When Young, the son of a radiator repair shop owner who once ran the quarter in 53 seconds, graduated from San Fernando High School in the spring of 1958, he was one of the most unsought-after athletes in southern California history. He could run the 100 in 10 seconds, the 220 in 21.6 and the 440, which he didn't particularly enjoy, in 49.6, a set of statistics that might knock their eyes out in Pocatello, Idaho or Bangor, Maine, but only led Californians to assume that the boy had spent all season running uphill. Only Occidental, of all the famous West Coast track schools, showed any interest, and Occidental wanted Earl to attend junior college first for a year.
So Earl went to Abilene Christian. It was simple. His grandmother picked up the telephone one day and called Oliver Jackson, the ACC coach. "The whole family talked it over," says Earl. "She just made the call. We belong to the Church of Christ and we knew about ACC. We also knew about the track program down there."
"The first time I saw Earl," says Jackson, "I wanted him. Everybody I talked to told me what a good boy he was, how he liked to run and how he worked at it. I figured he had great potential. Shoot, a big old boy like that, only 17 and still growing, who can do the 100 in 10 flat can't help but run a good quarter mile."
The first thing Earl did at Abilene was shoot himself in the leg. Out popping away at jack rabbits one day, he took aim on a skunk, changed his mind, and drew the .22-caliber automatic pistol back inside the window of the car. It went off, sending the little hollow-point bullet into the back of his heavily-muscled right calf and out the front, missing the bone by a fraction of an inch and leaving an ugly, nickel-size hole which is now a shiny, nickel-size scar. He was running again within two weeks.
Under Jackson's intensive conditioning program, Earl began to live up to his potential right away. He lifted weights to fill in his chest and build up his arms, he ran cross-country to develop endurance, he practiced explosive stationary running to increase leg speed. He grew an inch in height and went up from 165 to 180 pounds. That year, as a freshman, he ran the 100 in 9.7, the 220 in 20.7 and the 440 in 48.5. Once he ran a 46.6 leg on a mile relay.
But it was at the beginning of Young's sophomore season that Oliver Jackson, who coached Bobby Morrow to three gold medals in the sprints at Melbourne, realized that he might have another of that very rare breed. Just past his 19th birthday, Earl ran the 100 in 9.6, the 220, around a curve, in 20.9 and the 440 in 46.2. Then he went on to make the Olympic team and win a gold medal for his relay leg. He visited Bern and Athens (where he got so sick eating snails that he wished he could die), and he visited Turku and Helsinki and Dublin and Glasgow. He returned to Abilene to find that he had been adopted by the State of Texas; later he was voted the Dean's Award as the student who had made the greatest contribution of the year to ACC. And then, instead of sitting back to admire his accomplishments, Earl Young really went to work. During 1961, he decided, he would do even better.
Brilliance and bugs
At first, it appeared that he would—in a breeze. In March he ran a 220-yard dash at the Border Olympics in 20.3. Since he was aided by a tailwind, the time was unofficial, but there have been famous sprinters who couldn't run 220 yards that fast when pushed along by a howling gale. "He's too big," says Jackson, "to get a real sprinter's start, so you can imagine how fast he must move to run 20.3. I don't see how he can miss 45.5 in the quarter before the year is out." Jackson, who looks like Bing Crosby, knows quite a bit about running, having produced not only Bobby Morrow but some of the finest college relay teams of all time, so no one really questioned the casual way in which he had just awarded his prize pupil a new world record. But Oliver Jackson doesn't know much about bugs.
One got into Young, causing a liver infection which left him feeling lethargic and completely worn out. The team physician, fearing the liver ailment would turn into hepatitis, took the boy off his rigorous training schedule. "So I eased up," said Earl. "Maybe it was all in my head, but I was pooped out all the time."
But the second week in April he had recovered enough to anchor three winning teams at the Texas Relays and earn the meet's outstanding-athlete award. With Cal Cooley, Dennis Richardson and Bud Clanton out ahead of him, he ran 20.2 to help ACC equal the world record of 1:22.6 for the 880 relay; following Richardson, Pat McKennon and Clanton, Young ran 45.7 as the ACC mile relay team took the collegiate record down by more than a full second to 3:07.9.