Keeping Track

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Keeping Track

Written by Rod O’Donnell on 14 February 2012.

(UPDATED 1/30/12) Dear Jesse, Thought that I would drop you a line to let you know what is going on down here. Before I fill you in, I wanted to tell you that you have always been my hero. Not just because you set four world records in a span of 45 minutes at the Big Ten Championships. Not just because you stood up to one of the most evil men in history and proved that his absurd Aryan Race Theory was totally false. Not because you were a member of the first class that was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. (Remember that beautiful summer day in Charleston, West Virginia, on the steps of the state capital?) Unfortunately, because of political wrangling, the hall was moved out of Charleston to Indianapolis, then to New York City, where it remains today.

It’s too bad that the Mountain State lost the Hall of Fame. Maybe, if it had been built, neither West Virginia University nor Marshall University would have discontinued their men’s track programs. Not only would the venue have included both indoor and outdoor tracks and a dedicated cross-country course that would have attracted national-level meets, but track fans from around the world would have visited. I am sure that it will shock you to learn that many collegiate programs have joined these two universities and done away with men’s teams. It is a very sad commentary for our sport.

Jesse, the main reason that you are my hero is because of the kind of person that you were – a kind, gentle, humble man who served as a role model for millions of young people, regardless of their race. I am sure that you would also be shocked to know that 70% of African-American children are raised in single-parent homes. Oh, my, do we need your steady, positive influence today more than ever.

This leads me to the other reason for writing this letter. The unimaginable has happened in Cleveland Public Schools. The Board of Education recently decided to drop spring sports for 2012 in order to save $568,260 of a $13.1 million shortfall. Imagine how your life would have changed, had you not had the opportunity to participate. Think of the millions of people who would not have had the privilege to know you, had it not been for the sport of track and field.

Now, I know what you must be thinking. The newspapers will mount a campaign to save our beloved sport, because, in your day, track grabbed the headlines regularly. I’m sorry to tell you that there has not been ONE word about it on any sports page. Imagine the Board making a similar decision about football. Two things would occur: 1) public outrage, and 2) a corporate sponsor would emerge, much like the Indians did, to save high school baseball.

Please let my good friend, Bump Taylor, know the sad news. He will remember the days when his fabulous Glenville Tarblooders dominated track in Ohio, just as East Tech and others had done. I can tell you that the great Cleveland public coaches like Ted Ginn, Claude Holland, Lou Slapnik, Jim Emery and many others are broken-hearted by this turn of events. You can’t imagine the difference that these men made in countless young lives. Now the opportunity for that incalculable influence is gone.

Well, I need to close. Fortunately, the high school where I coach continues to sponsor track, but our students must pay $400.00 to participate. Yes, Jesse, things have changed, and many of those changes have hurt the very people that we are here to help.

I know that there are no tears in heaven, but I will bet that you, Bump, and many others are deeply saddened and astounded at the school board’s decision. Thank you for everything you did to make track a major sport in your era. It is too bad that it has faded almost totally from the mainstream, except in Olympic years.

Take care, and say “hello” to many of my other track heroes. Thanks to all of you for the many bright, shining track and field moments that are too rare in today’s world of sports.

Yours in track,
Rod O’Donnell
(Pending a reversal, the decision to cancel spring sports still is in effect.)


Last month the Cleveland school board voted to use savings from a new contract with teachers to head off elimination of preschool, spring sports and busing for high school students. Track will be one of the programs saved.


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