The Day I Met Jesse Owens
There’s a new movie out right now, titled “Race.” It’s the life story of Jesse Owens, the Olympic legend and 4-time gold medal winner best known for his astounding accomplishments at the 1936 Olympiad, which were held in Berlin under the shadow of grandiose Nazi pageantry.
From critics’ reviews, the movie is won’t be shattering any world records. I have no plans to go see it. It’s quite sad that the life of one of the greatest athletes of the last century was reduced to a muddled mess that will likely end up on Showtime by the end of March. [LISTEN TO THE PODCAST AT PAUL HARRIS’ WEBSITE HERE…it’s terrific]
Owens died in 1980. But he remains an intriguing figure in history for what he experienced and endured not just in track and field, but in society as presumably one of America’s “heroes.”
I had the great honor of meeting Mr. Owens in person, once. That occasion took place back in 1976, four years before his death. Permit me to tell you that story.
An extraordinary television show debuted during the summer of 1976. It was called “The Olympiad.”
Created by legendary film producer Bud Greenspan who made sports documentaries his life’s work, the spellbinding 22-hour one-time special feature (that’s right, 22 hours!) was shown nightly on public television (PBS) for three consecutive weeks. If you loved sports and history as I did, you couldn’t get enough of the show. I watched every episode, and so did my friends. We even talked about it in school the next day. “
The Olympiad” is mostly forgotten now, but it remains one of the most groundbreaking sports documentaries ever made. It shaped and even changed lives — including mine.
That summer also featured something new and different, called the Junior Olympic Games.
Sponsored by Atlantic-Richfield, which was an oil company, the organizers’ vision was to hold Olympic-style tryouts in more than a dozen major American cities for kids who weren’t quite old enough to actually compete in the real Olympic Games. I was 14-years-old at the time.
The top young athletes in each city would compete in various track and field events. The winners in each category would be awarded a free all-expenses-paid trip to Philadelphia to compete in the Junior Olympic Games, to be held at Franklin Field. Well, I thought that was the coolest thing ever, so I decided to enter the local tryouts.
There was only one issue, which was kinda’ a problem.
I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t swim. I was a terrible athlete. Maybe I could fall down, or finish last. That was about the extent of my athletic talent.
Unfazed, I showed up at a local high school football stadium in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas fully prepared to compete for the chance to go to Philadelphia and win gold.
Fortunately, the organizers did a terrible job advertising the tryouts. Only a few dozen kids showed up at the stadium. When it came time for the competition to begin, I was approached and asked which event I planned to enter. I looked around and saw several tall, athletic-looking kids, mostly Black, who all indicated they were running track and field. There was no way I was going to beat any of them in a foot face. That’s when I noticed that no one had entered in something called the “long jump.”
The long jump means you get a running start and then leap as far as you can moving forward through the air, hoping to clear the greatest possible distance before touching down into a pit of sand, which resembles a giant box of cat litter. As you can imagine, most proficient long jumpers are tall and fast. That wasn’t me. I think I had a beer gut already at 14. That didn’t matter. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
I made three jumps in all. I don’t remember my distances, but let’s just say the world record somehow survived that day. Afterward, one of the judges approached me. He said it looked like I’d win the competition by default, since there were no other entrants. That meant I’d get the free trip to Philadelphia. Imagine me, representing Dallas in the long jump category. What a joke. Where’s my medal?
Well, wouldn’t you know it — I got screwed.
Some punk around my age came out of nowhere and showed up at the very last second and decided to enter my event. Basically, all he needed to do was run towards the line and not fall down, and my distances would be shattered. And that’s exactly what happened. The punk dusted me like a bitch. So, he got the free trip to Philadelphia instead of me.
But I still managed to win something — a second-place trophy that was to be presented later at an “awards ceremony.”
Let’s back up a little. A few nights before these tryouts, The Olympiad featured the story of Jesse Owens competing in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, which were held in Berlin, Germany.
I had never heard of Mr. Owens before. At the time, there was no such thing as SportsCenter, or sports documentaries, or YouTube. ESPN wasn’t even on the air yet. We just didn’t know as much about history back then. I assume most kids my age had no idea who Jesse Owens was either, or what he did many years ago that was so memorable.
Mr. Owens won four gold medals in 1936 — three as a track and field runner and one in (you guessed it) the long jump. My event. Adolf Hitler reportedly stormed off the viewing platform and later refused to shake Mr. Owens’ hand following his four victories, a story repeated ad nauseum for decades but which apparently is also an overblown myth. One of America’s heroes getting snubbed by one of history’s worst villains made for a juicy tale, however, and lingered on as part of the post-war Olympic mythology for many decades, even if only half-true. Check out numerous sources which cite Mr. Owens being far more upset at his treatment once he returned to the United States (including a snub at the White House and being discriminated against in New York City) than anything he encountered while in Berlin. SOURCE HERE
At my awards ceremony, when each of the top three finishers from each event were receiving their trophies, the stands were totally empty. It was like getting a prize, but no one was there to see it. A few bored-looking photographers stood in front of a platform that had been set up haphazardly, likely commissioned by the oil company for their upcoming monthly newsletter. Kids who got trophies stood around like they couldn’t have cared less. The only happy kids were the ones headed to Philadelphia.
When it finally came time for the long jump competition winners to be recognized, it was just me and the punk kid who stole my trip to Philadelphia. He got to stand on the top step. I took second place, so I was positioned on the next platform a notch below. No one claimed the third-place trophy, since there were only two entrants. So, you could say I finished second, and also finished last. Same thing.
An older black man dressed neatly in a suit and tie despite the 95-degree day stepped forward and posed with us while we were standing for a moment getting our picture taken. He reached out his hand forward and we shook hands. I had no idea who he was.
“Hi, I’m Jesse Owens,” he said. “Congratulations.”
Well, I nearly fell off the platform when I heard that. Jesse Owens! I was shaking hands with Jesse Owens!
I was speechless for a few seconds. Something about his incredible story, and the way filmmaker Bud Greenspan told it in the PBS documentary, really touched me. I instantly came to admire this man, and would feel even more strongly later, once I learned more about his life, which wasn’t always filled with moments of pride nor joy, but rather rejection and resentment.
Following the ceremony, I went over and approached Mr. Owens, standing to the side. I’m sure this must have been unusual for him to be approached by someone so young. Most of the kids didn’t have any clue who he was. He might as well have been some executive from the oil company that no one cared about; that’s probably what most of them were thinking.
As I spoke to Mr. Owens, I stammered something incoherently about seeing his story on The Olympiad. I mentioned that he had been on television the night before, something which apparently wasn’t known to him. He seemed a bit surprised and was happy that someone actually recognized him.
That was pretty much all that was said. Mr. Owens probably didn’t think much of the conversation, and forgot about it afterward, perhaps instantly. But here I sit, many years later, writing about the experience as though it was yesterday.
Whether it was an intentional slight, or not — Hitler didn’t get his congratulatory handshake with Mr. Owens.
I did. And Mr. Owens congratulated me! For my athletic feat!
Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction.
Most of us are masters of our own destiny. The motto of my masthead (above) reads, “Faber est quisque fortunae suae.” That means,“Everyone is the architect of his own success.”
But as we continuously strive to move up and get ahead, there are indeed serendipitous moments we encounter, junctions of fate, and lucky breaks.
For me, one lucky break was meeting the legend Jesse Owens, and then being fortunate enough to know precisely who he was in order to appreciate the honor of that moment. Forty years after his greatest athletic feat, I shook hands and met him, and now some forty years later, I’m telling that story in a daily blog. I wonder how many other kids who shook hands with Mr. Owens on that day know of the tremendous honor they had, now a wasted joyous memory not just forgotten long ago, but a cherished remembrance never known.
How many other moments like this one do we miss in our lives, I wonder? Perhaps it’s because we don’t know things or people or history, nor take the time to do a little research. Maybe it’s just because we aren’t paying attention. Or, because we’re too busy texting. Most of us don’t know much about our history or care about matters beyond our self-interest.
So, in the end, I didn’t get the free trip to Philadelphia. But when it came to the long jump and how things turned out — I won that day.
It’s not every day you get to meet someone as iconic as Jesse Owens.
Writer’s Note: A similar version of this article appeared here in January 2014. I have updated some of the text, which reflects the release of the recent movie about his life.