Little did Mike Thomas know in the 1960s that Fairport was giving new meaning at times to an all-weather track.
There were lanes, and there were turns — only for the Skippers, it was on the pavement of the streets in town.
“Having been from Fairport, we didn’t know anything different,” Thomas said.
“It’s just what you did.”
What Thomas did was put together a track and field career that has landed him in the inaugural News-Herald High School Sports Hall of Fame class.
A four-time state champion in hurdles, Thomas twice earned meet most valuable performer honors as he led the Skippers to Class A state team championships in 1964 and 1965.
The 2011 Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame inductee is one of five area track and field athletes all-time to win at least four state titles in individual events. Fairport is one of three N-H schools to win more than one team championship in the sport.
Those glory days for the program through the 1960s and into the early 1970s were during a rebirth for the sport at the school. Track and field had been discontinued in 1950. Thomas’ brother, Fred, was a state qualifier in the 880 in 1952, but because the school didn’t sponsor the sport, he practiced with Riverside.
In a 2004 letter during an initial push to get Thomas into the OATCCC Hall, his high school coach Chet Rojeck wrote in a recommendation letter:
“I arrived in 1956 as the head football coach. Fairport had no spring sport. Although I was a baseball player in college at (Ohio University), I thought it would be best for the football and basketball programs if track would be added to the athletic program.
“Fairport averaged about 25 boys per grade. The Board of Education agreed and said I would have to be the coach without any track and field facilities.”
They were essentially told to hit the road, so sometimes they did. The 220-yard dash, for instance, was between Third and Fourth streets. A half-mile was around the block.
The extent to which there was a track was an oval marked off on the football field. Skippers who dared to take up hurdling in those days would place hurdles on the yard lines on the grass.
“Surprisingly,” Rojeck wrote, “my best runners favored the hurdle events.”
Of which Thomas was one.
“You’d add 3-4 inches of grass for the hurdles,” Thomas said.
“It helped when you got on an all-weather track, a rubber track, because it was like running on a cloud.”
Going from hurdling on a football field all the way to the state meet may have seemed like a dream up on a cloud somewhere, but Fairport had an important example for Thomas and those who came after him.
Back then, the hurdles program consisted of 120-yard high and 180 low races. Thomas had watched another Fairport great, Gene Kangas, become a two-time state champion in the 120 high hurdles in 1961 and 1962.
“Gene was probably the start of everything with track at Fairport,” Thomas said. “Really at that time he was the modern re-inventer of track at Fairport. He was a senior when I was a freshman.
“Gene really was the start of it. I looked up to him — that was who it was. Without him, if he hadn’t hurdled, I don’t know if I would have. You had to have someone to be that inspiration.”
Then Thomas began to inspire with his work on the track.
A breakout performance in the hurdles during the Western Reserve League meet his sophomore year provided an impetus for the rest of his career after scoring just 2 1/4 points as a freshman (according to a 1965 Painesville Telegraph article).
By the end of the 1963 season, Thomas was making his debut in the state meet at Ohio Stadium — also a special occasion because Thomas’ great-grandparents, according to that same Telegraph story, had once farmed the land where the stadium stood.
“I was so naive,” Thomas said. “I didn’t realize what was happening. I remember sitting next to Clinton Jones from Cathedral Latin. I was a sophomore, I sat down next to him and I just listened to him. It was the big city, and my mouth was open wide.”
A big city and a big stage, but Thomas delivered a Class A state runner-up finish in the 180 lows.
Then came a remarkable 1964.
Fairport never won a dual meet or league meet during Thomas’ career, hurt by its depth against larger WRL schools. The Skippers had the quality, though, to score well in the postseason.
At the 1964 state meet, Thomas swept the hurdles with a time of 14.3 seconds in the 120 highs and 20.2 in the 180 lows. The performance earned him the William Vartorella Trophy for outstanding Class A athlete, and it helped propel Fairport to history.
The trackless Skippers were Class A state team champion, the first Lake County school to win a team crown in the sport since Mentor took Class B in 1933, led by the dynamic Harley Howells.
“It was ours for the taking,” Rojeck told the Telegraph. “This is the greatest thing that has happened in the history of Fairport Harbor athletics.”
While that may have been true, at the time Thomas admits his thought process was different.
“Members of our team didn’t think along those lines,” Thomas said. “We went down, we ran the meet, had a good time and we won.
“It was the same way in 1965.”
Along with being much the same story. There was a sweep of the hurdles that included a then-state record 14.2 in the 120 highs — although Thomas leaned a stride early in the 180 lows and had to edge Marion Pleasant’s Larry Midlam at the line in 19.5.
It also included another Class A state team title.
When the Fairport caravan arrived from Columbus to the Heisley Road exit off Interstate 90 after its repeat, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department met it and provided an escort to Painesville. The Skippers’ hometown fire and police departments took it from there, sirens blaring to a victory celebration at the village park, at which Rojeck and the mayor spoke.
Thomas is nearly a half-century removed from that golden era.
“That’s amazing. No wonder my bones hurt,” he said with a laugh.
Those days, though, of taking hurdles out on the football field — not to mention the Fairport equivalent of an all-weather track — were well worth it.
It translated to a legacy on the track, not to mention the legacy of the community Thomas will always recall fondly.
“I think it’s more about growing up in the village of Fairport,” Thomas said. “There are so many advantages going to a smaller school. Some kids had opportunities they wouldn’t have had at a larger school. It might not have been like that. I keep going back to Gene, and the reality is, at a larger school, you might not have gotten the same opportunity.”
- Who: 2013 News-Herald High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee
- Sport: Boys track and field
- High school: Fairport
- Where are they now?: Thomas resides in Leroy Township and works as a loan officer for American Midwest Mortgage in Willoughby Hills.
- High school highlights: Two-time Class A state meet most valuable performer in 1964 and 1965. … Four-time state champion, twice each in the 120 and 180 hurdles. … Career-best performances in all events were: 14.2 (120 hurdles), 19.5 (180 hurdles), 21-8 1/2 (broad jump), 6-2 (high jump), 51.9 (440), 10.4 (100), 23.1 (220) and 49.6 split on mile relay.
By Chris Lillstrung | CLillstrung@News-Herald.com | @CLillstrungNH