By Lee Walter (below)
Often times at graduation, classmates often promise to keep in touch. Friends for life, as it were. Just as often, however, life gets in the way, and even the strongest of bonds can evaporate before even being fully realized.
At Eastern Connecticut State (College) University, there remains a group of cross country and track & field alumni who have managed to stay in regular contact and have had get-togethers at least once per year for upwards of 40 years.
As members of this fraternity currently contemplate retirement (several already having acted upon it) and are formulating plans to relocate to warmer climates, the group may soon be unable to gather regularly.
The head coach of this group was John Keleher, who was the first head coach in the history of the cross country program beginning in 1971, and the adviser of the track & field club program from 1972 until the program attained varsity status in 1975, when he was appointed head coach of that program. Keleher remained the head coach of both programs until 1977, at which time he moved on to pursue new opportunities.
From the decade of the 1970s, the bond created for roughly a dozen of these student-athletes and their coach has withstood the test of time. Sure, some are not available to meet with the group at times, but for a group which came together so many years ago to still meet on a regular basis is truly remarkable.
Part 3: “The Mouthpiece and Ringleader”
Trenton Wright came to Eastern in 1972 out of Fairlawn, New Jersey, part of a large freshman class of cross country runners that would join senior Bill Green and sophomores Steve Gates and Guy Glover. Never truly considered higher than the seventh runner in the program, even though he would get better every year, but so was everyone else, and coach John Keleher was still recruiting guys that were the number two or three runner on their high school teams.
As a sportswriter, columnist and sports editor for the Campus Lantern – Eastern’s weekly student newspaper -- and a member of the Student Government Association during his years at Eastern, Wright would promote the cross country team and its feats, while also championing the desire of the group to be able to have a varsity track & field varsity program. When the track & field club began in 1973, Wright and all of the cross country runners were there to help build that program, while still yearning for varsity recognition. The track & field club was granted varsity status beginning in 1975.
While at Eastern, Wright would often write about the exploits of the cross country and track & field teams for the Campus Lantern. He covered the other sports thoroughly, as well, but there was no mistaking the fact that he wanted his teams to gain recognition on campus. He once wrote an op-ed piece regarding the use of the whirlpools in the training room and how it seemed that the only athletes permitted access to them played basketball. Wright felt this was unfair and certainly had no issue with expressing his feelings on the matter.
Wright also wrote a letter in the newspaper regarding the opinion he had that Eastern’s athletic department was content to exclusively promote soccer, basketball, and baseball without attempting to expand other sports offerings. Wright was, of course, looking for track & field to gain varsity status, but also mentioned the construction of the new swimming pool on campus inside the Sports Center, but no varsity swim team to utilize it. Wright actually received a letter from then athletic director Dr. Dana Clark, who sympathized with Wright (“as a former track man myself”), but stated that there would be no varsity status for the track & field program in the near term.
Wright would find more success on the track than he did in cross country, winning several 440-yard races and placing well in many other meets. He would also run on many winning relay teams during his years on the track.
At right: First varsity track team, 1975. Wright is pictured middle row, fifth from left.
To this day, Keleher refes to Wright “as the guardian and confessor of the program, and being the glue of the group that helps keep everyone together. The publicity of the program was greatly due to his involvement with the Campus Lantern. He greatly helped the program to not be ignored as baseball and other sports were often pushed under the “cross country” headlines, though Trenton was respectful and fair to those programs, as well.”
Keleher went on to say to Wright, “thank you for what you did for the program. You did more for the program with your pen than you did with your feet, though you did plenty for us with your feet. You helped tremendously with building and promoting the program and you have done a lot with keeping the group together (today).”
Many of those sentiments were echoed by Wright’s former teammates, as several of them called Wright “the glue that keeps everyone together, sending updates on the group and getting the guys to meet up at Eastern meets and other events, as well as helping to organize the get-togethers at each other’s houses throughout the years.”
Wright says the group has stayed together for so long because – as undergraduates -- they were always together and got along. He also credits the process of elevating the track team from club status to varsity status as being a unifying experience for many of the guys. Lastly, he says the experience of qualifying for the cross country nationals and not being allowed to go was unifying, and still upsetting to many of the guys to this day.
In the eyes of many associated with the program, the team was ‘too good, too fast’ and the administration was not prepared for this to happen. When the team qualified again the next year, it was able to participate, but did not perform as well as the runners would have liked.
Regarding the group, Wright said, “We were a competitive group, the athletes had a lot of fun and were accountable to each other. We trained hard and did what we had to do. Most guys came here with something to prove and had a bit of a chip on their shoulder.”
In 2004, Wright and Keleher were among a group of six awarded with a Pioneer Award by the E-Club Hall of Fame to recognize their great influence in the creation and development of the cross country and track & field programs in the 1970s.
(Note: While Wright always uses the salutation Dear Old Warriors in written correspondence with the group, this ‘Old’ Warrior proved that he still has something left in the tank when he recently earned a spot in the Recordsetter Book of World Records (billed as this generation’s Guiness Book of World Records) for the world record of Most Miles Travelled on a Stationary Bike in Six Hours (239.5). At the age of 60, Wright – employed for many years as Coordinator of Institutional Advancement at Middlesex Community College -- averaged 40 miles per hour for six hours en route to the record, which rates among the more impressive feats among more than 300 notable entrees in the book, such as Longest High-Five, Tallest Shaving Cream Wig Built in One Minute, Most Straws Fit in Mouth at Once, and Largest Toothpick Beard. The most recent edition of the publication is available on Amazon for $11.94.)
COMING SOON: Part 4
“The Group” – the final installment in the series – is a close-up look at the central characters from the cross country and track & field program from the 1970s who have maintained a bond for nearly half a century: how they got to Eastern, their roles on the teams and their accomplishment, and where their journey from Eastern has carried them. Coach John Keleher also provides a short commentary on each of his former athletes.