When it comes to local high sports, there are many things that are black and white. The sport of cross country does not fall into that category. Local high schools, most of which have a racial makeup that is more than 50 percent black, have a hard time finding coaches that are willing to coach for a $500 stipend. The schools that are lucky enough to have these individuals, have an even tougher time encouraging black athletes to come out and stay out.
Woodlawn’s Leon Moore, the cross country coach for the Knights for the past two seasons, knows all too well the challenges that local coaches face in getting athletes out for cross country. He also knows a thing or two about being a black student-athlete in the South and not being guided toward distance running.
A middle distance and distance track and field athlete at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama, Moore had “just enough” speed in his events to get a scholarship to Grambling State University. That was not his first choice. He wanted to play basketball.
“I realized that I didn’t have enough talent in basketball to get the next level,” Moore said. “I wasn’t fast enough to be a sprinter. But I did have a lot of endurance.”
Besides a cross country race that was part of his basketball tryouts in the ninth grade, Moore’s first taste of cross country was his first practice at GSU. “All middle distance runnners in college had to run cross country,” Moore said. “We didn’t have a choice.”
His first workout was to run from Grambling State University to the town of Simsboro….and back. Approximately 10 miles roundtrip.
Fifteen years later, as the head cross country at Woodlawn High School, he is down to five runners after starting the year with 10.
Don’t feel sorry for the Knights though, there are a half-dozen local high schools, many of whom place student-athlete in top-tier college football and basketball programs, that do not have a cross country program at all.
This phenomena is not unique to the high school level. It reaches down to middle school programs and up past collegiate athletics. Nor is it local or regional. Running long distances just isn’t something that most minorities choose to do. It begs the question. Why?
“Part of the reason is that it is not perceived or looked at in a positive light by their peers,” Moore said. “They hear the negative comments from their friends.”
Other reasons, in Moore’s opinion, include self-doubt and knowledge of the amount of work that in necessary in order to be successful. “They think that it is a lot of work, when really it is not more than the work that they would put in on the basketball court or football field.”
Of the five athletes that have left the team this year, two were basketball players using cross country as conditioning to prepare for the season. Their interest in the sport has taken a back seat to the hardcourt. Another had transportation issues and a family situation that required more of his time. Yet another passed his physical, but it was discovered that he had high blood pressure. While the doctor encouraged participation in cross country, the mother and son decided against it.
Five Knights gone. Five Knights left.
Of those that still meet Moore by the baseball field for practice each day at 3:45 p.m., Junior Robert Evans has been the Knight that has shown the most leadership.
“He ran track last year and had some success,” Moore said. “He has gone from a shy kid that was nervous and afraid to run in front of people in tack to a young man that is pushing his teammates in practice and challenging them.”
Evans is excited about the impact that cross country will have on his track and field season. “The cross country season is going well,” Evans said. “We are getting ready for the track season.” Athletes like Evans are rare. His favorite event is the 3,200 meters and you will hear his voice change as he remembers a race during the early part of the season in which he found himself “in the zone.”
The leader of the pack for Woodlawn’s cross country team also feels like other student-athletes on Wyngate are missing out by not participating in the sport. “We went to a meet in Ruston and met Karl Malone,” Evans said. Also stating that other athletes fail to realize that “every sport has to do with running” and particpating in cross country could help them get where they want to be in their sport of choice.
Freshmen Gavian Banks is another athlete that has impressed Moore this year. In fact, the youngster beat Evans in the first race of the season.
“Gavian is a small, fiesty guy that thinks he can do anything,” Moore said, “He has as much talent as anyone that we’ve got.”
Moore is hoping Evans’ leadership and Banks’ spirit will spill over to athletes at Woodlawn High School and that will result in a larger team in years to come. Long distance running has helped him in countless ways over the years, and he knows that it can do the same for his Knights.