Member of UL S Club and its Hall of Fame and member of Louisiana Athletic Hall of Fame.
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Prides of Acadiana by Bruce Brown (1980) is a copyrighted enterprise.
Harold Porter: From Ghetto to Greatness
Harold Porter did not start out to be a sprinter, but by the time he finished his athletic career and went on to a career in sales he had dashed all the way to China and back.
Porter, who ran for the University of Southwestern Louisiana from 1971-74, and played football in the fall of 1974, is generally considered the finest dash man in the school's history.
He went on tours to Russia and to China, competed in NCAA Championships, and led USL to the Southland Conference track title two years.
But the tall, slender athlete never intended to be so famous.
Porter was one of the first black students at East Jefferson High School in New Orleans, one of only eighteen that the school brought in before total integration. The black school at the time was John Martin High School, but Porter's mother felt her son would receive a better education at East Jefferson.
"She had this thing about education," said Porter, who years later would be the only rookie in the Kansas City Chiefs' training camp with a college degree.
And Porter, who claims he was not fast as a youth, had to be talked out for the track team under unusual circumstances.
"My running on the team was a mistake," he later recalled. "I had missed a physical education test-I had been late for class-and the coach had me run the 100-yard dash part against the track team before the bus left.
"The other runners got down in starting blocks, and I didn't even know what to do with them, being from the ghetto. All of a sudden it was time to go and they were way out in front. "I caught them and passed them at about 70 yards," he added. His time was 10.2 seconds running barefoot on a cinder track that tore his feet up.
Needless to say, when the track coaches caught his time, they began prompting Porter to compete for the school.
"They tried to get me to run, but I wasn't interested," he said. "I asked them, 'How am I going to get home if I miss my bus to go to practice?' The coach said he would take me home. So he fixed it up with my mother and I started running track."
As a junior, he ran a 9.7 second 100-yarddash and a 21.3 second 100-yard dash at the
state meet at South Terrebonne.
Then as a senior, Porter couId not be caught. He turned in blazing times of 9.3 and 20.6 in the state finals-etching his name into the state prep record books.
Another thing happened in that final year at East Jefferson. The school was totally integrated
and the football coaches wanted Porter to go out for football to lead other blacks to the game. Harold's reply was direct and to the point "Football? Me? Are you crazy?"
But the coaches convinced him that he would help the blacks and whites relate, and he relented. Playing cornerback, Porter ranked second in the team in tackles and bolted 105 yards to a touchdown with one interception.
"1 had Thielen Smith playing in front of me at defensive end," Porter noted. "He stripped away all the interference, and I got the tackles." Then came the recruiting. Big names came calling, like USC, UCLA, Arizona, Tennessee, and LSU. But Coach Bob Cole of USL won the game.
"A lot of schools recruited me, but Coach Cole visited me about thirteen times. The others just called on the phone. My mother liked him, but said it was my decision.
"1 felt I would get lost at a school as big as LSU," he added. "Besides, I was leaning toward football and that was not possible at LSU. Also, they signed AI Coffee, and he had whipped me in high school.
"I finally narrowed it down to USL and Arizona, but Arizona was too far, and I could relate to the number of blacks at USL and to Coach Cole."
What, then, of the traditionally black schools in Louisiana, Grambling and Southern? "They never contacted me. They didn't even recruit me. I don't think they knew I was black."
Porter's first year at USL was a learning one, to say the least. He first discovered that he and USL Football Coach Russ Faulkinberry "didn't see eye-to-eye on anything. I said there's got to be a better way."
His football scholarship was shifted to track emphasis, and he was not to play football again until a new coaching regime in 1974. In track, Porter came to the rude awakening that high school stars get very Iittle respect from college opponents.
"I had never needed to train," he said. "So I got whupped. I asked Coach Cole about it, and he said 'Harold, you've got to work out to win.'" The advice worked, because in 1972 Porter led the school to the Southland Conference title as a sophomore, and the team's 400-meter relay squad made it to the NCAA Meet in Eugene, Oregon.
Although winning, that relay unit was not getting the most out of its talent. The four runners won, but could not break the 40-second barrier. Until, that is, Porter was shifted from the anchor leg to the lead leg of the race, the theory being that he could give his team a great start and the others could take it from there.
At the Meet of Champions in Houston, USL ran a 39.9 second race to beat Texas Southern, a team that had topped the Cajuns earlier in the season. Porter gave second man Pat Gullett a lead, and he handed the baton to Aaron Thompson, who in turn called on Don Credeur to hold off Texas Southern's Robert Taylor. "Your body is like a car," Porter asserted. "You have a passing gear, just like a car does.
When I saw a man in front of me as the leadoff man, I would put it in passing gear and hunt him down. We used to call it bounty hunting."
From Houston, the Cajuns raced in an invitational meet in EI Paso, ran 39.6, and finished fourth. The Philadelphia Pioneers were first in 39.2, Texas Southern ran 39.4, and Texas EI Paso was third in 39.5.
A 40-flat win in the United States Track and Field Federation Championships in Wichita, Kansas followed, setting up the NCAA Meet.
Runners of note abounded in the 400 meter relay-Larry Burton of Purdue, Clifford Branch of Colorado, Hasley Crawford, and from Southern California came such talent as leadoff man Randy Williams, third man Don Quarrie, and anchor Willie Decker.
Porter caught Randy Williams on his leg, and Gullett "just flew" on the second take. But the other teams closed the gap on the third lap, and Decker and Burton brought their teams home one and two ahead of a hard-charging Credeur.
Also in that meet, Porter won one heat of the 100 meters with a la-flat time, and he tried to run in the 200 meters, but failed to reach the finals. He also ran in the Olympic Trials in Eugene weeks later, running two 10.2 times, but finishing well back in the semifinals.
"I got tendonitus in my muscles from so much running that year," he said. "I just took it
on home after the Olympic Trials."
In 1973, with the NCAA third place as background, Porter said, "We knew we were good. We replaced Aaron with Steve Gullick, but we had the other three back.
"People asked me if I minded not being the one to break the tape on the relays, and I said it didn't matter, I could break it in the 100 meters." But Porter had a nagging leg pull most of the season, and the team's lack of depth was costly at the SLC meet-won by Louisiana Tech. At that meet, Porter "ran to win" and nursed his leg with lesser times than his school record 9.2 in the 100.
Again the team went to the NCAA Meet, with many of the same cast of characters on hand. The 1973 NCAA's were held just up the road in Baton Rouge, giving USL runners an easier feeling about transportation to and from the meet.
Porter reached the finals of the 100 meters, but any chances of winning were thrown out when another runner hit Porter's arm and upset his timing.
Once again, the Cajuns were in the 400 meter relay finals-in lane four next to USC in lane five. Gullett bowed out of the open quarter mile contest in order to put all his efforts into the relay, and then told Porter to catch him at twenty-eight steps, not their usual twenty-six.
"We were determined to win it or lose it right there," Porter said. "I was pumped up for the race, shaking like a leaf. Then I tripped coming out of the blocks! But I took off and passed Randy Williams like I was shot out of a gun. I got the baton to Pat, and the next step we were out of the exchange zone.
"I just sat down on the track and watched the rest of the race."
Gullick took off as anchorman in the lead, but was overcome by faster hands and the Cajuns
finished third in 39.9 seconds.
The World University Games in Moscow followed that summer for Porter, although a hurt back curtailed his running hopes once he arrived in Russia. His Russian trip, and his 1974 trip to China proved fruitful ground for comparison of the two communist societies.
"You couldn't go anywhere without being watched in Moscow," Porter recalled. "There were guards everywhere. You had to walk in walkways under the streets. If you crossed the streets themselves, people would come running out from everywhere.
Porter led his USL team to the NCAA meet several times and ran throughout the world as a member of U.S. teams.
"They fed us horse meat, or dog meat, it seemed, and horrible soup. We had brought candy bars and Cokes and Seven Ups along, and I tried to live on that rather than eating the soup.
"I lost thirteen pounds, from 178 to 165, and then I broke down and ate seconds of that horrible soup."
Porter also remembers two things about the people there-they were overly curious about his color, and they were unkempt in crowds on the city's superior subways and transit systems. "I had to keep telling those people, 'No, my face won't rub off,'" he recalled with a trace of bitterness.
In 1974, the Cajuns won the Southland Conference but could not go to the NCAA Meet because the school was on probation.
But a ninety-two-member contingent of athletes and officials from the United States was allowed to go to China that summer, and Porter was among that throng. The group performed exhibition meets in three cities for twenty-one days, playing the tourist to the hilt the remainder of the time.
The Chinese laid out the red carpet, literally, for the group, and Porter's weight climbed from 178 to 190 pounds from the three and five-course banquets the hosts laid out. Sightseeing was freely allowed in and around Canton, Shang Hai, and Peking, with the exception of Peking's subway system. Athletes visited an ancient Buddhist city, the "Forbidden City", the Square of the People, the Great Hall, and Porter even got a brick from the Great Wall of China.
Porter ran the 200 meters in Canton, finishing second in the rain. He won the 100 meters in 10.4 seconds in Shang Hai, and the 400 meter relay team won in Peking. But the action on the track was almost secondary to the trip itself. Shaking hands with Cho En Lai served as one of many highlights on the first athletic trip from the United States to China since the famed ping pong visit earlier.
"The Chinese filmed all of our workouts,everything," said Porter. "They wanted to learn. We brought them a set of blocks as a gesture of good will, but they already had electrically operated starting blocks! They had the equipment, they just didn't know how to run track then." Another discovery came when some U.S. male athletes took on some Chinese girls in volleyball. Result-"They stomped us."
When Augie Tammariello took over the USL football program that fall, Porter was there as a split end. For one thing, the change of coaching awakened his former enjoyment of the game, and for another, dollars beckoned in pro football for sprinters who could catch ala Bob Hayes.
Porter highlighted his final USL athletic adventure with a school-record ninety-five-yard bomb from Randy Fontenot as the Cajuns defeated Tennessee Chattanooga, 21-20.
"I had finished all but about three hours for my degree by then," he noted. "I think the other cats enjoyed practice with me around. I kept the team loose."
Then, just as the colleges had beckoned after his East Jefferson days, the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs drafted Porter in the ninth round in 1975. Porter spent thirty days in a Holiday Inn before being cut and walking away from the game.
"All the receivers got hurt, so I was the only healthy one," he said. "Coaches wanted you to take uppers to keep going, running all those pass routes. In pro football, if one body doesn't work, they'll throw it out and get another one.
lt's a game in college, but it's a business in the pros. I got my face guard broken and my head gashed by Robert BraziIe of Houston in an exhibition game, and I went to the sidelines to get it fixed. Then a coach told me to get back on the field because I was on the punting team." When Head Coach Paul Wiggin cut Porter, the USL speed burner thanked him for the chance and went on to become a salesman who refused one promotion bid so that he could see USL football games and track meets more often from his Baton Rouge home.
"I went to school for the books," he said of his USL career. "They will forget you after athletics, and you have to have something to do when it's all over.
"I always had the grades."
And the speed.
Prides of Acadiana by Bruce Brown (1980) is a copyrighted enterprise.