BackTrack: East's Brown was ahead of his time

Tanner Cook • Mar 29, 2020 at 11:41 PM

The following is part of a special series looking at past outstanding performers called “BackTrack: Exploring Lost Track and Field Legends of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.”

Chuck Brown was a man ahead of his time and the pack during his days running for Sullivan East in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Brown grew up during what was considered the “running boom” in the United States and admired the legends of the time like Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine.

“Pre was my hero,” Brown said. “I never got to meet him, but I did get to meet guys like Frank Shorter and Marty Liquori one time at the Mason-Dixon Games in Louisville.

“My strategy when I raced was trying to break everyone else mentally,” he said. “These guys that run now try to go for the win and don’t run all that fast. I was never one to go out, trying to pace myself and kick at the end. I wanted to go hard and get ahead of people.”


Even though hundreds of runners have lined up to run either the 800 or 1,600 meters since his graduation in 1977, Brown still holds claim to the Big 7 conference meet records in both events, set on the same day in 1976.

His time of 1:53 for the 880 yard run and 4:14.5 for the one mile even converted still stand as the oldest meet records with history dating back fully to 1929.

In fact, he has the top two times in each event with the subsequent two times being run one year later.

He still holds the Times News Relays meet record in the 800, clocking a 1:54.0 and no one has come within two seconds of it for nearly 30 years. The record was set in the first edition of the meet in 1976 and has withstood the test of time, being the oldest record on the books.

Brown’s school records at Sullivan East of 1:53.4 for 800 and 4:11.3 for 1,600 still stand and have gone widely untouched. Only 2015 Foot Locker finalist Luke Meade has come within striking distance of either record.

He was also part of the school record 4x800 meter relay team that ran 8:11.6 in 1976.

“My dad started training me when I was young and one thing that he always told me was to never look back,” Brown said.


Brown was a headache for competitors on the track, but he was less feared on the cross country course.

That is until the summer of 1976.

“I was putting in anywhere between 15 and 22 miles a day that summer,” he said. “I would run in the morning, then again during the day and if I felt like I had to, I’d go run at night. That summer is when I really started to push myself.”

Going into the fall of his senior year, Brown broke out of his shell as the hard work started to pay dividends. His postseason started off the right way by winning the Big 9 conference meet over his rival Jim Elmringer (Dobyns-Bennett) at the VA Medical Center in Johnson City. His time of 15:55 for the hilly 3-mile course outdistanced Tennessee High’s Tommy Tilden by five seconds.

Brown had only finished fourth in 1974 and fifth in 1975 on the same course.

“Jim was probably the reason I pushed myself so hard that summer,” he said. “He had beaten my butt pretty good a few times the season before and no one likes losing. It was really satisfying to beat Jim that day and I think that gave me a lot of confidence that I had a chance at winning the state meet.”


Brown won the regional at Daniel Boone and had his eyes firmly set on the state meet. He did not disappoint spectators at Percy Warner Park that day.

“I had looked at one of the local newspapers the morning before or the morning of the race and I wasn’t even mentioned in the article previewing the race,” he said.

The state meet had only gone to three miles in length three years prior, and D-B’s Elmringer had come close to the individual title the year before when Brown finished 11th. The meet also still had no classifications at the time.

“The state course at the time was three loops with the first part being a half-mile loop then a 1.5-mile loop and ended with a one-mile loop,” he said. “You passed the start/finish line three times. I went out in 4:30, then came back in 5:00 and finished up in 5:08.”

Brown blitzed the course early and ended up nearly 15 seconds ahead of runner-up Darrell Clemmons (Westwood), clocking 14:38.0. It was a new course record and still stands as one of the top 6 all-time performances for the 3-mile course at Percy Warner Park.

“I remember my parents were at the chute and they couldn’t see me because of the tall hedges. I was lapping a guy and they thought I had fallen or something, but when that guy went by the start/finish line and didn’t finish, they knew I had won,” he said. “I had hand-me-down Puma shoes that I got from ETSU and they had one-inch spikes in them. I had run so hard and I was thinking to myself on the final stretch that if I fell that I wasn’t going to get back up.”

The state meet was switched to 5,000 meters in 2006. The first boys state meet was in 1960.

“I remember when they called my name at the awards ceremony, I was behind the stage throwing up,” Brown said. “That was the hardest I had run all season and it was the way I always ran — all out.”


Brown’s unbelievable senior season continued as he piled on by winning the 1976 indoor 880-yard and one-mile individual titles. He capped off by winning the 1977 outdoor mile in a then-state record of 4:14.0.

He also garnered All-American honors on the track in 1975. 


Brown attended the University of Virginia on scholarship and graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in astronomy. He went on to work in air traffic control starting off first in Miami and then transferring up to Raleigh later after losing his home to Hurricane Andrew.

While running for the Cavaliers — who were deep in the middle and long distance at the time — Brown ran in a few races, but never quite blossomed in the way that he was projected due to a couple of injuries. He did run 1:49 for 800 in his freshman campaign, but never bettered his times.

However, as a member of the Cavalier distance medley relay team for the NCAA indoor championships in 1981 in Detroit, Brown garnered All-American honors.

Virginia finished runner-up in 9:48.61 to Villanova by less than two seconds and Brown ran the leadoff 1,200-meter leg.

“I was pretty nervous at the start of that race,” he said. “That still remains one of the highlights of my college days, though. To get runner-up to Villanova that day was good.

“We were right with them the whole race and we had a pretty good anchor leg for the mile in Vince Draddy, but they had the great Sydney Maree on the last leg. Sydney was one of the best to do it at the time.”


Brown was honored with a banner in the Patriot Palace in December 2011 immortalizing his 1977 outdoor one-mile individual title.

Sullivan East opened in the fall of 1968 and Brown was the first individual state champion at the new school.

“Having my dad at that ceremony was pretty special,” Brown said. “He passed away about five years ago and he was my mentor my whole life. He was a Florida state champion and he kind of raised me to be a runner, but I didn’t know it at the time.

“I remember going out for track at Holston Valley Middle, the coach had a mechanical stopwatch. I ran like a half mile or something and he thought the watch was broken when I crossed the finish line. He realized it wasn’t and he said, ‘Your time is faster than the boys running at the high school.’ I guess it was just meant to be.”

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