By a Stride

By a Stride

It was cold. It was windy. But the 1955 Men’s N.C.A.A. Cross-Country Championship produced the closest finish in the history of the race.

By a Stride
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 026, September 2020

Words by Liam Boylan-Pett
Cover photo credit: Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections 

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On November 28, 1955, a 28-year-old John G. Zimmerman stood just off Hagadorn Road in East Lansing, Michigan, freezing his ass off. Zimmerman positioned himself with his camera at the edge of the forest on the northeast corner of Michigan State University of Agriculture and Applied Science’s campus. The surrounding trees buttressed at least some of 37 mile-per-hour wind gusts that made the 12-degree temperature bite even more. Zimmerman was there on assignment for Sports Illustrated.

The magazine was young; its first issue hit newsstands in 1954. Zimmerman had worked gigs for Time, LIFE, and Ebony. He always seemed to snap the shot, and his career took off because of it. In 1950 when he was working for Time, he was one of the first photographers on site when Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman. By 1956, he was hired as one of Sports Illustrated’s first staff photographers, and became famous for his unique angles, groundbreaking lighting techniques, and use of remote-controlled cameras. He left to work as a commercial photographer in 1963, but remained one of the magazine’s favorite photographers, shooting over one hundred covers by his death in 2002.

On that frigid day in 1955 in East Lansing, however, he was still a young photographer on the verge of an iconic career. Hiding from the wind, Zimmerman was shooting the N.C.A.A. men’s cross-country championship race. He had positioned himself just before the 2-mile mark. His view was about 150 meters of a snow-covered path with towering, leafless trees lining both sides—pecks of dirt peeked up through the tire tracks of a vehicle that had traversed the course to make sure it was runnable earlier that day.

Looking down the trail, Zimmerman eventually saw a small orange dot bouncing on the horizon. It grew quickly: It was a winter hat perched atop a runner’s head. A pack of four had broken away from the pack. Michigan State sophomore Henry Kennedy—wearing a cap that would blend right in in a crowd in Brooklyn today—led New York University standout George King, who followed single-file behind him. University of Southern California’s Max Truex was about five yards behind and Connecticut University’s Lew Stiegletz was another five yards back. 

As they neared, Zimmerman peered through the viewfinder on his camera like a birder stalking an endangered species. The crunching of their shoes grew louder as they inched closer and closer into the frame of his shot. Finally, just as Kennedy began a long, left turn that would loop him back towards the long push for the finish about 2 miles away, Zimmerman clicked the shutter. It opened for an instant, capturing the four runners in the front of the race and, about 70 yards back, the rest of a strung-out pack.

He stayed for a bit longer to snap a few more photos, but eventually, he traversed the college campus and its 4-mile cross-country loop along the Red Cedar River back to the finish line, about a mile-and-a-half away at the baseball fields on the northwest side of campus. There, he snapped more photos of runners in the finishing chute before leaving the scene and eventually developing the photos and sending the negatives along to the Sports Illustrated offices. 

One year later, the photos were published alongside a story headlined, “Defiant Harriers.” The piece was short—a preview of the 1956 N.C.A.A. cross-country championship over a two-page spread. The headline was accompanied by a photo from the finishing chute, with runners from Kansas and Iowa cupping their glove-covered hands over their ears to stay warm. The caption read, “Nipping frost plagues runners in one of the most memorable N.C.A.A. cross countries ever held at East Lansing.”

The photo on the right side of the spread was the one from the forest off Hagadorn, of four runners leading a pack.

If one looked closely in the background, however, they could spot an unrecognizable pack of runners, blobs of blue and orange. One runner is nearly recognizable on the south side of the trail, dressed in yellow and black—the colors of Iowa University—and white long johns. He is at least 10 seconds back at the 2-mile mark, but he is important to the story of the race. Because over the next mile of the race, Iowa’s Charles “Deacon” Jones passed runner after runner until he found himself just behind Michigan State’s Kennedy with one mile to go. 

Over the final 1760 yards of the 1955 N.C.A.A. cross-country championship, Iowa’s Deacon Jones and Kennedy would stage one of the best stretch duels the N.C.A.A. cross-country meet had ever seen, with one winning by just one-tenth of a second—or, as the Sports Illustrated story described it, “by a stride.” 

It remains the closest finish in the meet’s history.

For all the great photos George Z. Zimmerman took throughout his career, it is safe to say he missed one in East Lansing that day. 

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A re-rendering of the November 1956, Sports Illustrated that featured photos by John G. Zimmerman.

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In the early days of N.C.A.A. men’s cross-country, East Lansing was the center of the universe. It hosted every N.C.A.A. Championship meet from 1938 (the first N.C.A.A. cross-country championship) to 1964. Michigan State University was Michigan State College back then (it would become Michigan State University of Agriculture and Applied Science in 1955 and officially dropped those last five words in 1964), and from 1939 to 1958, the Spartans won eight national championships and were runner-up twice. Coach Karl Schlademan had come to Michigan State in 1940 to coach the track and field team, but he also served as an assistant coach for the football team. Schlademan had done his best to learn from the cross-country coach, Lauren Brown, and took over in 1946. He was successful almost immediately: From 1948 to 1952, the team won three N.C.A.A. titles. 

The next two years, however, Michigan State finished sixth and tenth at nationals. They needed to right the ship in 1955, the year of the school’s centennial. And a Scottish-born Canadian named Henry Kennedy, who went undefeated as a freshman (back when first-years did not compete on the varsity squad), was the right athlete to lead the way. According to Mark E. Havitz’s history of the Michigan State cross-country team, “One Hundred Ten Years Running on the Banks of the Red Cedar,” Kennedy worked mornings at the campus cafeteria making breakfast, later saying, “I was getting up at six to make breakfast; not for the people who were going to eat, but for the people who were going to make breakfast for the people were going to eat.”

The early work hours were not a problem for Kennedy, who ripped off wins in dual meets against Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn Sate, Wisconsin, and Ohio State to kick off the fall season. His winning margin was never less than 26 seconds. At the I.C.A.A.A.A. championships in Van Cortlandt Park, Kennedy ran away from the field on the 5-mile course, winning by a commanding 415 yards in a time of 24 minutes, 30.3 seconds. The team finished second to Pittsburgh, but still had the Big Ten meet and N.C.A.A.s to prove themselves. 

Michigan State put up a dominant 36 points at the Big Ten meet in Chicago as Kennedy pushed a furious drive to home over the last half mile, pulling away from Iowa’s Deacon Jones to win by 15 seconds. 

Kennedy was undefeated with only one meet remaining on the schedule: The N.C.A.A. Championship. Not only was Michigan State one of the favorites to win the team crown, Kennedy was a favorite for the individual title, a race no Michigan State athlete had ever won. And he could do it on his home course. 

On November 28, 1955, Kennedy ignored his coach’s advice to wear long johns in the frigid, windy conditions. But when the gun went off at Old College Field that morning, Kennedy was not worried about long johns. Wearing an orange winter cap, a long sleeve shirt under a tee that was under his singlet, and gloves, he burst to the front of the race and took control like he had done in every race he ran that fall. According to the student-run Michigan State News, with a small lead pack, Kennedy ran by the first half-mile in 2 minutes, 18 seconds and came through the mile mark in 4 minutes, 45 seconds. It was the fastest mile he would run all day. Over the next mile, he led a group of four—the runners from N.Y.U., U.S.C., and Connecticut that would eventually be in the Sports Illustrated photo—through a 5 minute, 5 second mile, crossing the two-mile mark in 9 minutes, 50 seconds. 

In the winding trail of what is now the Sanford Natural Area on Michigan State’s campus, Kennedy—though still slowing from his first and second miles—began opening a gap on the breakaway pack. “We entered the woods, which was my favorite place for moving out because of all the little sharp bends and rough underfoot terrain,” Kennedy later said in the oral history of Michigan State cross-country. “There were some very, very sharp turns on that part of the course. I always took three or four fast steps coming around the corner  to pick up another two or three yards from the guy behind me.”

There was one problem with working that part of the course, however: The wind gusts were stronger than ever once Kennedy left the woods 2.5 miles into the course. He had dropped those in the pack with him—he also ditched his orange cap—but now there was no one to hide behind for respite. Kennedy would later call the strategy stupid. And by the 3-mile mark, which he crossed in 15 minutes, 3 seconds, there was another runner on his heels. Not one who had been in the pack of four, though. No, this was a runner from Iowa in a long sleeve and white, waffled long underwear who had run three consecutive miles right around 5 minutes flat. 

With one mile to go, Deacon Jones was right on Kennedy’s shoulder. 

“I was definitely a rarity in those days,” Deacon Jones told the Omaha World Herald in 2005. “I was a Black athlete from Nebraska who was a distance runner. People kind of did a double-take when they saw me out there.” 

Jones grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, but as a 13-year-old in a troubled family, he packed up and went to Boys Town School, just west of Omaha, Nebraska. Jones thrived there, especially once he got into sports. He made friends with some other Black kids in the Logan Fontenelle Projects of Omaha, including Bob Gibson, who would go on to become one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. At 5-foot-10-inches, Jones was a star on the Boys Town, football, basketball, and baseball teams, but he excelled most in cross-country and track. 

In 1948, the year he moved to Boys Town, Jones entered a track meet because of the “race medal.” Third place got a scoop of ice cream, second got two, and first place was good enough for three scoops. Jones didn’t feel like the fastest kid in town, so he entered the mile. He only had a pair of street shoes, more like dress shoes than Converse All Stars. He won the mile in 4 minutes, 35 seconds. “I don’t know why everyone was so excited,” he would later say, “I was just running for ice cream.” Soon enough, he was running for more than that. 

He would drop his mile best to 4 minutes, 17.8 seconds by his senior year to set the national high school record in the mile in 1954, and was recruited to Iowa to run on the track and cross-country teams. He quickly became a star in Iowa City, too. Having just finished his sophomore year, he qualified for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and placed ninth. By the time he graduated from Iowa, he was the American Record holder in the steeple and one of the most decorated athletes in Iowa history. 

At the 1959 Pan-American Games in Chicago, Jones, who had learned to cut hair in his time at Boys Town, was in a dormitory with some of his other track and field teammates on the U.S. team. The boxing team was in the same dorm, and one afternoon with a bunch of track guys hanging out, Cassius Clay walked in, asking for a haircut. He wasn’t the world-famous boxer yet, but he was still the man who would become The Greatest, and he didn’t love the flat-top Jones had given him, talking trash and telling Jones to be better. “If you want a better haircut,” Jones shot back, “you have to come in here with better hair.” The room erupted in laughter. 

Jones also met Lou Brock in Chicago that summer. Brock, who died this September, was also a star for the St. Louis Cardinals, and set a then Major League Record of 938 stolen bases when he retired in 1979. It turned out, Jones had offered him some advice on improving speed. Those tips kept coming over the next 20 years as Brock became a star. 

At the 1959 Pan American Games, Jones won silver in the steeplechase. 

Jones made the 1960 Olympic Team, too, taking seventh place in the steeplechase in Rome. 

Jones was not just a steeplechaser, though. He was pretty good at cross-country, too. 

And one of his best races over hill and dale came in East Lansing on November 28, 1955, as a sophomore at Iowa. It was bitterly cold. Jones was one of the few runners to wear long johns under his team-issued white shorts. He only wore a white T-shirt under his yellow Iowa singlet. His ankle-length socks kept his toes warm in his Adidas spikes that had been taped at the arch of his feet to keep them cinched tight over the frozen ground.

When the gun went off, Jones ran under control. Just weeks earlier, Kennedy had used a long push from 880 yards out to drop Jones, who had tried to stay on his shoulder for as long as possible. In East Lansing, however, Jones let Kennedy go. While Kennedy came through the first mile in 4 minutes, 45 seconds in a pack, Jones was biding his time about 10 seconds back. The gap remained similar over the next mile, with Jones coming through 2 miles right at 10 minutes. He, like Kennedy, used the woods to stake his claim on the race. Over the next 5 minutes, Jones closed the gap to Kennedy. Hitting the headwinds when he exited the forest, Jones reeled in Stieglitz, Truex, and King one by one.

With one mile to go, he was on Kennedy’s shoulder—and he was ready to kick, too. 

Scattered in half-mile increments along the Michigan State cross-country course that day were Cadet Officer Corps members of Michigan State’s R.O.T.C. Each had a radio. As runners passed, they would relay information back to the P.A. announcer in the bleachers near Old College Field, where the race started and ended. 

Throughout the first three miles of the race, the spotters or the P.A. announcer confused Michigan State’s Kennedy for his teammate, Selwyn Jones. The announcer informed the crowd and media in East Lansing that it was Jones, not Kennedy, leading the race at the mile and the 2-mile. (Thanks to Zimmerman’s Sports Illustrated photo, we know that was not true.) So, it might have come as a surprise when a cadet reported two runners fighting for the lead at the 3-mile mark were Kennedy and Jones. 

Running along the Red Cedar River, the two crossed in 15 minutes, 3 seconds. The race was on. 

Kennedy, like he had done at the Big Ten meet, pushed from far out. His splits had gotten slower with each passing mile, but he somehow picked up the pace over the final five minutes of the race. He had not lost a race all year. He had beaten Jones the last time they faced off. Kennedy was sure he was going to do it again. But as he drove harder and harder for the finish, Jones stayed on his shoulder, waiting to strike. The two sophomores looped around a snow-covered golf green on Old College Field, and then, with less than a quarter-mile to go, Jones made his move. 

“He jumped me with 300 yards to go,” Kennedy would later say. It was a burst of speed, but it did not break the Michigan State star. The course straightened out, and Jones was a foot or two in front. Jones pushed the gas, increasing his cadence, kicking up bits of snow and blades of frozen grass. Kennedy stayed on him but could not gain an inch. Kennedy searched for any bit of energy in his reserves, but there was nothing there. Jones, meanwhile, had taken his shot. It had worked, but he had to hold on. Over the last 100 yards, he stayed just in front of Kennedy.

After the Big Ten loss, Jones had told his coach he thought he could beat him next time. He simply needed to time his kick correctly. As he held his lead over the race’s final moments, the prediction proved true. 

Jones surprised Kennedy with 300 yards to race. The two then battled over the next 45 seconds, urging their bodies to go just one tick faster. Neither gave an inch. In the end, Jones held off Kennedy to win by one-tenth of a second. They closed the final mile in 4 minutes, 54 seconds to run 19 minutes, 57 seconds for 4 miles—Jones was officially timed in 19 minutes, 57.4 seconds.

It was the closest finish in N.C.A.A. history. It was the first time a sophomore had won the race. It was the first time an Iowa Hawkeye had won an individual title. And it was the first time a Black athlete had won the individual crown.

In 2018, Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald held off Stanford’s Grant Fisher in the final straight of the 10-kilometer race in Madison to win by five-tenths of a second. The year before, Syracuse’s Justyn Knight beat Northern Arizona’s Matthew Baxter by seven-tenths. Both races were tight, but Jones’ victory over Kennedy remains the closest finish in N.C.A.A. history. 

The N.C.A.A. cross-country season is going to be different this year. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the N.C.A.A. approved delaying the season until the spring of 2021. The wait for another great homestretch duel will have to wait until March. 

Michigan State did win the team competition in 1955, scoring 46 points to Kansas’ 68. It began a string of dominance. The team won in ’56, ’58, and ’59 and was runner up in ’57 and ’60.

Henry Kennedy graduated from Michigan State in 1958, and went on to become a professor at the University of Central Florida. Kennedy’s brother, Crawford “Forddy” Kennedy won the individual N.C.A.A. cross-country in 1958. Henry is now retired and living in Titusville, Florida, outside of Orlando. 

Charles “Deacon” Jones remains Iowa’s only cross-country national champion. The “Black athlete who was a distance runner from Nebraska” went on to a career for the ages—he was a pioneer in U.S. track and field. After his running career, Jones eventually settled in Chicago. He stayed close with Brock, and served as the financial aid director for the City Colleges of Chicago. He died in 2007.

There is another picture from that day in East Lansing. It was not taken by John G. Zimmerman. Today it is housed in the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections. The photo shows Henry Kennedy and Charles “Deacon” Jones. Jones’ arm is draped over Kennedy’s shoulder. Kennedy is patting Jones’ back. They both are wearily holding onto their sweat suits. Their hair stands up and back, windswept. They both look tired—Kennedy has a slight smile, Jones’ face seems to be saying, “Thank goodness that is done.” 

If one did not know the results, it would be hard to say who won the race.

There is one more photo in the M.S.U. Archives that proves who prevailed, though. The photographer’s name has been lost in time, but he or she caught the photo of the day: Jones just an instant from the finish line, a stride in front of Kennedy in the closest finish in N.C.A.A. history.

Deacon Jones holds off Henry Kennedy at the finish of the 1955 N.C.A.A. Cross-Country Championships in East Lansing.
Deacon Jones holds off Henry Kennedy at the finish of the 1955 N.C.A.A. Cross-Country Championships in East Lansing.
Photo credit: Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

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