Coach and Pupil:
The Story of Jesse Owens
The role of the coach in any great athlete career is usually important. It often goes beyond mere training of the body: good coaches influence powerfully the build-up of the personalities of their trainees.
It has been the case for Jesse Owens, the celebrated winner of 4 gold medals in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. He was a black man and his coach a white man, in a time where segregation in America was still very much a reality. Nevertheless, a strong bond was soon established between them, to the extent that Jesse Owens himself would say that coach Riley was "a rare man, as much a father to me as Henry Owens was. "
We offer the following brief story in homage to the countless good coaches who have devoted their lives to train athletes all over the world, dedicating themselves to a selfless task which can never bring them the rewards of glory that their wards can hope for.
Jesse Owen's athletic skills first blossomed in junior high school. For there, in addition to new friends, he found a mentor for life. In the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, mentors e supremely important. Several years ago a Yale University research team studied the life cycle of "successful" middle-aged American males and concluded that every one of them had an early mentor who nourished their lively but inarticulate childhood dreams of the kind of life they wanted to live as adults. According to that study, a mentor can be a teacher, patron, adviser, or exemplar; most probably he is all those things. He helps to define and to direct youthful dreams by attentively treating the youth as a novice, an apprentice in need of both psychological support and fatherly guidance. Usually older than his protégé, the
mentor combines the roles of surrogate parent and mature friend. He does what a father cannot do for his son because of the father's prior involvement in pre-adolescent development. He evokes in his charge feelings of admiration, respect, gratitude, and love.
Males are especially susceptible to mentors, and all the more so if the father is weak (as was Henry Owens) or tyrannical. Harry Edwards's experience in an East St. Louis ghetto school in the early 1950's — where teachers took promising young athletes under their wings, providing them with food, attention, and advice in order to keep them in school — illustrates the unique attraction of mentors for a school boy athlete. If a teacher does not lay hold on him, a coach will. When the roles of teacher and coach are combined, the influence can be altogether life-changing — for better or worse. In Jesse Owens's case, it was for the better. Ever afterward he gratefully referred to a coach and physical education teacher at Fairmount Junior High School, Charles Riley as the man who made all the difference in his life.
Jesse's various accounts of their initial encounter are muddled in contradictions. Whenever and however they first met, he found Riley physically unprepossessing. He was a gaunt, short man, about 5 feet, 8 inches tall; he had a shock of unruly grey hair, wore glasses, and was hard of hearing. But there was more to him than met the eye. He possessed a sharp Irish tongue and a wry sense of humour. Although he was precisely the same age as Jesse's own father, he seemed boundlessly enthusiastic and energetic. "I grew to admire and respect his words and his actions and everything else," the still-mesmerized Owens recalled thirty years later. "I wanted to be like him because he was a wonderful person, well-liked by everybody, no problems with anybody, and he preferred working over there with those Negro kids rather than going into another area that was perhaps a white area."
Riley was white. A native Pennsylvanian, he grew up in little Much Chunk working in a slate mine and ribbon mill.... If Jesse Owens found in Riley an attentive father figure, Riley in turn found a surrogate athletic son, the difference in colour notwithstanding.
He certainly latched onto the young Owens, recognizing his natural athletic talent as a rough gem worth polishing. Thinking Jesse under nourished, he often brought him breakfast. Frequently on Sunday afternoons he drove from his home in West Cleveland in his old Model T Ford to take his young pupil home with him for lunch. Riley's daughter
still remembers those scenes, with Jesse "just a part of the family" but having to be taught proper table manners. He some times addressed Riley as "Coach", more frequently he called him "Pop." In fact, the relationship was warm and respectful, not intimate. Riley "never played with me, never kidded me," Jesse recalled, but to the end of his life he lauded his white "Pop" as "a rare man, as much a father to me as Henry Owens was."
Their relationship hinged on Jesse's athletic promise. Riley challenged him "to do more than we do in our gym class" in order to develop his natural speed. Upon hearing that he had to work after school, Riley agreed to meet him each morning for track practice an hour before school. By the eighth grade he had Jesse competing in junior high meets, but with out much success at first. Jesse tended to give up when he was behind down the stretch, provoking a gentle but firm tongue-lashing from his mentor. More often, though, Riley taught by asking questions or by telling simple little parables with obvious points. Once, after Jesse lost a race because he grimaced and strained rather than running relaxed, Riley took him to a race track east of Cleveland to watch the horses run. He quietly instructed Jesse to observe how the better horses never changed expression of face: the determination was on the inside, not the outside.
Riley's investment soon began to pay dividends. About a year after he began his paternalistic training of Jesse, he timed him in the 100 yard dash at 11 seconds. Astounded, he couldn't believe his stopwatch, so he found another one, only to clock Jesse once again at 11 seconds!
Then in 1928 Owens set his first two of innumerable records: 6 feet in the high jump, and 22 feet, 11 3/4 inches in the long jump. Both were new world marks for junior high school athletes. Yet quick results were not Riley's main concern. His motto, "Train for four years from next Friday," meant patient work for the sake of long-range goals. "Where do I go from here?" the young Owens once asked after slipping back from a prior level of performance.
"Keep training," Riley replied.
"Why, for four years from Friday, of course."
In his quest for the perfect technique and consistency of performance, Riley taught Jesse to run as if he were dancing on hot coals, "like the ground was a burning fire" that he should touch as lightly as possible. He demanded concentration and classic simplicity of form. "All good runners look alike. They have to follow the same principles," Owens observed years later. "We all ran the same way at my junior high school, because that was the way our coach taught us to run. You could watch 500 kids from Cleveland, Ohio, run, and you could pick out the ones who'd been trained by Coach Riley. They ran with their heads held firm and straight; they didn't look around." The smooth, fluid style of Jesse Owens that still captivates the viewer of Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia can largely be traced to the tutelage of Charles Riley.
So, to some degree, can Owens's social vision. His inability ever to view the world in simple racial terms — black versus white — flowed out of his relation to his white mentor. "He was the first white man I really knew," Owens said, "and without ever trying, he proved to me beyond all proof that a white man can understand — and love — a Negro." They never discussed racial issues, but on those Sunday afternoons at Riley's home after lunch they did talk about values, manners, and dreams. "He trained me to become a man as well as an athlete," Jesse recalled. By his own account, his Irish "father" kept him off the ghetto trash heap. "Coach Riley taught me to behave. His influence on me and many other boys kept us out of trouble. Without his guidance, we could very easily have become wards of the state."
Riley introduced Jesse to yet another white exemplar, the world renowned track star Charley Paddock. Virtually unbeatable as a varsity sprinter at the University of Southern California in the early 1920s,
Paddock at one time held every important sprint record. At the Antwerp Olympics in 1920, he won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash; from Paris four years later he came away with a silver medal. In that early age of journalistic hype, he was one of the first runners to be dubbed "the world's fastest human."...
In 1928 Riley arranged for him to address the youngsters at Fairmount Junior High. After his speech. Paddock was led to Riley's office to sign autographs, and there Riley personally introduced him to the fifteen-year-old Owens. After the crowd cleared from the office Riley, Paddock, and Owens stood talking. As the two older men dominated the conversation, little did the awestruck Owens know how altogether different he and the accomplished Paddock were as runners. Jesse's style was already smooth as silk; Paddock's was the unorthodox driving thrust of a heavily muscled torso, high knee action, a widely flailing arm motion, and a final frantic leap to break the tape. His form was no model to imitate. Yet he was a winner, an Olympic champion, and on that point alone he bowled the impressionable young Owens off his feet. Shortly after Paddock left Fairmount for his next speaking engagement, a wide-eyed Jesse told Riley that he wanted to be "like Charley Paddock," a champion. Riley assured him that he could, if he worked hard enough for that goal. To his dying day, Owens recalled his boyhood "idol," Charley Paddock, as a man who first made him aware of the Olympic Games and inspired him to set his sights high.