Herb McKenley blazed the trail for Jamaican sprinters in the late 1940s, setting world records in both the 440-yard and 400-meter runs and competing on two Olympic teams. One of his true loves was the Penn Relays, in which he ran on six winning relay teams for Illinois in 1946 and 1947.
In 1963, after watching Kingston College High School dominate the Jamaican national championships, McKenley, the president of the nation's Amateur Athletic Association, suggested to coach Donovan Davis that he take his team to the Penn Relays.
"Herb said, 'You have a team that's good enough to run at Penn,' " Davis recalled this week. "I'm going to be honest with you; I didn't even know what Penn was at that time."
Davis did not submit his entry form on time for the 1963 carnival, but he and his team traveled to Philadelphia in 1964 with the financial assistance of an alumnus. He wasn't aware of it then, but the trip was the first step toward forever changing the Penn Relays and the development of Jamaican athletes.
Fifty years later, the Penn Relays welcomes more than 400 boys and girls representing 32 high schools from Jamaica this weekend. The names of athletes from the island nation are sprinkled on the rosters of many colleges at the carnival, and five Jamaica-based colleges are entered.
The high schools have done well at Penn. Vere Tech has won an astounding 39 girls' Championship of America relays, and Calabar leads in boys' Championship of America relays with 12.
The experiences of Jamaican high schoolers at Penn over 50 years meant scholarships to U.S. colleges and a chance to help their country advance track and field on the world stage.
"It opened the gates for a lot of people," said Davis, 77, of Mountain View, Calif., a former educator and administrator in the Los Angeles Community College system and an honorary referee at this year's carnival.
"You can see how all the others benefited because they went to American universities. I would safely say that 90 percent of the successful Jamaican athletes today were exposed to Penn. It was because of being exposed to the colleges and the college coaches that really has enhanced Jamaican athletics."
Some top Jamaican athletes who ran at Penn, attended U.S. colleges, and starred internationally include Raymond Stewart (Texas Christian), Merlene Ottey (Nebraska), Kerron Stewart (Auburn), Veronica Campbell Brown (Arkansas), and Beverly McDonald (TCU).
Though he didn't compete for an American college, Usain Bolt was helped by Penn, where he ran for William Knibb High School as a freshman and sophomore. He returned in 2010 as a multiple Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder who electrified a record Franklin Field crowd with his appearance and his performance.
Dave Johnson, director of the Penn Relays, said the influx of Jamaican athletes resulted in "an immense increase in the level of competition, for the high schools in particular."
"The development is an amazing thing. I remember being at Herb McKenley's state funeral [in 2007] and talking to people about how Herb basically brought an entire island to Penn Relays, with Donovan being the first to bring a team there."
The Kingston College team won its first race, the 4x100-meter relay, on a cold day at Penn behind anchor Lennox Miller, who would star at Southern California and win a silver medal in the Mexico City Olympics. He was joined by Jim Grant, Rupert Hoilette, and Ken Keyes. Kingston College finished second in the 4x400.
Davis returned in 1965 with Kingston College and a team from Excelsior High School. Kingston won both the 4x100 and the 4x400 relays, and Excelsior's Neville Myton captured the 1,500 meters.
Today, Davis said he can't take credit for starting the Jamaica-Penn pipeline.
"I can only be honest with you; that was accidental," Davis said. "There is no way in my imagination where it would have mushroomed to this in 1964."
Get Penn Relays news as it happens Thursday through Saturday on Matt Breen's Penn Relays blog at www.inquirer.com/sportsEndText