Williams followed idol Owens to track greatness

Williams followed idol Owens to track greatness

CHAMPAIGN – The 100.

We dutifully add "meter dash," but you know what we're talking about. All speed and power. The ultimate test of an athlete.

To the person who runs it best, there's even a fancy nickname: world's fastest human.

From 1956 to '60, the title belonged to a guy you might bump into on the Illinois campus, assistant track coach Willie Williams.

Forty-three years and 19 days ago, Williams lined up in Berlin's Olympic Stadium and took the 100 record from his idol, Jesse Owens.

"I can sit in my chair at home, look up on the wall and say, 'For four years, I was the world's fastest human,' " Williams said. "To me, this was my goal when I really got into track. It's with me. It never goes away."

If not for Owens, Williams wouldn't have been sprinting to glory on Berlin's fast track. If not for Owens, Williams might have stuck with football or another sport.

During Williams' freshman year at Gary (Ind.) Roosevelt, Owens gave a speech at the school. The four-time Olympic gold medalist pushed a button Williams didn't know existed.

"When he left, my major thought was I wanted to be as good as Jesse Owens in one of the events that he excelled in so perfectly," Williams said. "If I could almost be as good as he was in one of those events, that was my objective."

Long road

Before he could think about chasing Owens, Williams had some work to do. Illinois coach Leo Johnson offered him a scholarship, and Williams jumped at it. He couldn't catch Owens without a place to run.

Williams cruised to consecutive NCAA titles in '53 and '54. He finished second another year.

"Leo Johnson always said Willie was the absolute perfect dash man," former News-Gazette sports editor Bill Schrader said. "His attitude was one thing. He had this knack for timing exactly when the gun was going to go. He had great speed."

Off the track, Schrader said, Williams didn't look like the "perfect dash man." He wasn't big, about 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds. And he didn't have the huge arms and legs of today's sprinters.

If you saw him on the street, "you would have never imagined him being any kind of athlete," Schrader said.

But Williams was enough of an athlete to make the 1952 Olympics Trials. He reached the finals in the 100 but didn't advance to the Helsinki Games.

After finishing college, finding top meets wasn't easy for Williams. Then, he got drafted.

The army found out about his track skills and decided to leave the tanks and bullets for somebody else.

Williams was put in the special services. The army made sure he had places to run, sending him to events in Germany, England and France.

A bad day

In 1956, Williams looked like a good bet for the U.S. Olympic team. He went to California to train for the trials and worked out three times a day. Two workouts would have been plenty.

Williams started having troubles with cramping. He fought through it and reached the final of the 100.

He was among the top three with about 5 meters to go. That's when the cramps hit in both legs. Williams missed the Olympics again.

"It was a disappointment," Williams said.

After the trials, Williams rested his weary legs. Good plan.

When the Inter-Services Meeting rolled around in early August, Williams was refreshed and ready.

Perfect timing

As he entered the stadium on Friday for his first race, Williams was reminded it was the same track that Owens had clocked a 10.2 20 years earlier.

Running in the first heat, Williams streaked to a 10.1. The record was his.

And the fun was just beginning.

In Saturday's semifinals, American Ira Murchison ran his own 10.1 to equal the record. That set up Sunday's final, dubbed the "Dash of the Century."

Williams and Murchison stayed together in the same room the night before the race.

"I'm on the upper bunk, and he's on the lower bunk," Williams said. "I look down to see what he's doing, and he's looking up at me to see what I'm doing. We didn't get much sleep that night."

The sleep-deprived sprinter had a goal for the final.

"My intent on Sunday was to run 10 flat," Williams said.

He almost did it.

Murchison led at 87 meters. At 90 meters, Williams drew closer. The two were even at 95 meters.

Running in the same lane where Owens set the record, Williams inched ahead with 2 meters to go. A lunging Murchison couldn't catch him at the tape.

Williams finished in 10.1 again. Murchison was just behind in 10.2.

Being the first one to hit 10.1, in the days of hand-held times, meant the record belonged to Williams.

The joy of breaking the record came for Williams in the prelims. In the final, all he cared about was beating Murchison, who had earned a spot on the Olympic team.

"I wanted to show the Olympic Committee I deserved to be on the team," Williams said.

Short shrift

The newspapers in Berlin made a big deal out of Williams' record run, splashing the news across the front page.

Back home, it wasn't treated quite the same. The News-Gazette coverage of the Berlin race didn't warrant a banner headline. Buckley's baseball sweep of Royal was deemed more important.

"This was pretelevision," Schrader said. "This was pre-USA Today and pre-everything. You really didn't get the coverage you get now, especially on something that was international. That track meet would be televised now. Everybody would have seen it."

Williams came home the next week. The city of Gary had a nice reception for him, Williams meeting the mayor.

He also heard from Owens, who congratulated him for the record run. Owens also helped Williams land a job with the Chicago parks department.

The record lasted until June 20, 1960, when West Germany's Armin Hary hit 10.0.

"I figured it was going, but I didn't want it to go," Williams said.

Ready to run

If he trained for a month or two, how fast could Williams run the 100 today?

"If I were to practice, I'd feel pretty bad if I couldn't get under 13 seconds," Williams said.

He is 67 years old.

Once in a while, Williams tells the current Illini sprinters he is going to chase them down the track.

"When we give him some problems, he's like, 'I walked the walk, I can talk the talk,' " Illini sprinter and long jumper Babatunde Ridley said. "He uses that a lot."

When Ridley was being recruited, he heard about Williams' world record. He checked the books himself.

"You've got to respect that," Ridley said. "He was the best in the world at that time. That's the top."

No Illini ever has run faster than a 10.1 100. Anthony Jones reached Williams' mark in '94.

Give the 24-year-old Williams of 1956 the advantages of athletes in 1999, and Maurice Greene might not hold the 100 record.

"At the state my career was in 1956, I didn't think anybody could beat me," Williams said.

Williams would have liked a shot at the '56 Melbourne Olympics. But missing the chance for a gold medal doesn't devastate Williams.

"I enjoy what I've done," Williams said. "I would never trade that world record for an Olympic medal. Olympic competitors are still aspiring to set world records. That's the nature of the sport."

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