Vintage photo of the legendary sprinter Michael Johnson of Baylor and B-Side at the Drake Relays
What do you get when you have great competition and bad weather that dictate the times? It's that time again, the Drake Relays! Now I realize there are many who will never get to participate in them but this may be motivation for others. I happened to be blessed to participate in one of the college track and field's great adventure on several occasions. I missed a couple of visits to Drake due to injuries. I personally wanted to go to the Penn Relays just one time. Because my school (University of Nebraska) was basically down the road from Des Moines IA, we were basically stuck. Penn was on TV every year too but Drake wasn't like it is now.
My first visit was back in the day. I can remember we stayed at a hotel and about the only thing to do was look at the paintings in our rooms. I have never been one to just sit and not do something to take my mind off the meet and I had a lot of friends on different teams that would be attending. There was a moment that I recall when we pulled up to the track to get a pre-meet warm up in the day before, I saw all the athletes getting ready from schools like Baylor, Texas A&M, and Alabama. I knew right then business had picked up. The pros I had read about during high school in Track & Field News magazine were there -- Calvin Smith, Emmit King, and Mel Lattany. All three were in the Invitational 100m.
I was entered in the 4x1 and the 4x2 and I was hyped. My family had drove from IL to see me. It was the one meet during outdoor season that was close enough for them to attend. We got second in the prelim of the 4x1 and first in the 4x2 prelim advancing to the finals. But all I could think about was the Invitational 200m. I was invited and would face some of the top sprinters in the country. Michael Johnson (Baylor), Calvin Smith (Alabama), Kevin Little (Drake), Stanley Kerr (Texas A&M), Courtney Brown (Rice), and Emmitt King (New Balance) who was a pro. Looking back on the race, it was full of Olympic and World champions both individual and relay as well as world record holders and I was on the list.
The night before the finals, and looking back now, it was real crazy... BUT... I was young, felt invincible and I was running fast with the best sprinters in the country. Those friends I mentioned earlier had gotten word that there would be a huge frat party that night. Naturally I got the call at the hotel about it and was asked if I wanted to go. At first I thought maybe I shouldn't do this. But then I thought I'll just go for a little while. I finally got there and it quickly turned into the party of parties, music, women and I'm thinking I'm living the life. The finals and the invitational 200m the next day never even crossed my mind. A little while turned into all night. The crazy thing is I was never tired. I was so hyped for the races that sleep was never an issue.
I got back to the hotel and my teammates were slowly waking up. I kicked the door open screaming " It' time for the Finals!" "Just get me the baton, and I'll take care of the rest!" We had Texas A&M with Andre Cason, Texas with Eric Metcalf and our hated rival Missouri with the Nigerians. I was hyped as the gun went off. I could see we were in trouble quick, by the third leg I could see we were done. I got the baton and closed but it was too late. I had run a 9.xx split, but we got sixth. The 4x2 we got third losing to our rival Missouri. I tried so hard to win it, I tweaked an injury from earlier in the season and there was no way I'd be able to run in the Invitational 200m. I was crushed as the announcer said my name and lane. Johnson ended up winning it in 20.46 and Smith second. It didn't end the way I wanted it to, but it was a great experience overall.
It would take me two years to return to the Drake Relays. I was no longer the young guy on the team, but the veteran. I was used to everything that came with the meet -- pressure, weather, packed stadium. The weather decided to be at its worst with a cold pouring rain for the prelims. I was in the 4x1 & 4x2. The thing about college relays that's different than high school is the depth of the sprint squad, so a lot of times the real squad doesn't run until the final. In the 4x1 we ran terrible and got 6th in the prelims. The rain continued to pour for the 4x2 prelim, but I was hyped because we had Baylor and Purdue in our heat. The only question was would we be in position to win it. We ended up 3rd in the heat as I had water from the track being kicked in my face. I couldn't even see the finish line.
We had a few hours until the 4x2 final and went back to the hotel to basically get dry. We had the heat on in the room trying to warm up and dry our uniforms, sweats and spikes. Anything that produced heat was used; the top of the lamp shades, hair dryers, anything. That 3rd place finish wasn't good enough for me and all I could think about was my family drove all the way here for 3rd and to get wet. We got back to the track and warmed up on the indoor track. I could see Baylor warming up and they were ready. Johnson was running in the final. The gun went off and everything was pretty even for a couple legs. When our third leg got the baton, I could see Alabama was in control, Baylor second, Purdue third, and we were in fourth. I got the baton and was determined to snatch Purdue. Michael seemed to have the exact same attitude. He snatched Alabama for the win at the same time I snatched Purdue and we got third. We were both clocked with a 19.50 split. I was wet, cold and angry. I was tired of chasing people.
The sprint medley prelims were up and we won our heat to make the final as the favorites. I went to one of the coaches and basically demanded to be on the squad for the final. It was my last Drake Relays, and I wasn't going out a loser. I even volunteered to run the hated 400m leg of it. The reality is, we probably would've won the final anyway but we loaded up. We had the #7 800m man Dieudonne Kwizera. The next day, the sun showed up and it was hot. There wasn't an empty seat to be found. My friends from Nebraska even made the trip. People who didn't have cars somehow got there. I couldn't lose in front of everybody.
The gun sounded and Anthony ran a hell of a 200m lead off. Mark got the baton on his 200m leg and roared around the curve with a slight lead. When I got the baton, it was the moment of truth. Illinois had gotten the baton in front of us and another team cut me off. So, I sat on them the first 150m. At the 200m mark you could see I was reeling them in. There was 150m left and Illinois isn't giving in. I couldn't go home with a loss to the Illini. I'd never hear the end of it. I hit another gear and the announcer was right in tune with my move and says. "Here comes Nebraska!" I pass their 400m man and hand off the baton. I knew it was a wrap! Kwizera basically relaxed the first 400m and made his move the last 100m and pulled away for the win!! We had did it! The announcer says my split as 45.54. I was so tired I couldn't scream when we won. We went nuts! I caught my breath finally and then the announcer says a new meet record 3:15.! What a way to go out. We got the trophy, the Drake Relays watch and the t-shirt. The moment we stood on the podium and they announced us as champions was unreal. The whole stadium cheered for us. I had made my family and friends proud.
I walked around the track and I'll tell you. A win at Drake gets you a lot of attention. You get the "Heeeeyyyy I saw you run', and the 'You did good' from the females. There was a huge party after the meet. but we were scheduled to go back to Nebraska. I had to celebrate this, no way I could go back. So, I could only stay IF my parents signed me out. They signed and I partied all night. There were hundreds of people who were turned away. What a meet, what a race, what a party. I had arrived at The Drake Relays!