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Hurdling is not a very ancient sport, the first recorded race run under any semblance of rules having been contested on a playing field of Eton about 100 years ago. Then hurdles were solid barriers otherwise used for folding sheep, and they were driven deep into the ground. As a consequence, the primary-concern of the 19th century hurdler was to safely clear the top, and victory often went not to the fastest but to the most circumspect. Of course, nowadays, when hurdlers don't have to worry about breaking a toe or a shinbone, you have to be able to go—and nobody goes faster than Willie Davenport.
A fortnight ago Davenport—Wondrous Willie! Wonderful Willie! Wee Willie Wisp! Dangerous D! Or just plain old Breeze—won the 60-yard high hurdles at the National AAU Indoor Track and Field Championships in Philadelphia. It was his 15th straight victory, 16th if you count his win in the 110-meter hurdles at the Olympics, and the only thing Davenport has broken is three world records.
However, Willie Davenport is the world's best hurdler only on weekends. During the week he is a student teacher at Capitol High School in Baton Rouge, another black face in the tough, glib, brash world of schools like Capitol.
On a recent Wednesday night he was standing in the doorway of the gym watching the basketball team warm up. "Hey, coach!" a student yelled from the popcorn stand. He walked over and put his arm around Davenport. "You know, man, those push-ups you made me do this afternoon. Man, they killed me. You can't do that to me."
"Get your hand off me," Davenport said. "Go back where you belong or I'll make you do 50 more right now."
"It's a rough school," Davenport said later. "They have some respect for me because of my name. But still they had to test me. My first day, when I was taking roll, they kept making noise. So I put my pencil in the book, closed it, laid it down, then grabbed some kid and put him up against the wall. There hasn't been any trouble since.
"But then I can understand a lot of them. I've been through the whole thing. I was really on my way out. When I was a kid I was nothing but a young thug. I had a terrible temper. Like I had my own seat on the bus that took us to school. If I got on and someone else was sitting in it—well, no one took my seat."
Fred Johnson, who taught Davenport at mainly white Howland High School in Warren, Ohio, remembers well. "The first day I walked up to the classroom," he says, "I opened the door and a kid came sliding out on his back. Then I walked into the room and saw one kid poke another and knock him down. It was Willie Davenport who threw the one fellow out and knocked down the other. He certainly wasn't the best person in the world then. That first year, I don't know how many times I had to use a paddle on him."
Davenport has, of course, come a long way from Howland. He graduated, spent three years in the Army as a paratrooper and now, at 25, is a semester away from a physical education degree at Southern University in Baton Rouge. But just as certain as his present success is his awareness of who he was and where he has been.
Two days later Davenport got up early and went to a neighboring junior high school, at which the principal had asked him to speak. "Because of my reputation and all I have accomplished," Davenport says, "I feel a responsibility to young kids. I think they look up to me and listen to what I say. I emphasize just one thing and that is the need for goals. I tell them to set themselves some and work toward them. You see, I didn't have any for myself until my junior year in high school, when I got interested in running track. Up until then I was wild. What would have happened to me if there hadn't been track? Well, I don't know. But it is something interesting to think about."