Ralph Boston never said much about Ralph Boston

Marvin Westwestwords

Ralph Boston, in the summer of 1960, broke the world long-jump record held for 25 years by the legendary Jesse Owens.

After that, Boston won a full set of Olympic medals, gold at Rome, silver at Tokyo and bronze at Mexico City.

He won a lot of respect and appreciation along the way. He was one of the best jumpers the world has ever seen and he competed with dignity – no cartwheels, no chest-thumping, no see me, see me.

From boyhood in Laurel, Mississippi, through 1968 in Knoxville, Ralph Boston was one splendid athlete. Along that exciting trail, he was also one of the good guys, a goodwill ambassador when there weren’t enough to go around.

He became a volunteer coach, college administrator, businessman, humanitarian and proud great-grandfather.

I wish East Tennessee could claim him as our own but he first popped into the news at Tennessee State University as an NCAA champion. He did make marks at the University of Tennessee – and elsewhere in the world.

I find it very interesting that through a lifetime of accomplishments, Ralph said very little about Ralph.

He explained: Being first in an event makes you a winner in that one phase of life. What you do after the games is what really counts.


Boston, slender at 6-1 and 165, was a high school athlete in everything, quarterback and punter, basketball, and assorted running and jumping events in track and field. He set a national record in the hurdles. He wanted to play football in college but his mother didn’t like the thought of all the times he would be tackled.

“In those days, Mama prevailed.”

He wasn’t recruited in anything. His Laurel coach wrote letters on his behalf. Indiana took a look but never came back. Several small schools were interested if he could pay his own way.

Sight unseen, Tennessee State took a flyer. It offered a scholarship to come be on the track team. Of course, he went. Big moments followed: He met the famous Wilma Rudolph and graduated in biochemistry.

Ralph Boston became a towering figure in the wonderful world of track and field. His introduction to real fame came in Los Angeles when he jumped, in the Mount SAC Relays, past Owens’ almost-forever mark.

It probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal if Boston had broken anyone else’s world record but Owens was historical, four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. There was nothing Adolph Hitler could do except suffer.

Ralph beat Jesse’s best by just three inches but that was more than enough to become somebody.

“It changed my life,” he said.

This last of 10 children for Eulalia and Peter Boston, a farmer and handyman with a third-grade education, was invited to New York to start to get ready for the Rome Olympics. He was stunned when another young man recognized him on the street.

“You’re Ralph Boston! I want to take your picture.”

“Who are you?” asked Boston politely.

“My name is Cassius Marcellus Clay. You don’t know me but you will.”

Never have two more different people than Ralph Boston and Muhammad Ali-to-be said hello on a sidewalk.


Boston was first to jump past 27 feet. He dominated the event for a decade. He won national AAU titles six consecutive years. He won at the Pan-Am Games. He collected the Olympic medals.

After that, he lived in Knoxville for seven years. He worked at the University of Tennessee as coordinator of minority affairs and assistant to Dr. Tom Scott, dean of students. He was a volunteer coach of track Volunteers.

He became a businessman. He worked for Tom King’s insurance firm and for South Central Bell. He became part owner of television station WVLT. He went as a reporter-analyst for CBS and ESPN wherever track action beckoned.

He moved to the Atlanta area in 1992 to work for Ericsson telecommunications as international customer relations director. Anywhere he went, people knew who he was. He never stopped being surprised.

“I became a name that was fairly recognizable.”

He returned to Knoxville often. He retained an interest in channel 8 until 1996.


Ralph Boston died the other day at his home in Peachtree City, Georgia, of residuals from a stroke. Tomorrow he would have been 84. Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. on May 20 at Oak Park High School in Laurel, from whence he came.

“I’m devastated about Ralph Boston’s passing,” said all-time great sprinter Carl Lewis. “As a child I idolized him and he was a major influence in my life. I’ll miss his voice and support. He changed the game as an athlete, advocate and mentor. Jumpers, know his name!

“Mr. Boston, rest with the greats.”


Chuck Rohe was the lure that brought Boston to Knoxville after his final Olympic performance. Rohe wanted him as an assistant coach. Athletics director Bob Woodruff was no help, none.

Gov. Buford Ellington got involved. The university provided the campus job. Many young Blacks looked to Ralph for guidance. Rohe said he was their idol.

“He was a renowned figure and UT was happy to have him. And he was an unbelievable volunteer at helping our jumpers.”

Jeff Gabel was one.

“He became my coach and I became the fortunate guy on the team,” Jeff said. “Ralph made me who I became. I could not have been an All-American had it not been for him.”

Gabel also became a tax attorney in New York City. He took bits of Boston with him.

Gabel reflections: “He always tried to coach in a positive manner. He wanted to be a better person and wanted to make his athletes better people as well. He got them (black athletes) to see a different light and he made them better people.

“He always looked at his cup as half full instead of half empty. He raised everyone to another level.”

Gabel said those were changing times in UT history. He mentioned color and religious barriers.

“There were no barriers between us, never.”

It just didn’t matter that Boston was black and Gabel was a Jew.

“In later years, he was part of our family. He came to our home for family events. He stayed with us. He cooked pancakes for our children.

“We played golf. He had so much personality. He was like that to all. There is no one to replace him. He was one of a kind.”

“Yes,” said Rohe. “And he was never taken with himself, even though he was the greatest in the world. He was a very gentle man, a real gentleman, soft spoken, great athlete, fine coach, good friend.

“I wish I had spent more time with him.”


Sevierville attorney Coppley Vickers, a former Marine, a former Tennessee track captain, an excellent distance runner in his time, has a very distinct perspective of Boston.

“I thought he could walk on water.”

A favorite memory: Boston was jumping at Tom Black Track to demonstrate something at practice. As he was flying down the runway, a small boy ran into his path.

“Any long-jumper would have been angry,” said Vickers. “Not Ralph. He helped the little guy up, checked him out to made sure he was OK and gave him a little hug,”

Other old Vols were touched by Boston’s death.

“He was a genuine treasure of a person,” said Bill Sellmer.

“A true champion and terrific man,” said Mike Tomasello.

“I lack words to describe the athlete and gentleman Ralph Boston was,” said Vol great Hardee McAlhaney.

Boston called his years at UT rewarding and life-changing.

“Those were some of the formative years of my life.”


Before that, when Boston was winding down as an international competitor, he became unofficial coach of young jumper Bob Beamon. They trained together. Bob made a major contribution at the Mexico City Games.

“What people don’t know is that I wouldn’t have done what I did if it hadn’t been for Ralph,” Beamon said.

“I fouled on my first two attempts and was about to get disqualified. Ralph told me I should consider adjusting my footwork, back up three feet on the start. I figured I had better listen to the master, and I did. The rest, as they say, is history. I owe a lot to Ralph Boston.”

Beamon made it into the competition and responded with one of the most memorable performances in athletics history, 29 feet, 2.5 inches to zoom past Boston’s best ever.

Ralph jumped only 26-9 that day. He later looked at the scoreboard and said “Yes, Beamon gave us quite a moment. And he ran me right out of the sport.”


There were so many bright and shining moments in this unusual life. He was too modest to say much about it but a crowd of 75,000 in Rome chanted his name, “Boston, Boston, Boston.”

He never said it to me but I know he was pleased when the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame chose him as the first Black honoree.

He was immensely proud of Oak Park High School and his hometown and Laurel was proud of him.

Lifelong friend Cleveland Payne said: “He was a beautiful human being with the true spirit of an Olympian. Laurel needed a Ralph Boston to reach the top and show us that it can be done. I’m so glad Ralph passed our way.”

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected].

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