ESPN hasn’t forgotten our tartan track |

ESPN hasn’t forgotten our tartan track

Steve Yingling, Tribune sports editor

With the rest of the family snoozing and the Portland Trail Blazers with just enough of a lead over the Los Angeles Clippers late Friday night, ESPN’s SportsCentury special on Richmond Flowers Jr. looked like a nice respite from mindless channel surfing.

Hopefully, many other residents saw the 30-minute program because it had as much local appeal as Johnny Carson had in these parts in the late 1960s.

By now, you’re probably wondering why in the name of Tonya Harding is he writing about a guy named after a flower who raced 35 years ago.

Columns have to be filled and there are only so many sports stories to go around — even in a paradise like Lake Tahoe.

Seriously, Flowers’ story was so big that they eventually made a movie about him and his more famous father but not before he experienced the most disappointing race of his life, just above our town.

In case you missed the 1960s, Richmond Flowers Sr. was a disrespected Alabama attorney general who encouraged his state to comply with federal desegregation laws. His convictions in favor of racial equality provoked family death threats and burning crosses on his front lawn.

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While Flowers Sr. was at the end of his political rope, his son’s rise to athletic greatness was just beginning.

Spurning his home state to play football and run track at Tennessee, Flowers Jr. became one of the top two-sport athletes of the 1960s. During his senior season for the Vols, he scored seven touchdowns. He was even better clearing his obstacles on the track, becoming a three-time All-American hurdler.

His highlight came at the 1968 Pelican Relays when he ran a near-world record 13.3 seconds to beat eventual 110 hurdles gold-medal winner Willie Davenport, who won the gold medal with an identical time. Flowers Jr. won eight straight races before a blown-out hamstring three months before the trials jeopardized his Olympic bid.

Despite little activity before the trials, Flowers Jr. nearly realized his dream. He came to South Lake Tahoe weeks after many of the competitors and a month before the trials began. In his only pretrials race on Aug. 17, he finished fourth in 13.9 seconds.

However, Flowers Jr. was able to coax his flimsy hamstring into the finals. But Flowers’ perseverance wasn’t rewarded in the finals as he finished fifth, two spots away from qualifying for the Mexico City Games.

In the final minutes of Friday’s ESPN biography, Flowers Jr. was shown leaning on an Echo Summit sign. Finally, the cameraman showed the present site of the disheveled tartan track at South Tahoe Middle School. As many local runners know, the present site isn’t anything more than an eyesore. You run each quarter mile at your own risk and the venue hasn’t been suitable to host a high school meet for years.

But ESPN saw fit to pay special tribute to the surface that produced the “Greatest Track Meet” in the sport. The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Echo Summit produced 13 world records and left the athletes uniformly repeating, “It’s the greatest tartan track anywhere.”

It was a special tribute and made me proud that my children have had the opportunity to huff and puff around a track that has more history than a Grateful Dead tour.

But will their children have that same opportunity?

That track is a relic, but not many people are willing to acknowledge it.

Local track enthusiasts such as Rick Brown and Anthony Davis have graciously tried to have it restored, but they encountered more resistance than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense.

Wouldn’t it be something if the next time ESPN shows our track, it looks like we care for it?

— Tribune Sports Editor Steve Yingling can be reached at (530) 542-8010 or