We were as close as brothers, the late Dr. LeRoy Walker said of coach Al Buehler.
Indeed they were. And so it was only right that 81-year-old Buehler was by his best friends side at Duke Hospital the night before 93-year-old Walker died in April. Buehler pulled a chair up to the hospital bed as Walker rested comfortably and squeezed his hand. As he leaned over Walkers hospital bed, the memories of their 50-plus years of friendship poured out of Buehler.
Fifty years. Although Walker was dozing in and out of sleep, Buehler wanted his friend to hear stories of their good times. Buehlers face lit up as he recounted the record-setting crowd of 52,000 that filled Wallace Wade Stadium in 1971 for the historic Pan Africa-USA International Meet, the first time the African nations had competed under one flag. It was one of many historical track meets the duo orchestrated in Durham, featuring the top athletes in the world such as Steve Prefontaine and Kip Keino. Remember when Miruts Yifter raced against Prefontaine? Buehler continued, Yifter was in the lead but thought the gun signaled the final lap and he stopped running! Ill never forget it.
Walker and Buehlers friendship began decades earlier when the two track and field coaches trained their teams together, North Carolina Central and Duke, respectively, at Dukes Wallace Wade Stadium a few miles from Central. As Walker explained, Duke had a better track, and I didnt want to take anybody out to Central where we had to dodge puddles! It was during the height of segregation that Walker and Buehler broke down barriers by their actions and began to make a difference.
We never talked about the race issue. He was Al, and I was LeRoy, Walker noted years earlier. When they traveled together with their teams, they were often refused service at restaurants in the South. They were having race riots in Greensboro. We quelled all that stuff and said were having a track meet down here, and everybody came, Buehler said.
Buehler paused while the nurse entered to take Walkers vitals. Soon after, Buehler continued his storytelling, informing the nurse that the two had teamed up to put on track meets at Duke. I remember when 16-year-old Mary Decker used her kick to outrun the Russian at the finish line. Over 65,000 people came even the KGB agents were there!
At a time when the two nations were building bomb shelters, they had brought the two countries together for the USSR-USA Invitational Track Meet. The sold-out meet received national media coverage.
We werent there to get our names in the paper, Buehler later said. He was P.T. Barnum out there beating the big drums saying, Were having a circus, and Im walking behind picking up the elephant manure; we complemented each other. It was not a rivalry or anything.
Walkers strength was training the sprinters and hurdlers. Buehler focused on the distance runners. Together they trained countless Olympians, All-Americans, and NCAA champions. Walker and Buehler went on to be Olympic coaches; Walker became the first African-American president of the United States Olympic Committee. All the while, the two shared a passion for teaching. Walker held positions as a professor, and later chancellor, of North Carolina Central and Buehler is in his 57th year teaching the History of Sports seminar at Duke.
Back in April, Buehler moved his chair closer to Walker. The nurse informed Buehler that they were taking his friend to hospice soon. The coach stood up, gently touched his friends shoulder and squeezed his hand, Well get back to Wallace Wade Stadium, LeRoy. Stay strong. We love you. Walker opened his eyes and squeezed back.
As he walked out the door, Buehler turned to the nurse, Thanks for taking care of LeRoy.
Amy E. Unell is an Emmy-nominated former producer for NBCs Today Show and founder of StoryTales Productions. Unell is the author of the upcoming book, Starting at the Finish Line: Coach Al Buehlers Timeless Wisdom, published by Perigee/Penguin Books. For more information, please visit coachbuehler.com