EUGENE – Few people get a chance to live out their dream.
Dyrol Burleson is one of those lucky people.
Because the former Cottage Grove High School star was so dedicated and so determined and so doggone good at distance running, he was inducted Thursday night into the Collegiate Athlete Hall of Fame.
“Very honored to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I don’t really feel I deserve it but it’s a fantastic honor,” Burleson said via videotape from his home in Turner, Ore., a small town south of Salem. Due to health issues, he was unable to attend the induction ceremony at the Hult Center. “I was very fortunate to have been born 15 miles south of the U of O and to have Bill Bowerman as my coach. I attribute what successes I did have really to Bill.
“When I was 14 years old a magazine came out called Sports Illustrated and I was sitting in the high school library and Roger Bannister was on the front page and I thought, ‘Wow, I wanted someday to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.””
Burleson made that dream come true – twice.
“I love the sport – I love all sports – so being on the track team, and being at the U of O, I just loved to compete.”
During his University of Oregon career he never lost a single race, capturing NCAA titles in the 1,500 meters in 1960 and the mile in 1961 and ’62. He became only the second American to break 4 minutes in the mile.
While attending Cottage Grove High School, Burleson won the Oregon State Cross Country Championship in 1957 and the State Mile title in ’58, when he also broke the national high school mile record by nearly three seconds in 4:13.2.
Dyrol was a member of the 1960 and ’64 U.S. Olympic teams in the 1,500 meters, finishing in sixth and fifth place, respectively. He won the 1960 and ’64 1,500 meters at the Olympic Trials, which were two of his five U.S. Championships at 1,500 meters or the mile. He broke American records at 1,500 meters and the mile two times each and once in the 2-mile. Dyrol was also the 1959 Pan Am Games 1,500-meter gold medalist.
“Cottage Grove has a way of forgetting its history,” legendary swim coach Bud Taylor said. “Dyrol is part of a mural project that should be finished soon. For Cottage Grove, this is a phenomenal thing, so kids can know about Dyrol.
“It’s something they need to know. It’s the biggest sports story ever told in Cottage Grove,” said Taylor, who said he didn’t know Burleson back in the day but got to visit with him when Burleson brought one of his daughters to a swim meet.
Taylor said former coach Wally “Chick” Ciochetti played a major role in Burleson’s development. Ciochetti devoted himself to Cottage Grove High School athletics for 40 years, mainly as a coach for track and field, football and basketball. He assisted Mexico’s track team in the 1964 Olympics and was an assistant track coach for the 1972-73 Pan American Games.
“Chick had a great group of kids, and the forerunner of that group was Dyrol. In ’64, Chick went to Mexico and trained their coaches – he was the best coach at handling a large group of people – he was respected, nobody sassed him, they quit smooching with their girlfriends, they loved that guy – he got Dyrol going. Mr. Ciachetti passed away a long time ago, but of all the coaches I’ve ever known, he’s the best I’ve ever seen. To get a guy like Dyrol going the way he did. … This is the best, most beautiful place on earth, but I didn’t even know it back then.”
* * *
One inductee who was sorry to hear that Burleson wouldn’t be at the ceremony was Dave Wottle, who is remembered as much for his signature golf hat as he is for his dramatic kicks to win big races.
“Anytime you find out somebody had won three straight NCAA mile championships it’s big news, and also a Pan Am championship and also was the second person to break the 4-minute mile, that’s big stuff – so I was really hoping to meet him while I was here,” Wottle said the night before the induction ceremony.
“I was the 39th man to break 4 minutes in the mile,” he said. “I got to meet Bannister and I ran against (Jim) Ryun – I got second to Ryun in the 1,500 meters in the Olympic Trials – we were on the Olympic team together.”
The hat first materialized in 1971, when Wottle suffered a series of injuries.
“It was hot and humid in Ohio, and I got this hat while I was officiating a track meet,” he said. “It was useful. It kept the hair out of my eyes, but the funny thing is that I didn’t wear it during cross country season. It was cold in Ohio – but I started wearing it again in the spring of ’72, and after that nobody knew who I was without the hat, so I wore it all the time.”
The hat that Wottle wore through the Olympics is in the National Track Hall of Fame in New York City.
“The hat that I started wearing the year after the Olympics, in ‘73, that I have at home, it’s almost identical to the original hat,” he said. “It’s just a mesh golf hat.”
When asked if he ever dreamed about what it would be like running now when he could attract plenty of sponsorship backing, Wottle said that he and good friend Steve Savage of Eugene – who was his Olympic teammate in Munich as a steeplechase runner – were just talking about how much money athletes were raking in nowadays.
“We were caught in a transition time when we had to be amateur athletes,” Wottle said. “But I wouldn’t trade in those memories for anything.
“Some of my best memories were right here at Hayward Stadium – the old Hayward Stadium – I tied the world record at Hayward, had my fastest mile against (Steve) Prefontaine at Hayward, and won an NCAA title in the 1,500 at Hayward, so three of my biggest races were right here in Eugene. The new stadium is unbelievable and is what you really need to have, but the old stadium had a great atmosphere and a great feel, so I always loved coming here to compete.”
* * *
Each of the inductees on hand was interviewed by former ESPN anchor Neil Everett, a U of O grad. Hurdler extraordinaire Renaldo Nehemiah recounted the story of the time he was chatting with Cris Collinsworth and Dwight Clark during a “Superstars” competition. When asked if he had ever played football, Nehemiah said he only played in high school. The two NFL stars then suggested that he would be a good fit for the 49ers, because Bill Walsh likes to sign great athletes.
A few days later, Nehemiah’s phone rang. “Hello, this is Bill Walsh.” Nehemiah hung up. A little while later, another ring. “Hi, this is 49ers coach Bill Walsh.”
“If you’re really Bill Walsh,” a defiant Nehemiah replied, “then you can call my agent.”
A few minutes later, his agent called to say, “Did you really just hang up twice on Bill Walsh?”
Walsh didn’t hold it against him. Nehemiah played three seasons with the Niners, catching 43 passes for 754 yards and four touchdowns.
Speaking of the 49ers, another one of Thursday’s inductees, shot put king Michael Carter, wound up becoming an All-Pro while playing nine years as nose tackle in San Francisco during the Joe Montana era.
But his story as a shot-putter – both in high school and afterward – is the stuff of legend.
His high school record of 81 feet, 3½ inches in 1979 has stood for 44 years, and might stand for another 44 years. Nobody has ever even had a sniff at his record.
His daughter, Michelle, is the current American record-holder in the women’s shot put, with a throw of 67-8 at 2016 Rio Games, where she won a gold medal with a winning toss on her final throw.
“Michelle’s mom, Sandra, who was my girlfriend at the time, she’s the real reason why I went 81 feet. Going into that meet, that was my last high school meet of my high school career. I said, ‘OK,’ my goal was to go in there and break 77 feet and that’s all I was thinking of. ‘I’m going to break 77 feet.’ I talked to her the night before on the phone. And so when I’m getting off the phone, she said, ‘Throw 80 feet for me.’ I ain’t never thought of 80 feet, you know? And I just didn’t want to be made out to be a liar. It came down to my last throw, and it felt different than all of my other throws, but she’s the reason I was able to pull that off.”
Michael had to settle for a silver medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, which has caused several friendly family squabbles through the years.
“She’ll say, ‘I’m gonna sit over here with my gold medal and you can go sit over there with your little silver medal,’” said Michael, who’s the only athlete to ever win an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl title in the same year. “But I tell her that I’ve still got her beat, because I’m the one who coached her to that gold medal.
“I taught her everything she knows … but I didn’t teach her everything that I know.”