When Dillard was 13, he and other neighborhood children watched a parade honoring Owens for his Olympic triumphs.
As Dillard told it: “Jesse looked down from an open car and said, ‘Hi, boys.’ I ran home. I said, ‘Mama, Mama, I just saw Jesse Owens and I’m going to be just like him.’ She said, ‘Of course you are, son.’ She didn’t take it seriously then, but later, when she saw how much it meant to me, she went out and cleaned other people’s houses and did their laundry and cooked for them so she could buy a little more food to build me up.”
Five years after Owens had graduated from East Technical High School in Cleveland, Dillard enrolled. That year, Owens gave him a new pair of running shoes. When Dillard failed to make the high school team as a sprinter, Owens urged him to become a hurdler.
After high school came 32 months in the Army during World War II. When the war had ended, Dillard ran in an Army track meet and won four events. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., a fascinated spectator, called him “the best goddamn athlete I’ve ever seen.”
After the Army, Dillard entered Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.
“The first time I came to New York to race,” he said, “everyone was asking, ‘What is a Baldwin-Wallace?’”
It was a college with a track cage too small for hurdling, so he did most of his training outdoors. When the snow became too deep, he retreated to the women’s gymnasium, where there was barely room for a 15-yard start, one hurdle and then 15 yards to stop.
“Having only that one hurdle,” he said, “I learned to start fast and get there ahead of the big guys so their elbows wouldn’t bat me around.”
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