This is how a track and field story, based on the results of a simple race, can show how the small choices in life can turn out to be the most significant.
When Stanford won the men's 4x400-meter relay at last month's Pac-12 Championships, it made for a great note that hardly anyone, even the members of the team, had even been aware of. It was the first time that Stanford had won that event, or the similar mile relay, since 1954 when that meet also had been in Seattle.
But as I dug a little deeper, I realized that the two victories, 62 years apart, were significant to me in ways I never could have imagined. I was fortunate to witness Stanford's victory from two perspectives – as the communications director for the Stanford team, and with the understanding that a member of my family competed for Stanford in the 1954 Pacific Coast Conference meet, when Stanford last accomplished the feat.
Back at home a day later, my father-in-law, Jim Luttrell, stopped by and asked how the meet had gone. I told him about the relay victory and how it hadn't happened since 1954.
“Do you know who was on that team, in 1954?” he asked.
I couldn't remember.
“I know I have it written down somewhere,” I said. “I'll have to check.”
“Could you tell me when you find out?”
As he turned to walk back to the car, I rushed into the house to find that information, and got to him before he could leave.
I reached the passenger side window, where he was sitting. The window was open and I began reading the names.
“Keith Brownsberger … “
He smiled, and laughed.
“Keith was one of my best friends,” Luttrell said. “We were fraternity brothers.”
“Gerry Wood … “
“He was a hurdler … Go on.”
“Larry Spicer … “
“Yes, Larry. Go on.”
“A sprinter,” he recalled, with a faraway look of being in tune with a memory. “I knew all of those guys.”
On a gloomy Seattle afternoon, Stanford's Jackson Shumway held the baton in his right hand, securing it with two fingers against the knuckle of his ring finger as he completed his trip around the purple track.
With a five-meter lead on Arizona anchor Miles Parish, Shumway pushed hard off his right foot on the final stride, taking something of a leap to the finish line. Upon crossing it, his head sagged to the right. Two strides later, his chin sank into his chest as he slowed to a stop.
There was no scream of triumph by the soft-spoken senior, or even the raise of an arm. It seemed more like relief. Shumway, who had been suffering from a deep cough, crouched on the track with his elbows on his knees. The fingertips of his right hand pressed against the ground to steady his body as he tried to catch his breath.
Eventually, a weary Shumway stood and, with his arms outstretched, greeted his equally weary teammates. They had run 3:08.13 and Shumway, who, a few minutes earlier had finished second in the 400 intermediate hurdles for the second consecutive year, finally had a championship to celebrate.
“I figured we hadn't won this event since 1954, so I was not about to let it go at the end,” Shumway said.
The others – sophomores Harrison Williams, Frank Kurtz, and Isaiah Brandt-Sims – were not aware of the streak. Stanford hadn't even finished second in all those years.
It didn't used to be that way. In 1928, Stanford's Bud Spencer anchored the U.S. team to Olympic gold and a world record in the 4x400 in Amsterdam (3:14.2). A week later in London, he helped the U.S. break the world record in the mile relay (3:13.4) -- a distance 9.3 meters longer.
On the night of May 8, 1931, the Stanford team of Maynor Shore, brothers Abe and Ike Hables, and Ben Eastman broke the world record at both distances, running a mile relay time of 3:12.6, with Eastman closing with a 47.2 split. It remains the only 4x400 world record held by a college team.
Stanford once again eclipsed the mile relay record when the team of Charles Shaw, Ernie Clark, Craig Williamson, and Clyde Jeffrey ran 3:10.5 in 1940 – establishing a school record that would last 38 years before being broken by a squad anchored by NFL Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton in 1978.
The 1978 mark of 3:06.6 in the 4x400 would stand another 38 years, until Williams, Kurtz, Brandt-Sims, and Shumway broke it with a 3:05.59 at Baylor's Michael Johnson Invitational on April 24.
From 1919 to 1954, Stanford won nine conference mile relay titles. Subtract years in which there was no conference meet or Stanford didn't participate, and Stanford teams won roughly once every three tries. That's almost a dynasty.
Could these runners have foreseen that Stanford would not win again for 62 years?
“We expected to win the next year,” said Brownsberger, whose 1955 team was third.
“If somebody said, ‘It won't happen for five years,' we would've been amazed,” Spicer said.
But somehow an event that had been such a source of pride for the program became a source of embarrassment, or worse, indifference, until Shumway crossed the line.
In 1954, collegiate track was more focused on team than individual. The schedule was loaded with dual and relay meets. Unlike today when a relay team might race only a couple of times, in those days they were constantly competing.
Stanford's mile relay team was in flux. Gerry Wood, Walt Garrett, and Fred George were regarded as the fixtures, with others being filtered in and out, as coach Jack Weiershauser experimented with different combinations.
“During the year, Coach liked to test different people in the mile relay,” Garrett recalled. “He loved the mile relay and he felt that even if you lost the meet, if you won the mile relay you leave with a good feeling.”
In an early May dual against UCLA, Jim Truher and Larry Spicer got a shot when Wood and George were out with injuries. The meet came down to the final event, the mile relay. Rupp anchored Stanford to victory.
Spicer, a junior, provided a new element. He had transferred in from Cal Tech, where he spent his freshman year, and had to sit out his sophomore season because of transfer rules. He became a half-miler at Stanford, while also running the 220 and 440.
His strength made him perfect for the long relay, and that race got Spicer into the squad for good. The lineup seemed to take shape with Spicer, Wood, George, and Garrett -- the quartet that won the Big Meet in 3:17.9. However, a fifth-place finish at the West Coast Relays, despite a season-best 3:15.2, left Weiershauser disillusioned with Stanford's lack of a finishing kick.
For the California Relays in Modesto, sprinter Keith Brownsberger came in for George, and Garrett shifted to anchor. Weiershauser got what he was looking for. Garrett bolted from the rear, shot up the field, and outfought Occidental for third.
The coach was impressed with Brownsberger, his new leadoff man, but his emergence complicated matters. George was a relay regular and had been brought to Seattle to lead off the relay. But, on the day of the PCC meet, Weiershauser scratched George in favor of Brownsberger.
Brownsberger grew up in Laverne, along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles. His coach at Bonita High, former Stanford thrower Chuck Coker, helped develop him into Southern California's top sprinter.
When Brownsberger arrived at Stanford, he, like just about everybody else, found himself in the shadow of teammate Bob Mathias, in between his two Olympic decathlon titles. They joked about the “Second to Mathias Club.” It seemed no matter what event they did, they always were second to Mathias.
Brownsberger said he never lost to Mathias in anything in their two years together. He became Stanford's top sprinter at 100 and 220, but “never wanted to run the 440,” recalls teammate Bill Flint, a sophomore pole vaulter that year.
When Weiershauser suggested that he take on the longer distance for the relay, Brownsberger replied, “I object. I'm a sprinter.”
“You'll be fine,” the coach said.
Brownsberger could certainly run, but he understood his weaknesses at the longer distance.
“I had the best start, so Jack wanted me first,” Brownsberger said recently. “I was usually ahead at the 220, and then I'd be fading the rest of the way.”
Weiershauser was an outstanding sprinter and hurdler in the 1930s at Stanford under the great Dink Templeton, who coached Stanford's 1932 world-record relay. Weiershauser shared Templeton's view that the 440 was an all-out sprint. In those days, easing on the backstretch to build up for the finish was the popular approach of the day.
To get his Stanford runners prepared for the entire 440, Weiershauser put them through a drill called “352's,” where they would sprint for 352 yards, and struggle through the rest of the 440 as best they could. It forced his runners to get used to the pain they would feel at that distance.
The weather was bad and conditions at Husky Stadium were typically difficult for those times, with a dirt track, half-inch spikes, sawdust landing pits, and steel poles and bars.
The Indians, as they were known then, performed well. Wood won the 120 hurdles and Leo Long captured the javelin, but the team would place third. This was why Weiershauser valued the mile relay so much -- to leave a lasting positive impression.
Brownsberger got off a quick start, but began to fade and was gasping for air as he handed off to Wood, who pushed Stanford into the lead. Spicer finished strong to increase Stanford's advantage, and every inch of that lead was necessary with USC's defending NCAA 440 champion, Jim Lea, on the anchor.
Stanford certainly had confidence in Garrett, the team's only true quarter-miler.
“Walt Garrett could beat anybody,” Brownsberger insists.
Almost anybody. Lea got the best of Garrett in the 440 that day and was running in his hometown. Though Stanford certainly had motivation to beat him and silence his fans, Lea carried himself well and his competitors respected him.
“I didn't like S.C., but I liked him,” Garrett said.
Though Garrett doesn't recall many specifics about that race, the fact that he outran Lea on the anchor gave him a clue.
“We must have had a huge lead,” he said.
Indeed, Stanford upset the favored Trojans and their 440 ace, while running 3:15.5 to break the stadium record by two seconds.
Jim Luttrell was a sophomore hurdler at that meet. He came to Stanford from nearby Sequoia High in Redwood City, where he won the North Coast Section title and finished a close second at the 1952 California State Meet to Selma's Ansel Robinson in the 180-yard low hurdles at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
His father, Emmett Wright Luttrell Sr., actually made the Stanford track team out of tiny Fort Jones (Calif.,) High in the 1920's as a high jumper, but had to pay his own way through college and gave up the sport.
Stanford, and sports in general, were in Jim's blood. While growing up in Oakland, he listened to the radio call of Frankie Albert and the Indians beating Nebraska in the 1941 Rose Bowl. He was a big fan of Pacific Coast League baseball's Oakland Oaks. And he learned to hurdle by leaping over a series of hedges lining neighbors' front yards along Wellington Street. After turning down a Cal-Berkeley recruiting pitch, Luttrell came to Stanford and launched an All-America career in a long-forgotten event, the 220 low hurdles, though his lone 400 hurdles time of a converted 52.64 stood as a Stanford record for 16 years.
I knew of him before I met him. He was a longtime high school coach and P.E. teacher on the Peninsula. My high school regularly competed against his San Carlos or Woodside teams. And, as a young sportswriter, I came across an old clipping that described him as “the gentleman coach,” a role model of sportsmanship and integrity.
Track indirectly brought us together. My first line to his daughter, and my future wife, was: “Didn't you run track at CSM?”
While he used to get together with former Stanford teammates at the Big Meet each year, at 81, he doesn't get out to the track much anymore. But what I didn't realize was that the names I read through a car window carried deep meaning. I didn't understand how names in a record book were triggers to the memories of moments that would change lives, including my own.
It was Sunday night, and that meant a regular gathering among Jim and Rhoda's children and grandchildren. Sunday night dinners have been a family tradition for more than 25 years.
“Did you know, If it wasn't for Keith Brownsberger, none of us would be here?” Rhoda said.
Here's why: Brownsberger was the one who convinced Jim to rush his Stanford fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
“We were great friends,” Brownsberger said. “We were the only two people in our fraternity who didn't like to drink.”
It was an SAE party that drew Jim and USC student Rhoda Rossell together, on a blind date after a 1954 Stanford-USC football game. Rhoda was visiting a friend who was dating a Stanford SAE brother. Jim and Rhoda would marry in 1957.
It's staggering for me to consider how different my life would be if not for that meeting, or for Jim's friendship with Brownsberger. My wife, kids … everything.
Suddenly, Brownsberger's name wasn't just a footnote in Stanford's track and field history, he was a pivotal figure in the evolution of my own life. My life as I know it, hinged on that friendship.
I had no idea.
So, how did the years treat the 1954 Stanford mile relay team?
Wood, a two-time All-America in the 120 highs, joined the Navy ROTC and trained to be a pilot. He was killed when his airplane struck the side of an aircraft carrier during an attempted landing.
Garrett joined the Army before landing a job at Shell Chemical. Soon after, he joined his father's clay-pipe business and eventually took over the company, which expanded with the addition of several companies under the same umbrella, McP Industries. One of his companies laid the first track on Angell Field after the renovation of the stadium in 1996. He is now semi-retired in Corona, California.
Spicer and his wife, the former Pattie Halperini '56, were leaving to attend the 100th birthday celebration of a neighbor when reached by phone. He joined the Air Force and flew fighter jets over Europe during the early days of NATO. He became an engineer in land development before settling in Indian Wells, California, where he served on the city council for seven years and had a term as mayor.
Brownsberger, now 83, is a retired physician. After medical school and during the Vietnam War, the government gave him a choice: Enter the draft or work for the Indian Health Service. Brownsberger chose the latter and served in Alaska, where he has lived for more than 50 years, mostly in Anchorage, with his wife, the former Sally Beel ‘55, and four children.
As for the vanquished USC anchor Lea, he would win a second consecutive NCAA 440 title in 1954 and make the Olympic team in 1956. He studied real estate law and settled in the Santa Clara Valley, where he was on the board of the the Sunnyvale Parks and Recreation department. He passed away in Sunnyvale in 2010.
But time moves on, and track and field memories fade into the background while families and relationships are challenged or strengthened by the events of lifetimes. But the impact of those years continues, whether those involved fully realize the scope of it or not.
Just before hanging up the phone, Brownsberger had one more message to share.
“Tell Jim … we need to get together,” he said.
I assured Brownsberger I would pass that along. It will happen, I said.
And then I hung up, hoping that it does.