Back in 2004 I decided I wanted to write a book on Rodney Milburn, the 1972 Olympic champion in the 110 meter high hurdles. Milburn passed away at the age of 47, in 1997, in a tragic accident at his workplace. When I heard news of his death, I expected (naively, perhaps) to hear an outpouring of emotions, followed by a book and a movie, but the years kept passing by and I barely heard a whisper. That’s when the thought occurred to me, why don’t I write something.
I didn’t want one of the greatest hurdlers of all time to be forgotten. So I called some people at the Interpretive Museum in Milburn’s hometown of Opelousas, LA. The museum featured an exhibit on Milburn that included some action photos, a replica of his Olympic gold medal, his USA uniform, and other memorabilia. I was told, a couple weeks after my initial inquiry, that the members of Milburn’s family would be okay with me going ahead with a biography.
So, between the fall of 2004 through most of 2006, I spent much time doing research for, and writing, a biography of the life of Rodney Milburn. I traveled to Opelousas twice, where I interviewed dozens of family members, friends, former teammates, coaches, teachers, and mentors. I also interviewed many of Milburn’s hurdling rivals, such as Renaldo Nehemiah, Charles Foster, Leon Coleman, and Larry Shipp. I also spent much time in university libraries digging for old articles and meet results. Ken Stone of www.masterstrack.com did me the favor of sending me old copies of Track & Field News that proved to be invaluable. Stone also edited early drafts of the first few chapters, which proved to be even more invaluable.
So after completing a full draft of the biography, I sent letters to dozens of literary agents, as well as to some university presses, hoping to find a publisher willing to put Milburn’s story into book form. But I could find no takers. I grew particularly discouraged by the reactions of two agents, both of whom were impressed with the manuscript proposal that I sent them. While they both felt that the story was riveting, well-written, and well-researched, they decided to reject it based on the fact Milburn was simply too much of an unknown entity. The general public, both agents conveyed, does not know who Rodney Milburn is. One of the agents even suggested that I write a book on a more prominent athletic figure, like Marion Jones, who had been queen of the sprints but had been recently banned for steroid use. But that’s not where my heart was. I had written a book on Rodney Milburn because I’d wanted to write a book on Rodney Milburn.
So I moved on with my life and pretty much forgot about the book project. But it kept gnawing at me. I kept thinking to myself that I didn’t do all that researching and writing just to give up. Plus, I felt like I was letting down Rodney’s brother Jimmy, who really wanted this book to become a reality, and had bent over backwards to help me with my research.
Also, I later discovered that Sue Deville – the head of the Opelousas Interpretive Museum, who had helped me so much in finding research and procuring interviews – had passed away. The news jolted something within me – a conviction that I needed to finish what I had started.
So I decided around 2010 to publish the book on this website, www.hurdlesfirst.com, one chapter at a time. But I lost one of the later chapters when my computer crashed and I didn’t have a back-up copy saved. But last year I remembered that I had emailed the entire manuscript to one of my former students who wanted to read it. I found him on a social media site and asked if he still had those files. He replied that he did, and he sent me the chapter I was missing. So here I am here in October of 2014 finally putting it all together.
Hopefully at some point I can find a publisher willing to put this book into print form so that Rodney’s brother Jimmy and Rodney’s other family members can have a hard copy they can hold in their hands and share with friends.
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The title for this biography on Milburn is Rodney Milburn: The Quiet Champion. That’s because everyone I interviewed emphasized his humility, his soft-spoken nature, his kindness and concern for others. This book is a tribute to a great man who lived a great life and accomplished great things despite enormous odds and the need to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This book is a hurdler’s tribute to a hurdler. It is my way of saying, Thank you Rodney Milburn, for running over those hurdles with such beauty and grace, for inspiring those who inspired me, for being a quiet champion, a humble man….