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The Greatest and Most Forgotten
LINDEN, N.J. — Back in 2006, ESPN celebrated what they called the top fifty athletes of the 20th century. Milt Campbell’s name was not among them.
People who know track and field history wonder how a man who is the only decathlon champion to hold a world record in an individual event could be omitted or forgotten.
Also, except for people living in his hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey and the state itself, Campbell’s name is usually omitted when people list the great decathlon champions of the United States. How could this be? One reason is that there are more than a few sports writers, coaches, and so-called experts who have knowledge of sports as deeply as pigs have knowledge of nuclear physics.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of the things they said or wrote. Gems like, “Jim Brown was a straight ahead power runner.” Or that Dennis Rodman was the greatest rebounder in history. Meanwhile, people like Bill Russell, the late Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes and many others have rebounding averages and totals that dwarf Rodman’s.
They also had career scoring averages above or near twenty points per game. So I maintain that besides football and basketball, track and field also has its share of pundits with athletic glaucoma and statistical post lobotomy syndrome. Campbell’s story will reveal that I am not exaggerating.
As a high school junior, Campbell told his coach he wanted to be the best athlete in the state of New Jersey. His coach said, I think you can be the best athlete in the world.”
Campbell asked what he had to do and his coach replied, “Win the Olympic decathlon.” Campbell remembered that “I had to look up what the decathlon was,” and when he found out he recalled, “I welcomed the challenge.”
By that time in his athletic career, Campbell was an accomplished athlete. He was already an all-state football player and he was an accomplished high hurdler.
“My coach would always have me run the open section which came after the high school section.” The open section of track meets was literally open to anyone. College and world class athletes competed there. Harrison Dilliard, Olympic champion and the best high hurdler in the world, was among the competition Campbell commonly faced. “I placed second to him (Dilliard) a number of times. Sometimes I came in third,” Campbell said.
During the Olympic trials Campbell tried to make the team in two events, the high hurdles and the decathlon. He placed fourth in the hurdles and could not compete in the Olympics in that event, since only the top three finishers make the team.
He made the team in the decathlon despite having no previous competition in the event. “The Olympic trials were my first decathlon and there were about three events that I had never done in competition,” Campbell recalled.
The 1952 Olympic games were held in Helsinki, Finland. Campbell placed second, losing to Bob Mathias who had also won the 1948 Games in London. When he returned home Campbell said, “People were happy and congratulating me that I had gotten a silver medal.”
“But I was disappointed. I wanted to win. I figured that if I could have trained more and gotten used to all the events, I would have won the gold medal.”
The 1952 Games took place during the summer between Campbell’s junior and senior year of high school. During his senior year he was again all-state in football. He also swam during his first three years and was all-state “two or three years,” he fuzzily recalled.
Interestingly, Campbell was an all-state swimmer during a time when the prevailing sports “wisdom” stated that Black people could not swim. Campbell was told that and he swam “to prove a point.” He also held the national records in the 120 yard high hurdles (13.8 seconds) and the 180 yard low hurdles, “I can’t remember the time I ran (in the 180 yard low hurdles), that’s too far back,” the 66 year old laughed. He was also national high school champion and record holder in the 60- yard indoor high hurdles.
Campbell had grown from a 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore to a 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior. Even by today’s standards, he would be considered large for a fast versatile athlete.
The state of New Jersey, the nation, and the world knew of Milt Campbell. As he prepared to enter Indiana University, he knew they had not heard the last of him.
Milt Campbell was a rookie with the Cleveland Browns in 1957. He came with the title of “The World’s Greatest Athlete” based on his Olympic decathlon gold medal. His college football credentials were not as impressive, but good enough for him to be drafted in the fifth round.
His first year he played little, carrying only seven times for 23 yards. Future Hall of Famer Jim Brown deservedly got most of the work. The next year, in preseason, coach Paul Brown called Campbell into his office. “He asked me ‘Why did you have to get married?’ ” Campbell recalled. “We had a few words and the next day I was cut.”
1957 was the third year of the Civil Rights Era and segregation ruled the south where lynchings and other acts of raw racism were also common. The north was more tolerant in its day to day relations, but there were lines that your were never, ever supposed to cross. Campbell crossed, perhaps, the longest and thickest one by marrying a White woman.
“No other team in the National Football League would pick me up. You mean to tell me that in one year I lost all my skills and I wasn’t good enough to play with any team? Because I married a White woman I wasn’t allowed to do what I do best anywhere in the country. I was blackballed. Anything else is a lie. But I’ll be damned if some racist is going to tell me who I can’t hold hands with or fall in love with.”
Campbell went to Canada and played professional football there. He believes one reason the Canadians were more tolerant was because “There weren’t so many of us (Blacks) there and so we weren’t a threat.”
After eight years of professional football in Canada he returned to the United States. Newark had just been torn apart, polarized, and forever changed by the riots of 1967 and there were numerous Black groups and organizations.
There was the mainstream NAACP and Urban League and newcomers with an assortment of names and often professing a belief that the system had to be overthrown. Campbell was one of the founding members of the Chad School in Newark, which was an institution devoted to academics and the teaching of Black history.
In the opinion of many White Americans, those propagating Black history were also potential troublemakers. Thus, wherever Black folk were speaking out, the FBI and its infiltrating agents were thisclose.
Campbell recalls being followed in Newark and he often saw a car with two men parked outside his home in Plainfield. He also had his car constantly stolen and although the car was always recovered, the briefcase or any papers the vehicle contained were always missing.
He also recalled a Black man whom he referred to as Harry, who befriended him and was always anxious to talk about Campbell’s activities and what was going on in Newark. “One day, I was just fed up with having my car stolen and having that car parked outside my house, I snuck up on the car by coming around the block where they could not see me.”
“I pointed my gun at the driver and they identified themselves as FBI agents. They took me to their office in Newark and when I looked in an office across the hall, something I was not supposed to do, I saw Harry sitting there joking with other agents.” Nothing happened to Campbell and he continued to stay active in Newark by opening a community center.
He could not stay physically inactive and he soon got involved in judo. He progressed quickly. His instructor, the world-renowned sensei Yoshishada Yoneska, believed that despite Campbell’s relative inexperience, he stood a good chance of making the 1972 United States Judo Olympic team.
That bubble burst when “An official from the Judo Federation took my AAU card. He said that I had competed as professional athlete and I was not eligible for the Judo team. Now what does football have to do with judo? Or helping you in judo? Nothing?”
In those days each sport, as today, had its own federation and its own rules. The rules concerning amateurism were especially inconsistent. Ironically, track and field athletes who competed in the defunct professional track circuit (last year of operation 1971) were reinstated as amateurs and allowed to compete in the 1972 Olympics. Yet Campbell, who last played professional football in 1966, was relegated to being a spectator.
Although his track and filed career had long since been over, he always paid close attention to the decathlon. Most of the time he winced at what he did not hear.
In 1968, Bill Toomey won the gold medal and Campbell’s name was never mentioned among the United States decathlon winners. A Russian won the 1972 Games. In 1976, Bruce Jenner won the gold medal for the United States and Campbell’s name was again, never mentioned.
It was not until the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when Jayne Kennedy interviewed him that his name was brought to the attention of the American public. But the “worst” was yet to come.
ESPN recently conducted a nationwide poll and came up with its list of the top fifty athletes of the century. Jim Thorpe was included. Bob Mathias was included. Rafer Johnson was included.
Campbell was not. Besides being rankled at not being ignored he believes those who participated in the selection process showed poor judgment. “Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali were not qualified to be the top athletes of the century. The top athlete should be a multi-sport athlete. Michael Jordan was a fantastic basketball player, but he did not excel in anything else.
Muhammad Ali was probably the greatest boxer of all time and some people said they also voted for him because of his social positions. Now how do social positions make you the century’s top athlete?
He was the most recognizable athlete, the most controversial, but he excelled in only one sport.” Meanwhile, sportswriters in New Jersey voted Campbell the state’s top athlete of the century, and many sports writers in the New York area agree that Campbell should have been included in ESPN’s list.
Recently, he was the one of the principal subjects in a documentary about the decathlon produced by Bud Greenspan.
Campbell’s life has obviously had a few twists and turns. He is now single and for more than fifteen years he has had another career. His life experiences have enabled him to impart messages relevant to athletes and non-athletes and he has become a motivational speaker with a client list that includes numerous corporations and organizations.
He believes in never giving up and no goal is impossible. The message on his answering machine sums up his philosophy: “Hello. Leave your name and message and I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can. Remember, in the new millenium, if you want to win, you’ve got to stay in the game. Have a great day.”