When Houston McTear was 14 years old he won the 100-yard dash in a junior high school track meet, running in sneakers, a T shirt and a worn pair of cut-off blue jeans. He was timed in 9.8 seconds, a performance made more dazzling by the fact that he didn't even have a set of starting blocks.
McTear (rhymes with McVeer) is now 18, a high school junior, the most promising young sprinter in the U.S. and a bona fide candidate for the 1976 Olympic Games, a marvelous prospect for an athlete who has been traveling on a no-frills ticket all his life. McTear is still doing without, but because of his astonishing athletic talent, and some kindly folks in Florida's Okaloosa County who recognize it, he also is doing himself proud.
On six occasions this season McTear has run the 100 in 9.3 to equal the national high school record. In one of those races, at the Florida Relays in Gainesville, he didn't have time to warm up properly. In the long jump, an event he practices about as often as Howard Hughes holds press conferences, his 24'6" mark is the best in the country this year for a high-schooler.
McTear's credentials as a sprinter were solidly established against world-class competition during the indoor season. He ran 50 yards in 5.1 (another national scholastic mark), twice covered 60 yards in 5.9 (one-tenth off the world record) and finished first in the 60 yards in the U.S.- U.S.S.R. meet in Richmond.
All of which isn't half bad for a somewhat bowlegged sprinter with slightly ragged form. For an untutored runner McTear's start is pretty good, although he sometimes comes out of the blocks too high, and he has explosive acceleration through the first 50 yards. Mel Pender, who calls McTear a "born sprinter," says Houston also carries his arms wrong. But after the gun McTear's pistonlike stride is a study in brute strength, one that attacks a race, leaves scorch marks on the track and gives observers the impression that he drives his body too hard for the resiliency of muscles and ligaments. McTear, however, has never suffered a hamstring pull or any other injury.
Despite being 5'7" and 155 pounds, McTear compares himself, as do others, to the much bigger Bob Hayes, whom he resembles in pigeon-toed gait, the kind of raw speed that obliterates flaws in form, bulging calf muscles and proficiency in football. As a running back for the Baker High Gators, McTear gained 1,380 yards on 96 carries last fall. That's a 14.4-yard average, and when Baker occasionally abandoned its Wishbone running attack to throw forward passes, four of them were to McTear for touchdowns.
For a high school junior—indeed, for a collegian or an internationalist—his performances are remarkable. They are even more remarkable when they are considered against the background of his training facilities, which are nonexistent, and his home, which is an indictment of the American Dream.
It is doubtful that many world-class athletes know a world with fewer material advantages than McTear's. Home is a place called Milligan, an off-the-map hamlet set among the soybean farms and pine forests of the Sunshine State's panhandle. McTear's Florida is more like backwoods Alabama than Palm Beach, and it is grinding poverty however you look at it.
Houston lives with his parents, Eddie and Margree (who have seen him run only once), and seven brothers and sisters whose ages range from 19 to four, in a dun-colored, squalid shack at the end of a dirt road. It is first in a row of six similar shacks that run parallel to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks some 75 yards from the front porch. What sets the McTear shack apart from the others is a front-room shelf stacked with Houston's track trophies. The yard is bare dirt with an occasional weed clump, and is littered with old tires, broken boards and the sad assorted flotsam that drifts over places no one really cares about.
The McTears live a quarter of a mile from a local fishing stream called the Yellow River, but its proximity is a dubious blessing. Rising after heavy rains a few weeks ago, it left almost five inches of water in the house.