Billy Mills: An American Hero For The Ages / And A Better Man Than Myth

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Billy Mills dons a Haskell letterman’s jacket at his 75th birthday dinner in Mission, KS.

Our drive to Tan-Tar-A Resort in Osage Beach was not a long one from Maryville. My new bride and I were headed there to enjoy our frugal 1984 honeymoon and the late-May weather was perfect for the afternoon trip.

We traded seats in my 1982 Datsun after the first two hours and I picked up The Kansas City Star to read as she drove south. A feature story in the sports section on one of my childhood heroes caught my eye. It was the 20th anniversary of Billy Mills’ gold-medal performance in the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

I knew Mills’ story well but my bride had never heard of the former Kansas University distance runner. I read her the well-written article on our stress-free drive to the Ozarks. She marveled at Mills’ tale and how he overcame being orphaned at the age of 12 at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to win what many believe to be the greatest upset race in Olympic history.

I told this story to Billy Mills and the crowd who gathered last week in Overland Park to celebrate his 75th birthday. It caught Billy’s attention as I began the evening as the MC by saying he had been part of my wedding night.

Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s in a house with nine brothers and five sisters, athletics was a large part of our entertainment. We read every sport biography the Omaha Downtown library had on its many shelves. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson…all of these legends became part of our sports education through books and old film reels.

Billy Mills’ ascension to sports icon though happened right before my eyes. I was 10 when Mills shocked the sports world to beat the heavily favored world-record holder, Ron Clarke of Australia, in Tokyo. Mills was a nobody to the world track scene. His qualifying time for the U.S. team was a minute slower than Clarke’s. He ran 46 seconds faster than his previous PR in Tokyo to capture the gold and out kick Clarke and Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi. Those are just mind-boggling numbers in a world-class 10K.

You can view the video of the last lap of Mills’ race by clicking here. One of the most historic calls in the history of track and field occurred during the final seconds of this race when Dick Bank exploded with his memorable call of, “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” Bank’s call and video of Mills’ discussing the race is available here. Ironically, Bank was called into NBC’s Dick Auerbach’s office the following day and fired for what Auerbach deemed “unprofessional” broadcasting. NBC also refused to pay Bank for his work in Tokyo until Bank threatened legal action.

At the age of 75, Mills looked thicker but much younger than you would expect as he stood before the gathering in Mission, Kansas last Friday evening. We watched the highlight video of his final lap in Tokyo and then he spoke about how he went from Indian orphan to Olympic champion. His story is shockingly American on this Fourth of July weekend.

Billy’s mother died when he was eight and his father passed away when he was 12. He felt lost on the reservation where his grandmother raised him.

“You’ll probably do something great in athletics,” his cousin predicted. His cousin was a better athlete than Billy at the time and Billy knew it.

“Why are you making fun of me?” Billy asked his cousin.

“Look,” his cousin responded. “All the people I read stories about who became great athletes started out poor, or were orphans, or someone people made fun of.”

Billy looked at his cousin quizzically.

“And you’re all three!” he laughed.

Mills made his way to Lawrence, Kansas and spent his high school years at the Indian school, Haskell. This is where Mills began running. He ran a 9:08 two-mile time as a cross country runner and received 16 college scholarships.

“I thought every high school athlete received a lot of scholarship offers,” said Billy.

He chose to stay in Lawrence and attend Kansas University, where he ran cross country and track. He was an All-American in cross country as a sophomore, junior and senior. Only the top six finishers in the NCAA cross country meet won All-American status in those days.

As the photographer was positioning the All-American cross country runners for a photo after Billy’s sophomore season, he asked Mills to step out of the picture.

“He didn’t want me in the photo because of my dark skin,” Mills explained.

Mills said he was embarrassed to say that he cooperated with the photographer’s request and stepped away from the group. A Canadian-born runner who had also qualified as an All-American spoke up for Billy.

Mills winning the Big 8 Conference cross country title in 1960.

“That’s Billy Mills,” the Canadian runner told the photographer. “He’s the only American-born All-American in this group!”

The Canadian runner stood beside Mills as the photographer shot the remaining four All-Americans.

After Mills again was in the top six as a junior, he was again asked to vacate the photo due to his skin color. Again he hung his head and acquiesced. The photographer took two photos of the All-Americans – one with Mills and one without.

When it happened a third time his senior year, he refused to leave the photo. There would not be a whites-only photo of the All-American cross country runners this year. Mills told this story to give his audience an idea of the kind of every-day prejudice he faced as an American Indian in the late 1950s.

Mills went back to his hotel after the photo shoot of his senior All-American season and climbed out onto the window sill of his high-rise room. At a time where he should have been most proud of all he had accomplished as a student athlete at Kansas, he was contemplating jumping to his death.

Mills paused mid-story as he looked down at the floor and then back to the audience. “It took me a long time before I could talk about this,” he told the stunned audience.

“I sat on that window sill with my hands above my head holding the open window,” Billy remembered. “I can end it all now by just letting go I told myself.”

Mills didn’t let go and he went on to win the last U.S. gold medal in the Olympic 10,000 meter race. He also entered the Marine Corps and ran as a First Lieutenant in Tokyo. He has dedicated his life to raising money and helping Indian organizations and spreading his words about “unity through diversity.”

Often you meet someone of fame or a childhood hero and the experience is disappointing. Billy Mills could not have been more genuine, more pleasant or more personable as he talked to the crowd at the dinner or the next day as he greeted every runner who completed the Double Road Race at Corporate Woods. Halfway through the dinner I looked over at Mills who was seated just to my right and forced myself to have a reality check. I was sitting here joking with Billy Mills and his wife Pat.

A gentleman in the crowd at the dinner asked Mills about the shoes he wore for his Olympic race. Mills smiled and told us they were the first shoes of his own he had ever run in. At Haskell and at Kansas, Mills ran in school-issued shoes that had to be returned to the school. He qualified for the Olympics in a pair of shoes he borrowed from a friend.

“They didn’t fit that well but I managed,” he smiled.

When he entered the vendor room in Tokyo to pick up a pair of shoes days before his race, he was rebuffed by the adidas representative.

“We are short on the popular sizes,” the adidas rep grunted. “We are saving these for the runners we expect to win.”

Adolf Dassler founded adidas with his brother Rudolf, who eventually broke away to start Puma.

“But I’m going to win,” Mills replied with a twinkle. Billy was given a pair of spikes that were fit for a loser and he returned to his Olympic Village hotel room. Adolf Dassler, one of the founding Dassler brothers of adidas, heard how Mills was treated in the shoe room and was not pleased. The next day Billy opened his hotel room to find a dozen pairs of adidas spikes – all in his size – piled atop his bed.

One of the stories that Mills told to the Kansas City crowd was one I remember reading to my wife from the article in The Star almost 30 years ago. Mills finished the first half of his Olympic 10K faster than he had ever run a 5K!

“I knew I was done,” he said. “How can I finish another 5K after running this first half at more than my best?” Mills said he looked for a place to quit and step off the track onto the infield.

“If you’re going to quit a race,” Mills explained. “You want to step off onto the infield and get lost in the crowd there so no one notices you. But the Olympic officials were all Asian! I would not blend in at all!”

So Mills remained on the track with 12 laps to go and made a decision to run to the corner of the stadium where his wife sat. Every lap he would focus on that spot in the stadium and run to Pat.

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Pat takes a photo of Billy and his birthday cake in Mission.

Billy had to take out a $1,000 bank loan to pay for Pat’s travel to Tokyo to be at his Olympic race. He was adamant that he could not win the 10K without Pat there with him. As he walked away from the bank with the $1,000 check he began to be consumed with worry about how he would ever pay back this enormous amount. It ate him up so bad that he returned to the bank with the check and gave it back to the loan officer.

“I don’t know how I will pay back this loan,” Billy confessed. The banker handed Billy back the check and told him they were sure he was good for the loan. Pat made the trip to Tokyo with Billy and her presence in the stands that day made all the difference between Gold and Bronze.

After telling Mills about how I enlightened my wife 30 years ago about his Olympic story, I told him how I introduced our 19-year-old son, Shannon, to his You Tube video last April. We had just parked our car across the street from Memorial Stadium in Lawrence where Shannon was scheduled to run in the Kansas Relays.

We were talking about finishing kicks and fighting to the end of a race when your body wants so badly to shut down. I asked Shannon and his friend Joe McKenna, another Missouri distance runner, if they knew about Billy Mills. They answered in that fuzzy affirmative tone that kids lay on parents when they aren’t interested in pursuing the conversation.

But I am not easily quieted. I pulled out my iPhone and Googled Mills’ Olympic race. We watched it with the sound turned up as loud as it would go. “LOOK AT MILLS! LOOK AT MILLS!” echoed just across from the very stadium where Billy ran his four years at KU.

“Let’s see that again dad,” Shannon said.

[email protected] and Twitter / @greghall24

About Greg Hall

Software guy who has been writing my Off The Couch column in KC newspapers, publications and websites since 1994. Has been bounced from some of the finest media establishments this side of State Line Road. Dad first and everything else second...and there are a lot of everything elses.
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6 Responses to Billy Mills: An American Hero For The Ages / And A Better Man Than Myth

  1. The Smartman says:

    Great story Greg! What is the name of the organization he raises funds for? I’d like to make a donation.

  2. Gavin says:

    Great read, Greg and a great way to personalize a huge story. I’m a bit too young to have any memories of Mills’ achievement (I was born in 1966), but he, Wes Santee and Jim Ryun (whom I worship athletically and ignore the rest of the time) are guys I never get tired of hearing about and about whom enough stories are never told.

    • Cu Chulainn says:

      I agree with all of your comment, and would also add Glenn Cunningham to your list of great KU runners. He’s also a great story.

  3. Truman says:

    That video gave me chills, Greg. Thanks for posting it!

  4. Splitlog Quindaro says:

    Weis and Self should make every incoming freshman read this piece, watch the video, and the biography and give tests later on the information. The objective should be… “This is a real Jayhawk and this is the standard by which we expect you to live up to.”

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