The Jesse Owens I knew


There’s a new TV documentary out that features the great black American runner, Jesse Owens.

Most people today probably don’t remember Owens. But I do. No, I wasn’t even born when he ran the 100-meter dash in a record 10.3 seconds in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

I saw Owens in my home town of Defiance, Ohio, at the ball field on the east side of town.

This would have been in the latter half of the 1940s. My grandfather Tom had taken me to witness Owens race a motorcycle at the field. I didn’t realize then that after Owens had embarrassed Adolf Hitler at the Olympics.

At the time Hitler was promoting Aryan supremacy. Hosting the Olympics was supposed to showcase that racist ideology. But here was this young black man who clearly was the superior athlete leaving the white German runners in the dust. The supremacy belonged to a black kid from Cleveland.

So maybe 10 years later, here he was in my undistinguished mid-size town in northwestern Ohio racing a motorcycle.

Thank goodness, my grandfather, who took care of me while Dad and Mom worked, knew a rare opportunity when he heard about it. Dad’s family closely followed sports – especially the Reds and Tigers all summer on the radio.

In high school, Dad played guard on the Paulding, Ohio, basketball team. Later, he beat my best friend’s Dad in a sudden death playoff for the Kettening club championship. Meantime, Dad never missed the Friday night fights on the nearby Elks club TV. So sports were a big deal for him.

And here was this legend Jesse Owens showing up at the baseball field of Kingsbury Park where I pitched Little League ball for Schatz Motors. My grandfather Tom and I sat on the front row to witness this seconds-long event. I’m sure Dad was jealous.

Today, if you look up this Olympic runner’s name you won’t find that he went on to more great things. After the Berlin games, he worked at various jobs when he wasn’t racing motorcycles in towns around the country to pay the bills. He’s mentioned in the record books for the Olympics. Or you might catch him on a TV documentary.

Oh yes. The great 1940s race in Defiance? Jesse Owens won. I recall that it wasn’t even close.

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