For nine years, South Dakota was graced with a competition that featured many of the world’s and country’s greatest track and field athletes and Olympic champions.
Beginning in 1959 and running through 1967, on the first weekend in June, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) held its national track & field meet at Howard Wood Field in Sioux Falls.
Last winter, Dakota State welcomed the NAIA back to South Dakota, when they hosted the indoor track & field championship meet in Brookings. This week, the NAIA finds a new South Dakota venue for the event, moving to Yankton’s Mount Marty University and its newly-opened Ruth Donohoe Fieldhouse.
While the landscape of collegiate athletics has changed over the years, this event is still a big deal.
The NAIA is known unofficially as the small-college collegiate athletic association. It had its start before the NCAA had the huge revenues that attracted colleges of all sizes, and it started before integration allowed many of this country’s best athletes compete at the major colleges and universities.
In those days, schools like San Diego State, Eastern Michigan, Abilene Christian, South Dakota State and the University of South Dakota had a home in the NAIA. It was also a bastion for the nation’s Historical Black College and Universities (HBCU), where black athletes could demonstrate their athletic abilities.
The number of athletes from HBCUs drafted by the NFL and the NBA is well documented. At one time, schools like Grambling, Texas Southern, Southern, Prairie View and Florida A&M produced stars like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Earl Monroe, Buck Buchanan, Willis Reed, Edwin Moses, Lou Brock, LeRoy Kelly, Bob Hayes, Mel Blount, Deacon Jones, Art Shell and Willie Lanier.
But, let’s get back to track & field, and what South Dakota fans were treated to in those days. There were Olympic champions, national champions and world record holders on display regularly. Two performers became known as the world’s fastest humans.
Howard Wood has seen its share of great athletic contests over its years, including August 1961 when fewer than 5,000 fans watched the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys, two NFL expansion teams, square off in the only NFL game ever played in the state. But never has South Dakota been treated to the level of athletic talent that the NAIA brought to the facility.
The time covering three Olympiads was an incredible time period for a young aspiring track & field athlete. I watched as Roger Sayers (brother of Gale Sayers) edged “Bullet” Bob Hayes in the 100-yard dash in 1962. Two years later, Florida A&M’s Hayes was on the victory stand in Tokyo after winning the 100-meter dash in world record time. Hayes also anchored the U.S. winning 4 X 1 relay team to another gold medal and a world record to become the first “world’s fastest human” who ran in Sioux Falls.
But that night in 1962, Roger Sayers, an Omaha University sprinter, beat the world’s fastest human. Wikipedia claims Hayes never lost a 100-yard or 100-meter final, but everyone at Howard Wood knows differently.
Hayes was not deterred. He won the NAIA race in 1964, and after the Olympics, went on to play for several years for those same Dallas Cowboys, where he earned a Super Bowl ring and eventually a place in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Hayes was not the only world’s fastest human who hit the cinders in Sioux Falls. Jim Hines, running for Texas Southern, sprinted to the NAIA 100-meter title in 1968, and repeated the winning performance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, taking gold in both the 100 meters and 4 X 1 relay. And, you guessed it, in world record time. Hines thus became the second “world’s fastest human” with a Sioux Falls connection.
World records were never a problem for Ralph Boston of Tennessee State. In 1961, Boston won three individual NAIA championships (long jump, triple jump and high hurdles) to lead his team to a second place NAIA finish (he scored all the points).
Boston was primarily a long jumper. He held the world record on three occasions in 1964, when he dueled the Soviet Union’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan all summer, finally setting the mark at 27-5 at the Olympic Trials. Boston had won gold in Rome in 1960, but could only manage a silver in Tokyo in 1964.
Four years later, Boston took home the bronze in Mexico City, and watched teammate Bob Beamon leap an astonishing 29-2½, a world record which stood for 23 years until Mike Powell broke it in 1991. It is still the second longest legal jump in history.
The story does not stop there. Willie Davenport from Southern University of Baton Rouge, winner of the 110 high hurdles in Mexico City Olympics in 1968, won the NAIA meet in 1966 and 1967.
Davenport appeared in the Olympic final in the high hurdles in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. He took a bronze medal in 1976. In an interesting twist, Davenport was on the Olympic bobsled team in 1980, taking part in five Olympic championships.
Southern had a ton of sprinters and hurdlers who were world class, but none better than Theron Lewis. Lewis was a member of the gold medal team at the 1964 Olympics in the 4 X 4 relay. In 1965, he and his teammates — Robert Johnson, Everett Mason and Anthony Gates — equaled the world record in the mile relay. I watched them run at Howard Wood.
After college, in 1966, Lewis competed as a member of a foursome, including Lee Evans, Tommie Smith and Bob Fry, which became the first 4 X 4 relay team to run the event in under three minutes. That time would still win the event on most days.
The 1968 NAIA 400 meter champ, Vince Mathews of Johnson C. Smith College in North Carolina, won Olympic gold in 1972 in Munich in the 400 meters. Four years prior in 1968, he and teammates Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman won the Olympics 4 X 4 relay in a time of 2:56.16, a record which stood for 20 years.
Fred Newhouse, running for Prairie View A&M in Texas, was a gold medal winner in the 4 X 4 relay and picked up a silver in the 400 meters in 1976. Newhouse held the American record and had the second fastest time in the world in the event that year.
Richard Stebbins, a Grambling, Louisiana, graduate, was a member of the American 4 X 4 gold medal relay team in 1964. Another Grambling sprinter, Stone Johnson, ran the Olympic final for 200 meters in Rome in 1960. Johnson fractured a vertebra in a Kansas City Chief 1963 pre-season football game and died. His number, 33, was retired by the Chiefs.
The first person to clear 17 feet in the pole vault was an NAIA winner. John Pennell, who ultimately set a world record at 17-10¼ , competing for Northeast Louisiana (now Louisiana-Monroe) conducted a coach’s clinic at the old gymnasium at Sioux Falls Washington, which I was able to attend with my father while at the meet.
Pennell was an Olympian in both 1964 and 1968. Until Derek Miles, Chris Nielsen and Emily Grove came along at USD, he was my favorite pole vaulter of all time.
In the days I attended the NAIA meet in Sioux Falls, I was more than a fan; I was an autograph seeker. The athlete who was the most accommodating was Edwin Roberts, a native of Trinidad & Tobago competing for North Carolina College (North Carolina Central today). Roberts won the NAIA 200 meters three years running. He represented his native country in the Olympics in 1964, 1968 and 1972, and won bronze medals in the 200 meters and the 4 X 4 relay in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He always had a smile, time to sign an autograph, and he remembered me from year to year. He was my favorite sprinter.
His teammate at NCC, Norman Tate, was a U.S. Olympic long jumper in 1968. John Carlos, bronze medalist in the 200 meters, from East Texas State, was also on the Mexico City team in 1968.
The NAIA meet was not without local talent. The 1968, 10,000-meter Olympian, Van Nelson of St Cloud State, a winner of many North Central Conference and Howard Wood titles, won the mile and the three-mile in 1966, and won the three-mile and six-mile in 1967.
Al Feuerbach of Emporia State, Kansas, won two NAIA shot put championships, and later represented the U.S. in the Olympic shot put in 1972 and 1976. At one time, Feuerbach was the world record holder in the event.
Even closer to home, Yankton College Hall of Famer Tommie Lee White (Tom White at the time) had two third place finishes in the high hurdles at the meet in 1964 and 1965. By 1968, and again in 1972, he narrowly missed making the Olympic team, finishing fourth in the trials. For five years, White was rated in the top 10 hurdlers in the world.
I watched White run for the Greyhounds many times. He won the Howard Wood Relays hurdle title three times, and held virtually every meet record in the three-state area.
I recall the time he carried the Greyhound track team on his shoulders, competing in seven events in the old Tri-State Conference meet held at the current Yankton Middle School track, and winning most of them. He had some help, but he was easily the Athlete of the Meet. Jeremy Hoeck did a nice piece on White for the P&D a few years ago.
Even before the meet moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota left its mark on the event. In 1953, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits took home the team title, led by future NFL all-pro Palmer (Pete) Retzlaff. He was a four-time individual champion at the meet, winning the shot put and the discus in both 1952 and 1953. Retzlaff went on to a successful football career with the 1960 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles. He is still No. 3 in the Eagles record for receiving yards and was a two-time all-pro and five-time Pro Bowl performer. One of Retzlaff’s teammates at SDSU was Jack Richardson, former YHS athletic director and football coach.
So, you could say South Dakota has made a large contribution to NAIA track and field, and the NAIA has made a big impact on South Dakota. It’s nice to have them back in the state, and hope they find Yankton and Mount Marty University a place they can call home.