Sunday, June 17, 2012

Browning Ross

Ross winning 1 of his 10 Berwick 10 mile races.
He was Gloucester County’s only two-time Olympian. A close friend and fellow distance runner, Tom Osler, lionized him as “The father of distance running in the United States.” He is mentioned in the autobiography of Roger Bannister, the world’s first sub-4 minute miler. When he died of a heart attack, April 27, 1998, after his daily three-mile run near his Woodbury home, the New York Times devoted 20 inches to his obituary.

And while the hearse was delivering legendary Browning Ross to his final resting place, members of the Gloucester Catholic High School track team he coached so proudly jogged alongside in a tear-provoking, gut-wrenching tribute.

Villanova Olympian Ross

Ross, one of Gloucester County's most accomplished athletes in history, a will-o-the-wisp running machine from Woodbury High and Villanova who represented his country in the London and Helsinki Olympics and raced competitively around the globe, would be 87 years old.

So not everyone remembers the man or his bigger-than-life persona.
But Jack Heath remembers. And he is determined to not let others forget.

Heath, a Bellmawr resident who coached with Ross, was a member of his Ram teams, and considers him the most important person in his life next to his parents, is gathering data for a book about Browning he hopes to complete and publish this year.

“I never would have coached without Browning’s influence and encouragement,” says Heath, Gloucester Catholic’s cross-country coach for nearly 30 years. “I want kids to be able to go to the library to read the book and discover how important he was to running. Few people around here know what he accomplished. I also want to convey what kind of person he was. His story is long overdue.”

     Heath, whose full-time job is in computer technology with the Social Security Administration and who was GC’s first computer classroom instructor, met Ross at Gloucester Catholic in 1974 when Ross was coaching at the school for one of three stints spanning three decades.
     Heath came out for spring track wearing baseball spikes, set on trying out for jumping events.
“Ross told me, ‘Jack, try the mile.’ I ran a 5:30. He said, ‘You’re gonna be a good distance runner.’ So after that, I ran the mile, two-mile, and steeplechase.”

Heath graduated from Gloucester Catholic in 1977, after establishing the school’s two-mile record and becoming the first Ram to qualify for the state Meet of Champions, and his path would cross Ross’ on almost a daily basis for the next 21 years via competition and coaching.

Says Heath, “Many coaches treat kids like kids, but Browning treated you like you were a real person. One of his coaching strengths was how nice and how generous a person he was.

Tom Osler: Ross was the Father of US Distance Running
“He was humble. But he was a great coach who was ahead of his time. "
"There is a recent New York Times bestselling book ‘Born to Run' that talks about the benefits of barefoot running-- Ross sometimes had his Ram runners working out barefoot because he said your feet could become atrophied in running shoes." So Heath once raced and won a shoeless half-mile race in a Moorestown Friends track meet.

 "He knew what worked. He was ‘sane’ with his training,  he advocated running 40 miles a week as the minimum needed to reach your potential.”
 Heath has enough Ross memories to fill several chapters in his book.

Once, when he was running for Glassboro State College, Heath was asked by Ross to help him coach Gloucester Catholic.

“I’ll be by to pick you up at 3,” Ross told him. “I told him I wasn't interested in coaching. He ignored me and then said 'how about 3:30?' I thought he was kidding. But he picked me up, right at 3:30 ... and I became his assistant and have been coaching at Gloucester Catholic ever since.”

Heath says Browning told him he “struggled with French” at WHS but his teacher gave him a good grade, figuring he’d never have to use the language again. “He got a kick out of mailing her a postcard from Normandy when he was serving in World War II.”
 Ross ran in the steeplechase in the 1948 London Olympics, placing seventh (Boston Marathon champion John Kelley was his roommate), and was 12th in his steeplechase heat in 1952 at Helsinki, failing to make the finals because of an upset stomach. In the 1951 British Games he placed fifth to Roger Bannister’s mile victory and received a mention in Bannister’s book "The Four Minute Mile".

Ross after winning Vestal run, Binghamton, NY
 “He had great speed and won races at varying distances all over the country,” Heath says. “I think Browning’s best distance was 10 miles. He won the Berwick, Pa. 10-miler 10 times.”
There were countless Ross accomplishments besides being a 2 time US Olympian, he was a  high school (Woodrow Wilson and Gloucester Catholic) and college (Rutgers, Camden) coach; coach of the first US world cross-country team; started the first US national runners’ club (RRCA) and put on thousands of track and road races; published the first nationwide runners’ magazine (The Long Distance Log a precursor to Runners World which he mailed himself) and member of the US Long Distance Hall of Fame.
     Heath was scheduled to coach with Ross in a meet against Williamstown the day after Ross died.
Browning Ross officiating at Woodbury Relays
“I talked to him almost every day,” Heath says. “When the phone rang that day with the news he had died, I thought it was him calling about the meet. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. The whole running community felt the same way. To me, running just didn’t feel the same; running and racing just hasn’t been as much fun for many of us who knew him. "

“But Browning’s greatest accomplishment was being a good father. He was a great family man (wife Sis, son Barry, daughters Bonnie and Barbara).”

The late Sis Ross once said of her husband, “No one loved running as much as Browning.”

Jack Heath will offer additional proof.

Written by: Bob Shryock Gloucester County Times

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