Remembering Willie May

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Remembering Willie May

The first thing you have to know about Willie May is he was one of the most talented multi-sport athletes in Illinois high school history. In an era that also featured Bloom's Leroy Jackson and Homer Thurman and Thornton's Paul Jackson, Willie gave Blue Island its own sense of pride.

Willie was 6-foot-3 with long legs and great leaping ability. He was an all-conference end on an unbeaten football team, an all-conference center on a basketball team that battled perennial powers Thornton and Bloom in the South Suburban League and led Blue Island to the state track and field championship in 1955.

Watching Willie run the high and low hurdles during a track meet was like watching Mickey Mantle take batting practice. That's when the words "awe" and "awesome" were invented. You were in "awe" of his "awesome" achievements. And he literally took it all in stride.

I was a freshman baseball player at Blue Island in those days. During meets on the adjacent track, baseball practice stopped when it came time for Willie to compete -- in the high hurdles, low hurdles and 880-yard relay. "The gun is up. Willie's gonna run," someone would yell. We'd all stop whatever we were doing and watch."

In 1955, Blue Island (now Eisenhower) sent four runners to the state finals in Champaign, scored 18 points to New Trier's 14 13 and won the state title. It was a monumental achievement. La Grange had won the previous three state titles and five of the last seven. Phillips had won two. And Bloom won the next four in a row.

But Blue Island prevailed as Willie won the 120-yard high hurdles in 14.5 seconds and the 180-yard low hurdles in 19.5. He also ran the third leg on the winning 880-yard relay in 1:29.8 with Ron Helberg, Paul Fuller and Robert Rechord. Rechord finished third in the 220-yard dash for the final three points.

Willie was all legs. He didn't leap over the hurdles, he glided over them. Other hurdlers marveled at his technique but couldn't match it. In the relay, if Helberg or Fuller hadn't already given Blue Island a lead, Willie would sweep around the corner and gobble up huge chunks of cinders with his long stride. Rechord, the anchor, never had to come from behind.

Those memories were brought to mind on Wednesday night when Evanston athletic director Chris Livatino called to deliver the sad news: Willie May had died. He had succumbed to a rare blood disease, amyloidosis. He was 75.

"What will always define Coach May to me," Livatino told reporter Bill Smith of Evanston Now, "was the grace, humility and strength with which he carried himself and his teams at Evanston. In a word, he was nobility. While soft-spoken, the power of his raspy voice inspired and elevated his student-athletes on and off the oval to great heights in track, in school and, most importantly, in life."

May served at Evanston as a physical education teacher, track and field coach and athletic director for more than 40 years. He retired as athletic director and teacher in 2000 and as head track coach in 2006. He continued to serve as assistant track coach and was looking forward to the start of his 45th season. Through it all, he was a mentor to one and all.

"Whether it was a story from another era or just the perfect quote, Coach May knew how to advise a coach on how to handle a situation without having to tell the coach what to do," Livatino said. "He put his trust in your decision and you made sure you did not disappoint. I will miss seeing his slow, steady stride around the fieldhouse track and I will miss his warm smile and confidence in the athletic office."

Born in Alabama in 1936, May earned a football scholarship to Colorado after graduating from Blue Island, then transferred to Indiana, played one season of football as a two-way end in a single platoon system, then realized his future was in track. He won seven Big 10 championships in the hurdles from 1957 to 1959. In 1960, at the Olympics in Rome, he finished second to Lee Calhoun in the 110-meter hurdles in a photo-finish race that May always insisted that he had won. In 1963, he won another silver medal in the Pan American Games.

His former teammate at Blue Island, Ron Helberg, then head track and field coach at Evanston, persuaded May to join his staff in 1967. Helberg won state titles in 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974 before moving on to Hoffman Estates and Glenbrook South.

May became head track and field coach at Evanston in 1975 and guided the Wildkits to 26 conference titles, including 24 in a row from 1976 to 1999, and the 1979 state title. His teams also were second in 1991 and 1994 and third in 1989 and 1993.

He also produced more than 50 medalists, including Bob McGee, who won 100, high hurdles and low hurdles and ran on the winning mile relay to lead Evanston to the 1979 state title.

In 1983, he became athletic director at Evanston, serving until 2000. He was inducted into the Indiana University Athletic Hall of Fame I 2000, the Illinois Track and Cross-Country Coaches Association's Hall of Fame I 2007 and the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. He also was named the most outstanding athlete in the history of Blue Island Community High School.

As a freshman at Blue Island, May played baseball in the spring. But he had trouble hitting Wyman Carey, a hard-throwing lefty who was signed by the Detroit Tigers. So he was "strongly persuaded" to switch to track as a sophomore.

As it turned out, 1995 was a magical year. But May didn't see it coming. Neither did anyone else. Coach Olin Driver's track team didn't win a single meet during the entire season until the state finals. Carroll Nichols was a member of the relay but he was injured and Fuller, a former pole vaulter, replaced him. Rechord sprained an ankle and couldn't run for two weeks.

"We were so uninformed and unsophisticated about what was going on," said May in an interview in 1999. "When we went into the state meet, we never had any idea that we were a contender for the championship."

When they arrived in Champaign, Blue Island was represented by four athletes and five coaches. Oak Park and New Trier were favored to win the team title. But Oak Park didn't advance a single qualifier to the finals. All of a sudden, Blue Island was in the mix.

May won the high hurdles. In the 880 relay, he was matched against Phillips' John Lattimore, who went on to win the 220 in 1956.

"We were down," May recalled. "I knew I had to really go. I gave Rechord a half-step lead. (Phillips') Billy Martin took the lead back, then Bobby took it back on the last turn. Afterward, I had to sit down. I was shot. It was the only time I didn't think I could come back from the 880 relay to run the low hurdles. I had less than 10 minutes to rest."

Martin, who won the lows in a then-state record time of 18.9 seconds in 1956, had been timed in 19.2 in Friday's prelims. But he had anchored Phillips' 880 relay. How much did he have left?

"When the gun went off, I am racing Martin, not worrying about anyone else," May said. "But I don't see Martin. I see (New Trier's) Dick Fisk. He is stealing the race. He is the man to beat, not Martin (who finished last).
I found something somewhere and was able to beat him. It was the only time I doubted I could do it."

Afterward, someone informed May that Blue Island had clinched the team championship.

"The impact didn't hit me until the next day, what we had done, that it was a big deal, until I read it in the newspaper," May said. "We didn't have a big celebration on the track, just a few pictures. We didn't know it was only the second state title our school had ever won (and still is). Then it dawned on me that we had done something pretty incredible."

Rechord put it all in perspective. "I remember Willie Mays was starring in baseball in those days and we had Willie May. It was really a good feeling to be on top of the world," he said.

Preview: White Sox, Royals tangle Friday night on CSN

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Preview: White Sox, Royals tangle Friday night on CSN

The White Sox take on the Royals on Friday, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. from Kansas City. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Miguel Gonzalez (0-1, 4.57 ERA) vs. Danny Duffy (0-0, 2.13 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

[SHOP WHITE SOX: Get your White Sox gear right here]

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the White Sox: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with White Sox Pulse.

Preview: Cubs, Phillies start series Friday on CSN

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Preview: Cubs, Phillies start series Friday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Phillies on Friday, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 12:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester (4-3, 2.60 ERA) vs. Adam Morgan (1-2, 5.61 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

Bears' move away from Forte part of change in run-game philosophy

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Bears' move away from Forte part of change in run-game philosophy

The Bears’ decision to move on from Matt Forte, the No. 2 running back in franchise history behind only Walter Payton in yardage, was not necessarily an easy one. It was, however, unanimous at Halas Hall, sources told CSNChicago.com. And it was also part of a significant deeper change in the main operating principle underpinning the Bears’ rushing offense.

Depending upon what Forte does with the New York Jets — and for how long — the decision might be open to question. Few NFL decisions aren’t.

But the Bears’ offense under John Fox and new coordinator Dowell Loggains was clearly going away from what Forte was accustomed to — a true featured back with a relief-back in the form of a Chester Taylor/Marion Barber/Michael Bush — and moving onto a true use of two backs in the fashion that Fox’s Denver Broncos offenses used them.

The change will be more than just a few carries. Forte lost carries last season to Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey. This is different.

Instead of Forte and an understudy, as the de facto rushing offense has been since Forte was drafted in 2008, the Bears this offseason made the decision to emphasize the run even more under Loggains, and that has meant something other than simply more carries for Forte’s understudy.

For perspective purposes: Last season Forte missed three full games due to a knee injury but still totaled 276 touches (carries plus targets) to 236 combined for Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey. When Forte returned from the three-game injury break, the offense had changed. Forte had four 20-carry games in the first six. He had one over the final six.

Forte did not appear publicly to genuinely embrace the job-sharing approach as Langford’s carries matched and in cases exceeded his own. Whether he would have been on board with ceding even more meaningful time to a co-back is another matter that would have been open to question, though any suspicions that direction are now moot.

(If Forte would have had problems with younger backs rising, he would not have been the first; Thomas Jones ultimately demanded a trade after the Lovie Smith Bears drafted Cedric Benson to broaden the run game.)

Regardless, the true multi-back system will be a change for the Bears, harking back perhaps to the Bears building their run game on two starter-grade backs in Benson and Jones. The Bears’ unsuccessful attempt to bring in C.J. Anderson from Denver suggests less a no-confidence vote in either Carey or Langford than a measure of the commitment to both competition and a depth chart with meaning past the top one or even two names. The Bears have used mid-round picks on running backs in three straight drafts (Carey, Langford, Jordan Howard this year), making the same point the Anderson interest did.

And that’s how Langford took the Howard selection to a position that where confidence in him was one of the reasons the organization was OK with parting with Forte.

“I really didn’t think too much of (the Howard pick),” Langford said. “I know it’s just competition. That’s what brings a lot of running backs, a lot of positions, to push themselves even more. Competition is always a good thing, and playing in the NFL, there’s always going to be competition, so you can’t really become too complacent as a player.”

“Complacent” wasn’t a word anyone was likely to apply to Langford, and certainly to Carey, who played his way up from a roster bubble at the end of training camp last year. And Howard as a fifth-round rookie isn’t guaranteed anything for awhile in training camp except reps with the 2s or 3s, with Jacquizz Rodgers also re-signed after an injury shortened 2015.

Loggains has been dealt a hand without an ace like Forte but with what he and the organization think can be three or four kings, depending on roster decisions at the end of August.

“We like where Jeremy’s at,” Loggains said. “He needs to continue to develop. There’s things he can do a better job of in the passing game, but we still like our other backs. Ka’Deem Carey finished strong for us last year. We obviously drafted a back. We’re excited about getting Jacquizz Rodgers back as well.”