Your Turn: Fifty years later, a picture tells a thousand words
Fifty years ago on Nov. 15, 1971, a Courier Post photographer stepped onto the track at Pennsauken High School (Pennsauken, N.J.) and snapped a photo of three runners about to win, in a three-way tie, the 1971 South Jersey Group 2 Cross Country Sectional Championship race. Looking at the photo, there are two things one immediately notices: the first is that the runners have grasped each other’s hands. The second is their faces, which very clearly portray the fact that they are in a significant degree of ... discomfort. One runner’s face is locked in a tight grimace, another has his eyes closed almost as if in supplication or prayer, and the third runner seems to be staring off into some distant horizon.
I can speak with some authority about the exact moment when the photographer took the photo. I was one of those runners who crossed that finish line, hand-in-hand with my two Haddon Township High School (Haddon Township, N.J.) cross country teammates. I was on the right, Danny Matousch on the left, (junior) and Mike Elder in the center (sophomore). I was a senior and co-captain of the team with Danny. I was 17 years old. In those seconds after we broke the tape, I remember pure pandemonium and staggering around in a small circle, my hands on my knees, struggling to stand. I saw Danny, lying prone on the track gasping for air and Mike on his hands and knees trying not to get sick. The fog in my head was getting thicker when, suddenly, there was an arm around my waist and my coach, Al Tanner, saying to me, quietly, “Steady ... steady.” I looked up at him and managed, “The others?” He replied, “They’re coming in now, fifth (Mark Yellin) and sixth (Steve Cummings). You did it. We did it.” Then he smiled, looked at me and said, “We won.”
We, the team, won. Cross country is a team sport. The place of each of the first five runners on each team are added and totaled. The higher the first five runners place, the lower the team scores. The team with the lowest score wins the race. Yes, Danny, Mike and I were the first across the finish line, but what mattered infinitely more to each of us was that the team won.
On that day 50 years ago, 11 teams, about 100 runners got on the starting line, and when it was all over, Haddon Township had taken five of the first six places in that championship race. We won in what was cross country’s equivalent of a near “shut-out”. The next day, one of the local papers called it “astounding.”
Throughout the years, I’ve been asked by people, mostly other runners, who have seen that photo, “How is that you finished like that? Did you plan to do that before the race? Did you talk about it before you got on the starting line or was it a spontaneous decision? What happened out there?”
This is the story, the back story, behind the photograph.
I did not just learn how to run during my four years on the cross country team at Haddon Township High School. Fundamental traits of character such as loyalty, responsibility, cooperation, compassion, courage, honor and perseverance — I learned about them all during my four years of running at Haddon Township.
Coach Tanner taught me these things. To a 13-year-old boy, he was all about toughness, physical preparation and winning — as a team.
And I responded, embracing his non-conventional and sometimes very difficult training techniques. But he also molded me and my teammates into runners who came to believe that our character — how we treated, helped and cared for each other mattered as much as our physical conditioning. The late Senator John McCain once said, “Even a long life is a brief experience. God has given us that life, shown us how to use it, but left it to us to dispose of as we choose. Our character will determine how well or how poorly we choose.”
The choices I made about how I would ultimately live my life, the kind of man, husband and father I would become, I made under Coach Tanner’s guidance and while running at Haddon Township High School.
On the morning of the race, droves of Haddon Township fans poured from the buses to fill the stands in front of the finish line. Yes, buses to a high school cross country meet.
Years of victories had created a following among many of our classmates at Haddon Township High School.
As we started our warm-ups, I heard Wayne Merkh, two years my senior, previous teammate, South Jersey running standout, mentor and lifelong friend, calling and motioning to me. I jogged over to him.
He looked at me, paused, and then said, “Listen, you can win this today. I mean YOU can win it.”
I thought Wayne might be right. In my four years of running at Haddon Township, I had never crossed the finish line first in a championship race. Wayne, having run for Coach Tanner for four years, knew and understood that a team victory is what mattered — not an individual victory. But I knew that Wayne, who taught me to love running at just 12 years old, would be very happy to see the team AND his protégé win at the same time. I nodded, shook his hand, and began jogging back to my teammates.
As I approached them I saw that they were sitting in the grass, away from the crowds, in a tight circle going through their pre-race rituals and stretches.
But I stopped, still a bit of a distance away, and looked at them. And I thought back to the years of summer nights, meeting at one of our houses after our various summer jobs had ended for the day and the heat had somewhat dissipated, and how we’d, together in a group, head out on 10-, 15-, 18-mile sojourns into the approaching night often times not getting back until well after dark.
I saw Danny, in the pre-dawn winter darkness, slogging up my street, Avondale Avenue, in four inches of slush to meet me for our daily five-mile morning run. I saw us in the Haddon Township High School “Home Economics” kitchen after one of Coach Tanner’s particularly tough workouts making cookies under Mrs. Butcosk’s tutelage. She was kind enough to wait for us and believed me when I told her we were going to be very hungry.
I saw us on a February night knitting in my parents’ living room because we had decided we needed mittens without thumbs. My sister taught us — knit two, pearl two.
And, finally, I thought about the fact that this would be my next-to-last time I’d ever get on the starting line with them — my teammates. It was the South Jersey Sectionals today, and the states the following Saturday — and then it would be over.
These were my brothers. And I realized for the first time that this incredible journey, for me, was ending and how much I was going to miss them.
I walked over and joined them. Shortly thereafter, the announcement came over the loud speakers, “Runners to the starting line.”
The gun fired and I began what was to be the race of my life. I’d never run so strongly, and back in the woods out of sight of the crowds, with two miles behind me and half a mile to go to the finish line, I found myself alone, out in front, winning the race.
But I was hurting and in a considerable degree of distress and fatigue. I had pushed very hard in the middle to get some separation and was at that point where I’d been many times before; I’d have to decide, once again, if I could go beyond the horrors, say no to the doubt, and break through the pain.
I glanced over my shoulder to see if there was a competitor on my heels because, if there was, I would not find shelter in a blessed reason to slow down — and I would have to keep fighting. I saw Danny 30 yards behind me. I immediately turned around and began running back toward him ... away from the finish line.
Through the years I’ve thought many times about that decision to turn back. In the millisecond when I actually did it, it was all reaction, almost primal. I may not have realized it in the moment, but I did it for help — to try and give it and perhaps to receive it.
Four years of victories, championships and trophies, all because of one simple reason: we ran together as a team. That’s why we won. We helped and depended on each other, believed in each other and drew strength and courage from each other. That’s why I turned back. I wanted us to win.
I fell in beside Danny and said, “Together.” He nodded. We ran another 50 yards. I looked over my shoulder again, saw Mike, and shouting to Danny, said, “I’m getting Mike.” I turned around again. As I approached Mike I could see that he was struggling. I said “Let’s go.” He said, “I can’t.”
I fell in behind him and, putting my hand on the small of his back, I said, “Yes, you can.”
At the same instant I noticed that Danny had come back, too. He fell in beside us, Mike in the middle, shoulder to shoulder, the three of us together, arms, chests, legs all battling the numbing pain of the lactic acid, we charged on. One more quick glance and I saw Barry Johnson of Gateway High School, a strong and fierce competitor, not too far behind us.
We came out of the woods, into the clearing and onto the track for one final lap to the finish line, the strain of the task now deeply affecting us. Around the oval we went, down the back straightway, form failing badly, our bodies struggling to maintain the discipline of the stride.
As we came out of the final turn, I grabbed Mike’s hand and, turning my head to him, managed, barely audible, “Get Danny.” He grabbed Danny’s hand. With 100 yards to the finish line, the sound of the blood now pounding in my head matched only by the roar of the Haddon Township friends, families and classmates in the stands who quickly saw what we were intending to do. The finish line now 50 yards, 20 yards, 10 yards away and the photographer stepped onto the track in front of us for a brief instant and snapped the photo that for the past 50 years has been hanging in a trophy case in the lobby of the gymnasium at Haddon Township High School.
It turned out that Wayne’s pre-race predication was correct: the team won and I got my championship win. It would be the only one during my time running at Haddon Township High School. But it was a win that I knew I’d remember all my life. And it was made all the sweeter in the knowledge that I shared that victory with two of my brothers who were both wearing the same singlet as me.
I couldn’t have been prouder to have done it with them. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Jim Doherty, his wife and 16-year-old daughter reside in Stonington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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