Jim Green: Once Eminence's Olympic hopeful

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By Tommie Kendall

While thousands of athletes from around the world are converging on China for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which started Aug. 8 and last until Aug. 24, I am reminded of a time when Eminence almost left its own mark at the Olympic games. Only bad luck and ill-timed injuries could stop the small Henry County town from showcasing to the entire world what it had proudly produced — the lightning fast Jim Green who once ran the streets of Eminence and was close to leaving his mark among the greatest athletes in the world on the biggest stage.

The story of Jim Green can be traced back to his younger days among Eminence hopefuls as a bowlegged, skinny kid who dreamed of stardom. His legendary status started during the 1960s along the old railroad bed across the street from Eminence High School, where he rewrote the record books and left behind a brilliant career that is still talked about four decades later.

Personally, as someone born during the early 1980s and raised in nearby Shelby County — long after Green finished his final race — I heard the stories. Sometimes, I pretended to be Green while running circles around my front yard, though I never even saw pictures of the widely famous sprinter until years later.

It was the old railroad bed that he trained on, where he toned his finely-tuned muscles and increased his speed to record-breaking power. Like someone born to sprint, his legs were always in sync with each other as he floated down the runway with feet that never seemed to touch the ground until he leaned out his chest for the finish line. It was a familiar sight 40 years ago, a scene locals still talk about to this day.

By the time he entered high school, Green was already the top high school sprinter in Kentucky and one of the most promising young athletes in the nation. If his achievements back in The Sixties were duplicated today, there’s no doubt his celebrity-like status would soar through the roof. Message boards would be full of the stories and running blogs would speak of his achievements with eye-popping words. Instead, his feats spread by the words of of those that witnessed his lightning-fast strides. Each time he took off, out of the starting blocks, his stories continued to grow.

As a freshman, Green won the 100-yard dash at the Kentucky State Track & Field Championships, and was second in the 220. His sophomore year, he did so well in winning all three of his events (100, 220 and 440) that Eminence finished fourth overall in the team standings — with Green scoring all of the school’s points going up against teams with multiple athletes. Green went on to win three more events as a junior and senior, bringing his total state titles to 11, with Kentucky high school records in the 100 (9.6 seconds), 220 (21.2) and 440 (47.3).

His reputation far outreached the boundaries of Eminence, and even Kentucky, as he was offered the chance to go head-to-head against the best high school runners from across the United States at the National Track & Field Championships in California. More than 2,000 miles away from home, he dashed his way to national titles in both the 100 and 220, setting the stage for college scouts from all around the country to try their hands at sweet talking the Eminence teenager into representing their schools at the next level.

Leaving Eminence

Jim Green graduated from Eminence High School in 1967 and eventually decided with the University of Kentucky to continue his education and running career. In a time of racial struggles, Green became one of the first African-American athletes to attend UK, and the first to graduate from the university in 1971.

Green also was a standout in other sports while in high school — he played football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. He turned down offers to play football and basketball at UK, and later in his life, while a standout on the Professional Track Circuit, turned down contract offers from NFL teams to concentrate on his one true passion.

While at UK, with a track to finally train on and teammates to push him to new speeds, Green left the starting blocks and never looked back. He broke University of Kentucky and Southeastern Conference records in the sprints, won multiple SEC championships, was a five-time NCAA champion and continued to increase his speed each season under the guidance of track coach Press Whelan. Like he had previously done at Eminence, he was leaving his mark among the college ranks.

Green’s first close encounter with the Olympics came in 1968, during the summer after his freshman year at Kentucky. He was coming off an impressive campaign with SEC titles in the 60-meter dash indoors and 100 and 220 outdoors, and NCAA titles in the 60 indoors and 100 outdoors. To put the icing on the cake, just a few weeks before the USA Olympic Trials, Green tied the world record in the 100-meter dash in 10-seconds flat. It left him as one of the favorites heading into the trials in Sacramento, Cal., and a medal contender at the games.

For the USA — a country known for producing the fastest sprinters in the world — it was tough just to make the three-person team in the shorter running events. In the semifinals, with all eyes on him and a community back in Eminence pulling for him, Green grabbed his hamstring after the starter’s gun was fired and hobbled off the track with a strained muscle. It ended his chance of wearing the USA jersey at the Mexico City Olympics.

Instead, James Hines went on to set the world record at the trials in the 100 finals at 9.9 seconds, becoming the first man to break the elusive 10-second barrier. Hines then followed a month later with a win in the Olympic finals with an Olympic record of 9.95 seconds. In an Olympic games marked by racial riots and threatened boycotts, the lineup in the 100 was the first time there was an all-black finals in Olympic history. Green, who was a potential gold-medal threat if not for the ill-timed injury that sidelined him during the games, just missed out on leaving his name in the record books forever.

Another chance

After a disappointing end to an otherwise remarkable freshman season, Jim Green rebounded the following year to repeat as SEC and NCAA champion, and along the way continued to dominate track meets throughout the United States. In the Madison Square Garden Invitational, Green went against some of the top sprinters in the country in a 60-yard race, and came away with a new meet-record of 6.0 seconds.

Throughout the season, he also defeated most of the USA team members from the Olympics the previous year, including all three 200-meter runners — Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Lennox Miller. (At the Olympics, Smith won the gold medal, Carlos the bronze, and the two gave the now famous Black Power solute while receiving their medals.)

Green’s chance to represent the USA team at the Olympics came again in 1972, just a season after he graduated from UK. But in a replay from four years earlier, Green pulled a hamstring in the semifinals, which left him off the team in his final try. Again, he was one of the favorites to make the squad and compete for a medal, and again bad luck caught him at the wrong time. But Green understood — at that time and years later — that track is an unpredictable sport, and the Olympics are not everything.

“I never really dreamed of going to the Olympics,” Green said in an interview with the Local in 2005. “God gave me a talent and I just wanted to use it to the best of my ability. I was training hard and wanted to be the best in the world, but anything can happen to anyone on any given day.”

Following UK

After his time at the University of Kentucky, and his two attempts to qualify for the Olympics, Jim Green competed on the Professional Track Circuit for seven seasons, racing in 10 foreign countries to stadiums packed with screaming fans. In the states, he did most of his racing in California and New York, while overseas he mainly spent his time in Europe.

Before he crossed the finish line for the final time, he was a three-time USA champion, tied the world record in the 60-yard, 100-yard and 100-meter dashes, and broke the world record in the 300-yard dash with a blazing time of 30.6 seconds inside the Chicago Fieldhouse. Also, he defeated O.J. Simpson and the top sprinters in the world in two different nationally televised races. Afterwards, he was inducted into numerous hall of fames, including the Mason-Dixon Games Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame, the Dawehare’s Kentucky High School Athletics Association Hall of Fame, and the first class of the Eminence Hall of Fame. In 1999, Green was named the top sprinter to come from Kentucky during the entire century.

Despite all the accolades, Green always knew where his roots came from, a place tucked away in the heart of Henry County.

“The guys I played with and Eminence have helped me get to where I got later on in life. I owe the city of Eminence a whole lot,” he said years after leaving Eminence, while living in Louisville. “One of the things that makes an athlete is that you never brag about what you do — you stay grounded. My mom always told me that I can fly like an eagle, but I will still have to come back to get a drink of water. Out of everything I have accomplished, the biggest thing I am proud of is being from Eminence, Kentucky.”

Chasing Jim Green

One summer evening back in 1996, my jog turned into a steady pace as I increased my tempo until my breathing became heavy and my legs became tired. I stopped, turned around in the middle of the road, tied my shoes and started my two-mile run back home.

On this hot August afternoon, with a day of housing tobacco behind me, my pace began to falter again until I remembered the stories my dad told me just a few days earlier. It was just a couple of weeks before I watched Michael Johnson make history by winning the 200-meter and 400-meter races at the Atlanta Olympics, and all I could think about was Jim Green — a man I didn’t know and never saw, but heard stories about from both my dad and uncles.

I didn’t even know if the far-fetched stories were true, but they inspired me to go faster and further on this particular day. Green won races from the 40-yard dash to the 2-mile at the same meet; he trained on an old railroad bed just a few miles away from my house; he competed for UK; he was the fastest sprinter my dad ever saw; he competed in the Olympic Trials — these were a few of the stories I remembered.

If he could do it, so could I, I thought as I continued to put one foot in front of the other. I was in middle school at the time, and I badly wanted to be a great runner like Jim Green. When I finally reached my house after the four-mile run, I stretched, made sure my shoes were tightly tied, and sprinted across my front yard as fast as my skinny legs could go — pumping my arms and stretching my stride in an attempt to look like how I envisioned Jim Green to look. As it turned out years later, I was chasing a man I would one day write stories about.

Looking back

Nowadays, the old timers in Henry County can still remember Jim Green, the boy who dreamed of stardom and went out and got it. The boy who trained on the old railroad bed across from the school, blew past all kids in his neighborhood and eventually became one of the world’s fastest humans. Wherever he went, he had a following — from the kids climbing in trees to watch him run in tiny Eminence during the 1960s, to the running fans paying to watch him race in packed stadiums around the world during the 1970s. He left his many stories behind.

The Jim Green tales are legendary — giving opponents a head start in the 100-yard race only to come back and blow them away halfway down the homestretch; running a lot of his races in warmups and still winning; racing, and beating, a horse; opposing football teams growing grass in the weeks leading up to an Eminence game to slow down Green; his 10 touchdowns in one game; his track records, memories and so much more.

The younger students who walk the hallways at EHS are reminded of Green with a trophy case outside of the gym that showcases an autographed t-shirt he wore, along with the same shoes he used during the 1968 Olympic trials. It’s a quick reminder of what one can become from a town as small as Eminence.

It was long before my time, but he inspired me during the 1990s on more than one occasion. Today, if Eminence students were to stop and take a look inside the trophy case they walk by daily, it might inspire them, too.

In the past 40 years, a few of Green’s accomplishments might have been long forgotten, but his story remains for generations to come. Jim Green: once Eminence’s own Olympic hopeful.

Tommie can be reached at sports@hclocal.com.