The Ohio High School Championships are this weekend, and twenty-five years ago at that meet is when I became a Superfan of track and field. This week I’m telling the story of how it happened. You can read the earlier chapters:
Now, on to part 3.
It is May, 1967.
Elliot Bergman was nervous. His neck was throbbing and his knees were shaking when he entered the shot put ring. His main opponent, Marty Huff, was the meet record holder at 57′ 5¼”, and planned on breaking that meet record. The thrower and fullback at St. Francis DeSales High School, who had rushed for a record 1,191 yards during a perfect 10-0 season, later became an All-American linebacker at Michigan and played multiple seasons in the NFL. But this night belonged to Bergman.
For more than three decades, the DeVilbiss Night Relays were the social and sporting event of the spring in Toledo. The newspaper always previewed the meet, listed the records, and told fans who to watch. There was a spaghetti dinner in the school cafeteria before the meet, and a Night Relays queen was crowned every year. Page Stadium’s tight four-lane, 400-yard track gave rise to some weird races: relays of two, four, eight and sixteen laps were 10% shorter than the standard. There were shuttle hurdles, but there was a shuttle 4×100 yard relay too, and both were held on the grass of the football field. The mile started at the end of the backstretch and went nearly four and a half laps. Attendance was sometimes upwards of 5,000.
So Bergman felt real pressure, because he wore the black and orange of the DeVilbiss Tigers, the hosts of the meet. When he went over 55 feet for the first time, early in the ’67 season, he started getting questions about whether he could beat Huff at the Night Relays. There were issues that others read into this simple competition between two young men, too; St. Francis represented new money and Catholics, while DeVilbiss represented old money, Protestants and Jews. To their credit, neither Huff nor Bergman gave a damn about those things.
DeVilbiss head coach Bud Tapola sequestered the high-strung Bergman in the gym for the entire week before the meet. He threw an indoor shot all by himself with no one watching. When he came out on Friday night, he set three PRs, topping out at 58′ 6½”. It was a meet record and the best so far that year in Ohio, but most importantly he beat Huff. It was possibly the most memorable moment ever at the Night Relays.
The Night Relays were the brainchild of Norm Pollman, coach at DeVilbiss from the school’s opening in 1931 until his retirement in 1952. He copied the all-relay format from similar meets held at Ohio Wesleyan and Miami, and built it into a community festival. His teams were very good, too, winning the state championship in 1946. The Night Relays died off in 1971 for many reasons, but a big one was the loss of lights at Page Stadium. After a series of mid-sixties riots at high school games, night football was banned in the Toledo City League, and lights eventually disappeared from local fields until the ban was lifted in the early 90s.
That didn’t kill the tradition of excellence in track at DeVilbiss, though. In the late 60s, Bud Tapola took over as head coach. He was passionate, tough and demanding, and knew how to work with all kinds of people. That was vitally important, because like most city schools, DeVilbiss was changing. Once known locally as the “cake eaters” for their money and snooty attitude, by the 70s the student body was a cross-section of the city’s races, ethnicities, and economics.
Bud was a disciple of that crazy Kiwi, Arthur Lydiard, and had some of his kids running up to a hundred miles in a week in the summer. In a three-year stretch his teams were third, first and second at the state cross country championships, and by 1972 the school record board showed times of 1:55.6, 4:16.3, and 9:12.7 for the imperial distances. His first-ever girls team was formed in 1982, and in 1984 they were state runners-up. His skills weren’t limited to distance runners, either; by the 80s, he’d begun to develop some very good sprinters and quarter-milers. He retired after the end of the 1985 season, and I came in as a freshman three months later.
Track had always been a very big deal at DeVilbiss, but I did not know any of this. Partially it was because I was as clueless as any other freshman, but it was partly due to Bud’s exit. When success is dependent on just one passionate person, things can go downhill in a hurry when that person is gone. Just two years after he retired, in my first year of high school cross country, we were an ordinary team.
Bud’s hand-picked replacement was well-known, but the track coach job had to be posted, bids had to be accepted, and candidates had to be interviewed. Knowing it was a done deal, only one other guy besides Bud’s pick was clueless enough to apply. Then Bud’s pick got into a major disagreement with the principal, moved to another school, and withdrew his application. That left that one fool as the lone applicant, and he got the job.
In 1986, his first year, Coach Z’s team was loaded with talent, but the results were middling. The team was runner-up at the City Championship, and scored a grand total of five points at the regional championship, with no state championship qualifiers. The 4×100 team had been one of the fastest in the state, but dropped the baton at the regional championships.
A few people at DeVilbiss knew how good the team could and should have been. Mark Coe, the boys’ and girls’ cross country coach, was asked to come in as the assistant for the 1987 season. He leaned heavily on the advice of his friend Bob Hayton, the head coach at crosstown Libbey High School. Bob had coached multiple state champions, including two-time Olympian Brenda Morehead. Bob is now in the Ohio coaches’ hall of fame, and three of his former athletes will be competing in this summer’s Olympic Trials.
The talent was there, and the coaching was (surreptitiously) there. I was injured, on the sidelines, and watched everything. 1987 was a remarkable season, and it’s when I became a Superfan.