Olympic gold medalist and former UT star died Friday after long battle with cancer

The 1976 meteoric rise of Johnny “Lam” Jones from little-known high school sprinter to Olympic gold medalist began in Brownwood.

Starting with the Bluebonnet Relays in mid-March through the UIL state track and field meet in mid-May, Jones blazed a trail that left competitors helpless, compelled unemotional sports writers to become cheerleaders, and prompted fans of all ages to pour out of the grandstands at the state track meet.

Along the way, Jones was timed in 9.05 seconds in the 100-yard dash and 20.7 in the 220 and routinely ran down other anchor runners to win the mile relay with 440-yard splits in the 45- to 46-second range. He also led Lampasas to the Class 3A (present-day 5A) state team championship.

By the final day of July, Jones’ remarkable 1976 track season peaked when he won a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics as a member of the U.S. 4x100-meter relay team. At age 18, he left for Montreal as the youngest athlete from Texas ever to earn a berth on the U.S. Olympic track and field team. He returned a few weeks later as an Olympic gold medalist, a national celebrity and a Texas icon.

Jones — a member of the University of Texas football and track teams and a first-round draft pick of the New York Jets — died Friday at age 60 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was first diagnosed with cancer of the plasma and bone marrow in 2005. Once 6 feet tall, the cancer and its treatment left Jones standing about 5-9.

Jones wasn’t a magician, but as a Lampasas senior, he performed optical illusions that remain a vivid memory for those who saw him run.

“What he was doing was a visual lie. Humans just don’t do that,” said Art Lawler, a former sports writer for the Abilene Reporter-News who covered Jones in 1976.

“You just don’t see someone run people down from 30 or 40 yards behind. Visually, you just can’t comprehend it when you see someone come up that fast on all the others,” Lawler said.

Jones wasn’t a complete unknown before 1976. In football, he scored 45 touchdowns in two seasons and was selected all-state. He signed to play football at UT.

As a junior at Lampasas High in 1975, he won state in the 440-yard dash in 47.6 seconds. The high school conversion to meters was still a few years away.

 

Bluebonnet Breakout

 

After three track meets in 1976, the Lampasas 440 relay with Jones wasn’t producing the times Badgers coach Scott Boyd had expected. Seeking another individual event for Jones instead of the 440 relay, Boyd decided to time his senior in a 100-yard sprint one day after practice.

“It was the week of the Brownwood meet, and Scott stepped off 100 yards on our dirt track,” said Nancy Boyd, the widow of Scott Boyd, who died in 2003 at age 57. “Johnny didn’t even have his running shoes on. It was just a ‘ready, set, go’ start.

“Scott wouldn’t tell Johnny what he’d clocked him in (9.24 seconds). He shook his stopwatch and told Johnny to run it again. The second time, Scott showed Johnny the watch (which read 9.37). Johnny shook his head and said, ‘Coach, you’ve got to get a new watch.’ “

Coach Boyd entered Jones in the 100, 440 and mile relay at the Bluebonnet Relays — and both their lives changed forever. Within an hour’s time in Brownwood, Jones won the long jump with a mark of 24 feet and one-half inch; the 100 in 9.2; and the 440 in 47.8. Later, Jones gave the first of his legendary mile-relay anchor performances, turning a slight lead over Copperas Cove into a 30-yard bulge with a 45.8-second lap.

Lawler was so impressed he snapped a photo of Jones and submitted it, along with a summary of Jones’s performance, to Sports Illustrated for consideration in its “Faces in the Crowd” page.

“It ran a couple of weeks later,” Lawler said. “A lot of sports writers claim to have discovered Johnny Lam, but we gave him his first national publicity with the mention in Sports Illustrated.”

Nancy Boyd, who compiled two scrapbooks filled with Jones’s feats in 1976, said the Bluebonnet Relays marked the start of his statewide popularity.

“It was the beginning of his tremendous fan following, when his performances inspired perfect strangers to take time to send personal notes,” Boyd said. “I have one from Wayne Turner in my scrapbook. He owned an office equipment company in Brownwood.”

Turner wrote: “I usually don’t get too excited by track meets except by those people that I know and am really rooting for — but Saturday, I got excited and so did the rest of the fans here in Brownwood. We count ourselves fortunate to have been able to see you perform the tremendous feats you did at the Bluebonnet Relays.”

To understand the statewide fascination with Jones, you have to realize that in the 1970s, track and field was the dominant spring sport in Texas high schools. Only the state’s largest schools played baseball at the time, and softball was mainly a club sport.

Track meets were still run off with preliminaries, often in the mornings, and final races, usually in the afternoons. That format made invitational meets more watchable, and they drew large crowds in Texas — especially to see the sprints and relay races.

The state’s metropolitan newspapers, which each week compiled and published the top high school track and field performances in Texas, initially questioned the 9.2 time Jones was given at the Bluebonnet Relays. It was a small-town meet, they reasoned, and the race was likely timed by someone with a stopwatch in his hand only a few times a year.

But Jones kept posting similar times week after week. In late March at the San Angelo Relays, he dropped the 440 in favor of the 220, and won it in 20.7. He also won the 100 in 9.5.

Then in the mile relay, Jones attracted more committed followers by erasing a 40-yard deficit and rallying Lampasas to a victory with a 46.5-second anchor lap. Lawler claims, and San Angelo sportswriter Frank Rudnicki doesn’t deny, that he was beating the windows in the San Angelo Stadium press box as Jones passed the final runners.

Jones added a 9.05 wind-aided time in the 100 to his growing resume at his district meet in Round Rock. Bud Kennedy, then a sports writer for the Austin American-Statesman, chronicled the growing fan hysteria.

“Women shrieked. Children squealed. Grown men jumped up and down,” Kennedy wrote, adding that Jones signed autographs after his performance.

 

A state meet like no other

 

By the time the UIL state meet arrived in mid-May, Jones easily was the No. 1 attraction. The state meet crowd was estimated at about 25,000 — although if a statewide poll were conducted today, a million-plus would claim to have been there.

Jones won the 100 and 220 that Friday evening in Memorial Stadium, but his times of 9.4 and 21.0 weren’t as fast as what he had previously run. Fans were growing impatient when the mile relay, the final event, began. They were craving a superhuman feat.

By the time Mike Perkins, Tom Lancaster and Leon McClendon ran the first three laps of the Class 3A mile relay, Lampasas was mired in last place. The distance Jones trailed the leaders has grown through the years and remains open for debate.

“People say he was 50 yards behind, but I think it was more like 25,” said James Blackwood, an assistant track coach at Texas who later helped coach Jones in college.

“I thought it was more like 40 yards,” Rudnicki said.

Jones didn’t pass anyone until the lap was halfway finished, but when he began picking off other anchor runners, they fell like dominoes. By the final 50 yards, Jones was in third place and closing on the leaders.

In press boxes in the 1970s, there were strict rules about not cheering. Violators would be removed or ridiculed. Or both. But even the most cynical journalists from the state’s premier newspapers became swept up in the moment as Jones closed on the two lead runners.

“There wasn’t an ounce of professionalism in the press box that night,” Lawler said. “I maintained mine for the first 220, but when the others started cheering, I did too.”

Jones passed the final two anchor runners, winning the mile relay in dramatic fashion, as well as the 3A state team championship for Lampasas.

In the grandstands, Nancy Boyd had been so disheartened by the deficit Jones faced that she turned away.

“Then I heard the announcer. He’s fifth, fourth, third,” she recalled. “So I turned around and watched. The lead runners had gone wide down the homestretch. And then there was that moment, that split second, when in the blink of an eye, he darted past them with that unbelievable burst of speed.

“I wasn’t really sure I saw what I really saw.”

Seconds after Jones crossed the finish line, fans poured out of the grandstands and onto the track toward their new hero. Security personnel got the crowed headed toward the awards stand, where Jones and his Lampasas teammates received their mile relay medals and their state championship trophy.

“We had to get security to take the Lampasas kids to our (UT) dressing room until the crowd calmed down and thinned out,” Blackwood said.

Texas track and field fans had their stunning moment. Their visual lie. Their sprint hero to embrace. Jones’ anchor lap was timed in 45.5.

“It’s the most dramatic moment I’ve seen in sports,” Lawler said. “He ran so smooth, you could have put a cup of coffee on top of his head while he ran and he wouldn’t have spilled a drop.”

 

Olympic Homecoming

 

Johnny Jones’s storybook track season of 1976 didn’t end with the state meet since his meteoric rise coincided with an Olympic year.

During summer meets measured in meters, Jones qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100. At the Trials, Jones qualified for the Olympic team in the 4x100 relay and the 100. At the Montreal Olympics — the ones known for gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 — Jones’s events were all that mattered to folks back home in Texas. He finished sixth in the 100 in 10.27.

A week later, in front of 70,000 spectators, he joined Harvey Glance, Millard Hampton and Steve Riddick on the Olympic gold-medal U.S. 4x100 relay team that set a world record with a time of 38.33 seconds.

Less than 24 hours later, on Aug. 1, 1976, Jones was due to arrive in a private plane back home in Lampasas. Rudnicki was there and witnessed something as unforgettable as the state meet.

“Everybody was there from little grade-school kids to 80-year-old ladies, and they were all sweating in the hot sun in the middle of the summer,” Rudnicki said. “It was one of those scenes that was surreal — the anticipation of the conquering hero from a small town who was still an amateur athlete and had won a gold medal for his country.

“It was Americana at its best in a lot of ways. It was a scene that has since fallen by the wayside in the Olympics now, with all the professionalism and the top athletes doing commercials for Disneyland,” Rudnicki said.

Jones ran collegiate track only two years for Texas, winning four events at the 1977 Southwest Conference meet as a freshman. He also played football for the Longhorns, and injuries basically ended his track career.

The New York Jets made Jones a first-round NFL draft pick, but in six pro seasons, he averaged a modest 23 receptions for 387 yards and two touchdowns.

After his football career, Jones battled alcohol and drug problems, and in 1988, he spent a year in jail after pleading guilty to indecency with a child. He later called the arrest the turning point in his life. He reportedly was sober from 1990 forward, and he devoted much of his final years to speaking to youth groups about the dangers of alcohol and drugs.

Jones visited Brownwood in 2013 in support of a fundraiser golf tournament hosted by the local R.O.C. (Revitalizing Our Community) organization.