Student. Athlete. Pioneer.
Written by Jerry Gaines
In the fall of 1966, I was playing football at the recently integrated Churchland High School. Having never played organized football before, I was very raw, but did well, mostly because of my athletic skills -- speed, instincts, etc. I was a senior and was attending the formerly all-white high school for the first time.
Toward the end of the season, I began to receive correspondence from Virginia Tech. I was actually surprised, not thinking I was even close to being good enough. Indoor track season began, and although it was my first year there too, I was having an even more impressive year in that sport. After all, it was only "running and jumping" -- something I had grown up doing. Suddenly, the correspondence for football stopped, and I began to hear from the track coach at VT.
I should say that I didn't know why that was at the time. I found out later that members of the Board of Visitors at VT (likely with the approval of the football coaching staff) decided that "they were not yet ready" for a Black player on the football team. They deemed it a "safer" bet to give me a try in track instead. If the "experiment" failed, I suppose they figured there would be less noise. The powers that be could say, "Well, we told you so," and that would be that. At the time, all that was unbeknownst to me.
"My freshman year was the LONELIEST year of my entire life"
The pressure from my perspective came from HOME. I did not want to disappoint my parents and siblings. The pressure, in many ways, was stifling. On more than one occasion, I was quite ready to go home and run track at Norfolk State. Being the first Black athlete at VT also meant being the ONLY Black athlete at VT. My freshman year was the LONELIEST year of my entire life. Competition (and a whole bunch of wonderful teammates) helped me to endure that grueling year, and survive to continue there.
I had never been away from home for any significant amount of time (not more than a weekend). I fed on learning about my teammates -- their events, their homes, their majors -- anything and everything to keep my mind off of being in that place "alone." There were no Interstate highways to Blacksburg. I-81 was completed only to Dixie Caverns, just outside of Salem, so you had to take Route 460 through Christiansburg and on to Blacksburg. I had never even seen a mountain before.
My freshman year was truly an awakening. I broke the VT long jump record. (It had been set in 1927.) That jump qualified me for the NCAA Indoor Nationals, which were held that year at Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan. I never once felt comfortable; intimidated mostly by the COLORS of all the uniforms of athletes representing universities I had only read about or seen on TV: the blue & gold of UCLA, the garnet & gold of Florida State, the bright orange of Tennessee and UTEP.
The first two of three jumps were lack-luster. I was paying more attention to the fact that the officials were actually wearing TUXEDOS -- cummerbunds, patent leather shoes and all. I put added pressure on myself by doing so, and in my final attempt, I actually pulled off the jump of my life -- a jump that would have certainly placed me in the top three finishers...but I fouled the jump by less than one inch. On the flight home, I promised myself that would never happen to me again (and it didn't). If there was going to be any intimidating, I would be the one to do it. That was March of 1968.
It's a good thing because one month later, I was running with my teammates in a 4 X 220 relay at the Dogwood Relays in Knoxville, Tennessee. There were many international stars there: the Cubans, the Russians and Eastern Bloc nations, and more than a few of America's best. In this relay, in fact, were Ralph Boston, Olympic and World Record holder in the long jump, Tommie Lee Smith and John Carlos (of Mexico City and the raised black-gloved fist fame). That day we shattered the school record in the event and finished VERY last.
With the stress of daily racial issues (I won't go into detail, but you can imagine), it was tough to concentrate on academics. An English professor, James Jarrett "JJ" Owen, saved me in that critical venue. In one writing course, another professor had "murdered" an assignment that I turned in, telling me it was awful. I took it to professor Owen, who read it and told me it was fine. He said, "Jerry, you know what the deal is." So there was THAT fight to deal with as well. I never did make above-average grades until the last half of my junior year.
After my freshman year, I suppose the powers that be had concluded that it was "safe" to import other Black athletes. They even asked me to help recruit the school's first Black basketball player, Charles Lipscomb (Charlotte, N.C.). They also recruited the first Black football player, John Dobbins from nearby Radford. John was a "safer bet," I guess. They kept him "hidden." We never once sat and chatted. I never really saw him until Saturday games, and even then, he was on the field.
However, Charlie and I grew quite close. They had a "jock dorm" back then (Miles Hall), so Charlie was always close. When we would come home from away competitions, I remember we would always be there waiting for each other and asking how it went. I have a few stories I could tell about THAT! Today, Charlie lives in Ohio, and we are still close to this day.
One added sidelight was the fact that I was also in ROTC. The cadets lived on the Upper Quad, BUT the athletes in the corps stayed in Miles ("T" Company, a real band of misfits -- lots of stories there too).
The rest of my career, I qualified for every national championship -- all 8 of them (Des Moines, Seattle, Knoxville, and other places). Ironically, I never finished better than 8th place.
I got to compete against some of the best in the world, but thanks to lessons I learned from that FIRST competition at Cobo arena, my greatest claim to fame -- the one accomplishment that I am most proud of -- is the fact that, of the six or seven events in which I participated in track, I never once won gold with my personal best performance. Why is that? If I had my BEST performance ever and didn't win, that meant the competition MUST have been HOT! The surest evidence that I didn't "choke" is the fact that they beat me at my best. I let THEIR skills bring out the best in mine.
- Jerry Gaines