This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
At the Olympic Trials on Jun. 30, 1956, Eddie Southern of the University of Texas and Ohio State’s Glenn Davis both ran the 400-meter hurdles in world record time.
Silas Edward Southern ran his first official footrace in 1949 at his elementary school on the south side of Dallas. Another sixth grader beat Eddie to the finish line that day, but the disappointment did not discourage the future track star.
By the time he entered Sunset High School, Eddie already had begun to show he could do amazing things on the cinders. Taller than most runners at an inch or two above six feet, his long legs gave him the advantage of a bigger stride.
At the state track meet in May 1955, the sensational senior rewrote the record book. Eddie was clocked at 20.7 seconds in the 220-yard dash, best ever by a high-school student in Texas or any other state. Then he turned right around and broke the state and national records in the 440-yard event with a time of 47.2 seconds.
Eddie’s phenomenal double stood the test of time in the Lone Star State. His 220 was still the fastest when the switch was made to metrics in 1977, and his 440 was not bettered until 1968.
No one was surprised by Eddie’s choice of colleges. In nearly four decades at the University of Texas, Clyde Littlefield had built one of the most successful track and field programs in the country.
Eddie Southern did not just fit into the legendary Littlefield’s scheme of things, he excelled. He led the Longhorns to Southwest Conference track titles in 1957, 1958 and 1959, while winning a slew of individual honors that included three consecutive 440-yard SWC championships and the 1959 NCAA quarter-mile crown.
Eddie also worked well with others. He was a member of the UT 440-yard and 880-yard relay teams that set world records usually running the crucial anchor leg.
But before he accomplished all that at the University of Texas, Eddie auditioned for the right to represent the United States at the 1956 Summer Games in Australia.
Since the Olympics were scheduled for late November and early December to coincide with summer “down under,” tryouts for the American team were not held until late June. Instead of entering the 200 and 400-meter races, the metric equivalent of his specialties, Eddie picked an event in which he thought he had a better chance.
In spite of the fact that he had competed in the 400-meter hurdles on fewer than half a dozen occasions, Eddie cruised through the qualifying heats on his way to the finals. The top three finishers would go to Melbourne, and everyone else would go home.
The Texan got off to a jackrabbit start leaving the startled favorite, Glenn Davis of Ohio State, in the dust. But the more experienced hurdler gradually closed the gap and caught Eddie at the tenth and last obstacle.
Davis won the short sprint to the tape with Eddie breathing down his neck. Both broke the world record for the 400-meter hurdles.
Eddie Southern was on the U.S. Olympic team and at age 18 its youngest member. Seeking some sort of mystical insight, a reporter asked what motivated him to run so fast. “I was just a scared Texan,” answered Eddie. “I was afraid I wouldn’t make the team.”
In Melbourne Eddie dispelled any nagging doubts by winning his semifinal heat in Olympic record time. In the race for the gold, he again surged ahead and stayed in front until the seventh hurdle where Davis passed him. Eddie had to settle for the silver medal, but he looked forward to a second chance at Rome in 1960.
Their paths often crossed in the four-year interim between the Summer Games, but the outcome was invariably the same whether it was the 400 hurdles or the 400 flat. Good as he was, his arch-rival was always a step or two better.
That changed at the Kansas Relays in June 1959. Davis mounted his usual charge in the 440 no-hurdles, but Eddie persevered with a strong finishing kick. For the happy Texan, who confessed to hoping for rain so the race would be cancelled, it was a badly needed confidence boost.
As the Olympic Trials approached in 1960, Eddie finally returned to the hurdles for the first time since Melbourne. He blew away the field at the Texas Relays and prepared for the inevitable rematch with his nemesis.
Davis dominated the all-or-nothing finals of the 400-meter hurdles, but Eddie was not far behind as they entered the home stretch. “Southern cleared the last hurdle in second place,” read the article in Sports Illustrated, “but landed off balance and broke stride.”
In the blink of an eye, two runners swept past him and onto the pla
ne bound for Rome. Fourth-place Eddie’s Olympic dream was over.
On the eve of his induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in December 1969, his old college coach made it clear to all concerned that Eddie Southern was no loser. “He was just one of the great all around track men, to the point of being unbelievable,” Clyde Littlefield said with great pride and obvious emotion.
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