Thus the urge to improve self and system was present in Smith at age 12. "Seventh grade and now I'm sitting in the middle of the class. I'm working hard. Academically I'm on my way. But remember, identifying the problem was the crucial first step." Those words carry down the years, sensible and dangerous.
"In eighth grade I was six-foot-two-and-a-half and weighed 155 pounds. But that was the year it seemed like I didn't have to hide anymore." Sports-minded men took one look at Tommie Smith and approved. His height and speed let him dominate in basketball. He improved his 100-yard-dash time from 10.9 to 9.9 in the ninth grade, a consequence of lacing on his first spikes.
In his junior year at Lemoore High School he ran the 100 in 9.6, long-jumped 23 feet and met the quarter mile. "Against Hanford, our big rival, we needed points. Coach Burton said, 'Want to run the 440?'
" 'Sure, Coach.' That was my constant reply, 'Sure, Coach.' I'd never run it in my life. At the gun I went like it was a 200. I thought I was to die in the end."
The strength of the land was in him. He held on against the pain to finish in 47.7.
In 1963, having run the 100 and 220 in 9.5 and 21.1, long-jumped 24'6" and high-jumped 6'5", Smith went to San Jose State on a basketball-track-football scholarship.
"I did not want to go back to the fields. I wanted to be an all-American student," he says. "If you got clean shoes, a close haircut and a book in your hand, you had it right. Didn't miss class. Tommie Smith did not miss class. He was desperately tired sometimes, but he always made class."
Not that he aced everything. "I started out on academic probation and my little brain boiled in the library stacks and I still only got a 2.1 GPA as a freshman. Basketball had hurt my sprinting." Smith sat down uneasily before basketball coach Stu In-man. " 'Coach,' I said, 'I'm thinking track and field.'
" 'Tommie,' he said, T understand. Good luck. Come see us.'
"Now," says Smith, "I could concentrate on something."