"Get going Kehoe. You can catch him!"
The words pierced my left ear, slapped my fuzzy brain, and kicked my legs into another gear. I caught the runner ahead of me, passed him, and held on for my first mile victory as a high school senior. I was thrilled.
The voice that had triggered the winning response in me was that of Coach Frank O'Rourke. It was one of the loudest voices in central Connecticut high school track in the mid-sixties. The key to the voice however, was not so much the volume, as it was the urgency with which the message was delivered. Coach O'Rourke cared, and if you bought into his program, you cared, too. The combination was the coach-athlete relationship at it's best. It was based on a genuine mutual enthusiasm for the sport, in this case, running.
We had heard that we were getting a new coach that year. The previous coach had been popular. Mr. O'Rourke had been our junior high school gym teacher. He had been a bit of a screamer, and we were not happy about the change. This guy was old school, even in the old days. So it was with some anxiety that we looked forward to next year's cross country and track seasons.
That summer, however, changed everything. Coach O'Rourke contacted Billy Rodgers and me to see if we might be interested in competing in some summer track meets at Colt Park in Hartford. He had gone over the results of last year's track team and seen that Bill and I had the best times for the distance runners. He was going to use us as a nucleus for his cross country team that fall. Bill and I were full of excitement about running, so it was with great gusto that we signed on with Coach O'Rourke for his program.
Even before we started the summer meets, we had discussions on fartlek training and racing techniques. Our enthusiasm almost transcended the adult/coach, kid/athlete thing. It became three people talking excitedly about their sport.
The meets at Colt Park had a magic all their own. They were put on by Lindy Remigino, the 1952 100 meter gold medalist at the Helsinki Olympics. Lindy was the coach at Hartford Public High School, a perennial powerhouse in track and cross country. Lindy and Coach O'Rourke seemed to hit it off. Coach O'Rourke was soon assisting Remigino in putting on meets. Lindy knew a thing or two about big-time track meets, and these summer meets were full of local high school stars. It was great fun.
Frank O'Rourke was "old school". His classic Irish face, with his hair cut short, often topped off with a jaunty Bowermanesque hat, was full of life. He had the gleam in his eye that people who are truly excited about what they are doing have. The voice was the thing, though. The volume was a tool he used to break through the fatigue of a hard interval workout, but it was the excitement and constant flow of words that one noticed.
He had been a high school track star, breaking two minutes in the 880 when it meant something. He knew what it was to be a runner. He knew what it was to work hard and race well. He had credibility and knowledge. We worked hard for him and got results.
Coach O'Rourke was an astute observer of the body in running motion. He could tell a lot about a runner by having him "stride out" for one lap of the track. He could asses the potential of a kid by watching him in full stride. The first thing he had me do that summer was stride out for one lap. He liked what he saw. I was a tall, skinny kid whose potential had never been realized. I had never broken five minutes for the mile. After I finished my stride lap, he came up to me and said, "We're going to have you run a 4:45 mile this year." It sounded good to me. I did all the work and ran a 4:44 twice. It was a big thrill for me and I owe it all to Coach O'Rourke.
Cross-country season started that fall and a bunch of us showed up for the first practice. Away we went . We worked hard with the usual dosage of hills and fartlek, and started to get stronger. Hard work was the corner stone of the O'Rourke regime, and for the most part we embraced it with enthusiasm. There was one workout, though, that we all hated. It was a hill workout that incorporated the "weight jacket". It was a vest-like thing, with what seemed to be lead distributed in pockets throughout. The thing must have weighed 20 lbs. and fit horribly. It bounced up and down with each stride, slamming the thin young shoulders of whichever lad was having the misfortune of his turn to wear it. The weight jacket may have been a little weird, but this idea, resistance plus effort, got results.
The beauty of cross country is that hard work plus time do get results. In the course of a season, individuals do get more fit, the team does better and is more successful. Success was motivating for a bunch of skinny kids from a sleepy suburb of Hartford. Don't get me wrong, we were not state champs, but we won more than we lost, and Billy won a lot, which was very exciting. It was a shared endeavor and made us better. Eight x 440 in 65 seconds, with a four-minute rest, 16 220s in under 30, and 4 x 880 in the low 2:20s became a revolving door of workouts. Obviously, speed was the theme, with rests way too long by today's standards, but they were the kind of workouts that took a very aggressive attitude to get through. This attitude carried over to our races. We were ready, and Coach O'Rourke had gotten us that way.
Having us work hard was not the only coaching tool used by Coach O'Rourke. He was a perceptive and innovative man. On occasion, however, he would push the envelope of innovation. It was in the fall of '65 at Stanley Golf Course in New Britain, Connecticut. It was the Connecticut Class A Cross-Country Championships. Bill Rodgers was one of the favorites. Coach O'Rourke was looking to give Bill any edge that he could. He had once taken me aside to watch Bill run from behind. He pointed out that familiar hitch Bill has in his stride. It comes from a leg-length difference and is compensated for with a side-to-side motion of the arms. On this fall day in '65, Coach O'Rourke decided to do something about this leg length difference. He found a piece of wood and nailed it to the heel of Bill's shoe! I assume the nail did not penetrate the inside of the shoe, or Bill's foot, since he went on to win the race. How much of it was due to the heel lift? Bill seems to think his conditioning the more important factor. But imagine picking up a piece of wood and nailing it to the shoe before the biggest race in Bill's young career. Amazing.
I found the most significant facet of Coach O'Rourke's personality was his genuine enthusiasm for the sport. I remember standing behind him outside the of the school auditorium before an assembly. Coach O'Rourke was one of the teachers monitoring the kids. As I was walking in, he caught my eye. He had a big grin on his face. He said, "We got into the Greater Hartford Invitational!". It was a big indoor high school meet held at the Hartford Armory. It was big stuff for us to get into this meet, and we were both very excited. It was a special moment in which a 17-year-old kid and a 40-year-old coach connected as equals. The excitement helped us transcend our differences. It was a pure exchange between two people who shared a passion for running. It was the type of connection Coach O'Rourke made with his kids, and it stuck with me to this day.
Cross-country season came to an end. After a successful dual-meet season, we went to the Eastern Sectional qualifier at UConn. We were psyched. Coach O'Rourke felt that if Billy could run up to his potential, and the rest of us finished close together, we could do well. The sectional meet was a mob scene. There were hundreds of kids lined up in teams. The chaotic start was typical cross country. The wide angle of the start quickly funneled into a narrow path. Hundreds of kids rubbed elbows, breathing hard in the initial get-out-quick rush that is characteristic of cross country.
We ran poorly as a team. Even Bill ran poorly. I remember him finishing about 20th, with the rest of us strung out and staggering in. It could have been the small fish in the big pond syndrome. I can remember the anxiety I felt when I realized I was running poorly, eaten up by the mass of kids. The bus ride back was silent. We were in a state of shock. This mood continued in the locker room. Coach O'Rourke let us have our bummer. He let us feel the disappointment for a while, before he took control. Cross-country season was over. Ours had been successful up to the sectional meet. He put it into perspective for us. We learned from the experience. Then it was time to move along. The indoor track season was coming up. There were new goals to shoot for, and a whole new set of circumstances to experience. The rolling hills of cross country became the tight ovals of indoor track.
We practiced in the hallways of the second floor of Newington High School. This was pre-Gortex, pre-all-weather suit. Running outside in winter was not part of the mind set of indoor track runners. Indoor track demanded a more structured set of distances, and weather conditions just got in the way of the pursuit of speed. There were 20-yard straight-aways, with 90 degree turns. There were often three sets of kids doing intervals in those hallways. Kids were flying around sharp corners, occasionally falling down, but always bouncing back, ready for more. Coach O'Rourke believed that the only way you could build speed was to run 40 yard pieces, all-out. It seemed to work. We were all as fast as we could be.
Indoor season came and went. We had some success. Spring, and with it, outdoor track came around.
It was a narrow dirt path that went around the football field. There were five laps to the mile. On meet days, white lines were laid down with lime to make lanes for the sprint and finish line. On sun-splashed spring afternoons, the bright green grass, segmented by the white lines, looked great.
It was a pretty little track, totally low-tech. It was where we trained, day in, day out, whooshing around, lap after lap, squeezing everything we could get out of our bodies. Some good times were run on this track. Some great training sessions led to later success on the cinders of more modern tracks. We had guys who ran some pretty good times. Roger Loomis, our captain, was a sub-50-second quarter-miler. George Daniels ran two minutes for the half. We had three of four milers who could break 4:50, and of course, we had Billy, whose 9:36 2 mile was a small sign of things to come.
We had guys who ran some pretty good times. Roger Loomis, our captain, was a sub-50-second quarter-miler. George Daniels ran two minutes for the half. We had three of four milers who could break 4:50, and of course, we had Billy, whose 9:36 2 mile was a small sign of things to come.
It was 1965. The cultural revolution of the 60's and 70's had not yet begun. There was still some innocence. It was a great setting for a bunch of kids doing what they loved.
It had been more than 35 years since 1965. I was walking up the stairs of the Bill Rodgers Running Center on a fine summer day, when in my left ear, the same left ear that had been the recipient of the mental slap that had propelled me forward to my first high school mile victory, I heard an unmistakable voice. I knew immediately who it was, even though the speaker was saying, "He probably won't recognize me". There he was, Coach Frank O'Rourke. The man had aged well. I guess his age to be early seventies. He still had a full head of close-cropped hair, gone a little grey, but abundant. He looked thinner, in a good way, and his face had not changed much. The rapid-fire talk still flowed with enthusiasm. As I walked through the door I said, "Frank O'Rourke". He smiled and we shook hands. From that point on, it was as if nothing had changed since 1965. We got into some great nostalgia. He remembered all of the details and knew what most of the kids were doing, 30 years later.He seemed to take satisfaction in his kids doing well. We were all OK, to varying degrees, and of course, Bill had been a legendary runner. Just as we were rehashing some mile race from 1965, the phone rang. It was Bill calling for messages. We put Coach O'Rourke on without telling Bill. Even though we heard only one side of the conversation, the ease with which it flowed was similar to my own conversation with the coach. Frank O'Rourke had been a big influence in our lives, so much so that the bond we had with him was still there 30 years later; the conversation picked up like it was yesterday.
Newington High School was creating a Sports Hall of Fame, of which Bill was the most famous member. Coach O'Rourke wanted a photo that Bill liked the best of his career. Bill sent Coach O'Rourke a great shot of himself in full sprint stride finishing the Falmouth Road Race. On top of the photo, O'Rourke had put a picture of Bill and himself, taken in 1966, with the words "NHS '66" in between them. Bill wrote this note on the picture: