Realizing immediately my shortcomings in the adept art of infighting, I resolved to keep out of arms' reach for the remainder of the course. After covering a mile and a half of the three-mile course, I found myself in the lead. I ran on happily, opening a wide gap between myself and the trailing pack. My biggest problem at this stage was to keep on the right course. There were all sorts of arrows to follow, on the sides of trees and painted on the ground. Madly waving officials were there at every cross point to ensure you took the right turn. With their help and my 20-20 vision I found my way home to the finishing line, a 75-yard victor over Michael Midler of Cornell. I had made a promising start to my racing career in America. I only hoped and prayed I would have the ability to keep it up.
Returning to Villanova, I successfully completed midterm exams...not brilliantly mind you, but sufficiently to augur well for the future. Accounting and English literature were giving me some trouble. Our English professor was a rather sophisticated type and we met head on once or twice. He severely criticized me publicly one day, much to the amusement of my classmates, for borrowing Longfellow's words, "footprints on the sands of time," and using them in an essay assignment. I rose, as would any friend of Longfellow's, to defend the value of his metaphor. The professor was not impressed and accused me of having kissed the Blarney stone. But I never had!
In early December I got my first glimpse of an indoor running track, though outdoors. The board track had been laid out in the Villanova Stadium. It was a strange-looking thing with steeply banked corners and short straightaways, 12 laps to the mile. If it was odd to look at, I was to find it even more peculiar to run on at first.
The first time I tried to negotiate a turn at speed I went right up on the bank to the outside board. But with expert coaching and the advice of my friend and teammate, Charlie Jenkins, I was soon negotiating the turns like a veteran. Jumbo called me a natural and assured me I would have no problems adjusting my stride to the tighter board circuit.
The whole atmosphere toward training had now changed. With the opening of the indoor season looming up in early January, there was a seriousness about the workouts. We trained every day and trained hard. Jumbo's rallying call was no longer "hit the books" but "hit the track." And this we did, varsity and freshmen. Dedication and determination were evident in the approach of each athlete—the type of approach that had made America the greatest power in the world in track and was to make the comparatively small Villanova squad the greatest college track team in America for the next five years. Intercollegiate championships, indoors and out, National Collegiate championships, world records, Olympic titles were the prizes at stake. There was no room for shirking, no easy way to the top.
I was caught up in this atmosphere. It was something completely new to me. My blood was fired with a new enthusiasm. I relished the exhausting workouts—the harder the better. I was not alone. I was one of many young men reaching for the sky. The outdoor elements, rain or snow, did not deter us. There was a job to be done and we were about to do it well. Jumbo impressed on us the value of our efforts, of each monotonous mile pounded out on the creaking board track in the Villanova Stadium. "Money in the bank" was how he described it, an investment in our running futures. "Train hard and the races will take care of themselves" was the motto he gave us. None of us stopped to question him, and for the first time in my life I knew what it felt to be part of a team. I was still an Irishman, and would always be, but gradually I was becoming a Villanovan. In future I would race with a double purpose, for the honor of Ireland and for Villanova. I already felt I belonged in the dynamic world of American track and field. I was determined to make a worthwhile contribution.
That December began what was to be a lasting friendship with Charlie Jenkins, Villanova's Olympic 400-meter champion at Melbourne. Despite my outwardly friendly disposition I did not make friends easily, and never have to this day. Perhaps it was the individual nature of athletics, the amount of dedication required, the tension that was constantly there, if mostly beneath the surface—but I had always been somewhat of a loner. The self-discipline one imposed on oneself did not exactly make one the life and soul of a party. It was impossible to share your feelings with someone who did not understand the very nature of your sport. Friendship, too, probably required an amount of giving, and this I was not prepared to do. All the giving I was prepared to make was concentrated in the one area—toward making me a champion.
My friendship with Charlie was different. Our objectives were the same, and we were driven on by the same ambition. We worked together in training, pushing each other to the limits of our endurance. We helped each other in time trials and by critical advice. We were of the same mold. The similarity of our makeup and our closeness on the track led to a truly great friendship that I will treasure for the rest of my life. We began to share our personal problems and ideas with each other off the track, too. Religion and girl friends became our two favorite topics for conversation. Later on, when the competitive season started, on pre-race days we took long walks out along the country roads near Villanova and plotted the tactics for the downfall of an opponent. Charlie was an articulate public speaker and we shared many a top dais at Communion breakfasts, sports banquets and other functions. Here, too, we competed against each other—with witticisms and funny stories, our prize not so much the applause of the audience but one-upmanship on each other.
While my approach to athletics changed that first December in Villanova, life had not suddenly become all serious. There was still room for many a lighter moment. All was not dull or dedication. The Christmas vacation came around and I decided to stay on campus with another foreigner, Alex Breckenridge from Glasgow, Scotland, for company. Alex was a two-miler and eventually was to represent the U.S. in the marathon at the Rome Olympics. Mr. Elliott employed us for the holiday in the company he worked for then, Franz Equipment Co. Ltd., in what capacity I do not know to this day. I think we were the funniest thing to happen along for the workers in Franz Equipment for many a year. The first morning we reported for duty we were shown out to the plant, where we met a foreman called Sam. It was obvious from the start that Sam and the boys were out to have some fun at our expense. They were openly amused by our accents, Breckenridge's burr and my brogue. The first job we were given to do involved measuring yards and yards of steel cable. Sam gave us a ruler about three feet long and told us to get on with the job. We must have made quite a sight, rolling out hundreds of yards of steel cable and proceeding to measure the lot with a ridiculous three-foot ruler. To add to our troubles we were working out of doors, and I had never experienced such cold weather in all my life.
After two or three days we realized the futility of it all, so we devised a formula for measuring the length of the cables without even having to unravel them. I hope to this day that no crane mechanic ever used our measured cables in his work without checking the length first. I shudder to think what the consequences could have been. Still, we survived the elements and were paid a salary for our efforts at the end of it all. After taxes we took home about $75 each, more money than I had ever had in my life. We had a happy Christmas.