In writing this biography about 50 years of running experience, I come to points where the story seems to broaden because it occurs to me that the circumstance into which I entered was different than I imagined or understood. That realization moved me to inquire about the life of a running predecessor at Kaneland high school named Fred Bateman.
I knew Bateman’s name because he was the best runner at Kaneland cross-country program before I entered as a freshman. My older brother had run on the team with Fred, but as brothers we didn’t really talk much about that year. We had just moved into town from Pennsylvania that summer and I was so preoccupied with my own social world that I didn’t really realize what my brother was doing that fall.
But once my father placed me in the cross-country program, I heard the name of Fred Bateman. You know how it is: the best runner lives on as a program legend to which the next generation should aspire. Had I known much more about Fred Bateman at the time, I would have seen a few parallels.
The Fred Bateman story
As a freshman and sophomore, Fred played running back for the football team. In other words, he followed a path that at one point I thought I’d follow. My father thought better of that and led me into the cross country program. At Kaneland, the football program was filled with big, tough, red-meat-eating kids. Despite my own wirey toughness I didn’t belong in that environment and my father knew it. None of his kids would play football because he disliked the idea of torn up joints and the often graceless nature of the sport.
For Fred, there were also family issues with which he contended from a young age. His immediate relatives had a “reputation” in the communities around Kaneland high school. The Batemans were not a favored clan, shall we say. In the face of all the family stuff impacting his early life, Fred acted up in grade school. “I was not a good kid,” he admitted.
While my own family wasn’t affected by community reputation back east when I was in elementary school, there were enough internal conflicts in our family that I also acted up during the late elementary school years. I spent a year starting fights and struggling through school. That was my way of dealing with social pressures.
Chip on the shoulder
By the time Fred reached high school, that chip on his shoulder had reduced some. But not entirely. Football was a good way to bang into people with permission. There was just one problem. One of the coaches for the program had a brutal attitude toward his players. During a school day, that coach saw Fred with his eyes closed at a desk. “I was concentrating,” he related. “But that guy thought I was sleeping.”
The coach shoved Fred out of his chair so hard that his head struck another desk. He’s fairly sure there was a concussion involved. He couldn’t see right for days, and had trouble remembering things. Despite that incident, Bateman showed up for football practice and kept performing well.
Bateman lasted another year in the football program and was good enough to be a running back for the varsity. By that time, he had serious misgivings about his future with the program. He was always a good runner in the endurance events in track and field, so he switched sports to cross country. “Plus, I liked Coach Born and Eddington,” he recalled.
However, a Kaneland track coach had given him instructions on how to train that affected his ultimate success in high school. “He told me I needed to run ten miles in the morning every day before school,” he noted. “So that’s what I did. And five miles in the morning on meet days. Then I’d do the regular workouts with the rest of the team.”
The coach also told him he needed to run “like a gazelle.” “So I developed a habit of overstriding,” he admits. They nicknamed me “The Gazelle” for the way I ran.”
Bateman led the team his junior and senior years, setting the course record and building the early legacy of the cross-country program. “At one point Larry Eddington pulled me aside and explained that I didn’t need to run so much.
Fred was doing well as a student through it all. Proof of his academic talent would take time to surface. With his grades and SAT scores both at high levels, especially in chemistry, he’d attracted the attention of the Ceramic Engineering program at the University of Illinois. But when the letters of invitation came to his home, someone in his household threw them away.
Finally, a Kaneland guidance counselor pulled Fred aside and got him lined up to attend Illinois on an ROTC scholarship. He enrolled and did well. Ultimately he decided to switch to Computer Science as a major.
Along the way, Fred tried out for the track and field team as a sophomore. He wound up in a mile trial against some well-known names from the University of Illinois: Lee Labadie, Mike Durkin and Craig Virgin. All of them were world-class runners capable of Sub-4 in the mile. “They were all far faster than me,” he admitted. “But I ran a 4:11 or 4:12 behind them. I only beat one guy in that race.” He also ran a 9:17 two-mile in club meets.
His recollections of his running successes through college were mixed. “A coach finally told me to shorten my stride,” he confessed. “He also told me not to run so much,” Fred said with an ironic laugh. He recalls getting similar advice from a Geneva high school coach who met Fred and heard about his training during his career at Kaneland. The fact of the matter is that early advice often sticks, and some habits are hard to break.
Ultimately, Bateman turned his full attention to studies at Ilinois. His competitive running career at that point essentially came to an end. It did help him get through the social side of life. The tough little kid from the family with a “bad reputation” had to clear a few invisible hurdles in life. Some tripped him up a little, but not all.
Learning about Fred’s journey made me think back to some of the perceptions I held going into high school, and how running helped me transition through that period in life. The summer before that first year in high school, there were rumors floating around that any freshmen who got “out of line” would get beat up on the spot. “Freshmen are Moilers,” an upper classman threatened me a few weeks before school started. I never looked up the term “moilers” until now, but back then it meant someone not worthy of respect.
Moiler: To exert one’s mental or physical powers, usually under difficulty and to the point of exhaustion.
The term “moiler” was a deep insult at the time. It was used as a form of class-related denigration to strike fear into kids entering high school. The dread was real enough that it served as a form of authoritarian control. Some of my present political leanings stem from experiences like that. I’m suspicious of anyone that leads with that style of communication. We see it at all levels of society, even to the top of our governmental institutions. It also wells up in deplorable fashion through culture wars.
When I think about the treatment Bateman received from that abusive football coach, and some of the social pressures he faced in that era, it makes me glad that society has put progressive social constructs in place to provide a more balanced and positive atmosphere in this world.
But there are no guarantees.
Just recently I read about an incident in an area football program in which a pair of freshman were held to the ground while older players shoved broomsticks up their anus. The school and courts both refused to call it “hazing” because it was not technically described as a “rite of passage.” The euphemism of law is one of the most damaging of all constructs in society.
There have been other reported incidents of such treatments over the last five years. In 2016 five Wheaton College players were accused and ultimately punished for their violent abuse of a fellow player. All this all took place at an institution that calls itself a Christian college. The college initially defended the football players before accepting the testimony of the victim. That illustrates why I’ve written a book titled “Honest-To-Goodness: Helping Christianity Find Its True Place in the World.” People too often find excuses to abuse positions of power and authority in this life, and that includes religion.
Protecting civility and social justice
It takes vigilance, perseverance, and courage to protect civility in every culture on earth. Some dismiss early childhood and high school experiences as having no harmful or long-term effects, but they are wrong. Just this week, it was announced that the case in which a former high school wrestler that was supposed to receive $3.5M in a hush money settlement with ex-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is coming to trial. The name of the defendant will likely be revealed as part of the testimony, and that seems a shame. Hastert rose to a position of great power in this country while keeping his abusive nature a dark secret. He was long depicted as this likable, friendly “coach” that rose to political success from humble roots. It was a nice story. But it wasn’t fully true.
People like Hastert destroy lives whiles imposing their will upon the world. That defendant will now have to relive his experiences and have his name made public fifty years after the incidents took place. I would argue that America is itself damaged by the corrupt nature of men like Dennis Hastert. It seems that the higher these abusers rise in society, the harder it is to hold them accountable.
I met my own share of dismissive or emotionally abusive teachers along the way, but for the most part, I was lucky. I’m thankful that there are still so many people of good influence in this world. I’m grateful to have largely experienced encouragement from teachers, coaches and others in leadership roles. That’s a big reason why I’m writing this series 50 Years of Running.
At the same time, experiences of loss and fear and injustice are just as formative as the wins and moments of acceptance and triumphs. As they say, “That’s life.” And as I say, “It is important to talk about it.”