It’s a scene that has long since passed into Texas Mythology.
In 1976, Johnny Jones, an 18-year old from Lampasas, Texas, ran to Olympic Gold in Montreal – but only after running into legendary status as a Texas State High School sprinter.
Until that spring and summer, Johnny Jones was known for the sport that is seemingly the birthright of all Texans – high school football. Jones scored 45 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons for the Lampasas Badgers, and he had signed to play for Darrell Royal and the University of Texas. But first there was the little matter of becoming a state track legend and an Olympic Gold Medalist that summer.
Jones, (soon to be nicknamed Johnny "Lam" Jones, by Royal, to help distinguish him from another UT running back, Johnny "Ham" Jones, from Hamlin) had always used track as a way to stay in shape. He captured the 3A state championship in the 440 as a junior and always ran anchor for the Lampasas relay teams.
His football coach, Scott Boyd, was also the track coach, and amazingly enough Jones had never run the 100-yard dash until his senior season. Boyd decided to see what Jones could do in the sprint, so he entered him in a track meet in Brownwood that spring. That meet set Jones on the path to Olympic gold. Jones won the 100-yard dash in a time of 9.2. He also captured the long jump, the 440, and anchored the mile relay to a win.
Two weeks later in San Angelo, Jones ran a 9.5 100, won the long jump, the 220 and again anchored the mile relay team. Lampasas trailed by over 30 yards when Jones took the baton and he made it up with a 46.5 anchor lap.
The Texas State High School Track Meet was in mid-May at Memorial Stadium on the UT campus. If all the people who claim to have been on hand for the Friday night finals were really there, the stadium would be three times the size of its current 100,000 capacity.
There were actually 18,000-20,000 on hand and I was one of them.
No really, I was.
I was working for a local TV station and watched Jones win the 100-yard dash after several false starts as other kids tried to get a jump on him. The final event was the mile relay and Lampasas needed to win the event to capture the 3A state title and this is where the myth reaches its pinnacle. Jones took the anchor baton in 7th place (not dead last as many have claimed). He trailed by 25 or 30 yards (not the 50 others have maintained).
But when Jones took off, everyone rose to their feet and watched as he swiftly ran down every other runner.
The place went nuts.
By the final turn Jones had only two runners to pass, and they each made the fatal mistake of turning to see just what in the hell was going on. As Jones flashed past the finish line, fans began to climb over the short wall around the stands and raced towards Jones and his teammates. It was the first time I can recall where security was needed to control fans as athletes tried to make their way to the awards stands. This was only the beginning of Johnny "Lam" Jones’ spectacular summer.
After the State meet, Boyd was convinced that Jones could make the Olympic team. There were two obstacles – he would have to run in meters and not yards, and he would have to travel to several summer meets to try and qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.
Back in 1976, the word amateur still actually meant something in the U.S., and Jones needed financial help. The city of Lampasas responded as civic leaders got together and held various fund raisers to get Jones to Atlanta, Eugene, Ore, and Knoxville, TN for the U.S. Olympic Trials. Jones ran a 10.23 100 meters – good enough to place fourth and qualify for the team, and good enough to make him a member of the 4X100 meter relay. Jones also ran the 100 meters at the 1976 Olympics after Houston McTear, who had finished second in the trials, went out with an injury. He reached the finals where he finished 6th.
Then a week later he ran the 2nd leg of the 4x100 relay for the U.S. Jones joined Harvey Glance, Millard Hampton and Steve Riddick to run a 38.33 and capture the gold medal. I was just out of UT and working for the ABC affiliate in Austin. That was the network that carried the Olympics, and I swear that Keith Jackson worked track and field at the 1976 Olympics and called the race. It would hardly be the only time he would utter the name of Johnny Jones.
It was a whirlwind spring and summer for a small town Texas kid (Lampasas had a population of around 7,000 in 1976), especially for one who was almost painfully shy to begin with. Less than 48 hours after the race he was back in Texas. Jones took a private plane from Austin to Lampasas, with Coach Royal, Coach Boyd along with me and a photographer from the station (I still can’t believe how lucky we were).
I remember gliding down to what looked like a dirt runway, and there had to be at least 700-800 people on hand to celebrate Johnny Jones returning home. There was a press conference in the small hanger at the airport and it was clear that Jones was very uncomfortable in the spotlight, even though he was touched by the turnout of his neighbors.
Jones would run track at UT as a freshman, but after that football became his focus. He was a first round draft choice of the New York Jets, and found the Big Apple to be a mystifying and difficult place for a small-town Texas boy to fit in. He would encounter injury and substance abuse problems while with the Jets, and he freely admits that he wasn’t ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
Jones has faced bigger battles since then. In 2005 he was diagnosed with stage-four multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma and bone marrow. While he was hospitalized, there were reports that he was near death. But Jones battled back, and the cancer is believed to be in remission. Jones is deeply involved in raising awareness and funds for cancer research today.
As for his spectacular summer of ’76, I have heard Johnny say when asked about winning an Olympic gold medal that is was almost as thrilling as winning the 3A State Championship for the Lampasas Badgers. He means it. As a student at the University of Texas, Johnny "Lam" Jones donated his Olympic Gold Medal to the Texas branch of the Special Olympics.
He is – and always will be – the swift teen age runner from Lampasas, Texas who remembers and appreciates his roots.
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