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Stockton pays tribute to a track legend

New stadium named for school official, ex-Olympian Larry James.

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. - For years to come, when Richard Stockton College track and field, lacrosse and soccer athletes strut their stuff before their home fans, they will do it at at G. Larry James Stadium.

And they will have a giant touchstone to skim for good luck before heading onto the playing field.

The athletic field was formally named for the Olympic track and field great, who has served Stockton in a myriad of capacities - track coach, director of athletics, now dean of athletics and recreational programs - since 1972.

And the touchstone was set in place, as the culmination of ceremonies Saturday announcing the creation of the legacy that will be used to promote Stockton athletic and academic causes.

The G in his full name is for George, but few who have followed James' illustrious career would know it. Some suggest that it really meant Great.

To all, though, he is simply Larry James, "the Mighty Burner" of Villanova fame, who ran some of the most incredible relay legs in the history of the Penn Relays, who collected NCAA and IC4A gold medals and world and collegiate records in profusion, and then made his everlasting mark on the Olympic stage.

Few trackmen ever played "beat the clock" as well as Larry James. The 43.6-second 440-yard anchor lap he ran at Penn in 1968, coming from 15 yards off the pace to run down a Rice University mile relay team, still elicits "oohs" and "ahhs" from the sport's faithful.

But the critical matter of time has edged back into Larry James' life.

He is battling colon cancer and has lost considerable weight and some of the energy that once seemed limitless.

So timing was a key element of the ceremonies, staged in the indoor athletic center. The event attracted hundreds of James' friends, colleagues and admirers. Several flew in from locations throughout the United States and Europe.

But the honoree insisted to his guests that they were not attending a farewell party.

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, he said, in a videotaped presentation shown before he stepped to the microphone, "the rumors of my departure have been greatly exaggerated."

It has been a rough year for track and field immortals. The sport has lost such greats as John Woodruff, Herb McKenley, Al Oerter, Parry O'Brien and Bob Mathias in recent months.

Normally, James, who also serves as treasurer of USA Track and Field, the national governing federation for the Olympic sport, would have been at the annual national meeting of USATF, which was being held concurrently in Honolulu.

But not this time. James' health situation precluded the trip. One guest speaker, veteran track coach and administrator Steve Simmons, cut short his own USATF duties to fly in from Hawaii.

"Larry has always been one of my heroes," Simmons said.

With due respect to current world record-holder Michael Johnson, Simmons declared that "Larry and Lee Evans were definitely the greatest quarter-milers of the 20th century."

The 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games provided the platform for two of Evans' and James' greatest performances. Evans won the 400-meter gold medal in 43.86 seconds, with James a half-step back in 43.97, as they became the first men ever to run the one-lap distance under 44 seconds.

Two days later, they joined with Vincent Matthews and Ron Freeman to win the 4x400-meter relay in 2:56.16, again setting a world record.

These were also the days of intense civil rights protest in America; Evans, James and Freeman donned black berets and raised clenched fists skyward on the medals stand after running 1-2-3 in the 400. Initially, this protest elicited shock reaction from the International Olympic Committee and some USOC officials.

Eventually, the world's view of those tumultuous Mexico City times would turn full circle. To many, the American runners are now recognized for displaying exceptional courage.

There have been few opportunities for Mathews, Freeman, Evans and James - locked forever in the Olympic history books - to gather for a reunion in the 39 years since the Mexico City Olympic Games.

But this was an occasion they could not miss.

"When I first saw him run, I understood why they called him 'the Mighty Burner,' " said Matthews, the New Yorker who went on to succeed Evans as Olympic 400 champion at the 1972 Munich Games.

"Smooth, efficient heat, that's Larry."

Said Freeman, the Elizabeth, N.J., product who went on to Arizona State University, "I've run against many quarter-milers from around the world, but Larry is the only one I never beat.

"And he's led a whole life of distinction. To me, he is a quiet giant."

To Evans, the San Jose State product who now serves as track coach at the University of South Alabama, "Larry made us all work harder. At first, we didn't really take to each other. He always had a mean face on.

"Larry once set a world record to beat me, and I had to set a world record to beat him."

The famous 2:56.16 4x400 relay performance in Mexico City - leaving 2-3 finishers Kenya and Germany far back - saw Mathews "take it out" in 45 seconds flat; Freeman break it up with a 43.2 lap that was the fastest in Olympic history; James continue widening the gap with a 43.8 split, and Evans, all alone by now, "bring it home" with a 44.1 lap.

It took another 20 years for that 2:56.16 Olympic performance to be equaled, by the USA team at the Seoul Olympics. And not until another American foursome, this one anchored by Steve Lewis, ran a 2:55.74 at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, was it finally surpassed.

"This event is truly a Godsend," said John Carlos, who had run third in the 200-meter dash final at the Mexico City Games, and then (with winner Tommie Smith) became the centerpieces of their own firestorm with their raised-arm, clenched black-gloved-fist, bowed-head display on the medals stand.

"I look around this room and I see a lot of love," said Carlos.

"That was a God-given team [in 1968].

"I've never, ever seen anything like it."

As the festivities wound down, James - family man, Marine Corps reserve officer, board member for a number of Atlantic County charities, as well as Richard Stockton College's foremost ambassador - stepped to the microphone and said, "This event is not really about me, it is about what people like me do."

Not quite.

There is not, cannot ever be, a generic Larry James.

He really, truly is a one and only.