Shortly after Christmas the track team members returned to Villanova, cutting short their vacations, to complete preparations for our first indoor meet, the Knights of Columbus Games in Boston. Coach Elliott informed me I was entered in the Bishop Cheverus Memorial 1,000-Yard Run. I had never raced at the distance before, but this did not worry me unduly. My main worry was that I had never raced on the boards before. Sure, I was doing well in training and had just completed a confidence-building half-mile time trial on the Villanova boards. But training and racing were two different things.
Saturday, January 15, crept up on me and I found myself in the lobby of the Manger Hotel, Boston, on the day of my indoor debut. The nervous tension associated with competing was beginning to build up. I was trying to control it and to remain as complacent as possible under the circumstances. Outwardly I probably appeared calm but inside me a volcano of nervous energy was slowly turning over. One moment I was full of doubts—doubting my own ability, my fitness and my purpose. Then I would reassure myself that I was capable of beating my opponents, analyzing and comparing their past performances with my own.
It was midafternoon and I had not yet seen the indoor track laid out in the Boston Garden. More precisely, I had never been inside an indoor arena in my life. Boston was Charlie Jenkins' home town and we had arranged that he would show me the Garden. We went over and Charlie gave me a right Cook's Tour, pointing out the dressing rooms, the best areas for warming up and the starting and finishing lines on the track for the 1,000-yard. The arena itself was vast and frightening, with towering seats on all sides stretching right up to the roof. But looking up at the empty seats I was conscious, too, of the intimacy of the place. I suddenly felt lonely, for I realized that every face staring down from those same seats later that evening would be unknown to me. I was a stranger and terribly alone. Returning to the hotel, I retired to my room to rest and prepare myself mentally. I resigned myself stoically to the task at hand. There was no escape now. My concentration was intense and I was determined to run to the best of my ability.
I went over to the Garden and to the Villanova dressing room without even taking a glimpse inside at the crowded arena. While changing into the Villanova colors I could hear the roar of the crowd somewhere in the background. I began to sense and feel for the first time the excitement of indoor track. Little did I realize then how big a part this new sport I was about to sample would play in my athletic career for the next five years.
I moved out into the passageways circling the arena beneath the seating and began my warmup. This took some doing. The passages were full of people moving to and fro between the hot dog stands, beer counters, conveniences, and their seats. They were a good-humored crowd and while downing their beers and stuffing themselves with hot dogs they shouted words of encouragement to the runners trotting by. They did not seem to appreciate that the athletes were trying to warm up for their races; they stopped whomever they liked for his autograph. No one knew me, and I was not bothered at all.
One side of the arena was quieter than the other, so I began to do some fast strides along the 60 yards or so of passageway. As I was striding along at full speed, an oversize gent stepped out of a stairway straight in my path. My running career almost came to a premature end at that moment, but I managed to glance off him with no damage, save the loss of my friend's beer, much to his disgust. I can't recall exactly what he shouted after me, but he certainly wasn't wishing me good luck.
It was time now to move inside to the arena for the race. I remember feeling reasonably calm under the circumstances as I sat down in the center of the arena to put on my spiked shoes. Looking up into the crowd I could see a sea of faces, all unfamiliar. I felt a sudden jolt as the announcer called for "all competitors in the 1,000-yard run." This was the moment I had trained for.
I stepped out on the board track to run the first indoor race of my life. As each competitor was announced he trotted forward, waved his hand in greeting to the cheer of the crowd and then went back to the starting line. For some strange reason or other there was a separate spotlight beaming on me all the time. I had no time then to figure out why but after the race I learned that the assistant electrician in the Boston Garden was a countryman of mine, Joe Casey. He was doing his bit to put some steel into my soul for the race ahead.
The race began and it was like a nightmare. I tried to secure a good position at the first bend but a sturdy favorite of the Garden crowd, Carl Joyce, unceremoniously belted me aside as he came up on my inside. Every time I moved up alongside a runner I got the same treatment. Biff, bang, wallop—I wondered if this was boxing or track. Somehow or other I managed to get to the front, about 100 yards from the finish, with Lang Stanley and Gene Maynard, the Big Ten champion, breathing down my neck. It was the safest place to be and I edged my way to the finish, a winner in the new track record time of 2:10.2.
Exhausted but truly delighted by my success, I made my way slowly around the outside of the track catching my breath and still spotlighted by Joe Casey, this time in a green light. The crowd was giving me a great reception and I began to realize what people meant when they said Boston was a real Irish town. Jumbo came up to me, shook my hand and said well done. In the next breath he said, "Boy, have you got a lot to learn." I knew what he meant, for in winning I had never taken such a beating in all my life. I would have to learn how to take care of myself on the boards.