Thursday, September 17, 2009

They Got Memphis Moving

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 at 11:55 AM

William Foster (left) and Hosea Hill
  • William Foster (left) and Hosea Hill
The Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation asked me to write something about youth mentoring. Good topic, questionable choice. My experience doesn't go much beyond my own children. But I just met a couple of guys who know a lot about mentoring and whose story deserves telling.

For more than 50 years, Hosea Hill and William Foster helped hundreds of Memphis boys and girls literally run to success on high school cinder tracks, college and Olympics stadiums around the world, and later in their professional lives as doctors, police officers, and businessmen and women.

Mike Cody, an outstanding runner himself since his days at East High School and Southwestern (Rhodes) College 50 years ago, made the introduction. Fittingly, when I arrived at Hill's house in south Memphis, he was watching ESPN and wearing a "Mike Cody" commemorative sweatshirt from a benefit race. Several years ago, Cody helped Hill and Foster pave the way for more black representation in the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association.

Hill and Foster both graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in the 1950s. Foster, who later coached at Vance Junior High for many years, says, "track was a stepping stone to football" for boys who were often required to run track in the off season.

Wilma Rudolph
  • Wilma Rudolph
For girls, track was a way to be like the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles and the great Wilma Rudolph, the most famous female athlete on the planet. In 1956, Rudolph, one of 22 children from a family in Clarksville, Tennessee, ran in her first Olympics at the age of 16. In the 1960 Olympic Games, she won three gold medals and for years after that, if you were young and female and fast you were "another Wilma."

Schools and sports were segregated then, of course, but Hill remembers the fastest black and white kids meeting on the sly on Sunday afternoons to race each other on the grass at the MLGW Pumping Station on North Parkway and Dunlap.

At the old Mid-South Fairgrounds in those days, black athletes ran on a pock-marked cinder track at the Orange Mound side of the grounds, where LibertyLand was later built. Hill and Foster helped lead the push for a new track at the stadium on Central.

Neither Hill nor Foster were especially fast themselves. Their contribution was helping others find their niche in a sport that, thanks to Rudolph, was on a par with basketball and football before "jogging" and distance running replaced "track and field" in our sports lexicon. Hosea Hill's son, Hosea Hill Jr., says both men were old-school disciplinarians who gave kids from broken homes their counsel, coaching, money for shoes, and encouragement to stay in school and pursue college scholarships. Their protegees included Wanda Hooks, a state sprint champion who is now a Memphis police officer; Tania Wells, a 4'9" miler who set national records at Melrose High School; Theresa Okwumabua, a sprinter who went to TSU and became a psychologist; and Rochelle Stevens, a product of Orange Mound and Melrose who won a gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay in the 1996 Olympics.

"Mr. Hill was a great inspiration to me," said Stevens, who owns Rochelle's Health and Wellness Spa in East Memphis. "He has been in my life since I was 12 years old. I did not know that I was one of his favorites. He would just take the initiative to go out and raise money on my behalf so I could go to the nationals every year. He made sure we were never mistreated on or off the track. I never forgot that."

Rochelle Stevens
  • Rochelle Stevens
Stevens earned 20 scholarship offers in track and five more in music. She competed until 2000 when she blew out her knee just before the Olympics. At 43, she says she runs once a year, on her birthday. Four years ago, at the Rochelle Stevens Invitational Track Meet, she awarded the Humanitarian Award to Hosea Hill.

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