Texas, they say, is not just a state. It's a state of mind. It's big -- larger in area than Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska combined. From North to South, it's 751 miles. East-West, 815 miles. Texans think big, and they talk big. Before Texans voted to join the United States in 1845, Texas won its freedom from Mexico in 1836, and was an independent nation for nine years. And in track and field, Texas has a history which might make any nation proud. As Texans are fond of saying, "It ain't braggin' if it's true."
And when it comes to track and field, Texas has plenty to brag about:
* Thirty-one athletes who were either born in Texas or spent their competitive years in the Lone Star state have equaled or surpassed some 85 recognized world records.
* Seventy-one Texans have won Olympic track and field medals, 51 of them gold.
* Texans have won 28 individual men's Olympic gold medals, more than all but three countries outside the United States: Finland, which has 45; Russia, which including the Soviet era has 37; and Great Britain, which has 34 or 38 depending on how one allots the four medals described as "GBR/IRL" in the record books.
Before 1900, track and field in Texas was a part of school sports days, or "field days." Texas was barely a decade away from the 'Wild West" days of cowboys and Indians, cattle drives and gunfights. Four out of every five Texans lived on farms or ranches, growing cotton or raising cattle. Farm boys grew up strong, agile and quick- thinking, and they took to sports with enthusiasm. First and foremost, they played American football. They still do; but every spring the football players become sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers and throwers. However, not many become distance runners: it's too darn hot.
1901 saw the beginnings of organized track and field in Texas. At the university level, the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association was formed, and the competitive opportunities it provided soon produced the first Texas track and field star, Fred "Tex" Ramsdell.
Ramsdell was primarily a sprinter, but he also high jumped, long jumped and occasionally ran a mile race (and won) when his University of Texas team needed extra points. In 1908, in the 100-yard dash at an intercollegiate meet in Virginia, Ramsdell finished in a dead heat with 1904 Olympic silver medalist Nate Cartmell of the University of Pennsylvania in 9 4/5 seconds, a tick off the world record. Next year Ramsdell was lured to compete for Penn, where in 1910 he won the Intercollegiate 100 and was the top-ranked American 100 man.
While Ramsdell was away putting Texas on the map, the University Interscholastic League was formed to organize Texas high school sports. Starting in 1911 with 90 boys from 11 schools, the League in 2001 counted 43,512 boys and 32,602 girls as high school competitors. 982 girls and 881 boys qualified for the 2001 state championships through a series of regional meets, and more than 50,000 people attended the three championship sessions in Austin, the state capital.
In 1914 a group of major universities organized the Southwest Conference, with competition among themselves in sports. From its very first track championship in 1915 there emerged the single most important figure in Texas track history, Clyde Littlefield. Littlefield won the conference 120-yard high hurdles in 1915 and 1916 and led UT to the team championship both years. He was never beaten in his more than four years of competition as a high hurdler, and he became the first Texan "rekordman" with a world-record-tying 15.0 in May, 1915, although it was never officially recognized as a record.
Littlefield returned to Texas in 1920 as UT's track coach, and in the next 41 years his teams won the SWC championship 25 times. More importantly, in 1925 he created a showcase for track and field which continues to this day: the Texas Relays. Among those competing in the first Relays were 1924 Olympic 200-meter champion Jackson Scholz, who won a special 100 meters, and Harold Osborn, the 1924 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon and the high jump. Osborn thrilled the 6,000 spectators by clearing 6 feet 8 15/16 inches (2.055m), more than an inch over his own world record.
Another winner was high hurdler Larry Snyder of Ohio State. Snyder went on to become the coach of Jesse Owens, Mal Whitfield and Glenn Davis, who among them won ten Olympic gold medals. Most popular winner of all was Texas' Jim Reese, who won the mile from eight-time American champion Joie Ray. Two months later, Reese became the state's first National Collegiate champion when he won the NCAA mile. Today the Texas Relays are a fixture on the American sports scene, with world-class athletes like Maurice Greene, Boris Henry, Amy Acuff and Jon Drummond rubbing shoulders with thousands of high-school and university athletes, and overflow crowds to watch them.
In 1930, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, aged 18, standing only 5-4 and weighing only 105 pounds, was an all-American basketball player on a team sponsored by Employers' Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas. After seeing her first track meet, she decided to try the sport herself, and her company obligingly organized a team. In her first meet, Didrikson won the 100 and 220-yard dashes, the high jump, long jump, shot put, discus and javelin. Two months later, in the 1930 women's national championships, she broke the world record in the javelin, won the baseball throw and was second in the long jump. In the 1931 nationals, she won the long jump, the baseball throw and the 80-meter hurdles.
That was just a warm-up for 1932. At the combined national championships and Olympic Trials, Employers Casualty entered her as a one-woman team. She won the 80m hurdles, long jump, shot put, javelin throw and baseball throw, tied for first in the high jump (at an American record 1.60m) with Jean Shiley, and finished fourth in the discus all in a period of three hours. By herself, she won the team championship.
At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the rules limited Didrikson -- now 5-5, 127 pounds -- to three events. She won the javelin with her first throw, 43.68m, a new Olympic record. She set a world record 11.7 -- winning the 80-meter hurdles. In the high jump, Babe and Shiley again tied for first with a world record (1.65), but Babe lost the gold in a jump-off. Two weeks later, she threw the discus 40.80m (farther than the Olympic gold medalist), which remained an American record until 1956.
After the Olympics, the AAU declared Babe a professional for appearing in an automobile advertisement. So she turned to golf, winning a record 82 tournaments (17 in a row in the 1940s) and helping found the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She was only 45 when she died of cancer in September, 1956.
Two months after Didrikson died, a quiet farm boy from South Texas made headlines at the Melbourne Olympics. Bobby Joe Morrow grew up on a cotton farm in South Texas. In 1954 Morrow entered Abilene Christian College in Abilene, a high plains town 200 miles west of Dallas. "Going to the Olympic Games didn't even enter my mind when I was in high school," says Morrow. But it did occur to Oliver Jackson, the Abilene coach. "I thought he was going to be a great sprinter when I saw him in high school," Jackson recalls.
Jackson was right about Morrow's potential. He won the AAU National Championships 100 in 1955 and 1956. In 1956 he tied the world 100m and 200m records three times apiece, and won both Olympic Trials handily. In Melbourne he won the Olympic 100 by more than a meter, (10.5 into a 4m/s headwind), won the 200 by two meters in 20.6 (again equaling the world record), and anchored the U.S. 4x100 team to a world record victory in 39.5.
Morrow continued to dominate the sprints in 1957 and 1958, winning the AAU 100 and 200 both years. But after an injury in June 1959, he was never the same runner. Today, he's still farming cotton near San Benito.
Texas didn't have to wait long for its next superstar. He was James Randel "Randy" Matson. Matson grew up in Pampa, a Texas Panhandle oil town. His first track meet was at age 12, in 1957. "I won the 50-yard dash, the 100-yard dash, the long jump and the high jump, and finished sixth in the shot put," he says, adding, with irony, "It makes sense that I concentrated on the shot put."
By age 15, Matson was 6-7, but, he adds, "only 215 pounds." He rarely lifted weights because he played football and basketball, but even so in 1963 at age 18 he put the 16-pound shot 60 feet 6 inches. Entering Texas A&M, he decided to concentrate on throwing, and started lifting weights seriously. He won the AAU shot put with 64-11 1/4, beating world record holder Dallas Long, and then finished second behind Long in the Olympic Trials.
At the Tokyo Olympics, Matson led after three rounds with another personal best, 65-2 3/4. In the fourth round, the 19-year-old added another foot, to 66-3 1/4, second only to Long in world history. But Long came right back with 66-4 1/4, which proved to be the gold medal winner by a scant inch. Next Spring, Matson took Long's world record away, first by 3/4 of an inch to 67-11 on April 9, then by big chunks: 69-3/4 on April 30, and 70-7 1/4, the world's first 70-foot put, on May 8.
Randy was undefeated in 1966 and 1967, improving his world record again to 71-5 1/2 in 1967. He won the 1968 Olympic shot put with an opening throw of 67-4 3/4; after that, nobody else came close. In the seven years from 1965 through 1971, Matson won 73 of his 79 competitions, and when he retired, he had the seven longest puts in history, and the only ones over 70 feet.
The last two athletes in this Pantheon of Texas greats -- Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson -- are of such recent memory that it hardly seems necessary to recite their accomplishments in detail.
Lewis, though not born in Texas, spent almost his entire track and field career as a Texan. Coached by Tom Tellez of the University of Houston throughout his remarkable 18 years as a world-class sprinter/jumper, Lewis won 18 American championships (seven in the 100, three in the 200 and eight in the long jump), nine Olympic gold medals (two in the 100, one in the 200 and four in the long jump, plus two in the 4x100 relay), and seven IAAF World Championships gold medals (two in the 100, two in the long jump and three in the 4x100). He set two world records in the 100 meters, and anchored four U.S. 4x100 relay teams to world records. Perhaps most amazing of all, of the 38 long jumps of 28-5 or more in history, Lewis owns 26 of them.
Michael Johnson, born in Dallas and coached by Clyde Hart of Baylor, was one of the first track athletes to spend his entire career on the world stage as a full-time professional. Johnson chiefly ran the U.S. championships when he needed to qualify for an Olympics or a World Championships, but he was as dominant as Lewis in his events. He won nine American championships (five in the 200 meters, four in the 400), 5 Olympic gold medals (one in the 200, two in the 400, and two in the 4x400) and seven IAAF World Championships gold medals (one in the 200, four in the 400 and two in the 4x400). He set dazzling world records in the 200 meters -- that unforgettable 19.32 in the Atlanta Games -- and the 400 meters in an equally unforgettable 43.18 at the 1999 Worlds in Sevilla. He left the sport owning 20 of the 31 sub-44-second performances in history.
There have been many other great Texas track-and-field athletes. Some were Olympic gold medalists and world record holders -- like Walter Davis in the high jump, Earl Meadows and Fred Hansen in the pole vault, and sprinters Jim Hines and Leroy Burrell. Others were Olympic champions, like Joe DeLoach, Louise Ritter and Charles Austin or world record holders like Fred Wolcott, Bill Woodhouse, Curtis Mills and Dave Roberts.
But any way you look at it, Texans can run, jump and throw with the best in the world. And that's no Texas brag!