It never goes away. In a lifetime filled with triumph and tragedy, Johnny “Lam” Jones cannot escape a 45-second blip in time.
It is a crowning achievement and an enduring legacy. It is a life-defining moment, overshadowing his Olympic gold medal and his NFL career.
The seconds spent running the anchor leg of the mile relay at the 1976 Class 3A state track and field meet haunt him.
He cannot escape the questions surrounding his seemingly superhuman act, which grew to legendary proportions, as it remained shrouded in myth.
“He was just like an Indy car,” said Jimmy Randolph, the former Lampasas football coach who was an alternate for Springlake’s relay team that year. “I was too stupid at the time to realize how special the event was that I was seeing.
“For any real track guy, that race is the mecca of it all.”
People watching from Memorial Stadium’s stands on the University of Texas campus witnessed history as Jones, who was situated in a distant seventh place, took the baton and proceeded to blow by the competition.
Less than a minute later, Jones crossed the finish line in first place, capturing Lampasas’ lone state track and field title as spectators hurdled walls to rush him in awe.
“People were coming out of the stands, and we have marshals who are suppose to be keeping them in,” said Bailey Marshall, who witnessed dozens of state track meets during his 28-year tenures as UIL athletic director and director from 1967-1995. “So, I start looking for all my marshals. I looked around for one of my assistants, Bonnie Northcutt, looking for her for help, and she is standing there with tears in her eyes.”
The epic act, which grew into lore as eyewitness accounts provided the only verification, was the culmination of an incredible senior season. Until a twist of fate unearthed a low-quality film showing the most renowned lap ever run around a Texas track.
“It was such a feat. It electrified everybody — the whole stadium,” Marshall said. “I’ve never seen an athletic event that electrified the fans as much as it did in that particular instance. I never saw it before, and I haven’t seen it since.”
It was also the catalyst for a meteoric rise, a fiery collapse and a humbling climb from the ashes.
I was just blessed that God gifted me with athletic ability. Pretty much, all I had to do was what the coaches said,” Jones said. “When I started trying to run things myself is when I screwed it up.”
Falling into a deep hole over the first three laps, teammates Mike Perkins, Tom Lancaster and Leon McClendon couldn’t keep pace. Rival coaches had put their fastest runners in the early legs in order to create a gap large enough Jones could not bridge.
It didn’t work.
“(They were) thinking that was going to matter to Johnny,” said McClendon, who ran the third leg of the race. “I handed the baton off, and we were so far behind, I just knew we’d lost. ... I was standing there, bent over, puking my guts out, and somebody starts hitting me on the back and says, ‘Your boy is doing it! Your boy is doing it!’”
Receiving the baton approximately 40 yards behind sixth place, Jones embarked on a legendary run. One he still cannot fully comprehend to this day.
“I ran the first half of that race,” Jones said, “but I don’t think I ran the second half.”
With every stride, Jones made up ground. Sensing something amazing was unfolding, the crowd began emanating a slow roar that built as Jones passed runners one by one while navigating the field.
Rounding the final turn, Jones was in fourth place, when he received an unintentional aid.
“The PA announcer came over the intercom, and his words were ‘And here comes Johnny Jones,’” longtime Lampasas resident and business owner Ernest Goodwin recalled. “And that was just magical. That could have been devastating to the other runners. That means they were fixing to be whooped.”
Perhaps it was due to the booming cheers from the stands, which were whipped into a frenzy by this point, according to accounts, or the announcer’s fervour or because they were so focused on each other heading down the home stretch, but, the runners ahead of Jones drifted to the outside lanes.
A sliver of opportunity presented itself and with the flick of his shoulders, Jones slightly adjusted his body to maneuver toward the inside.
“Had they not drifted out a little bit, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pass them,” he said. “This gut feeling told me, ‘If you slow down, you are not going to get started again.’”
One last burst across the finish line sent the stadium into a euphoric pandemonium.
“It was like when fans rush onto a basketball court,” Jones said. “And the whole town (of Lampasas) got to celebrate.
Marshall said: “It took us 15 or 20 minutes before we could get the crowd cleared away enough (to be safe). I took him under the stands so people would think he was gone. Then we pulled him back out once we had police and all to help get him out there.”
Jones moved to Lampasas prior to beginning the seventh grade, and his talents were immediately evident.
By his senior season, his play caught the attention of Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer and Texas head coach Darrell Royal, who each visited Lampasas to catch a glimpse of the kid whose blazing speed was turning heads in stadiums across the state.
Jones scored 45 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Lampasas, but even as a sophomore, he was garnering the attention of large programs. Before he could drive, an aura of celebrity was escorting Jones everywhere he went.
He was loved on campus, feared on the field and downright intimidating on the track. It was clear, Jones held the world by a string.
“There will never be another one,” said Lampasas 1974 graduate Eddie Bowden, who would skip college classes at Texas A&M to watch the Badgers’ meets with friends. “I don’t care as long as Lampasas exists, there will never be anything like that.”
Bowden was a senior during Jones’ sophomore season and, at times, the pair ran the mile relay together. It was a position local kids were clamoring to obtain.
“It didn’t matter. You could have pulled the three scruffiest guys. You could have put two shot putters and a discus thrower out there. We were going to win the mile relay. Johnny wasn’t going to lose. It was just incredible.”
Jones remained grounded, though.
“He was the fastest man God put on Earth,” McLendon said. “He was 18 years old and nothing but pure speed. That was before drugs and weight lifting and dieting. It was just pure, God-given speed, and he was so humble. He never, ever bragged about it or anything. He always included (his teammates) in everything, and he always shared the thunder. He didn’t have to, but he did. He’ll even tell you today, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it. It was the team.’ That’s B.S.”
Off and running
After falling just short of reaching the 1975 state track meet as a team, Jones began pestering Lampasas head coach Scott Boyd about running in the 100. Having already established himself as an accomplished athlete, setting school records in the 220, 440 and long jump, Jones simply wanted to break the record held by his friend’s older brother.
It proved to be a decision that would change Jones’ life.
On Lampasas’ dirt track, Boyd stepped off 100 yards, and Jones quickly covered the ground. Without allowing Jones to see his time, Boyd smiled and made him run it again.
Jones’ time was four-hundredths of a second off the college world record of 9.21 — a mark Jones tied during his freshman season at Texas.
And with that, the season-long roller coaster ride began as Boyd developed a plan he believed would guide the Badgers to a state championship.
“I came into coach Boyd’s office, and he had all these newspapers scattered around,” Jones recalled. “He was looking at all the different times from around the state.”
“We can win the state meet by two or four points,” declared Boyd, who passed away in 2003.
Boyd’s plan worked to perfection, and the championship hinged on the outcome of the final event of the Class 3A state meet. Lampasas needed to win the mile relay in order to claim the title. Jones had already won the 100 in 9.4 seconds and placed first in the 220 with a time of 21.0, but sensed it was not enough to please the nearly 25,000 estimated to have been in attendance.
A legend is created
With the confidence forged through a whirlwind season, the relay team took the track looking to finish the chase for a state title that began months prior at the Bluebonnet Relays in Brownwood.
With Jones participating in the 100, along with the 220, 440 and mile relay, Lampasas began surprising the competition and mesmerizing the masses.
The Badgers developed a cult-like following as they crisscrossed the state for various meets. Neighboring towns showed support for Lampasas on storefronts and billboards. Inside the city limits, Jones and the Badgers were heroes, while outsiders claimed them as their own. Fans turned out in droves to experience the phenomenon and catch a glimpse of Jones’ mind-bending speed.
“Think of the Rudy movie and how exciting it was for him to go through all he had gone through to get to play at the end of the game,” Jones said. “We got a chance to live like that just about every week of our senior year.”
Due to circumstance, Jones often found himself in a position where he was required to put on a show, frequently fighting from behind during the meet’s culminating event.
But Jones never believed he was in the back of the pack.
“If the guy running in front of you gave 100 percent, then when you get the stick, you are right where you are suppose to be,” he said.
The come-from-behind mystique only served to further popularize the team that arrived on the scene from out of the blue. By the time the district track meet rolled around, the Badgers’ popularity was reaching a crescendo.
Former Austin American-Statesman sports writer Bud Kennedy described the scene at Round Rock as a cross between a Beatles’ concert and a stunning, first-round upset at the NCAA tournament.
“Women shrieked. Children screamed. Grown men jumped up and down,” he wrote.
After committing to play for the Texas Longhorns, Jones began his collegiate career as a running back for Royal, who bestowed the freshman with the moniker “Lam” in order to differentiate him from teammate Johnny “Ham” Jones, who was from Hamlinhad.
Royal, however, retired following a mediocre 5-5-1 season, and Fred Akers took control of the program, switching offenses to accommodate for the talents of future Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell.
Jones was moved to receiver, but did not flourish as some hoped, averaging 28 receptions per season (18.9 yards-per-catch) with 14 touchdowns. He also ran track for the Longhorns and his name litters the record books of both sports But Jones was a household name before ever competing for Texas.
With the help of his hometown community, which raised money to send Jones to qualifying meets as he attempted to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials, the 18-year-old finished sixth in the 100 as a replacement at the 1976 Summer Olympics at Montreal and was a member of the 400-meter relay team that won gold with a world-record time of 38.33.
But no gold medal or touchdown celebration could compare with the sensation Jones experienced in the race that would define his legacy.
“The only other sporting event that impacted me like that was the first time I went to the Special Olympics,” said Jones, who donated his medal to the organization he now works closely with.
Jones’ world revolved around track for years, but after displaying skills capable of complementing his speed, he turned his life over to football.
In 1980, the New York Jets saw enough potential in Jones to trade away two first-round picks in order to move up and take him second overall in the draft. The Jets then made Jones the richest man in league history by giving him a six-year, $2.1 million contract.
But the small-town kid was not prepared for life in New York.
Fame — something Jones had reluctantly dealt with since high school — and fortune proved to be too much.
“I had so much to learn as a receiver, and I would definitely learn that pretty soon,” Jones said. “It was rough the whole time.”
In five seasons with the Jets, Jones accrued a pedestrian 138 receptions for 2,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was labeled a bust by local and national media.
Lack of production on the field proved to be the least of his worries, though.
Turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with his new lifestyle, Jones became severely addicted to crack cocaine.
He hit rock bottom in December 1988, when an incident with a 12-year-old girl at his stepdaughter’s sleepover led to the 30-year-old’s arrest.
Late in the night, after his stepdaughter fell asleep, a stoned Jones asked her friend if she would like a massage, which she agreed to. The encounter escalated, and Jones felt her breast.
The girl informed her parents of the incident, and Jones was arrested.
“When you do something like that, it rocks your world,” he admitted in a 2005 interview with the New York Daily News. “Thank goodness the girl told her parents, and I had to be accountable for what I did. Had she not told, hey, I wouldn’t have made the effort to try to get off crack.”
Jones pleaded guilty to indecency with a child and was given 10 years of probation, including state-required drug testing.
He spent a month in jail, wore an electronic monitoring device and became a registered sex offender.
He also became a new man.
“I didn’t give myself a chance to even get close to reaching my full potential because I started drinking and drugging,” Jones said. “I pretty much fumbled away a good career.
“After you get up and dust yourself off after falling on your butt, I guess you just get back to life. ... Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, and I guess I was just one of those guys. Thank goodness I’ve been given an opportunity to correct some of these past mistakes that I’ve had.”
One more comeback
Jones lay in the intensive care unit at Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital for nearly two months in 2005, knowing he must overcome the odds again. He was diagnosed with stage-four multiple myeloma, which attacks blood, plasma and bone marrow.
Following intense chemotherapy he recovered. Jones had almost lost his life to cancer. His battle most likely claimed years off his life, took inches off his height and left the physical specimen a shell of his former self, but it also gave him another second chance.
“As long as I’m able to talk, I’m not going to worry about my status,” Jones said. “Labels give people too much power over you. Somebody tells you that you are in remission and you feel great. The next week, they tell you that you are out of remission. Then what are you going to do?”
Clean and sober since 1990, Jones dedicated his life to helping others, beginning a program called “Locker Room.”
Jones travels to high schools across the state to share his story and talk to young athletes about making the right choices in life, while emphasizing positive attributes derived from sports, such as teamwork, leadership and self-confidence.
He also is an Olympian spokesperson for the “Lay Witnesses for Christ International’s Right Track: Drug, Alcohol & Violence Prevention Program,” and he created a foundation called “All His Friends” and started the “Sinjin Relay of Champions for Champions” in honor of former Lampasas student Sinjin Andrukates, who was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.
“The most exciting part of my life has been the last seven-and-a-half years after I got cancer,” Jones said. “I screwed that first part up. ... In the past, the things I got to enjoy (occurred because) I was just blessed that God gifted me with athletic ability. ”
Committed to helping raise money for his foundation after finding out a large majority of families with children stricken by cancer file for bankruptcy, Jones began searching for solutions, but inadvertently stumbled upon more than he imagined. Jones’ journey had finally gone all the way around the oval.
A chance encounter with David Kerr set up by a mutual friend led to the emergence of a grainy, black-and-white, 8-millimeter film of Jones’ historic run at the 1976 state meet — the only known footage of the race.
“A friend of mine said, ‘I’ve got someone I want you to meet because you have a lot in common,” Jones recalled. “He was talking about David. He gave me a call and about 10 minutes into the conversation, he said, ‘I got to see you run at your district meet. In fact, my Dad has a film of it.’
“He said it like everybody’s dad had a film of it. Then he said he thought he had a film of my high school state meet. All these years, that film has been in Round Rock.”
Kerr’s father, Dr. David Kerr, was an avid track fan with a fondness for Jones. Frequently, he traveled to track meets, camera in hand, to document the events. The film of the 1976 state meet became an instant classic amongst family and friends.
“We have an annual dove hunt in Goldthwaite, and we’ve done it since I was 10 years old,” Kerr said. “My Dad took the film, the projector and all the other stuff up there just so these guys could see that film. He played it over and over and over again.”
But over time, the film became lost amid the sea of other recorded track meets in Dr. Kerr’s home. In plain sight, the footage remained buried for years until fate crossed the paths of Kerr and Jones.
“My Dad has tons of this stuff, but it is so unorganized and chaotic,” Kerr said. “Me finding it would be like a needle in a haystack. .... Then there was a whole procession of things that happened — from the projector working to the light working in the projector to finding the cord for the thing. The projector hadn’t been run in probably 25 to 30 years.
“Then I had to find the video, and it happened to be the second video I put on the screen. It was a total God thing. There is no other explanation.”
With one unintentional swoop, Jones discovered what he hopes will be a means of monetary substance for his charity and put an end to any speculation his feat was overinflated over the years.
“I hate to admit this, but I had heard so much about the dang race, I said a prayer saying, ‘It sure would be nice if before I got out of here, I got to see that race,’” Jones said.
Jones intends to sell DVD copies of the film, which is woven into a self-narrated documentary of his life with rare footage from his high school, Olympic, college and professional career spliced throughout, with proceeds going toward helping find a cure for cancer.
Jones hopes now, though, that helping children battle cancer will finally eclipse the emotional conclusion of his high school career.
“This might be up there with that state meet,” Jones said. “Actually, this would be better than the state meet if we can pull this off.”
A single race run nearly four decades ago continues to dictate Jones’ life today.
Now with video evidence, his legend will never go away.
Contact Clay Whittington at firstname.lastname@example.org