50 Years of Running: Return engagement

Moving back into your parent’s house after six or seven years of self-sustaining independence is an odd but sometimes inevitable choice. With Linda crammed into a single room sharing expenses with a fellow teacher, there was no space to join her. My folks let me fill half their garage with a pile of stored furniture and belongings, and we made the best of it while I made plans on what to do next.

That winter I took a job as the assistant director of the Norris Sports Complex, a multiple-use facility on the St. Charles High School campus. It featured an 11-laps-to-the-mile indoor track, four full-length basketball / volleyball courts, and a set of soccer walls to host the leagues on weekends.

The indoor soccer program was the real moneymaker for the facility. I had little to do with its operation other than to get the tall curtains pulled up to the ceiling before closing on Friday night. Our daily operating hours were from 6-10:00 pm Monday through Friday, but the soccer leagues ran from dawn to dusk.

Droves of pickup basketball players arrived every night. They came from all over the Fox Valley, including black players from two of the larger nearby cities, Elgin and Aurora. Having grown up loving and playing the game of basketball with all kinds of people, those players were welcomed in my eyes. But not everyone in the mostly white community of St. Charles was happy about their presence. I considered it my job to get to know almost all the players over time and never had any significant problems. Quite often I’d join a team to play a game or two. That helped build the bond of trust between “management” and the players.

We also employed a floor manager to specifically run the basketball court. His job was to assign players to teams as they arrived. There were guys trying to juke the system by walking in as a team. Our job was to make the teams fair as fair as possible within the ‘winner-keeps-the-floor-for-two-wins’ system.

Getting burned by Doc

One night, while the guys from Elgin were dominating the floor, I joined up with a team that had a chance of beating them. We got out on the floor and on the first possession the ball was passed to the little man I was guarding. They called him Doc because of his wire-rimmed glasses, and he was lean and quick, that much I could tell from the moment he got the ball. But what I didn’t expect was his jumping ability. He drove toward the basket and I fell for one of his fakes, then he leaped over my left shoulder and dunked the ball. The whole place erupted in cheers and teasing. Doc had caught me by surprise. All I could do is fist-bump Doc and say, “Nice move.”

The Run/Walk Community

Most nights I’d spend time talking with the runners and walkers that showed up to get their mileage in during the cold winter months. Few people understood the concept of how many laps it took to walk or run a mile in each lane, so I figured it out with the help of Linda, who’d signed up to work the front desk a few nights per week. We created a simple chart that people could study for reference. Ten years later, I returned to the Sports Complex one night and was proud to see that our chart, though faded with time, was still posted in the case just above the stairs.

My local reputation as a runner helped build a community relationship because people knew that a person was in charge that cared about their needs. Often there would be basketball players not paying attention as they stood outside the court right in the walking or running lanes. It took time to educate everyone about track etiquette required, but eventually, I could see the players checking the track before crossing.

We had several people each week walking at the track for medical purposes, especially heart patients recovering from surgery. We made a point of getting to know them well in case anyone had a problem, but no one ever did. For that I was grateful.

Bloody hell

But there was a night when I thought I’d seen my first gym visitor die on the spot. One of the basketball players tripped at the baseline, stumbled forward and struck the top of his head on the soccer boards. Instantly he started to bleed from a tear in his scalp. A puddle of red blood formed around him and grew quickly. Fetched from the office by players screaming, “Come quick!” I ran out to find the guy sitting there a bit dazed but conscious. We called emergency services and kept an eye on him. It turned out he wasn’t that badly hurt at all. No concussion. He was back playing a night or two later.

Thinking back, I’m a bit surprised I was never required to learn CPR to run that facility. Such were the good old days of facilities management. I was lucky nothing truly horrifying happened that winter.

Sickening behavior

There was one thing that made me sick, however. Our locker room got robbed by a pair of guys carrying a big bag with a set of bolt cutters inside. While one guy watched the door and the other broke into lockers, they stole wallets and other valuables and made their getaway. It was quickly discovered so I called the police. I knew the officer that arrived from high school, and he apparently assumed that I held a similarly aggressive mindset about the burglars. Using a well-known racial epithet, he asked, “Do we know anything about the n****** that did this?”

At that point, all I wanted to do was get the police report done and get that officer the hell out of their. He a nightstick in his hands. I was worried he was going to go into interrogation mode with any other black person in sight.

A few days later, without anyone consulting me, a new policy was passed down that significantly increased admission fees for everyone but the residents of St. Charles. That change in policy hurt many of our regular visitors, and many people complained. I pointed out the fact that it wasn’t actually our patrons that caused any problems. It was just a couple opportunistic thieves, and that could happen anywhere. So the policy was switched back a few weeks later, but that rush to judgment made me feel sick about the knee-jerk racism we’d just experienced.

Future stars

I always viewed the facility as a welcoming place for all. When a black father from Aurora showed up with his little kids to use the track for training, I charged him just one admission fee, and let the kids through for free. Several of his children went on to become track stars at the highest levels in Illinois. It certainly didn’t hurt the facility to help some kids make strides toward their dreams.

That decision to encourage young talent certainly suited the philosophy of the man that helped design the facility. That was my friend and former coach Trent Richards, who advised on the interior plan when he was coaching at St. Charles High School. The Norris Sports Complex was one more intersection between my life and that of my former coach Trent Richards.

I did my own share of running around that track during the winter of ’84-’85, because while I’d just concluded an intense year of training and racing, I did still plan to compete in 1985. So I ran interval workouts and jogged around with patrons during warmups and cooldowns. Along the way, I made lifelong friends that I still see on the running trails to this day. Forty years later, we still give each other a knowing nod because that little world inside the complex was kind of special back then.

A Work/Life Partner

Linda mugging for a photo in the early 80s

Working together with Linda was the perfect complement. She took care of the nightly check-ins and the money, and I moved about greeting people, offering fitness advice and making sure things ran smoothly from opening to close.

And sometime during those winter months, I invested in an engagement ring. Then I invited Linda to dinner after work after calling ahead to ask the owner of a favorite local restaurant called Erik & Me if we could stay a few minutes after closing. Anders understood when I told him, “We’re going to get engaged.”

Sitting across the table from here in the middle of January, I was nervous but excited to be asking her to marry me. We’d talked about it many times, and I’d held off for reasons that only I understood. But I was finally ready. She said yes.

A week later, we visiting her parent’s house in Addison. Sitting in the back room facing the spacious yard behind their house, we chatted with them a while and then asked, “Do you think the back yard would be a good place for a wedding reception?”

Both of them jumped up from their seats and said, “Yes!” And we set the date for June 29 of 1985.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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