By ELLIOTT DENMAN
Milton Campbell was a celebrity guest at the 2012USA Olympic Trials, honored along
with fellow USA Olympic decathlon greats Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner and Dan O’Brien, as these immortals of Games gone by gathered to cheer the candidates for immortality of their own at the upcoming London Olympic Games.
They were applauded by the capacity crowds at Hayward Field in late June and saluted, in turn, by the current crop of all-arounders eager to register some immortality-worthy performances of their own.
Later, they were ushered into the press tent for interview opportunities and their thoughts on the
current state of events in the deca-world.
Rafer Johnson and Dan O’Brien attracted the largest throngs of interviewers, with Jenner and Toomey not far behind.
But nobody at all, it seemed, had a spare moment to talk to Milton Campbell.
Except the one writer from New Jersey – who knew him “when,” who’d followed his career since
he’d made his first Olympic team, as a Plainfield High School student who’d won the silver back of Bob Mathias’s gold at Helsinki in 1952; who’d seen him rise to the heights taking the gold at Melbourne in 1956 by the humongous margin of 350 points on the tables then in use, and then saw him relegated to virtual anonymity in the years that followed.
All this for a variety of reasons that ranged from a lack of TV coverage of his Melbourne triumph (in an era of minimal exposure on that relatively new medium, TV), at a Games completely overlapped by the American football season), to his several years playing football in Canada, after being rejected by Paul Brown and the NFL’s ClevelandBrowns; to events in his personal life that some of the narrow-minded didn’t approve.
So, as the other deca-stars became icons of the American sporting scene, Milt Campbell became the Olympic champion the world just about forgot.
But not by that writer from New Jersey. “Kind of typical, isn’t this Milt?” he asked in the press tent at Eugene. “My esteemed colleagues, these guys all around us, they’re all wrapped up in Rafer and Dan, Bruce and Bill. It’s your life story all over again.
You’re not the guy that led your Olympics from start to finish, who would have broken the world record if not for a wobbly pole vault. No, to them you’re just the guy who won because Rafer lost.
“It’s your life story all over again, isn’t it Milt?”
And, with an expression full of the understanding he’d long since come to accept, Milt Campbell, said,
“you’re absolutely right.”
“And you know what?” he asked? “These days, all these years later, it doesn’t bother me.”
But it sure did bother him much of his lifetime. He was the decathlon champion the world loved to overlook.
Oh, and about that writer from New Jersey.
Full disclosure: That was me, the fellow who was lucky enough to get his 50-kilometer assignment done in late November 1956, on time for him to return to the Melbourne Cricket Club grounds five and six days later for the privileged seat to witness Milt Campbell‘s proving himself the finest all-around athlete on the planet.
Well, the world got the sad news of Milt’s passing, at age 78, to cancer two weeks ago.
Even as he reached the finish line of life, things hardly changed. His passing was barely noted on network editions of the TV news. Many mainstream media simply looked the other way. And that made it all so sadder yet.
Then again, you must be told that Ashton Eaton was paying attention. Good on him, good on the man who now owns the world record, good on this incredible competitor who now reigns as Olympic champion, who 56 years later, is the living, breathing embodiment of Milt Campbell.
“I think the human race has taken a substantial blow with the loss of Milt Campbell; his passing reminds us of what to stand for,” Eaton said Monday in a telephonic press conference called by USA Track and Field to announce Eaton’s selection as 2012 winner of the Jesse Owens Award as the nation’s finest male track and field athlete.
Triple Olympic gold medalist (200, 4×100, 4×400) Allyson Felix, winner of the women’s Jesse Owens Award, will join Eaton on the dais at the annual Jesse Owens Hall of Fame banquet to be held at the USATF annual meeting in Daytona Beach, Fla. December 1st.
She was at the Glamour “woman of the year”
“I had the pleasure of meeting Milt right after the Olympic Trials, and also in Germany for a gathering of all the decathlon greats,” said Eaton. The pleasure of the occasion was surely double-pronged. Milt Campbell must surely have enjoyed sharing the inside secrets of the deca-game that helped him master the event that in 2012 marked its centennial on the Olympic program.
They reached their peaks 56 years apart and how their sport has changed.
Campbell was 22 years old when he won in 1956. He surely had the right stuff to continue on in the sport for additional years, and possibly challenge Johnson and C.K. Yang for the gold at Rome in 1960.
Never happened, of course. With no money available to him in track and field, Campbell turned to football, first in the USA, then north of the border. Who knows how much greater he could have been as a deca-man if he’d had the luxury of four more years to truly master his craft?
But then again, what might have happened if Bob Mathias, winner of Olympic deca-golds at London in 1948 at age 17, and Helsinki in 1952 at 21, hadn’t been declared a professional (for allowing the Hollywood production of “The Bob Mathias Story”) thus scuttling any thought of challengingCampbell in 1956?
Eaton, though is 24, older than both Mathias and Campbell at the time of their second Olympic appearances.
He scored 9,039 points to win at the 2012 Trials and nudge Roman Seberle’s 9,026 mark from the world-record charts. He did this through an on-and-off Eugene drizzle.
He went on to strike London gold with a score of 8,869 points, just 24 shy of Seberle’s Olympic record set in 2004, again in not the best of conditions.
No wonder he consider his battles with weather “the 11th event” of the decathlon.
Now, with a new year beckoning, it’s onward-and-upward for the University of Oregon grad – to a hugely busy 2013.
He’ll make his decathlon debut at Gotzis, Austria in May. He’ll look for another USA National title at Des Moines, Iowa in late June. He’ll walk down the aisle July 13 – and become the happy husband of Brianne Theisen, Canada’s finest female all-arounder, and 11th placer in the heptathlon at the London Games. And, more than likely, the couple will represent their nations at Moscow’s World Championships in August.
With 10 events on his plate, Eaton looks to improve in all of them, and maybe bring the world record up into the 9,200/9,300 range, maybe even higher. He knows he has specially great room for improvement in the three throws and the pole vault.
He’ll continue to rely totally on the wise counsel of Coach Harry Marra, and Marra is smart enough to
realize a main focus must always be on keeping his star pupil “completely healthy.”
And Eaton (whose one-lap best is 45.68) will continue to keep this additional one high on his wis
h list – “it would be fun to be on a World Championships 4×400 team.”
Oh, yes, there’s another notable thread linking Milt Campbell to Ashton Eaton, each a “world’s greatest athlete.“
Great as he was, Campbell generated virtually zero in the way of post-Olympic endorsements (which he’d have welcomed even though they’d have assured the end of histrack career, as a professional.)
Great as he now is, Eaton seems to be generating minimal attention in the endorsement market, too (even though with the rules of strict amateurism thankfully long gone, they’d have no effect on his eligibility.)
He’s perfectly happy letting his magificentachievments do their own talking.
“No, I don’t think I’m getting short-changed,” he said. “The amount of recognition I get shouldn’t have an effect on my performances. There’s always an ebb and flow on these things.
“I’m well known enough within the track and field community. And, right now, that’s enough for me.”