There was a nine-year-old boy living in the Broadmoor neighborhood of Shreveport who was fascinated with an athletic achievement he had just seen on television.
So he went outside, put together a makeshift practice area, and tried to copy what he had just seen. And tried. And tried some more.
This was something different. This wasn’t a center fielder crashing into the wall or a running back bowling over a linebacker. This was something he had never seen at a major sporting event. In fact, almost nobody else had either.
When you look back on it, this may have been one of the seminal moments in the history of sports. It was a technique that no one had ever done, much less even thought about. And if it was going to be introduced to the world, the nine-year-old boy wanted to be the first to introduce it to grade school Field Day a few months later.
In the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, Dick Fosbury changed an entire sport with his technique of going over the high jump bar “backward” instead of the established way of the straddle or Western roll. The “Fosbury Flop” resulted in a gold medal and the high jump event has never been the same since.
Fosbury died last week at age 76 and it received little notice. That’s a shame, because he is one of the few in sports history to completely revolutionize a competition.
Don’t give me Michael Jordan; there was Julius Erving and Elgin Baylor before him. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus didn’t revolutionize anything – they just played their sport better than anybody else. There were players hitting home runs before Babe Ruth came along; he just hit more of them.
Muhammad Ali certainly changed things in boxing, but not everybody immediately started floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.
Wilt Chamberlain and Rick Barry shot underhanded free throws, but that hasn’t exactly caught on.
You might argue Notre Dame’s Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne “invented” the forward pass against Army in 1913, but it had actually been around, though sparingly used, for a while. It’s just that nobody had used it like the Irish did in that game.
Who else has completely changed the way something was athletically done?
Somewhere out there, Pete Gogolak probably has his hand up. In 1966, he became the first soccer-style kicker in the NFL, now the universally-accepted way to kick.
But other than that, it’s not a long list.
After Fosbury set an Olympic record in Mexico City, far more than half of the competitors in the 1972 Olympics were using that technique.
Fosbury began using the “flop” because he just couldn’t figure out how to make his body work with the preferred method of the time. He couldn’t even jump five feet in high school, so he began to experiment. It took a couple of years to perfect before it all came together.
Another reason the Fosbury Flop caught on was because, up until that time, high jump pits weren’t exactly a soft place to land. You try landing on your back on sawdust from seven feet in the air and see how quickly you get back in line. Deep foam matting brought in more possibilities.
Thankfully, the father of that nine-year-old knew a place where he could get some foam padding. A car repairman friend had some extra back seats that he had ripped out and let him use the padding that was left.
It made for a unique Christmas present – who asks Santa for a high-jump pit? – but after that, it was game on. The boy then set his sights on St. Joseph’s School Field Day 1969. Lo and behold, it paid off.
And I still have the first-place ribbon to prove it.
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