Sunday, April 30, 2017

Running Down the River

If you find yourself watching a Jacksonville Jaguars home game from EverBank Field on TV, you may notice that the end zone camera shot from the north end of the field shows another football stadium in a sports complex across the St. Johns River. That complex is part of my High School Alma Mater; Bishop Kenny. Included in that complex are two baseball/softball diamonds and a bevy of tennis courts. In fact, my old school looks more like a community college campus these days than a high school.

But all those years ago, when I was roaming the halls of the two story brick buildings that made up the boys school, that sports complex with the incredible vista of the river and downtown Jacksonville was not yet a gleam in Monsignor’s eye. It was all a dense copse of palmettos, and live oaks draped over with Spanish moss. Near the perimeter of these woods there was a trail carved through the undergrowth. This was part of a one mile cross-country course used in the fall by our distance runners. We would run the course twice in order to meet the two mile requirement for a cross-country race. The section of the course that ran through the woods was nearly half the length of the entire path.

I must admit that was my favorite part of the school grounds. And part of the property that only a small part of the student body, the cross-country team, got to enjoy. Most of the time the view from the riverside part of the course was blocked by ships parked at the edge of the river waiting for their turn at the docks to be unloaded and then reloaded for their next voyage. From time to time, we would exchange greetings with sailors working on the ships as they lay at anchor. Usually, the sailors were chipping old paint off the sides of the ship and re-painting them. In the hot humid North Florida air of early fall, that didn’t strike me as a lot of fun. I’m sure the sailors thought that my teammates and I were a bit off plumb for running two miles in that heat.

Left: They are more colorful these days but you can see the 3/4 inch spikes on these track shoes. Reading this, you are probably figuring out why, despite lettering in track and cross county, I was never a star on the teams. I spent too much time worrying about those sailors and not enough in keeping up the pace. To make matters worse, given the right opportunity I could be pretty clumsy. Track and cross-country teams wore spiked running shoes. When running on gravel tracks, the most common running surface, the spikes were ¼ inch long. But for cross country, we used ¾ inch long spikes. This was great for most courses which were mainly grass or open fields but not so good for our course. There were big old live oak roots lying in wait underneath the veneer of brown leaves that made the bed of the course that wound through the woods. After running the course so many times, each of us got to know where those roots were and how to avoid them. But one had to pay attention. Sure enough, one fine day near the end of my sophomore season, on the second time around the course, back down by the riverside I was paying too much attention to what the sailors were doing and not enough to my running. Wham! My spikes on my right shoe bit deeply into that live oak root. Moments later I lay sprawled out on the course three feet down track from my shoe, which was still firmly attached to the root. As I freed my shoe and laced it back up onto my foot, I thought, “Geez, this is not gonna help my time for the course.” As I approached the finish line, Coach Parete eyeballed the stopwatch in his hand and yelled; “This is a new worst time, even for you, Wrigley!” Then he spotted my skinned elbows and knees. He shook his head and muttered that we wouldn’t be counting this run into my practice times.

Probably through Devine intervention, Coach did not cut me from the team and the next year, I made the traveling track team that competed in the Florida Relays in Gainesville. The Florida Relays are still being run annually with both high school and college. They are a bit bigger now than they were then.

By the time my senior year arrived, I was asked to be the Drum Major for the first marching band in school history. Of course, I was told that if I were to take that on, I would have to give up track and cross country. That was a no-brainer for me, be a mediocre track and cross country runner or be the drum major. No contest! I traded my track shoes and my trumpet for a baton, a place out front and a podium.

Left: The first Bishop Kenny Marching Band. And this is where things come full circle. As I mentioned that our high school did not have a football stadium at the time. Because we did not have our own stadium, many of our home games were played at the Gator Bowl Stadium. There were two major collegiate games played in that stadium back in those days; the Florida – Georgia Game (still played there) and the Gator Bowl itself. Now that the NFL has come to Jacksonville, the Gator Bowl Stadium has gone through several renovations and name changes. It is now EverBank Field. Whenever I watch a game from there, and see my Alma Mater through that end-zone camera shot, I remember all those riverside runs past the ships and the sailors chipping paint. It is no wonder than when it was time for me to choose the service I was going to join, it was the Navy. By the way, I never got to chip paint. Oh MY!

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