By RUTH LANEY
Special to Tiger Rag
Matt Gordy stood beneath the crossbar, eyeing his vaulting pole, which was a good foot shorter than the height he had to vault. Fans urged him to use a longer pole, but the LSU athlete paid them no mind as he trotted to the end of the runway to begin his final attempt.
The announcer reminded the Chicago crowd that LSU’s hopes for the NCAA title rested on Gordy’s narrow shoulders. A hush fell over Soldier Field, and Gordy’s teammates clustered near the landing pit, hardly breathing. "Come on, Matty, you can do it,” they whispered.
Gordy paused for a moment. A breeze off Lake Michigan ruffled his dark hair, and he shivered slightly in his purple wool uniform.
It was Saturday, June 17, 1933, the first time in its 12-year history that the NCAA track meet had been held at night. Chicago’s immense stadium was illuminated by new arc lights. It was nearly midnight, but few of the 7,000 spectators had left. The hottest battle ever fought for collegiate track honors was about to be decided.
The bar had just been raised to 13 feet, 11 1/16 inches, an NCAA record. The winner of the vault would determine the team crown.
Would it go to the University of Southern California, already winner of three titles in seven years? Or to LSU, competing it its first NCAA meet?
Veteran USC coach Dean Cromwell appeared confident. Rivals knew him as a competitive man who "combed the 48 states” for athletes, and sportswriters had already ceded him another victory. His vaulter Bill Graber held the world record at 14-4 3/8.
LSU coach Bernie Moore looked worried. Gordy had never vaulted higher than 13-4 in competition. Was he in over his head? Would he choke against the West Coast star? High in the stands, the chunky Moore paced frantically.
Just getting his athletes to the meet had been a feat for Moore. President Franklin Roosevelt had recently declared a bank holiday, and many Baton Rouge accounts were frozen. Scrip had replaced money on the campus. But supporters had scraped together enough cash for the boys to make the trip.
Moore had squeezed 10 athletes — plus coaches, luggage, and equipment — into two cars and headed north. Decorating the spare on his black Plymouth was a tire cover painted with a gaudy Bengal tiger. Vaulting poles and javelins, tied with ropes, rattled against the doors. "We looked like an advertisement for [the movie] ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’” Gordy later recalled.
Southern Cal had traveled from Los Angeles on a private railway car hooked up to the Southern Pacific train, with a porter in attendance. The team included two Olympic gold medalists. "Southern Cal always won with 14 or 15 boys,” recalled LSU’s Nathan "Buddy” Blair. "They could second, third, and fourth you to death.”
After four days and 950 miles on mostly gravel roads, the Tigers arrived in Chicago. "First thing Bernie Moore did was run a red light,” recalled hurdler Al Moreau. "Right there on Michigan Avenue, a cop stopped us. Coach told him, ‘Hell, we’re country boys. We don’t know about red lights.’ The cop studied that tiger on the tire cover and said, ‘I can see that.’ But were were in town for the meet, so he let us go without a ticket.”
They were country boys, but wily ones. Moore was a "Tennessee possum-hunter” who would deliberately misread the stopwatch in practice to boost a boy’s confidence. Glenn "Slats” Hardin grew up in Greenville, Miss. Most of the others came from small Louisiana towns.
A native of Avoyelles Parish, Moreau had spoken only French until age six. Gordy was from Abbeville, where he had taught himself to vault with a pole hacked from a stand of bamboo. Weight man "Baby” Jack Torrance was a beefy boy from Oak Grove, and javelin thrower Blair hailed from Sicily Island.
U.S. Sen. Huey Long, the former governor, had vowed to make LSU a school where poor boys and girls could get an education; tuition was $35 a year. Track offered no scholarships, so the athletes went out for football, which did, or earned their keep with odd jobs that paid 25 cents an hour: sweeping out classrooms, delivering laundry, pruning azaleas, milking cows for the agriculture department. They lived rent-free on the second story of the school’s gym-armory sharing tiny windowless cells lit by bare bulbs. Starved for daylight, they often climbed onto the tarpaper roof to sunbathe.
Laundry facilities were scarce, so their uniforms were seldom washed. Their track shoes had metal plates in the soles. They trained on a rough cinder oval in the football stadium, where hurdles rested on T-shaped bars. "If you hit a hurdle, it raised you straight up into the air,” Moreau recalled. Landing pits were piles of sawdust that "knocked the tar out of you,” said Gordy.
Standing at 5-foot-11 and weighing 129 pounds, Gordy didn’t have much weight to propel over the crossbar. No southern athlete had gone much over 13 feet, but he held the school record at 13-4. He studied Yale’s vaulters and copied one of their techniques; he took a standard 16-foot pole and chopped it down to 12 1/2 feet. "This is what the boys up at Yale do,” he explained to his startled teammates at practice.
Using his doctored pole, Gordy cleared 13-6 several times by twisting his body into a handstand at the top of the arc. "This pole just seems to jackknife you over the bar,” he said. After he made several decent attempts at 14 feet, Moore decided to add him to the squad traveling to Chicago.
The team's best hope was the handsome, curly-haired Slats, who had won silver in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1932 Olympics. His smooth style and lethal kick prompted sportswriters to dub him "the Comet of the Canebrake.”
The Bunyanesque Baby Jack, despite a terrible throwing form, had recently put the shot nearly 53 feet. And team captain Moreau had not lost a high-hurdles race all season. But Moore had his doubts about "Little Matt.” With his cut-off vaulting pole and sunburned calves swathed in gauze bandages, Gordy was hardly a vision of athletic prowess.
At Chicago’s Del Prado Hotel, Gordy brooded in his room. Could he hold his own against Graber, or Bill Miller of Stanford, who had gone 14-1 3/4 to win the gold medal at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles? Gordy’s musing was interrupted by a knock on the door: a telegram from his roommate back at LSU. "Fourteen no hill to climb,” Gladstone Stewart had wired. "You are good.”
The meet was peopled with such stars as miler Glenn Cunningham and the sensational sprinter Jesse Owens. On Friday, day one of the two-day meet, LSU advanced six men to the Saturday finals, while Southern Cal qualified 12. "Team honors seem almost certain to go to the Trojans,” predicted Los Angeles Times writer Bill Henry. "The finals . . . promise to be another triumph for the sun-tanned westerners,” agreed George Kirksey of the United Press.
But LSU had other ideas. Hardin won the 440-yard dash Saturday night. He came back an hour later to win the 220-yard low hurdles.
Next to make an impact was Baby Jack. "He was a giant,” recalled USC’s Hueston "Hippo” Harper, the favorite in the shot put. After taking an early lead, Harper was undone by empathy. "Torrance was only a sophomore and had not much experience,” Harper said. "I felt obligated to give him some pointers, and lo and behold, my first place went out the window.”
Baby Jack quickly picked up Harper’s rotating technique. "Torrance, 265 pounds of Southern accent and brute force, straightened out an arm like a tree trunk and shoved the 16-pound shot 52 ft 10 in,” wrote Henry. Chalk up another win for the Tigers.
Torrance placed third in the discus, and Blair took fourth in the javelin. With 40 points, the Tigers were in the race.
Moreau had scored a point by finishing sixth in the low hurdles. For his specialty, the highs, he drew lane eight next to the stadium’s box seats. Photographers clustered three and four deep at each hurdle. "First hurdle, here’s a flashbulb, just like a bomb in my face,” Moreau recalled. "I didn’t see anything from then on.” Running blind, he caught Stanford’s Gus Meier at the third hurdle.
Running neck and neck, Moreau and Meier were both timed in 14.2 seconds, equaling the world record. Victory went to Meier on his lean at the tape, but Moreau had added eight points to LSU’s total.
The team battle had come down to the last attempt in the vault, the final event of the meet. It was up to Gordy and Graber to decide who would win it.
Gordy cleared 13 feet and then made 13-6, his best height in practice. Miller missed and was out, but Graber was still in the fray, along with vaulters from Ohio State and Illinois.
Officials raised the bar to 13-11 1/16. Each vaulter missed on his first attempt. On the second try, Graber took the lead, clearing the bar when no one else could. On their third and final attempts the Ohio and Illinois men missed. Gordy was the last vaulter left, with one attempt remaining.
If he cleared the bar, he would tie Graber for first and they would each earn nine points. The Tigers would hold on to their slim margin and win the meet. If Gordy missed, Graber would win the vault and Southern Cal would tie LSU for the national title.
Glancing up into the stands, Gordy spied Coach Moore prowling back and forth. "I was determined to go over or bust,” he said later. "I saw Coach Moore pacing like a wild man. I couldn’t help laughing, and that relaxed me.” Gordy took a deep breath and sprinted down the runway.
"Gathering speed at every step,” wrote Henry, "he swung his slender, purple-clad body into the air, arched ever so lightly at the very top of his flight, and dropped into the pit with a tie for first place and the meet cinched for dear old LSU.”
His chopped-down pole forced Gordy to do a last-second handstand, twist in midair, and hurl himself over the crossbar. It wobbled as he nudged it with his thumb, but it stayed put. Sprawled in the sawdust, Gordy could only grin. He had won the meet for the Tigers. The final score was LSU 58, USC 54.
Trackside typewriters clacked furiously. "A team that possesses an unknown boy who can turn in a ‘pressure’ stunt like that deserves to win a team championship,” wrote Maxwell Stiles of the Los Angeles Times.
People swarmed onto the field to shake Gordy’s hand. Besides snaring the team trophy, he shared a new collegiate record with Graber. As he gathered up his gear, he noticed his chopped-down pole was gone, picked up by a souvenir-hunter.
Two weeks later, Gordy competed in the AAU meet at Soldier Field. He won the final competition of his career and became the first southerner to clear 14 feet.
His teammates went on to greater glory. In 1934, Hardin and Torrance set world records in the 400-meter hurdles and the shot put that would last for 19 and 14 years, respectively. In 1935, Moreau equaled the world record in the high hurdles and won 17 straight races overseas. At Berlin in 1936, Hardin won a close hurdles race and an Olympic gold medal.
The five men who scored in the meet have become legends in LSU history. Gordy never won a gold medal or set a world record, but he did what every athlete dreams of — he came through for his team under pressure.
Ruth Laney has covered major track competitions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia (including several Olympics) for magazines, wire services, and newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.