How I Became a Superfan, Part 5

The Ohio High School Championships begin today. Twenty-five years ago at that meet is when I became a Superfan. All this week I’ve been running the story of how it happened.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

And now, the conclusion.

It is June, 1987.

I walked off the yellow school bus, towards Ohio Stadium, and I knew better than to look back and see if anyone was trying to stop me. If you’re doing something you’re know you’re not supposed to do, you act like you really are allowed to do it.

I was injured in my first year of high school track and was the stat man for the team. For the state meet, an overnight trip, the coaches either couldn’t or wouldn’t take me. I was not so easily deterred. My father taught at the next school over, where the baseball team just happened to play itself into the state semifinals. It happened that the game was on the same day as the first day of the state track meet, and at Ohio State’s baseball field, just across the Olentangy River from Ohio Stadium. And it happened that this was the last day of classes before exams, and the school sold tickets for a “spirit bus” to go down and watch the game.

So my father bought me a ticket, we reserved me a space at the Columbus youth hostel overnight, and I arranged to ride back on Saturday with a teammate’s mother. I didn’t know if my father told the people running the spirit bus what I was doing, but I assumed he hadn’t. This was 1987 and no one did any permission slips or anything like that; I handed them my ticket when I walked on the bus, and quietly disappeared when we got off.

So I walked up to Ohio Stadium, stood at the arch, and looked straight up. What a rube. I bought my ticket ($3) and program ($2) and walked in. And up and up and up the ramp, until I came out at the top of the mezzanine deck at the closed end of the horseshoe. I was slack-jawed. It was early on Friday, and still there were easily 15,000 or more people there just to see the qualifying rounds. It was the first track meet I’d ever been to that was definitely a Very Big Deal.

We’d developed a bad pattern that year of huge performances one weekend followed by horrible ones the next. We dominated the regional championships the week before the state meet, but only a few of us were worried about this week. Ohio Track and Field News picked us to win, didn’t they? We were badasses.

Then it began to fall apart. Discus thrower Troy Stevens fouled three times and didn’t get a mark. Chris Brown, the favorite to win the 100, ran a crappy semi and didn’t get to the final. And then the real disaster struck.

The 4×100 was “our bread and butter”, according to coach Mark Coe, but it’s a risky event. Keebee Nash led off well, and Shawn Flanagan streaked down the backstretch as he always did to a big lead. Third leg was Jeremy Lincoln, one of the few seniors and the quiet leader of the bunch. His bad hamstring finally feeling good, he was ready to run fast. But the handoff was botched and the baton clattered to the track. Lincoln stopped, tore off his glasses, and smashed them on the track in a fit of rage.

There weren’t enough points left on the board for us to have a chance to win it the next day. Chris Brown was a co-favorite to win the 200, but a freshman from Dayton named Chris Nelloms loomed large. Terrence Grant qualified in the 110 and 300 hurdles and probably would do well, but we needed more than that. And our 4×400 barely scraped into the finals. 3:19 was our best time and that wasn’t going to be enough to make things happen.

The next morning I walked over to Ohio Stadium and took in a great day of track and field. Ohio’s state meet is tightly organized, with each of three divisions run as its own meet in a 2-hour window. I saw Yellow Springs win the Division III meet, with Tony Victoria taking both sprints and the 4×100. I saw Dayton Jefferson win the Division II meet, with Tony Lee doing the same. And then we were up in the late-afternoon Division I meet. Among other things in that meet, I saw a junior from Westerville South named Bob Kennedy win the rare and difficult 1600/3200 double.

The meet started off well for Toledo, with Rogers winning the 4×800 in about 7:46. Chris Brown’s city rival, Chuck Webb, won the 100 meters for Toledo’s Macomber High School. (Webb went on to star at running back for Tennessee). Another Toledo school, Scott, claimed victory in the girls’ 100 meters with Tricia Joyner. (In her autobiography, A Kind of Grace, Jackie Joyner-Kersee says that the only trips her family ever took were to visit family in Toledo. I have no idea if there is a connection here, but there could be.)

Toledo won three of the first four events, and then Terrence was up in the high hurdles. He ran a flawless race, a PR of 14.23, and won. Ten points on the board. A nice start.

We watched Columbus Eastmoor win “our” event, the 4×100, and take a big lead in the team score.

Terrence was up again in the 300 hurdles. Hardly a fan of hard workouts, it was a stretch for him to do as well in the longer race, but he gave it everything he had, and came across in third. Sixteen points on the board.

Chris was up in the 200 meters. Next to him was Dayton’s Chris Nelloms, who became one of the greatest high school sprinters of all time. In 1990 he won three gold medals at the World Junior Championships, and his state records of 13.30, 20.47 and 45.36 still stand. But Nelloms was just a freshman and had used up his mojo earlier to win the 400. Brown came out the winner; it was the last time Nelloms lost to a high school athlete in a race of 200 meters or longer. Twenty-six points on the board.

Suddenly, the 4×400 had meaning. Retired coach Bud Tapola, who had coached these boys when they were freshmen, was telling the athletes exactly what they needed to do. If they won this race, they would win the meet. It was a tall order, as the best time they had done was 3:19.

Brown led off with a great leg, 48.7, and a narrow lead.

Second leg was a senior named Brian Lawson, a kid who had been turned out of his home and was living on his own. At times his life was so hard that he only had one good race in him in a day. Coach Mark Coe did everything he could to help Brian that year, and Brian poured his heart out for the team. He was passed down the backstretch, ran smart, came wide on the homestretch, and finished strong to split 49.5. We led again.

Third leg was Jeremy Lincoln, the natural 400 runner whose bad hamstring severely limited how much conditioning work he could do. Because of this he tended to fade down the homestretch, but Bob Hayton decided we should do something to fix this. While everyone else lined up at the beginning of the 4×400 exchange zone, like everyone always does, Jeremy lined up about a step past the start/finish line. Thus Brian ran an extra ten meters and Jeremy ran ten fewer. Again, passed down the backstretch, kept calm, finished strong, and split 48.8. We were dead even with Dayton’s Meadowdale High.

Anchor leg Ivory Starr took it out hard around the turn, but didn’t take the lead, so that Meadowdale had to run wide. The Meadowdale runner went into the lead down the backstretch and Ivory stayed right on his heels. The crowd of 25,000 inside the massive Ohio Stadium knew it was a great race, and some knew the state championship was on the line.

Ivory swung wide off the turn but could not pass Meadowdale. They were locked stride for stride down the homestretch, until the last twenty meters. The Meadowdale runner tightened, Ivory stayed relaxed. The Meadowdale runner’s stride shortened, he stumbled, and bent forward in the closing meters, while Ivory stayed upright and moving. We won the race and the meet.

Ivory split 48.2 and our team had run 3:15.17. Coach Z., clueless as ever, thought we were runners-up in the team competition.

I didn’t know the level of involvement by Bob Hayton until years later. As I was leaving the stadium, I passed by a guy I recognized from Toledo but didn’t really know; it was Bob. I said it was great and I’d had just enough track for one day. He replied that there was no such thing as enough track. I now know how right he was.

As exciting it was that we won, and in the most thrilling (and nerve-wracking) way possible, that’s not really what made me a Superfan. What sealed the deal was the state championship meet itself. Each of three divisions are a tightly-scheduled affair, held in just over two hours. The announcer, the always-excellent meet program, the video board (even back in ’87), they all made for a great experience. Even more important was the atmosphere, the crowd of about 25,000 in historic Ohio Stadium, and how it got into each and every race.

If you show someone a meet as well put-together as this one, either in person or by a television broadcast that really captures what’s going on, they will like it. This has been my mantra for a quarter-century.

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