Kathy’s first words to me this morning at the kitchen table were “Your track friend died.”
At the same that I was asking “Who?” I was thinking it was probably Charlie Foster. Charlie wasn’t the only friend I made while running track, but he was definitely the one whose death would be the main story on the front page of the sports section. And not just in our local paper. News of his death was reported across the country.
When I started running track as a sophomore at Spartanburg High School, Coach Voyles said if I could get down to a certain time in the 120-yard high hurdles, I’d probably win all of my races. I got down to whatever that time was by our first track meet, but I didn’t come close to winning every race. One big reason was a guy named Charlie Foster who was also a sophomore at rival Gaffney High School.
The first time I ran against Charlie, I had no idea who he was, and based on our times coming into the meet, I was expected to win. The meet was at the Gaffney High School football stadium, which had no track. It was the only place in my whole career where everything was run on grass. No problem. But there was a problem at the finish line that I was totally not expecting since we usually just warmed up over the first few hurdles. Coming over the 10th and final hurdle, I was in the lead and confident of winning. As I looked toward the finish line, all of a sudden I saw something just beyond the stretched string I planned to break. Bleachers. Aluminum bleachers used during football season were sitting about 10 feet beyond the finish line. Are you kidding me?! How was I supposed to finish my sprint without crashing into those stupid bleachers? Consciously or unconsciously I made the decision to slow down as I approached the string. Charlie leaned forward and hit the string at full speed a tenth of a second ahead of me. He and another Gaffney runner ran up the bleachers as they had obviously done many times before. A third Gaffney runner in the outside lane maneuvered deftly around the bleachers.
I don’t remember exactly what I said or did, but I’m sure I was frustrated and mad. I probably complained to Coach Voyles that it was unfair. He probably agreed and said there was nothing we could about it. Just wait until we got to run them again at our place. It would be a different story at Wofford College where our home meets were held.
But not different enough. Charlie once again beat me by one tenth of a second. Thanks to the county meet, regionals, and various invitationals, I would run against Charlie quite a few more times that year. He beat me every time - each time by one tenth of a second.
Things changed our junior year, but not in my favor. I might have been a little bit better our second year, but Charlie was a lot better. A lot. Forget one tenth of a second. Our races weren’t even close. Charlie had become one of the best track athletes in the southeast. A serious case of mono my senior year meant my track career was over. A serious case of continued improvement by Charlie meant his was just getting started. He became one of the best high hurdlers in the country winning the 1971 Junior National Championship and tying the high school world record at the Golden State Relays.
Beyond high school, Charlie’s accomplishments were too numerous to mention here. They included winning the NCAA Championship, the US National Championship, a Gold Medal in the World University Games, and being top ranked in the world. He was favored to win the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, but finished fourth thanks to a pulled hamstring if my memory is correct. After years of running on the world stage, Charlie (who somewhere along the way became Charles) had a long career coaching track at UNC, Clemson, and Virginia Tech.
Kathy referred to Charlie this morning as my track friend, and he was, but I can’t claim that I ever got to know him well. At all of our meets he competed in too many events to do much socializing. Though high hurdles was his specialty, he could do about anything track related and his team took great advantage of his talent. I remember in one dual meet Gaffney’s track coach knew that they needed every point to try to beat us, so he entered Charlie in the high jump hoping he might pick up a point. Though he had never competed in that event before that day, Charlie not only won the high jump but set the school record for it in the process. In track they do a first call, second call, and final call for athletes to gather at the starting line for their races. Because of competing is so many events, he was rarely at the blocks for first or second call, raising hopes that we might not have to run against him. Upon hearing final call he’d come trotting over probably from the long jump pit just in time to step in the blocks. Wherever he was, he was easy to spot. Our sophomore year he wore a white cap, which was replaced with a fur cossack hat our junior year. Even through his coaching days he was noted for his hats.
I’ll offer two conclusions to my memories of Charlie. Both are true so take your choice.
The Sentimental Conclusion: A few days ago, March 31, Charles Wayne Foster got the final call and crossed the finish line for the last time.
The What I Usually Think Of When I Think of Charlie Foster Conclusion: If it weren’t for those stupid bleachers I could say that I beat one of the best high hurdlers of all times.
RIP. Run in peace, Charlie.