By DAVID CLAYBOURN
It was 20 years ago today that Greenville sprinter Henry Neal thrilled a crowd of 32,000 in Austin by breaking a national high school record in the 100-meter dash.
Neal, running in lane five, overtook Houston Willowridge’s Mike Miller before pulling away to win the Class 5A 100-meter dash title at the University Interscholastic League state meet in the hand time of 9.9 seconds, 10.15 on the fully automatic timer.
That time has held up all these years as the National Federation of State High School Association’s national record.
Neal, who now resides in the Houston area, is friends with Miller and they still kid each other a lot about that race.
“That’s the first person that ever jumped out on me in a race like that,” said Neal by cell phone on Tuesday. “He’s the first person that ever made me dig down from the start of a race.”
Miller, who finished second in the time of 10.1, went on to win the 100 title the next season and then was a standout football player for Notre Dame.
Waco senior Samuel Jefferson, who finished fifth in 10.4, later won the NCAA championship in the 100-meter dash while at the University of Houston.
“It doesn’t seem like it was 20 years ago,” said David Gish, Neal’s coach at the time and now principal of Greenville Middle School. “I remember that race like it was yesterday.”
Gish recalls sitting with his wife, Lisa in the Memorial Stadium stands, alongside assistant coach Kevin Pope and near athletic director Gary Callaway.
“I remember when they called them to the (starting) blocks, everybody stood up,” said Gish.
Spectators were holding up fingers representing their race favorites and some fans were taking bets. The Dallas-area fans held up up fives for Neal, while the Houston fans flashed threes for Miller in lane three.
“People from Houston thought he was going to upset Henry,” said Gish.
The starter fired the gun and the race was on.
“Henry had an average start,” said Gish. “Miller was out like a shot. Henry was behind for the first 20 meters. Then that fifth and sixth gear kicked in...He caught him at about 40 meters and he left him at about 60.”
“I could turn on some extra gears,” said Neal, then a powerfully-built 5-8, 175-pounder. “I don’t know where it was coming from.”
The crowd noise was deafening as Neal sped to the finish line first by a solid margin. The crowd knew it had seen something special.
Gish knew, too, because he clocked Neal at 9.86 on his stopwatch.
Moments later while Neal was on the victory stand, stadium announcer Phil Ransopher brought another big buzz from the crowd when he announced the winning time and the fact that it was a state and national record, dipping under the previous national record of 10.18 held by Dallas sprinter Roy “Robot” Martin.
The UIL will recognize Neal on Saturday as it announces its All-Century High School Boys Track and Field Team.
Among the 100-meter dash sprinters who’ll be trying to top that record this weekend and win gold is Angleton senior Henry Josey, who is Neal’s son. Josey will be running on Friday night at Mike A. Myers Stadium in lane three, the same lane Neal’s rival Miller was in.
“I’m hoping he’s going to win it,” said Neal. “That would be the icing on the cake. That would be gravy on chicken fried steak. White gravy. I hope he does it.”
Neal spent Tuesday afternoon at the track in Angleton helping his son on his starts. Josey ranks third among the 4A state qualifiers with a qualifying time of 10.52. Aaron Scott of Denton Ryan leads the qualifiers at 10.49. Justin Gilbert of Huntsville ran a 10.50 at regional. Six of the eight qualifiers rank within two tenths of a second.
“I’m going to try to win it,” said Henry Josey after his dad handed him the cell phone. “It’s going to be heated, I know that.”
Josey said he follows his father’s advice.
“I always listen to him,” he said. “That’s how I got here this year.”
Josey, who noted that he has good genes, has already won a gold medal at state as a sophomore on Angleton’s 4x100-meter relay team, which also made it back to state this year.
The 5-10, 180-pounder ranked as one of the top football recruits from the Houston area and signed with the University of Missouri as a running back after rushing for 1,369 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior and 1,267 yards and 20 scores as a junior. Josey was also a standout linebacker.
His father went to every one of his son’s football games this past season.
“He’s going to be somebody to watch,” said Neal. “I’m looking for him to be a starter at Missouri.”
Neal has two more children, including a daughter, Elcherri, 15, and a son, Cameron, 5. Elcherri ran the 400 meters at Houston Madison this past season.
The 100-meter title was just one of four state championships claimed by Neal in the years 1989 and 1990. He was the first Texas high schooler to top 50 feet in the triple jump, leaping 50-9 at the region meet in 1990. He won two 100-meter state titles and one each in the 200 and the triple jump. He ranks on the state’s top 10 all-time list in the 200 meters (20.46).
Neal also won seven national junior college championships while at Blinn College in Brenham, setting a national JUCO record in the 100-meter dash, and eight indoor Mobil Grand Prix titles, including two at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Neal missed the indoor world record in the 55-meter dash at the Reno Air Games in 1995 by only .02 of a second with his time of 5.63.
Though he’s now retired from competition running, the 39-year-old Neal is still fast.
“I’m still in pretty good shape,” said Neal, who weighs 208 these days. “I think I can still break 10.5. But I’d be out of gas (at the end).”
Even Henry Neal can’t outrun Father Time.