Little big man

There was a recent article in our local paper, possibly still available here, that brought back memories that made me grin.

I started competitive running late, as a 15-year-old junior in high school. It turned out I was good at it. But I was green…oh, so green. After I’d won a few little dual cross-country meets, the more imposing team from Waterbury’s Sacred Heart High came to town. As we were all milling around, jogging, loosening up, and trying to control our nerves, a tiny old man peering through thick, smudged glasses took me by the arm as I was wandering by.

“You’re Alvarez?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve been reading about you. You’re having a good season.”

“Uh.” (Smooth repartee even then was one of my greatest attributes.) “Thank you.”

He squeezed my arm, turned me slightly, and pointed. “See my boy over there?”

Aha, now I know who you are. You’re their coach. “Yes, sir.”

“He’s the best runner in the state.”

Gulp. “Uh.”

“Good luck, son.” And he walked away.


I hadn’t yet gained any real understanding of running. I hadn’t done any serious training, and had only raced a few times. The wonderful world I soon came to savor, of strategies, tactics, and mind games, was still a mystery to me. The only thing I knew was if that kid was the best runner in the state, I had no chance. So when the gun went off, I ran that way. It didn’t dawn on me until there were perhaps 200 yards left, that I had 50 yards to make up and energy to burn. I lost by 10.

The remarkable Chick Lawson had taken me to school. Eighty-five at the time, he had been—at 106 pounds—a champion all-comers wrestler in the 1890s and early 1900s, and a champ on the bicycle later. He had been, I soon learned, my grandfather’s boyhood hero.

Over the next two years, I ran against Chick’s teams many times, neither of us ever mentioned his introductory psych job, and we came to be quite friendly. I became one of those who would, with a quiet, “Hang on a minute, Chick,” reach out and remove those always-smudged glasses, clean them off, and replace them.

When I was in college, I ran in local track meets during the summer, and he was always there. At one, he forbade me from competing for fun in the long jump because he was afraid—reasonably—that I might pull a muscle and ruin my running season. Another time, he told me I’d just run the best quarter mile he’d ever seen. It was certainly the best 440 I ever ran, but a moderately talented real quarter-miler would have left me in the dust. It had been a terrific race, though, and Chick, at 88 or 89 by then, was bouncing with excitement.

After college, I coached my own cross-country team against his. In his early 90s, he brought his son, then in his 70s, to one meet. “He can’t get around the way he used to,” Chick told me. “Where can we park the car so he can see most of the race?” Then Chick joined me in wandering from place to place on the course, shouting encouragement as we watched our boys run by. I, of course, cleaned his glasses.


Little big man — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Alan!

    Congrats on what sounded from your posts like a really good Challenge. I followed you across and felt bereft on the few days you didn’t post.

  2. Pingback: “Time’s on the wing…” | Catswamp

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