Morgan's Braxton has Olympic touch

JOHN EISENBERG

July 08, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Leonard Braxton was just back from Jamaica the other day, and the news was bad: His runner, a sprinter named Andrea Thomas, did not make the Olympic team even though she had finished second in the trials.

"Third World country, you know," Braxton was saying disgustedly in his office at Morgan State. "They make up their own rules, and they just told her, 'Sorry, you're not going.' "

So, it turns out this is not the perfect summer for Braxton, Morgan's track and field coach and athletic director. It is just the almost-perfect summer, a reasonable description for watching four past and present pupils qualify for the Olympics.

"There are coaches, great coaches, who spend their whole careers without touching one Olympian," said Braxton, in his 16th year as Morgan's track coach. "Now, four in one year. There's no feeling to compare with watching it come together. I feel so lucky. I can't say I played a big role. I was just one of the many along the way. But I did have a hand."

You have to understand. There is this inevitable perception that Olympic runners are alone on the track. And they are in the physical sense. But see, it takes years of training and the touch of dozens of others. The support of parents and friends. The expertise and pushing of coaches. Every Olympic runner is marked with fingerprints you can't see.

Braxton was watching on television in his den last month when, )) within 20 minutes, Jack Pierce won the 110-meter hurdles and Rochelle Stevens won the 400 meters at the U.S. trials. Incredible: back-to-back winners holding degrees from outmanned, under-funded Morgan State. You could not see Braxton's fingerprints. He does not coach them anymore. But you had better believe his prints were there.

"I remember when Jack was a freshman [in 1980] and I had to pull him out of the bathroom to run a relay," Braxton said. "He was maybe the most talented male athlete who ever came to Morgan. But he was very shy and quiet. And with young people, sometimes you have to teach them to believe."

By the time Pierce was a junior, Braxton knew he had a special case. He called in Wilbur Ross, a renowned hurdling coach, to work with Pierce.

"Jack was too good for me," Braxton said. "I called Wilbur and said, 'Hey, I need help here.' Now he is the Olympic favorite, and I sit there and get chills. That I was associated with someone who is the best in the world at his endeavor, that's a thrill."

When Pierce flew home to Philadelphia from the trials in New Orleans, Braxton drove up to meet him at the airport. Pierce's family was cheering and waving banners.

"And it's funny, Jack is still Jack," Braxton said. "They had to practically pull him off the plane."

What is funny, too, is that Braxton's other U.S. Olympian is such an opposite in many ways. No one will say Rochelle Stevens is shy. Braxton recruited her in 1985 as a half-miler. She talked him into running the 400 meters. They argued endlessly about training.

"She is the most determined, dedicated young woman I have ever encountered," Braxton said. "She was a toothpick when she got here, and by her junior year could do a thousand sit-ups in a sitting. Butting heads was half the fun, although not at the time."

Stevens looked to be a lock for the 1988 Olympics, but ran poorly at the trials and did not make it.

"She was so devastated," Braxton said. "It was a brutal time. Young people often need someone to blame, and I played that role. I still don't know what happened. But we came out of it with respect and friendship. I was there when her [next youngest sister] got married. I was there when her [youngest] sister died [of a brain tumor]. We still talk once a month about training."

Braxton's other Olympians are Neville Hodge, a 34-year-old sprinter from the Virgin Islands who now coaches at Maryland Eastern Shore, and Troy McIntosh, a promising 20-year-old sprinter from the Bahamas, a junior-to-be at Morgan.

"Troy is very much like Rochelle and Jack: very dedicated and focused," Braxton said. "He is going to be another great one."

Andrea Thomas would have made five. So it is just the almost perfect summer.

The funny part is that Braxton is not going to Barcelona. He probably could scrounge up tickets and a room, but he has an athletic department to run and there just is not time. And that is fine.

"I just ordered 1-800-Olympics, the whole [TripleCast] package," said. "I can't explain it, but I'm content to sit in my living room and watch. And it doesn't really matter if I'm there. Regardless of where I am, every step they make, I will make it with them."

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