Front row left to right: Ray Flynn, Mark Finucane, Kevin Breen, Frank Greally, Mark Brown. Back row: Neil Cusack, David Ritchie, Tom McCormack, Mike Fields, Ray McBride, Coach Dave Walker.
We never called him Dave. We always called him Coach.
That was the level of respect that all of the Irish athletes who attended East Tennessee State, myself included, had for Coach Dave Walker.
My former “Irish Brigade” teammate, Louis Kenny, phoned me last weekend from Nashville with the news that Coach Walker had died. It was an emotional call and I knew that Louis was hurting badly at the other end of the phone.
The phone call propelled me back four decades to a day in September of 1972 when Coach Walker met Ray McBride and myself at Tri-Cities Airport. He drove us straight to the campus of ETSU, which would be home to us for the next four years, and along with Neil Cusack, Eddie Leddy, P.J. Leddy and Kevin Breen, we sat in a circle on the floor in Coach Walker’s office and listened to him outline his plans for the forthcoming cross country season.
I will always remember Coach Walker’s words to us new recruits.
“The reason you have both arrived here is because I know that you have talent,” he said. “The one thing I will ask of you both, as I ask all my runners, is that while you are here give it your best shot.”
And so we came to know Coach Walker. And we got to know him even better when his blue Buick cruised into the parking lot outside our dormitory at exactly 6:30 a.m. every weekday that autumn — the signal that it was time for our opening run of the day on the roads skirting the university.
Cusack and Eddie Leddy had just returned from competing in the Munich Olympics and both were on fire from that experience. They led our group, known as The Irish Brigade, on those early morning training runs.
In the afternoons we would head for the mountains, where Coach Walker would every day meticulously log our individual mile splits over 11 miles of that lung-busting hilly terrain.
I still recall the day I first saw Cusack throw a pair of racing shoes over the perimeter fence of the university track as we headed out on one of those afternoon runs. On our return that day, Cusack and Coach Walker introduced us to a new concept in training — the 11-mile run immediately followed by 10 quarter-mile intervals with just a few minutes recovery between laps.
For McBride and myself, this was our baptism of fire. It took us some time to adjust to this new training regime. And all the time we were acutely aware of Coach Walker trackside, timing our efforts.
The hard session over, he would gather us together and dispense words of encouragement. Coach Walker was a tough but always fair taskmaster who commanded great respect.
In that year of 1972 his Irish Brigade finished just a couple of points from winning the national cross country title in Houston, Texas, as Cusack led the field a merry dance to deliver a brilliant individual victory. In 1974, Cusack sped to another famous victory when he won the Boston Marathon while still a student at ETSU.
This year will mark the 40th anniversary of Cusack’s famous Boston victory and Neil has been invited back to Boston in April as a special guest of the race organizers.
I expect to have a book written on Neil’s great running career by the time Boston comes around. We had both been planning a surprise visit see Coach Walker in Johnson City in April. We still hope to visit ETSU and remember and celebrate the life of our great friend and mentor.
There was a bitter irony for Coach Walker at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Houston in ’72 when the winning team turned out to be none other than the University of Tennessee, our near neighbor and fierce rival. But our team arrived back in Johnson City to a reception fit for champions. And Coach Walker never chided the weaker members of that team for missing out on the coveted title by a handful of points.
The Irish athletes’ link with East Tennessee State started back in the late 1960s and was triggered by a chance meeting between Coach Walker and the late Brendan O’Reilly, an Irish athlete and an international high jumper of considerable fame. O’Reilly was attending Michigan when he met Coach Walker and they soon became firm friends.
O’Reilly recruited Dubliner Michael Heery for Coach Walker and thus began a link with Ireland and ETSU that continued through the decades.
Coach Walker produced three Irish Olympians at ETSU — Cusack, Eddie Leddy and Ray Flynn — and over the years close to 40 Irish athletes have attended the university on athletic scholarships.
Coach Walker played a pivotal role too in the lives of all the Irish athletes who passed through ETSU, and we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Two years ago I went back to ETSU to visit Coach Walker. And at a celebration event for my former coach, I presented him with a piece of Tipperary Crystal on behalf of Athletics Ireland and all the Irish athletes who attended ETSU over the years.
I will be forever grateful to retired ETSU English professor Dr. Jack Higgs and his wife, Reny, for organizing that special evening to honor Coach Walker. It was a gesture that Coach Walker deeply appreciated and this week I am especially grateful that I got to see my old coach for that one last time.
I am delighted too that I got the chance to speak on that public occasion in the Johnson City Library and tell all those friends present of the high esteem that all of us Irish athletes have always held for Coach Walker.
On hearing of Coach Walker’s passing last weekend, I called Cusack, P.J Leddy and Ray McBride to tell them the sad news. The memories flooded back for each of us as we talked and remembered Coach Walker with great fondness and great respect.
My mind flashed back to a day 10 years ago when we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of Irish Runner, the national running magazine that I have edited back in Dublin since 1981. It was a special landmark day for me and I had invited Coach Walker, who was on vacation in Ireland at the time, to attend the celebration road race in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
Coach Walker was enjoying his holiday in the West of Ireland, but he made sure to make the long trip to Dublin that day. There was an emotional reunion when Ray McBride and I met up with Coach Walker. Ray, my great friend for all those years, was recovering from cancer, as was Coach Walker. It was a very happy reunion that will always stay with me.
I am happy too that my two sons, Tomas and Conor, in recent years got to visit ETSU, and both have very fond memories of meeting and talking with Coach Walker.
There is a part of my spirit that I believe will always remain in the hills of Tennessee where I spent four very special years of my life — a period during which I developed great friendships that have endured to this very day. When I last visited Johnson City I also made a public tribute to my former English teacher at ETSU, the late and wonderfully inspiring David McClellan, who introduced me to the writings of Thomas Wolfe and other giants of American and world literature.
I can think of no better way to sign off on this tribute to Coach Dave Walker than to quote from Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again,” that beautiful passage written by another man of great stature and heart from across the mountain in Asheville. Wolfe’s final words in this classic echo sentiments I have here today in Dublin City as I shed a tear for the man we will always call “Coach.”
“To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life: to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving: to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth —
Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
Frank Greally is Editor of Irish Runner Magazine. Contact him at email@example.com.