On June 21, 1947, in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships at Salt Lake City, one of track and field's legendary figures ran a spectacular quarter mile. Fleeing around the University of Utah track like a lengthening shadow, Herb McKenley of Jamaica, by way of the University of Illinois, demolished the old NCAA 440-yard-dash record and equaled his own world mark. The time was 46.2 seconds.
Yet if Herb McKenley were somehow able to gallop down through the years and duplicate that performance in the 1961 NCAA meet this weekend at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, upon reaching the finish line he almost certainly would discover that someone else had arrived there first. Waiting to shake his hand would be a towering, 20-year-old Californian wearing a burr haircut, a pleasant smile and the purple and white uniform of a small west Texas school. This would be Earl Verdelle Young of Abilene Christian College. He is one of the U.S.'s crop of bright new stars, and he can run like the red, white and blue blazes. Some people feel quite strongly that he is going to become the greatest quarter-mile runner of all time.
Earl Young is huge, for a dash man, standing almost 6 feet 4 inches tall, with broad shoulders and long, beautifully muscled legs, which carry him over the ground at eight feet a stride. The 440 is a picture race, combining as it does in one violent, whirling lap the blistering speed of the shorter dashes and the first delicate nuances of pace. Many of the great quarter-milers were picture runners, too—Bill Carr was one, so were McKenley and Grover Klemmer—but Young is not one of these. He is smooth enough, but the main impression one receives while watching him run is of tremendous power. He looks as though he could run right through a brick wall.
Times in the 440, as in other track events, are constantly being hammered down under the mass assault of better equipment, superior coaching methods and more scientific training techniques, all lavished upon an endless horde of bigger and stronger and faster kids. In the middle of April a high school senior from Andrews, Texas named Ted Nelson ran 440 yards in 46.5 seconds, setting a national scholastic record. A month later a high school senior from Compton, California named Ulis Williams broke that record by running 46.1. Allowances must be made for high school tracks and stop watches (Young, for example, later beat Nelson by almost 10 yards in 46.3 at the Compton Invitation), but the performances of both Williams and Nelson indicate what is happening to the 440-yard dash.
Already Young has run 400 meters, the metric equivalent of the quarter mile, which is used throughout Europe and in the Olympic Games, in 45.7 seconds; on the record-setting U.S. 1600-meter relay team at Rome, with the benefit of a running relay start, he ran 400 meters in 45.5. He has run 440 yards, which is 2� yards farther than 400 meters, in 46.2, and he has done a 440-yard leg on a mile relay in 45.7. But most of these times were made last year, when he was only 19, and now Young is just getting into top shape for the big meets of 1961 which lie ahead: the National Collegiate championships this weekend, the National AAU at Randall's Island in New York on June 24-25 and, if he qualifies there by placing first or second, the series of dual meets in Moscow, Stuttgart, London and Warsaw during July.
Fast field at Philly
Ready to challenge Young this weekend at Philadelphia is a double handful of runners capable of pushing the Abilene Christian star down below 46 flat: Dave Mills of Purdue, Walt Johnson of North Carolina College, Ollan Cassell of Houston, Kevin Hogan of Southern California, Adolph Plummer of New Mexico, Jim Heath of Colorado, Jim Baker of Missouri, Dick Edmunds of Princeton, Charles Strong of Oklahoma State. The 1960 NCAA champion, Colorado Fullback Ted Woods, is scholastically ineligible, the USC's wondrous sophomore, Rex Cawley, will doubtless choose to run the 440-yard hurdles, where he is far and away the class of the collegiate field. But with or without Woods and Cawley, Earl Young appears capable of running as fast as is necessary to win. Given a fast track (which he may not find at Franklin Field), a good day and the proper competition, Young could equal Glenn Davis' NCAA and world 440-yard record of 45.7.
"Before that boy is out of school," says George Eastment of Manhattan, one of the 1960 U.S. Olympic coaches, "he is going to run 400 meters in 44 seconds flat."
This, of course, is for the future. Young must first prove that he is America's premier quarter-miler, and as long as Otis Davis is around the issue will be in doubt. Davis, who won the 400-meter dash at Rome in the incredible world record time of 44.9, is aiming for the AAU meet and the European tour, too, and recently set an American record of 32.7 for the seldom-run 300-meter dash. But Davis has been teaching school in Oregon, with little time for serious training or tough competitive races. Now almost 29, he perhaps will compete only through this year. Young, on the other hand, is just getting started.
Last year he kept popping up where no unknown sophomore had any right to be. He won no major championships, but he finished fourth in the AAU, second in the U.S. Olympic trials at Palo Alto and, after three qualifying rounds against the toughest field of 400-meter men ever assembled, he gained the Olympic finals at Rome. There he finished sixth, but four of the five older, more experienced runners who beat him were clocked in the best individual times of their respective careers, and Earl's 45.9 equaled the old Olympic record. In appreciation, Governor Price Daniel made him an honorary citizen of the State of Texas, which is not to be confused with an Olympic gold medal but demonstrates what hard work can do for a Californian in a few short years.