Reading, mass., a bedroom community of about 23,000 people 12 miles north of Boston, is in almost every respect a typical New England small town. There is a lush village green and a wind-blasted graveyard, lanky steeples sit atop somber churches, and quaint shops line a tidy main street. Reading is 351 years old, but even such heady anniversaries are common stuff in this part of Massachusetts. To see what's distinctive about Reading, you need to look for life on the hill next to the graveyard.
Each year as winter thaws into spring, teenage boys run up the road alongside the graveyard. A graveyard can be an unsettling place, but no member of the Reading Memorial High School track team spends these training runs fretting about ghouls. On the mind of every runner is a very real and gruff 51-year-old ex-Marine sergeant who has been known to hurry a lagging runner through his paces with a sharp, well-placed word or two.
If truth be told, however, there aren't many dawdlers on Hal Croft's track teams. Since 1973, two years after he took over as the boys' team coach, the Rockets have gone 207-0-1 in dual meets against teams in the Middlesex League. Thirteen times in those 22 years, the Rockets have won the Class B state championship, most recently in 1993.
"You gotta be a humble icon," Croft will tell you, adding that he doesn't "give a rat's tail" about all this success, because "I'm an English teacher first." Fair enough, except that you don't become a highly successful coach without caring about winning more than most.
In the stands at Reading meets, fans from rival schools whisper that Croft is "a tyrant." In the hallways at Reading High, however, Croft can't get to the library without someone stopping him to ask how to sign up for track. In all, 15% to 20% of the boys at 1,000-student Reading High routinely join the boys' track team and not many quit. Instead, gangly types who can't shoot a basketball or hit a baseball develop into formidable middle-distance runners, sprinters and jumpers because they have one of those rare coaches who can make a boy believe that if he tries hard enough, he can become whatever he likes, on the track and beyond. "Why do you think I'm so tough?" Croft will ask after one of his famously brutal Saturday-morning workouts. "Because I'm mean? No. It's that out in the real world everybody's a tiger."
Croft, the son of a house painter, grew up in Maiden. Mass. "Since I can remember," he says, "I've admired the drama, the beauty and the intensity of track." When he was about 11 he read about Villanova's legendary track coach. Jumbo Elliot, and several years later about Villanova's great miler Ron Delany. "I became fascinated with what Villanova was—the courage a lot of those guys showed on the track," Croft says. At Malden High School, Croft was a reasonably talented sprinter who could run 100 yards in about 11 seconds. When he got to Villanova, amid the likes of Olympian Frank Budd and future Olympian Paul Drayton, Croft became, he says, a stiff.
He left college during his junior year and signed on with the Marines, which is how he found himself in Vietnam in 1967. "That's where I learned about human nature, endurance and tolerance," he says. "I learned about individual motivation, young men taking advantage of their potential while they have it." Croft was awarded the Silver Star following a battle near Conthien, in which he killed six North Vietnamese troops with hand grenades. He was given the Bronze Star for patching up wounded soldiers and saving four lives after his corpsman was killed in a battle on Hill 861, near Khe Sanh. He was one of fewer than 30 Americans out of a company of 90 men who survived the night. After a year of war and two bouts with malaria, Croft returned to Villanova, where he completed his degree in English. Then he went home again to Massachusetts.
The Reading track team was 0-9 in the spring of 1970. Croft began teaching English and coaching the Rocket runners the following school year. In Croft's first season the Rockets finished 3-6. "It was humiliating," says Croft. "I could see the reason we were getting our tails kicked. We lacked respect for the sport." In 1972 the team was 9-0, and since then, save for tying Wakefield in 1973, it has won every one of its dual meets against Middlesex League teams.
All of this has opposing coaches craving Croft's recipe for helping kids maximize their abilities and turning them into, well, rockets—or at least into winners. It's true that Reading workouts are strenuous. But Peter Rittenburg, the 1979 Reading captain who went on to set Harvard's indoor pentathlon record and is now back at Reading High leaching English and assisting Croft as track coach, is probably right when he says, "I don't know that there's anything different here. He holds kids to standards."
In addition to giving his track athletes workouts that build endurance and speed, Croft teaches technique and guile. "I see kids who can jump just as high as I can," says Tim Nelson, a 1995 Reading senior captain. "I say, 'Jeez, if they had Mr. Croft, they'd be six inches higher." He really understands form." Croft is also adept at looking over the motley ranks who turn out each spring and finding events to match his personnel. "Every year you hear that after you're gone the program will fall apart," says Jason Gracilieri, who threw the javelin for the Rockets in 1994. "But Mr. Croft turns kids who can't walk into great sprinters and distance runners." What this means is that the Rockets may not win every event, but they pile up enough second-and third-place finishes to prevail in meets time after time.