Penn Relays is baton Marylanders have passed with joy

April 28, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

Philadelphia -- Take the train to Madison Square Garden for the Millrose Games.

Head to the other coast for a meet at Oregon's Hayward Field.

If you have to, dust off the passport and go to Oslo for the Bislett Mile.

The reality for Easterners, however -- shoot, North Americans -- is that you haven't been to a track and field meet until you've been to the Penn Relays.

The 100th version of the Philadelphia festival gets in full swing today and concludes Saturday, when more than 40,000 people will cram into Franklin Field.

It only seems as if that many grammar school kids, high schoolers, collegians, club runners, masters and wheelchair racers will compete in a place that looks as if old Ben himself drew the blueprints.

From the stale pretzels to the Jamaican contingent to the unlicensed T-shirt vendors to the 459 high schools entered in the boys 1,600-meter relay Saturday morning, the Penn Relays and the impromptu party on the surrounding streets fulfill the bill. For three days, life is a Carnival.

"There's an aura about the whole thing," said Al Cantello, a local hero in the 1950s who's in his fourth decade as Navy coach. "It's not about Carl Lewis. There would be 45,000 in the stands even if he wasn't there."

It's one of the few venues that qualify track and field as a spectator sport in the United States. Certain collegiate and high school finals are labeled the Championship of America, but the pretension is justified. Reputations are made and undone there.

Even if you don't win, you do come back from the Penn Relays with a story.

Rob Pendergist became the seventh man from Mount St. Mary's to win the Penn Relays decathlon in 14 years yesterday.

Jim Deegan has coached them all, but his Penn Relays tales begin with the distance medley relay of 1987, which was reported only as "The Greatest Race of All Time."

Deegan had opened a pipeline from Africa to Emmitsburg, and his Olympians from the Rift Valley kept pace with world-record holder Arkansas, Georgetown and Villanova.

Charles Cheruiyot, Dave Lishebo and freshman Peter Rono, who 16 months later would win the Olympic 1,500, gave the lead to Kip Cheruiyot, the collegiate-record holder in the 1,500.

Four laps later, Cheruiyot was out-bumped and out-kicked by Georgetown's Mike Stahr and Villanova's Gerry O'Reilly. All three teams bettered the world record, and Deegan still wonders what would have happened had Kip Cheruiyot been in shape.

"We lost because Kip had just spent 10 days on his back at Frederick Hospital," Deegan said. "A chest X-ray showed a spot on one of his lungs, and a doctor bet his license it was tuberculosis. Ten days later, they determined nothing was wrong."

Navy was a footnote in The Greatest Race of All Time. Ron Harris ran the 1,600 anchor in 3 minutes, 57.9 seconds, and all it did was get the Mids fifth place.

"I think I'm a great communicator with young people, but Ron Harris is the only midshipman I've been able to convey the significance of the Penn Relays to," Cantello said. "This guy has been around the world, but he calls the Penn Relays the happiest three days of his life."

The sentiment was passed down from Cantello, who played hooky from Norristown High in 1948 to watch his first Penn Relays.

Hooked on the sport, Cantello grew into a world-record holder and Olympian in the javelin, but he said those deeds couldn't match the thrill he felt in 1953, when he won the first of his three straight Penn Relays titles for La Salle.

"When I pulled in front of my house with the gold watch . . . nothing will replace that," Cantello said.

Not everyone is so enamored with the Penn Relays.

In 1979, Maryland's Renaldo Nehemiah enjoyed one of the best seasons ever by an American collegian. In May, he began his gradual improvement of the world record in the 110 hurdles, but Easterners were more turned on by the show he put on in late April at Penn, leading the Terps to victory in the shuttle hurdle, 800 and 1,600 relays.

"That particular day sticks out in everyone's mind," said Nehemiah, an investment representative who's dabbling in television. "From my standpoint, it was one of the most agonizing days of my career."

It was Nehemiah's last season in a Maryland uniform, as he relinquished his eligibility to concentrate on the Moscow Olympics.

The tension between Nehemiah and Terps coach Frank Costello boiled over the week of the 1980 Penn Relays. Minus Nehemiah, Maryland's ownership of the Atlantic Coast Conference title just had ended at 24 years, and when he walked among his former teammates at Franklin Field, the look on their faces told the end of an era. Before the 1980s were over, the Terps' withering finances left the program without scholarships.

Old home week

The Penn Relays are equal parts social outing and track meet. A few years ago, one of the endless announcements called attention to the infield, where Cantello was posing with fellow Norristown High grads Tom Lasorda and Josh Culbreath.

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