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Olympian Billy Mills: Long may he run

This is the tale of a hero. A Native American hero, who, arguably, accomplished the single-greatest track and field victory in this country's history. And has, remarkably, gone on to accomplish much, much more.

What's a hero? The Oxford American Dictionary says the following: "A man who is admired for his brave or noble deeds." The word gets thrown around too easily today. Athletic triumphs abound, of course. The game-winning home run, the buzzer-beating jump-shot, the perfect playoff putt. Sure they are heroic, but it's just sports, right? It is not a fireman running into a burning building. Not an AIDS doctor working for one-tenth of what he could earn. Not a beleaguered social worker or a courageous, decent cop. Not men and women going to work every day, taking care of their kids.

But sometimes sports really do produce comparable heroes. Even if the heroes, at least in this case, would be uncomfortable with the comparison.

Nearly 50 years ago, there was a gifted teen-aged American Indian athlete, an Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge. He was a fine runner, one of the best in the country and attended the University of Kansas on a track scholarship. There weren't 10 other Indians on a campus of close to 20,000 students. He had a wonderful NCAA track and cross country career, and became a two-time All-American. Later he married his college sweetheart, joined the Marines as an officer after getting his degree in education and was the first Mills family member to earn a college diploma. Already the young man was a terrific American success story.

But he wasn't finished. He kept running and running. Until he ran the greatest race any American has ever run. As a huge underdog, he won the Gold Medal in the 10,000 meters in Tokyo at the 1964 Olympic Games. One shining, transcendent moment (actually 28 minutes, 24 and 4/10 seconds of moments, then transcendence) followed in the ensuing 39 years by far greater feats - the accomplishment of living an exemplary life dedicated to doing the right thing, promoting positive values. He is dedicated to his family, his culture, his society. Moment by moment by moment. Today, as one of the most sought after motivational speakers in the country, he shares his life and wisdom. And the world is better off for it.

This is the tale of

Billy Mills - Hero

He was born 65 years ago in the squalor of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Half white, half Native American, he did not fit comfortably into either skin. He was looked down upon by many of his fellow American Indians and was banned from participating in sacred ceremonies, including sweats. As a result he was pushed toward Christianity, whereupon the Christians demanded he renounce his Native American culture. It was tough. "I didn't belong anywhere, or at least that's the way it felt." His white mother died by the time he was 4 years old. His father would pass away when Billy was 12. But before he did, his father gave his young son a remarkable gift, the gift of wisdom passed on. The lessons are profound, the philosophical linchpin of Billy Mills, the man.

"I was young of course, but my father started teaching me early about the important things. Perhaps he knew he wasn't going to live long, I don't know. I remember what he said was most important: 'You can't let the anger control you. You have to look deeper than self pity, deeper than jealousy, you have to look way down below those emotions. That's where dreams live and the pursuit of your dreams will heal you.' Those might not have been his exact words, but that was the emotional reality. It's one of the messages I try to convey when I speak. My father was eloquent in his wisdom. He also said, 'Ultimately every dream has its passion and every passion has its destiny.' I was lucky to have him for 12 years. All these years later, I'm still deeply connected to his spirit. He taught me the most significant lessons of my life."

"Believe it or not," said Billy Mills, "the first book I remember reading was a collection of articles about Olympic athletes." But this perfect-sounding little anecdote isn't going where you might think: a future star seeing his pre-destined athletic glory. It is not that at all. "One of the articles quoted a Greek philosopher, saying that Olympians are chosen by the gods. I was 9-years-old, my mom had been gone for five years. In my kid's mind I thought that if I became an Olympian, that if the gods chose me, then they'd also make sure that I would see my mom again."

In 1957 after graduating from high school Mills received an athletic scholarship to Kansas University where he ran under the hard gaze of a legendary taskmaster, coach Bill Easton. Not known as a touchy/feely type, to say the least, Easton had nevertheless taken a chance on Mills. Chance? Wasn't Mills one of the best? Yes, but he was a Native American and in the 1950s, believe it or not, Indian athletes were widely seen as potential drunks and quitters. The attitude was despicable, but all too true; the unfortunate reality that Native American athletes had to endure. In fact, KU was the only school to offer Mills a scholarship. The Big 7 Conference (which became the Big 8 in 1958 and is now the Big 12) of which Kansas was a member, was not a bastion of progressiveness. For example, the first black baseball player in the conference arrived at Kansas State in 1957 - a full 10 years after Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball. He was a catcher by the name of Earl Woods. Today, he has a son who's a pretty fair golfer.

KU was not a walk in the park. Mills experienced plenty of racism. (So did his track and field teammate, Wilt Chamberlain, who also played some basketball.) Garbage like, "You're not so fast, chief," from a teammate. He experienced social rejection from the fraternity system and harassment from security guards who couldn't or wouldn't believe he was a student. But there were fine things too. Like Pat Harris.

"I was a telephone operator in a girl's dorm," Pat Harris Mills recalls today. "It was between semesters and there was an upcoming track party. And Billy needed a date. He kept calling for various girls, but nobody was around because school was out. Billy doesn't discourage easily, he must've called for five or six girls. 'Well, how about you?' he finally asked. Probably desperate. 'I don't go out on blind dates.' And he said 'What about if I come over and meet you?' He broke me down and I said all right. I remember he was wearing a silly little hat, like a derby, that I guess all the cross-country guys had to wear. But most of all I remember that he was so sweet. Really, really sweet. And gentle. It was late December 1960. We were married a little over a year later."

"That was 41 years ago," Mills said. "I'm blessed and I know it."

He and Pat make a potent team in both business and their life's real work, helping make a difference in the lives of American Indians across the country, with a special emphasis on aiding young people. Mills' philosophy is based on a message that encourages Native youth to be the best they can be, centered on qualities of character, dignity and trust which is how Mills lives his own life on a daily basis. As national spokesman of Running Strong for American Indian Youth ( for all 17 years of the non-profit foundation's existence, Mills has worked tirelessly to support the group's mission of strengthening American Indian communities by creating opportunities for self-sufficiency and self-esteem. He also lent his name to the Billy Mills Youth Center in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. "Your life is a gift from the Creator," said Billy Mills. "Your gift back to the Creator is what you do with your life."

What Billy Mills has done and is doing with his life makes him an inspiration. And it makes him a hero.

(The next installment of this series will look at Mills' athletic career, the messages he has to share and his relationship with Running Strong for American Indian Youth.)

Frank Coffey, a former book, magazine and newspaper editor, is the author of 35 books, including four novels. His work includes "Sixty Minutes: 25 Years of Television's Finest Hour," "Why Do They Call it a Birdie?" and "Golfers on Golf." He packaged the best-selling baseball book "The Bronx Zoo" and Carl Waldman's award-winning books "Atlas of the North American Indian," "Who's Who In Native American History" and "Word Dance."