Phil Anastasia: Walker's legacy lingers at Penn Relays
Shadows always are dancing on the old brick walls of Franklin Field during the Penn Relays. If you look closely enough, you can see the reflection of Jesse Owens' 220-yard leg for Ohio State in the sprint medley in 1936, and Larry James' anchor leg in the mile relay for Villanova in 1968, and Usain Bolt's half-human/half-hovercraft performance for Jamaica's 4x100 relay on that sunny Saturday afternoon in 2010.
Shadows always are dancing on the old brick walls of Franklin Field during the Penn Relays.
If you look closely enough, you can see the reflection of Jesse Owens' 220-yard leg for Ohio State in the sprint medley in 1936, and Larry James' anchor leg in the mile relay for Villanova in 1968, and Usain Bolt's half-human/half-hovercraft performance for Jamaica's 4x100 relay on that sunny Saturday afternoon in 2010.
But there isn't a wall wide enough to contain the legacy of Dr. LeRoy Walker.
"You talk about people of the universe - that was him," said Penn Relays referee Herman Frazier, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist. "He meant so much to so many people."
Athlete and coach, ambassador and administrator, mentor and inspiration, Dr. Walker was a towering figure in the sport of track and field. He died Monday at 93.
Dr. Walker's career spanned decades and his influence spanned the globe, but he always seemed at home amid the color, competition, and camaraderie at the Penn Relays. He attended the event for nearly 60 years, both as a coach of watch-winning teams from North Carolina Central University and as a carnival referee from 1967 until 2010.
"He was revered," said Dave Johnson, Penn Relays director.
Frazier, a longtime college administrator who now is a deputy athletic director at Syracuse, said he first attended the Penn Relays as a Germantown High School athlete in 1972. That's the year that Dr. Walker's North Carolina Central team, led by Larry Black, won the mile relay, the 4x220, and the sprint medley.
"I'll never forget the [mile relay] time, 3:03.1," Frazier said. "I was so struck by that time. When I came here with Arizona State in 1977, we ran 3:01 and broke that record.
"I used to write him letters, just about training and things like that. He meant so much to me."
The grandson of slaves, Dr. Walker was the youngest of 13 children and the first in his family to attend college. He earned 11 varsity letters at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., and still graduated magna cum laude.
He became the first African American to earn a doctorate in biomechanics. He coached North Carolina Central from 1945 through 1983 - guiding athletes who won 11 Olympic medals and appeared in every Olympic Games from 1956 to 1976 - and was so highly regarded by the institution's academic community that he became the school's chancellor.
"That doesn't happen," Johnson said. "It shows the esteem in which he was held."
In some ways, Dr. Walker was of another time. He came of age during a period of Jim Crow laws, but earned 15 honorary degrees and was the first African American to become president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
He was a legendary track and field coach during a simpler stage in his sport, before steroid suspicions and the mixed blessing of professionalism.
Dr. Walker brought track and field to the world. He was a coach or consultant to Olympics teams from Israel, Ethiopia, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Kenya. He conducted clinics in China, Syria, Lebanon, and Haiti.
Dr. Walker was the first African American to serve as coach of the U.S. men's track and field team. His squad at the 1976 Olympics won medals in 19 events, including six golds.
"He was such a smart son of a gun," said Frazier, who won one of those gold medals as a member of the 4x400 relay. "But he was so humble. He would speak to anybody and everybody."
As the world's largest and oldest track and field carnival kicked into gear on a cool and cloudy Thursday, Dr. Walker's absence was another reminder of the steady march and transformative effect of time - baton to baton in the relays, year to year in the rich history of this event.
But some men stand too tall to pass fully from view.
"At this event and in this city, his legacy will always be with us," Frazier said.