NO ONE will be looking for fashion faux pas on the Franklin Field red carpet this week. The oval runway will be full of well-toned humans on rubbery spiked soles, rocking shiny singlets of bright spring colors. The Penn Relays paparazzi has always been gentle, shifting from friendly flashbulbs to quiet iPhone cameras to capture thrills and spills. The athletes will be there to catch dreams.
Dreams are in abundance. Catching them is another matter.
Dreams sit in the stands and glide on artificial turf; reside in nervous smiles of fidgety prerace runners and on taut, gritty faces of anchors as they streak toward the finish line. They fall from emotional eyes down cheeks of kin; resound in the deafening noise of Jamaican nation and wave incessantly in the fabric of its gold, green and black flags; even float through the air outside the stadium, over the bridge and down the steps where the throwers toss metal objects.
They can also be seen in the wide eyes of young boys with their dads embracing the drama.
That is when the passion first struck Tony Darden as a seventh grader in 1970, when he and his father, Sidney, also known as Buddy Boo, attended the carnival.
Two years later, a dreamy Darden was hooked for good.
"My fondest memory was in 1972, watching Larry Black run for NCCU," said Darden, the Norristown native and former world-class runner. "That race by Black has been etched in my mind since. I can recall it today as if he ran it yesterday. It was a sight to see that kind of grace and speed done so effortlessly. It was something that stuck with me throughout my career.
"I was in awe of that guy. That was all my dad and I talked about on the way home."
Black was the star of the North Carolina Central University team that showed up with five runners and won three relay titles, setting two national collegiate records and just missing a third. Black ripped off a blistering 43.8 second quarter in the mile relay, forcing fans into respectful shock.
"I can't remember all the names of the guys in that relay but I'll never forget Larry Black," said Darden.
It's called foreshadowing. Darden became a human boomerang after that, returning to the Penn Relays again and again.
As a junior at Norristown High School, Darden was named the Penn Relays Outstanding Male High School athlete. In 1977, at Arizona State, he was a member of the relay teams that mirrored NCCU, winning three events. The sprint triple (4x100, 4x200, 4x400) set meet records with the 4x400 mark lasting 17 years.
"Coming back home as a freshmen at Arizona State after being away, that was my greatest individual moment at the Relays," said Darden.
Darden's return engagements have also included competing as an amateur and professional for the Philadelphia Pioneers, as a coach at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, as a timer, zone judge and award presenter and to see his daughter, Dominique sprint for Harrisburg High School, the University of Miami and for USA in the USA vs. the World series.
He's back again this week in his first year as coach of the Father Judge High School team. He is always there anyway as a two-time member of the Wall of Fame for his Norristown High and Arizona State performances. He should pitch a permanent tent on the infield near the finish line. It would save travel time.
"It's electric," said Darden, trying in vain to find the right word for the indescribable Penn Relays.
Darden felt electricity on other stages as well, with his greatest accomplish winning gold in the Pan Am Games in the 400 in 1979. He would have been on the Olympic team in 1980 if the U.S. didn't boycott. He was ranked among the best in the U.S. in the 400 from 1977 to 1984.
Oh, don't ask him to circle the track now.
"Good Lord," said the 56-year old. "I couldn't even guess what my time would be now."
So he counsels those who can still circle the track in a timely fashion on young legs. It would have been startling a couple decades ago if Darden showed up and introduced himself to the Judge kids as coach and former world-class athlete but Google has taken the surprise out of life.
"They are astute," said Darden. "They didn't know who I was before I answered the advertisement. They Googled when they heard the name of the new track coach. I knew it already but they told me I have a Wikipedia page."
Don't we all?
Darden says Judge is in a rebuilding year. It has a superior jumper in Marquis Seaman, the Philadelphia Catholic League Indoor Championship Field MVP, a 400-meter runner with potential in Mike Hagen, a sprinter in Yeedee Thaenrat, who took second in the 60-meter dash at indoor champs and a shot putter in Shawn Scornaienchi who won.
More importantly he has inspiration derived from the blue-collar attitude of his new pupils.
"It has been a great experience at Judge," Darden said. "I have been involved in coaching kids since 1988 and sometimes it can be like pulling teeth to get them committed. Not this group. They are willing to work hard. They have the commitment it takes to succeed.
"They have rejuvenated my spirit in the sport."
That works in reverse as well. When you are young and dreams seem a fantasy at best it doesn't hurt to have a guy standing in front of you who ran in your shoes once and kept lacing them up until he stood on podiums of prominence.
"I am proof that dreams can be achieved," said Darden.
Penn Relays agenda
What: The 120th Penn Relays
When: Tuesday through Saturday
Where: Franklin Field on Penn campus, 235 S. 33rd Street, between Walnut and South streets.
TV: USA vs. the World live, Saturday, 12:30-3 p.m., NBC Sports Network
Website: For tickets, directions, parking visit ThePennRelays.com
Tuesday: Men's decathlon, women's heptathlon during day; CYO at night, 6-9 p.m.
Thursday: High school girls, college women; nighttime distance races, 10 a.m. to 10:55 p.m.
Friday: High school boys and girls, college men and women Olympic development events, 9 a.m to 7:25 p.m
Saturday: College men and women, high school boys, USA vs. the World, 9a.m. to 6 p.m.
Field events: Pole vault, long jump, high jump at Franklin Field; hammer,discus, shot, javelin outside stadium, over the bridge , take a right past tennis courts and down to fields.
Weather: Events go rain or shine on all-weather track. Temperatures in 60s and 70s. Chance of rain Friday.
Wall of Famers: The 1914 Oxford University 4-mile relay team of George Sproule, David Gaussen, Norm Taber, and Arnold Jackson; the 1939 Pitt 880-yard relay team of Frank Ohl, Al Ferrara, Larry Tregoning and John Woodruff; the 1964 Kingston College High School 440-yard relay team of Jim Grant, Rupert Hoilette, Ken Keyes and Lennox Miller; The 2003 LSU women's shuttle hurdles team of Raynish LeBlanc, Tiffany Robinson, Zamyal Jackson and Lolo Jones; hurdler Earl Thomson, Dartmouth '22; distance runner Mike Stahr, Carmel (N.Y.) High School '83; Arizona State '84; Georgetown '88; New York Pioneers '89; discus thrower Anthony Washington, Syracuse '90; sprinter Cheryl Taplin, Louisiana State '94.
Names: All right, all right, all right, Matthew McConaughey will be throwing the javelin for East Carolina. Not the McConaughey, which is good because one might not trust the actor with a javelin. Frank Bertucci has scoured the names, as usual, and come up with a few participants worth noting: Joe Frazier of Olney Charter High in Philadelphia; Paul Bryant, Olney Charter coach; a Hentz and a Vlasic, a Shakespeare, Romeos, Juliets, Hamlet, Ophelia, Antony, Cleopatra and a Mozart for the score.
Numbers: There are 22,000 entries with 252 colleges entered and 1,020 high school teams from the U.S and seven other countries. Attendance is likely to top 110,000 for third year in a row.
People to watch
USA vs. World competitors: They like to keep us in suspense on participants until about Friday, but whomever they name in this elite group will be watchable.
Jamaicans: It's the 50th anniversary of high schools competing at the Penn Relays and it's not a stretch to say all Jamaican runners are watchable.
Colleges: Penn high jumper Maalik Reynolds, discus thrower Sam Mathis, miler Thomas Awad, decathlete Tom Pitt, javelin thrower Kelsey Hay, heptathlete Noel Jancewicz; Villanova distance runners Emily Lipari (last year's Outstanding Female Relay Performer), Jordy Williamsz, Sam McEntee, Dusty Solis; La Salle distance runners Meghan McGlinchey and Alfredo Santana; Oregon sprinter Phyllis Francis, freshman distance star Edward Cheserek and distance runner Laura Roesler; Stanford distance runners Mike Atchoo and Steven Solomon, an Australian Olympian; Texas A&M sprinter and Trinidad and Tobago Olympian Deon Lendore; Texas distance runner Marielle Hall and sprinter Ashley Spencer; South Carolina sprinter Chris Royster.
High school: The entire Cheltenham High School team, fresh off indoor state champs in both boys and girls; Cardinal O'Hara distance medley relay, national indoor champ, anchored by Kevin James; West Chester Henderson squad, anchored by Tony Russell; Bensalem 4x800 relay with state indoor champ Kylie Francis; 800-meter runners, Blacksburg (Va.) High's Kenneth Hagen and Lafayette (Va.) High's Derek Holdsworth; Long Beach Poly (Calif.) sprinter Ariana Washington and 400-meter runners Autumn Wright, Hollie Harris and Kaelin Roberts; Haddonfield distance medley relay team of Shelby Cain, Carly Bonnet, Kaitlyn Bonnet and Briana Gess.; Jamaica's Edwin Allen sprinters Christania Williams, Saqukine Cameron, Camira Haughton and Claudette Allen; Jamaica's Vere Tech 400-meter runners Yanique McNeil and Sanique Walker; Freehold Township (N.J.) 800-meter runners Adrian Vitello, Emily Bracker and Caitlyn Poss.
To answer your question, trackheads, a hyena would probably laugh at the world's fastest human. If a cheetah, the world's fastest land animal, raced Usain Bolt, the animal would be in his car headed home on 95 before Bolt crossed the 100-meter finish line.
In 2010 at the Penn Relays, Bolt ran the anchor leg of a 4x100 in 8.79 seconds. He ran slightly less than 100 meters because he got the baton with a running start. That would surely impress the three-toed sloth, but a cheetah can cover the distance in 3.3 seconds. It might be a much fairer race if you made the cheetah run it on two legs or starved the critter and distracted him with lots of beefy people in the stands ...
One of the fun things at the Penn Relays is wondering if, when and where comedian Bill Cosby will show and do his fizzling, frazzling, bizzling and bobbling, hugging winners and making them smile ...
One of the more annoying things is not getting a full complement of USA top stars because of the competing Drake Relays or the athletes' commitment to sponsors...
One of the craziest things about Franklin Field used to be the men's room, until they modernized it. nstead of urinals, there was formerly a wall above a flowing trough. It was an adventure ...
Check out how many officials officiate at the Penn Relays. Unofficially, it's way too many, but they dress well, and who's counting?