Milt Campbell, the world’s greatest athlete

By By Charles Williams BASN writer
Updated: February 8, 2012

Milt took o all comers

Milt took o all comers

LINDEN, NEW JERSEY (BASN) After he graduated from Plainfield, New Jersey high school, Milt Campbell was considered to be the world’s greatest high school athlete. His credentials included the national high school record in the high hurdles (13.8 seconds), state record holder in the 180 yard low hurdles, All-American in swimming as a sophomore, all-state and All-American in football, and a silver medal in the Olympic decathlon. He entered Indiana University and quickly found a niche in football. Track, though, was a little different. The track coach said, “I’ve never coached a decathlete. I don’t know what to do with you.” Campbell played football and continued to compete in track, although he was essentially training himself. The 1956 Olympics were coming up and he wanted to win the gold medal. He knew, however, that his current training regimen was insufficient. Campbell left Indiana and “I went into the navy because the navy said they’d give me the opportunity to train. And I trained myself. How I trained myself was that I’d go out go to a meet, and if I ran into Parry O’ Brian (the world’s best shot putter at that time) I’d say, ‘Look I’m throwing the shot put like this and he’d say, ‘Look I’ll show you how to do it.’ And he’d work with me for fifteen, twenty minutes, maybe half an hour and I’d go back to the base and do what he told me to do. And the next time I’d see him I’d say, ‘Look Parry I’m doing this,’ and he’d say ‘Okay, you’ve got that down, now you’ve got to do this.’ ” Campbell would follow the same routine with specialists in other events in which he had little experience, which essentially were all the field events and running events other than the 110-meter hurdles and the 100-meter dash. Looking back at his odd, unheard of preparation for the world’s greatest sporting event he said, “If you want something bad enough, you find a way to get it done. I found a way to get it done.” Campbell was not considered the favorite for the 1956 Olympic gold medal because other than the Olympic trials and the 1952 Olympic games, he had no other decathlon experience. His favorite running event, the hurdles, even languished a bit during his college career. So in a sense, the 1956 games were, for Campbell, a case of déjà vu – a well-known and accomplished athlete nudging into someone else’s territory. “The sportswriters wrote an article before the Games that Rafer Johnson would win the decathlon, Vassily Kuznyetsov would take second and that Milt Campbell could do no better than third. And that was the ten top newspaper writers in the country. There was one guy out of Cleveland who did pick me to win.” During the United States Olympic trials, Campbell duplicated his finishes of four years earlier: A disappointing fourth in the 110-meter hurdles and second in the decathlon. But he learned something. “I saw Rafer Johnson and I learned enough to know that mentally he was weak. And if I jumped out I front and talked enough junk to him, that he was going to collapse.” If Campbell’s predictions were to come true, it would have to be in front of, from the standpoint of media coverage, an empty house. “The news media boycotted the games because the Australians attempted to charge the news media to come in and use their facilities. They had built these great facilities and they wanted to charge $500 for these guys to come in and use them. But the news media said ‘Bullshit, we’ve never paid to use the facilities of any stadium, so we don’t see any reason why we should have to do it here.’ So all you got out of Australia was still pictures. But the Australians, realizing that the media wasn’t coming, turned around and they began to shot the film themselves. And they shot over 500 million feet of film.” When the decathlon began, Campbell won the 100 meters and he said “Johnson expected to gain ground on me in the long jump. He normally jumped about 25 feet and I normally jumped about 22 feet 8 inches.” That day Campbell jumped 24 feet 4 inches and Johnson “got an inch or two on me and gained back thirty or forty points. And then we went to the shot put and I pulled away some more. We went to the high jump and I beat him again. Went to the 400 meters and I beat him again. By the time we got to the hurdles, and nobody was going to beat me in the hurdles, it was all over. The Australians were saying that in order for somebody to knock Milt Campbell out of the box, they’re going to have to kill him. I had told people that I would have it won before the tenth event because I would not leave it up to the 1500 meters.” Campbell ran his fastest 1500-meter time ever and beat Johnson’s time by 3.6 seconds. He set an Olympic record and would have been the first man to break 8000 points, but he injured his shoulder in the pole vault and vaulted almost 20 inches less than his normal height. His final point total was 7,937. Rafer Johnson scored 7,587. When the team arrived back in the United States, Campbell recalled that some members of the press tried to make excuses for Johnson. “They said he had an injured knee. I said, ‘Yeah, I had a very bad pole vault. I had shin splints. I was injured too, but I didn’t complain. I won.’ I’m really not trying to be cocky about it, but you know when you do something, you know when your time is here.” The following year Campbell set an indoor world record in the 60-yard high hurdles with a time of 7.0 seconds and outdoors equaled the world record in the 120-yard high hurdles with a time of 13.4 seconds. That year he was also a fifth round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns and a guy named Jim Brown was a fellow rookie. Brown, obviously, stayed with the team. Campbell did not. Next week I’ll tell you what he told me.