American Olympic team.  He led the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1992 to 1996, heading the Summer Games in Atlanta and leading the way when the 2002 Winter Olympics were awarded to Salt Lake City.

Walker coached Olympic track and field teams from Ethiopian, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago before the United States gave him a chance to be the first black head coach of its team.  He led the team that traveled to Montreal in 1976.  The team came home with 22 medals, including gold in the long jump, discuss, both men’s relays, Bruce Jenner winning the decathlon and Edwin Moses dominating the 400-meter hurdles.

He was born in Atlanta, the youngest of 13 children and the grandson of a former slave.  His father, a railroad fireman, died when he was 9. When his daddy died he was sent to Harlem to live with an older brother. He moved back South to attend Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., where he earned 11 letters in football, basketball, and track and field.  From there he attended Columbia University where he earned a master’s degree.

He was hired to coach football and basketball at North Carolina Central University in Durham.  Walker started the track program in between the basketball and football season, and decided to give up the other two sports to focus on track.

Walker kept running.  He earned a doctorate from New York University in 1957 and was named chancellor at North Carolina Central University in 1983.

Walker talked about that trip to Harlem in a 1993 interview with the Times.  His mother gave him specific instructions before setting him free to run alone.  “I’ll never forget what she told me,” he said. “If anything gets in your way, look it in the eye, grab hold of it and find a way to achieve in spite of it.  One thing that was drilled into me was to not let circumstance determine what I could begin to be.”

You keep running no matter what.  Run when you get tired.  Run the day after you forfeit the race. Run when you hurt and no one believes you have what it takes to win that race.

I remember the conversation I had with Walker at an affair in 1991 to honor his years of services at North Carolina Central University.  It was held in the building with his name.  It came after he was awarded the Eagle Award from the United States Sports Academy, the Academy’s highest international honor.  He spoke of his work at the University and his love for his family.  I left the event wanting to run and to follow those amazing footsteps.

Durham, NC has witnessed the death of many great leaders.  Earlier this year it was Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans.  In 2009, we lost John Hope Franklin.  These are rare breeds that come along to teach lessons that take us further than the common classroom discussion.  It’s been one of the gifts afforded those who walk the streets of this amazing city.

Walker inspires me to run.  Yes, I wonder about what could have been if I had a coach like Walker.  The truth is I had two great ones –Coach Fred at Hickman High in Columbia, MO who saved my life when I needed more than a coach and Pops Logan who saw greatness in me.  I’m thankful for great coaches and mentors who lead the way.

Walker is that legend who subtracts a few seconds whenever you run that race.

Walker moves me to run.  So, I keep running.  Not around the track on the field, but that track of life that we all must run.  I run with pride and hope.  I run knowing that nothing can keep me from running this race.  Nothing can get in the way of the gold medal at the finish line. 

Coach Walker has paved the way.  It’s up to us to keep running.

Rest in peace.  I’ll see you at the finish line.

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