Elisha Marshall has never forgotten how opponents looked at her and her teammates whenever North Carolina Central participated in a major track and field event.
Marshall, who ran for the Eagles from 1994-98, had a particular chip on her shoulder since the university was a member of the NCAA Division II at the time but still competed against Division I athletes.
“Other teams always looked at us as the underdogs, but when I crossed the finish line, they looked at us with respect,” Marshall said at NCCU’s recent track and field banquet.
“I loved it.”
Marshall had a stellar career as a six-time All-American; a DII 100-meter champion in 1998, the first NCCU woman to win a national championship; and an inductee into the 2004 NCCU Hall of Fame.
But at the banquet, she was just a fundraiser for the athletic program. And quite an impression she made.
“I have to speak from the heart because I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if it weren’t for somebody saying, ‘You’re going to give back to the track program,’” she said. “Those individuals who are looking for a university that has a legacy, this is the place. This sport builds character and teaches you how to work with other individuals. We cannot let Dr. Walker down or let his family down.”
Dr. Walker is LeRoy T. Walker, who was initially hired as an assistant football and basketball coach. What started as an offseason-conditioning program for the players turned into the creation of the Eagles track program. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The late Walker coached 12 Olympic medalists – 11 of whom won gold – 40 national champions and 111 All-Americans. He sent at least one athlete to six straight Olympics between 1956 and 1980.
His success prompted the U.S. Olympic Committee to name him the head coach for the 1976 Olympic team, the first such honor for an African-American coach.
Although football and men’s basketball have elevated the university’s Division I status, track and field is the most successful athletics program in NCCU history over the past 50 years.
The banquet was part of a two-day weekend of fundraising activities for the program. Spearheaded by Mike Lipscomb, chairman of the alumni committee, the goal is to grow the program’s legacy.
“We’ve had some of the greatest athletes ever assembled and nobody knows about it,” Lipscomb said. “Our second goal is to educate and enhance the legacy of Dr. LeRoy T. Walker.”
Hakeem Mohammed recalled how hard he had practiced one afternoon – to the point of almost throwing up – and asked track coach Michael Lawson if he could rest.
Instead Lawson urged Mohammed to “go ahead and throw up” and then head back on the track.
“I’m thinking, how can I run faster when at this point I’m exhausted,” Mohammed said. “But something deep down inside knew I could. I ran another lap at a faster time than I did previously, so that was one of the pinnacle moments where I appreciated him for pushing me past my limits.”
That “push” paid off as Mohammed and four other NCCU track alumni were honored as a “Regal Eagle” at the banquet. The Society of Regal Eagles is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a NCCU track athlete.
Mohammed, who was recruited by Lawson in 2003, won the 400 meters in the 2007 NCAA Division II championship in a blistering time of 45.37 seconds, and was named a DII All-American in the 200- and 400-meter dashes.
He admits he didn’t know much about the Eagles’ rich track and field history, but that soon changed.
“I knew I wasn’t the greatest athlete coming out of high school and I needed some time to develop, so I feel like it was divine that God led me to NCCU because I was able to develop into a world-class athlete,” he said. “My freshman year I began to learn more about the history and one day I said, ‘I want to be on the wall with those guys,’ and it was like, today will be the day.”
Banquet attendees also received two surprises. First, Tecla Sang traveled from Kenya to accept honoree Robert Ouko’s award on his behalf. Sang is the first female Olympian Kenyan athlete and wife of former NCCU track star Julius Sang.
Second, honoree Melvin Bassett donated the missing baton that he kept after the Eagles won the 1972 NAIA championship in the mile relay in a record-setting pace of 3:04.8 seconds. That quartet of Bassett, Ouko, Sang and Larry Black was honored last month at the Penn Relays’ Wall of Fame.
“We were unbeaten for four years in the mile relay,” Bassett said. “Hopefully, we can get another team worthy enough to carry this baton. It was never dropped in four years.”
The other honorees were Vance Charles Robinson, 1957-60, (posthumously), who was the 1959 CIAA 100-yard dash champion, and an inductee into the 1990 NCCU Hall of Fame; and Christopher L. Davis (2004-08), the 2007 60-meter Division II indoor champion.