Real Life Sports Movie: John Woodruff

If you were scripting an unrealistic Hollywood sports movie, what would the ingredients be?

You’d want a main character who came from humble beginnings. You’d want him or her to work their way up to some climactic event. You’d need a villain.  How about the event is taking place at a particularly momentous time in history, when the planet is gearing up toward its most devastating world-wide war?  And maybe you’d have the tyrant who is the leader of one of the aggressor countries be there at the event, looking on, with the event held in his own capital city, rooting against the hero character. Maybe that enemy leader, who is white, would be a legendary racial supremacist who was trying to prove the supremacy of his race – and maybe our hero would be black.

That’s a pretty wild set-up so far.  We might have lost our credibility with the script readers already.  Let’s press on anyway.

What else would you want? Maybe the key event would arrive, and the game — or match — or, let’s say, footrace begins. 800 meters. Less than two minutes total. Our hero wants to win it. Somehow our hero finds himself trapped and pinned in by the other competitors, back in fourth place, with nowhere to maneuver and time rapidly expiring. His whole life’s work, what he has been building toward, is starting to come apart at the seams, second by difficult second. Suddenly, our hero does something wild and unexpected to break out of the trap he’s in – he stops in his tracks, in the middle of the race… Everyone else zooms ahead and he attempts to catch up again with a mad dash up the outside of the pack.

At this point, the movie’s audience would groan. Could things get any more unrealistic (short of the hero sprouting wings)? First there was the dramatic situation and setting. Then this ridiculous mid-race maneuver? Against the most elite competitors in the world, all at full gallop? For our man to actually win at the end of the movie, well, that would just be too much, right?

Allow me introduce you to John Woodruff.

photo posted on post-gazette.com

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John Youie Woodruff was born back in 1915 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, which is a little town southeast of Pittsburgh and not too far from the West Virginia border. He was the grandson of Virginia slaves, and was one of ten siblings. He loved football, but he couldn’t play because his family needed his hands and energy. The Great Depression was tough on the Woodruffs, as it was for most.

He began to excel with his feet during his high school years. He caught the eye of his football coach who, as luck would have it, was also the track coach. After he won his first footrace, he began to compile a stellar prep resume along with the sobriquet “Long John,” which referred to his massive stride. He drew some national attention as a high schooler, and even broke the national mile record (as well as the Pennsylvania half-mile and mile records) all before he graduated in 1935. He got a scholarship to attend the University of Pittsburgh, where he pretty much did more of the same.

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He overcame a heavy favorite to win the 800m at an Olympic trial qualifier in late June of 1936, and then beat the nation’s best half-miler two weeks later in the Final Olympic Trials. Woodruff, along with several other talented black athletes, was headed to the Berlin games as a 21 year old with no international experience.

* * * * *

It is hard to imagine the atmosphere of the 1936 Olympics as we sit here in the Internet age. It seems surreal and impossible that such toxic undercurrents would have swirled so palpably around such a massive event. Twitter would need to triple its bandwidth if such a thing occurred today. For instance, Germany had initiated several anti-minority race laws the year before. Hitler was outspoken in stating that the Olympics would prove the supremacy of the Aryan race, and the political climate was noxious. Even so, the Games were real, and they were spectacular.

Woodruff’s sports movie played out in the finals of the 800 meter race. The field featured very experienced competitors, such as the Euro champion (Mario Lanzi of Italy) and five-time Olympic medalist Phil Edwards of Canada. Although Woodruff had raw talent, the tough field, his inexperience, and the nerve-wracking scenario seemed to be teed up perfectly for heartbreak.

Sure enough, nearly halfway through the race, Woodruff found himself completely trapped. He later described how Edwards jumped out in front and set a pace that was slower than expected.  “I decided due to my lack of experience I would follow him…” The rest of the runners promptly crowded right in around Woodruff, pinning him against the inside of the track with no productive maneuver available to him. He noted that “I had enough experience to know if I tried to get out of the trap, I was going to be disqualified.” In other words, he had no wiggle room, and any kind of attempt to slip through the sieve in front of and to the right of him would mean interfering with other runners.

“I had to do something…”

Robin Williams once said, “you’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Woodruff’s spark of madness landed on some kindling and went ablaze in Berlin, and at the most opportune time.  His own telling went as such: “I’ve heard people say that I slowed down or almost stopped. I didn’t almost stop. I stopped, and everyone else ran around me.” In essence, Woodruff slammed on the brakes in the middle of an elite Olympic footrace that was only 113 seconds long, and let his competitors zoom past him. Back to last place.

It really is quite stunning to have someone stop in the middle of a race like this. I’m often lulled to sleep by a certain effect that happens during top-tier races like Olympic track and field or the Tour de France. The effect happens when elite runners (or cyclists) are all moving the same speed and the camera is zoomed in tightly on the pack. They all move so fluidly, and the tight frame of the camera makes you lose all frame of reference so you lose track of how damn fast they are going. Of course, you would need a wide or zoomed out view to appreciate it.  Here, in the grainy video that still exists from the 1936 race (above), the camera is panning along, following the leaders when Woodruff makes his crazy stopping maneuver. What we see is the pack of runners moving right to left on the screen (they’re on the far side of the track at that point), and then Woodruff, who’s in the center of everything, noticeably starts to slow down, almost as if he has a sharp rock in his shoe.  The camera jostles a bit, and Woodruff makes his full stop just off the screen, which follows everyone else.  Everyone else being the other 8 or so runners who have suddenly left him in the dust. It’s like he runs into an invisible barrier just off screen, but the other runners are all ghosts and are unaffected.

Woodruff was now free. A rodeo bull that just bucked off its cowboy. He glided outside to the third lane, and immediately hit the emergency jets and went plaid.

The speed with which Woodruff burst back into contention, from a dead stop, is remarkable.  “I actually started the race twice,” he recalled. But it didn’t matter – his sprinting prowess, new found racing room, and 9+ foot strides allowed him to overtake the other runners remarkably quickly. He fought off Edwards and Lanzi on the home stretch and won the race by more than a half second. It may not have been pretty, but it was the stuff of legends. Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote, “He was inexperienced and had more changes of gait and direction than a wild goat going up a mountainside.” (That may be true, but mountain goats still would reach a summit faster than an Italian middle-distance runner.)

* * * * *

Even now, nearly 80 years later, most people still know who Jesse Owens is. His four golds in track and field events in Hitler’s shadow have rightfully resonated through the ages. In many ways, his stature has grown through the generations, particularly as mainstream racism has receded to the fringes of the culture. ESPN even crowned him as the 6th greatest North American athlete of the entire 20th century. Woodruff, and most of the other black medal winners on the U.S. team, have been treated much more modestly as the years have passed, and they have had the opposite trajectory — they have slipped into anonymity. Obviously, Owens’ four medals were greater in number and attracted more eyeballs (and pundits’ pens) than the others, but Woodruff’s “good guy” persona, soft spoken attitude, and storybook victory could easily have been an equally enduring American hero. I believe it was that very attitude, or lack thereof, that led to his different historical treatment.  Upon returning to the States, Owens was a supernova of athletic gravitas and political outspokenness, while Woodruff was a quiet satellite of quiet grace.  Woodruff was simply a nice man who did not crave the spotlight.

He completed a stellar amateur track career, which was certainly hampered by the two cancelled Olympics during World War II, and he ended up serving in both that war and in Korea (ending up a lieutenant colonel). He earned two college degrees and would eventually coach young track athletes in New Jersey. He would outlive all the other American track and field men who won golds in Berlin, and he passed away in 2007 at the age of 92.

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* * * * *

A gold medal, a shining moment of embarrassment for Hitler, and a bona fide sports movie moment is an impressive resume. John Woodruff should get a bigger taste of the legend treatment too, in my opinion. Hell, it’s hard to even find good photos of him.

I’m reminded of the many great lines about how fast the Negro Leagues great Cool Papa Bell was on the basepaths. Satchel Paige once said that Bell hit a line drive past Paige’s ear, and he whipped around and saw the ball hit Bell as he slid into second base. Another good one is the classic “Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he’d turn the light off and jump into bed before it got dark.”

Here’s a thought. John Woodruff was so fast that he could win the Olympic 800m even if he stopped and started again halfway through the race. Wait, no, that’s just too unrealistic…

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