It was a long time ago when a kid, looking for something to do, wandered over to the local playground in the evening. He watched kids running, jumping and throwing and enjoyed himself enough to come back the next day.
"Can you run?" a man who seemed to be in charge finally asked Ralph Durant, the kid. He answered, "I don't know, I never tried."
Durant didn't turn out to be a star in track and field, but the man who asked the question, Ed Waters, had a recruit, a person to carry on the task.
"In 1970, after Ed had died, I helped start the Ed Waters Track Club," said Durant. "I worked for the Bureau of Parks and Recreation at the time and got fired . . . said I couldn't work with kids."
Imagine. He was a guy who could coax kids out of several sections of Baltimore's inner city and environs to come and train evenings after the playgrounds had closed for the day . . . and he couldn't "work with kids?"
Worse, imagine a big city recreation department that didn't give a hoot and a holler about track and field. That's history.
This summer, for instance, a crew of 39 kids journeyed to Gainesville, Fla., for the national age group track and field championships. "We got 21 medals out of that meet," said Durant, "then moved over to the USA/AAU championships in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and got 33 medals there. That's the best we've probably ever done, 33."
The kids are off now until mid-October when, as Ralph says, "we begin the buildup for the distance events. After cross country, we move to the inside season [November to February], then the VTC kids are off for a month or so until mid-April when we get ready for the spring and summer."
Just as important, perhaps more so, is a support program conducted by Delta Sigma Alumni, which commences once the kids are in school and calls for six-week classes for those not making it academically. "My sponsors have always insisted we check on the kids and make sure their schooling's in order or they can't compete," Durant said.
The program has produced the desired effect. "We sometimes have as many as 400 kids involved," said Durant. "I tell them when they come to me at 10, I expect to have them until 18 when they're going off to college. We set up about 20 events for them to run around here. The biggest is the Municipal Games, which will have about 450 entries."
It wasn't always so smooth but, similar to Ed Waters, Durant was going to do things the right way, say what he thought and continue on the mission his mentor had assigned him from his deathbed: "Stick with track, Ralph, you won't be sorry."
Of course, it's helped over the years that local, state and even national champions have developed, both male and female, and scores of kids have earned athletic scholarships as a result of the club. A few even made it to the Olympics before moving on to careers in law, medicine and just about everything else.
The Bureau of Recreation, which has rarely given track its due over the decades, has fired and rehired Durant maybe a half-dozen times. One of the laughable excuses used to be that Ralph was not being paid to develop track stars. Thing is, just about everything he has done over the years has been on his own time and he's gone out and raised the funds, which means lots of his own money ended up being used.
"For years," he said, "the club has been getting to only those meets it could afford. Say a meet's a hundred miles away and I can rent a bus for $100, we're in business if I can get 40 kids to bring $2.50 each with them."
Same deal with any equipment that finds its way into the club's property room. Used, reconditioned, salvaged, it doesn't matter, nothing's so bad that Ralph can't get just a little more use out of it.
"The club is for the whole city and it always has been," said Durant. "I don't care who it's under. I just want to give every kid that wants to run the opportunity to train and compete. But they have to earn it."
So, while he's rounding up sponsors, checking grades, arranging for meets, tutoring and coaching, Ralph is constantly on the lookout for kids with arms pumping, high knee action and the right angle of lean. "I don't care what they're running from," he said, "I'm bound to try to catch up with them.
"If I can get a kid for two hours [training] a day, he'll be tired for two more, and spend an hour eating, and eight hours sleeping, and more time in school. That doesn't leave much time, so maybe they won't go out and get in trouble."
The man knows of what he speaks. He grew up in a tough section of Baltimore, his father died when he was 7, his mother was sickly and it was up to an aunt to try to keep him out of trouble. Then came Ed Waters just about the time a man's touch (and discipline) were essential.
"Being raised by women, they didn't want me to do much of anything," he recalled. Once under a firm hand, however, he did lots of things and most of them right. "Ed would tell me to do jumping jacks and, while I was doing them, I'd ask 'Why?' I wasn't being smart, I wanted to learn."
One time when he was fired by the Bureau of Recreation, "about 200 parents went to the mayor and said, 'We love the way he works with our kids.' "
Upon his return to the job, the people calling the shots transferred him from a park in his neighborhood to one a couple of bus rides away, "to a place that was nothing but dope addicts. I had to be the police, too."
Durant is quick to admit, "I'm not an angel by a long shot," but the fact is he's been a beacon of hope for the kids he so obviously cares so much about.
"Worst part of the year is right now. The kids are dying to get back to work, and just about all them come back."
No need to wonder why.