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Forgotten Decathlete Speaks Out

July 16, 1991|JIM MURRAY

Everybody knows who Jim Thorpe was. Everybody knows who Rafer Johnson is. Most everybody knows Bruce Jenner. Nearly everybody knows Bob Mathias. And probably most people can identify Bill Toomey.

But hardly anybody could pick Milt Campbell out of that crowd--and he was exactly what each of them was, the greatest athlete in the world in his time.

The notion of identifying the decathlon gold medalist as the world's greatest athlete began with the King of Sweden. As he hung a medal around Jim Thorpe's neck at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, he is said to have exclaimed, "You, sir, are the world's greatest athlete!" (Thorpe is said to have replied, "Thanks, King!")

Don't look for any of Thorpe's marks in the history books, though. They were long since expunged. Because he had played baseball for (ugh!) money (not much) the year before the Games.

Milt Campbell's records haven't been expunged from the books, exactly. But they might as well have been. Or so it sometimes seems. He gets as little celebrity as the guys who got Thorpe's medals in 1912.

Part of the problem is, he reigned between the eras of Mathias and Johnson. That's like sitting between the Pope and Gorbachev, or playing a scene with a baby and a dog.

Milton Campbell was as magnificent an athlete as any Thorpe or anyone who came before or after him. The King of Sweden would have oohed and aahed. Like Thorpe (and Mathias), he could play any sport and play it well. The decathlon was merely a kind of afterthought.

He won a silver medal at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952 when he hardly knew how to hold a javelin. The event itself was a complete mystery. When he first heard the word decathlon , Milt remembers thinking it was something you did on snowshoes.

Plainfield, N.J., was hardly a hotbed of this somewhat esoteric event, a sports stew combining the best aspects of both track and field.

Milt was a world-class high school swimmer and fullback and linebacker on the Plainfield High football team when he picked up a shot one day and casually heaved it into school-record territory. A coach spotted the toss and handed him a discus. With about as much form as a guy throwing his hat on a bed, Campbell flung it off toward the horizon. "Have you ever thought of trying the decathlon?" the coach wanted to know.

"Say what?" Milt asked.

Milt was already a world-class high-hurdler. He would no doubt have been an Olympian in that event (in fact, he was a barely beaten fourth in the '56 Olympic trials when he hit a hurdle and broke it in half in his final crossover). But he began to get books to read up on Jim Thorpe and the history of the decathlon.

Milt Campbell never got much formal training in the decathlon. He likes to point out that Mathias had his Tulare tradition and Rafer had Ducky Drake, one of the world's foremost decathlon conditioners.

Campbell had an empty lot. Even so, as an 18-year-old schoolboy at Helsinki, he closed to within 250 points of the great Mathias, an impressive performance for a youngster who had never even seen a pole vault until three weeks before the trials.

Campbell remained a decathlete in his spare time. He went to Indiana on a football scholarship and ran his way into some school records. But when he got a 'D' in physiology, he was ruled ineligible for football. So he enlisted in the Navy for the Korean war.

The good news was, he never got farther than Catalina. "I was a watch officer on the U.S.S. Neversail," he laughs. "We guarded San Diego."

They did it well. There were no enemy amphibious landings at Mission Bay. What's more, the Navy let this able-bodied seaman became a true decathlete. "I was able to work out 7 1/2 to 8 hours a day," he recalls.

Most forget that Campbell bested Rafer Johnson in the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne, and Rafer was the world-record holder at the time.

Campbell was on a pace at Melbourne that would have made him not only the Olympic, but the world record-holder when he inexplicably topped out at 11 feet 1 in the pole vault, nearly 2 feet below his best. The runway was wet, the box slippery, but Campbell blamed only himself: "I was stupid. I didn't allow for conditions."

He was to miss a world record by a mere 48 points when a "normal" Campbell pole vault would have brought him 200 more points than the 476 he earned for the event.

Campbell might have disappeared off the track-and-field map after deciding to play profootball.

The Cleveland Browns drafted him fifth overall and, in spite of the fact they picked another running back that year as well--fellow by the name of Jim Brown--Campbell was impressive.

His pro career became a debacle, he says, not because of what he did with the football, but what he did in the part of his life that should have been nobody's business.

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