Advance Warning… In A Flash

This is the second in a five-part series about the 1970 Outdoor Heps Championship. To start at the first installment, please click here.

For the Midshipmen of the Naval Academy, the first hint that they might encounter difficulty at Heps came in the form of flashing red lights on the trip to New Haven on Friday morning, about 24 hours before the meet was set to begin. As the team approached the toll booth at the base of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, state highway patrol officers blocked the bus with their cars and informed Coach Jim Gehrdes that he was to contact his Academy immediately.

Word had gotten back to Annapolis, via the New York TImes, that team captains from the Ivy League schools were planning to draft a joint statement, to be read before the meet, in response to the political upheaval and dispair across the nation’s campuses in the wake of the Kent State massacre.

“We went to New Haven anyway,” said then-sophomore team manager Tom Connelly. “We naively figured that it would all blow over.”

Even though the environment on the Ivy campuses had always been different than at West Point and Annapolis, the Vietnam War had widened the gap. “I enjoyed visiting Ivy League schools,” said Barney Forsythe, who won the Outdoor Heps’ 440-yard dash for Army in 1969. “Occasionally we would get booed by students when we entered a dining facility in uniform for a training meal, but the athletes were always respectful.”

The Ivy League and the academies had first joined together at wartime — at the height of national unification in the effort to defeat the Axis during World War II. Yet a generation or so later, at this time of great strife, the thing that brought them together was threatening to tear them apart.

Army and Navy first ran with the Ivies little more than a month before Japanese bombs exploded on Pearl Harbor. Invited to the 1941 cross country championship in New York City, neither academy was an official member of the Heptagonal Games Association at the time.

But that was soon to change. By 1943 Harvard and Yale had each greatly curtailed their intercollegiate athletics activities, as had colleges and universities coast to coast. Having run in the previous two cross country championships, the remaining teams invited Army to join them for the outdoor championship at Franklin Field in Philadelphia and the Cadets won in dominating fashion.

Army hosted, and again won, the meet in 1944. But the Cadets didn’t compete in 1945 as the outdoor championship moved to the Naval Academy for the first time. With Harvard and Yale still on the sidelines, Virginia joined the field and the Midshipmen took victory in Army’s absence.

As history would have it, U.S.-led forces would win the war the following summer. Army and Navy would remain with the Ivies in the track league, Virginia would not and Brown would later join. By the late 1940s, with isolated exceptions, the three annual Heps championships would be 10-team competitions…

Until 1970.

Princeton might well be considered the most conservative of the eight Ivy League schools, with a reputation which had historically attracted more Southerners than the rest of the Ancient Eight. But a wave of political activism swept over the campus that spring, earning a motto among the students — “Even Princeton?”

The weekend before the Kent State tragedy, at least one local newspaper was mocking the political stance taken by the Tiger track and field team. About half the squad showed up to the New Jersey State meet, prompting Dick Weiss of the Trenton Evening Times to write that Coach Peter Morgan had lost to Cambodia, which was “an unscheduled opponent at the beginning of the season.” Weiss added that the missing members were AWOL and that Morgan “showed up with token resistance.”

“As a team, we were not working out,” recalled Bob Hohf, who would win the pole vault at Heps. “We were working on our political activities and the track team was not a coordinated team.”

“A number of my teammates, including our team captain Herm Stevenson, chose as a protest not to participate in the Heps or even to continue the season, by way of rejecting business as usual,” recalled Heps high jump champion Gene Halton.

Harvard was nearly as tumultuous. “There was so much division,” said John Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at the Boston Globe who was then covering sports for the Harvard Crimson. “[Electing to compete] was a personal liberty question and many of the athletes were feeling like they were being bullied.”

Royce Shaw, who had swept the Heps miles in 1969 and claimed the Indoor title in 1970, didn’t succumb to bullying. He made the difficult personal choice to attend an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C., instead of defending his title at Heps on his own. While he felt guilty, wondering if he was letting down his teammates, he said that at the time he could not “understand how anyone could put athletics ahead of our moral responsiblity to stand up to these outrages.”

“He was not a radical guy, said Powers. “There were other guys who competed who you might have expected to boycott the meet, but if someone like Royce Shaw could give up a meet like that, you would have to have respected it.”

The brass back at the academies, maybe even the Pentagon, was suddenly paying a lot of attention to Heps. The confused motorists on the Delaware Memorial Bridge were seeing the first flashes that a track meet in Connecticut was not going to become a political circus… at least not with Army and Navy on site.

Continue to page 3

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