Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A Penn Relays memory

It was Thursday night and the track coach from Pine Bush High School in upstate New York had just returned from Franklin Field as his team was back in the hotel getting a good night's sleep before their 4 by 100 meter relay Friday morning.

A Penn Relays memory

John Salvadore.
John Salvadore.

He was standing in the lobby of the Center City Marriott, his stare penetrating right through the myriad windows and revolving doors. They were the same eyes, and the same smile. As I got closer and closer, the smile got bigger and brighter.

It was Thursday night and the track coach from Pine Bush High School in upstate New York had just returned from Franklin Field as his team was back in the hotel getting a good night’s sleep before their 4 by 100 meter relay Friday morning.

In college, he would have bellowed out in his self-proclaimed hick drawl …

“Is that you, Quinn?”

And I would always respond on cue in my native Staten Island-Brooklynese:

“Yeah, that’s me, Sal …”

But this time, some 38 years later, there was no need for words.

John Salvadore hugged me so hard I almost needed a nebulizer.

He had no hair, but the former fullback at Stony Brook University was as strong as he was in 1973 when he ran the ball so much and got hit so hard that he still has trouble with his kidneys. And his team lost the season opener that year and disbanded. Football was dead at the state university on Long Island and not long after, he left, too.

He was the football guy, I was the track guy. They called him Riggins, named for the Jets and Redskins running back who always went north-south. I was the freshman in 1972 that proudly wore his Penn relays t-shirt everywhere. It was simple in design, all white with a little black lettering in the upper right corner. If you saw someone else wearing one, whether on campus, or on a New York subway or at a ballgame, you just nodded and smiled and walked away.

But Sal was all football, with some basketball thrown in.

I had run in the 4 by 400 relay for Tottenville High School in 1972. Got the stick on the second leg when Keith Dillon was standing in quicksand after running about 428 yards. I took the baton and bounded into the first turn, the adrenaline carrying me an extra six inches off the ground with each stride. It was then that I heard my first “wwwoooooo …”

I was in the ninth place out of 12. Then the crowd told me I was now in 10th. I had run the 220 for most of my career, rarely delving into the quarter, mostly because I was coming off basketball and the shorter the distance the better for getting into shape in about 30 days.

By mid turn, the crowd had found its favorite. Me. “Wwwooooo …” Eleventh wasn’t last, right …. I had barely hit the back straight away when the roar reoccurred … “wwwoooo …”

The packed house now had to find someone else. There was no one behind me anymore.

Then I saw my coach, Mike Marotta, who wasn’t supposed to be on the infield as he yelled out my 220 split … “Twenty- three eight …”

Twenty-three eight, no way. That’s way too fast and everybody is passing me. Man, I ran at Randalls Island and the Armory for four years, including two at Stuyvesant. These guys at Penn Relays must be really good. And then, just as that thought (and the creeping doubt of: What if coach’s time was correct?) passed through me, the “wwwooo’s” started again, only this time, I wasn’t the victim.

There they were, lined up like Easter Island statues, all the guys who passed me, and then some, stuck in cement shoes as one-by-one I picked them up … Woo, woo, woo, woo … now seventh place, into the final turn, sixth, fifth, and then fourth as I hit the last straightway … here I come … staring at Artie Soloman as he moved closer and closer to the rail as I moved up each spot.

And just as I could taste getting to the front, the escalator stopped for me, too, catching rig, as we would say, rigormortis … The body actually would continue forward even if none of the muscles were working in tandem anymore. And it was Artie’s turn to come and get the frozen baton from me.

That was my moment at the Penn Relays. Fifty point eight seconds … Took longer to write it than run it.

So that was my story, 39 years ago. A track guy to this day, in my mind, even though I’ve never been back.

And here is Sal.

Standing on Market Street, never heard a word about the sport before from him.

“Been coming here for 20 years,” he says.

“Been coaching for 30 …”

It’s like the earth split apart, and we were on two different continents.

We took the same Microeconomics class. It was my major. He took it so he could be with his two best friends. Mike Wall was an economics major, too. But that’s because Wall and I could not make it through the labyrinth of pre-med, especially at Stony Brook where every son and daughter of a New York GI wanted his kid to be a doctor. Organic Chemistry got me by the throat. About two-thirds of the rest of them, too.

But Sal took Micro so he could be with his two best friends.

He never knew I would become a sports journalist, starting as an intramural columnist for the school newspaper, and then writing his first professional byline 32 years ago, covering of all things, a track meet, for Newsday.

He found me on Facebook.

We talked track.

My first newspaper story is perhaps my favorite. Because every part-timer at Newsday was graduating from college that May Sunday, I got to catapult the strict pecking order and get my first assignment. The coach for St. Anthony’s split up his national champion distance medley relay thinking he needed the points from the second team. The coaches for two other schools played chess and stacked their relays.

John Gregorek, the nation’s best distance runner that year and future steeplechase Olympian, couldn’t run down the winner. The scores were tallied. It was a tie for the team title. And then came the kicker.

There was a protest in the walk. The second-place finisher was accused of lifting (you know, heel-toe, heel-toe).

They would resolve it at a meeting on Tuesday.

So now what?

Help!

The headline was a classic: The Walk Runs Into Trouble.

I told Sal the story. He died laughing.

I laughed because I kept thinking, who is this guy I am looking at?

Where’s Rod Serling?

He knew I was a high jumper and threw the shot a little.

“Could you hurdle?” he asks. “You coulda been a pentathlete.”

He takes out his iPhone and takes a picture. I take out my iPhone and futilely attempt to take a video.

In the viewfinder, with the lights dimmed in the restaurant, he looks young again, full head of black hair, and with the camera blocking my true vision, his voice betrays his age and we are back in 1973, on the dimly lit Loop Road when he used to call out my name in the haze. I hit the wrong button on my iPhone and the camera is now showing me, the dim lights turning my white hair dark again.

We kept the restaurant open for an extra hour, walking out as the waiters counted their tips as the floors got swept.

We walked out into the street, heading toward my car which was parked in some subterranean lot a few blocks away.

He headed toward his hotel. I went down the ramp.

He didn’t say it, neither did I.

“Was that you, Quinn?”

“Yeah, that was me, Sal.”

No, 38 years was too long.

“See you next year,” I said as we both disappeared.

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