ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ray Etherly, friends and fellow competitors say, could outrun a gale-force wind on an Albuquerque spring day.
Yet, they say, the remarkable talent in his legs never went to his head.
“In high school, standout athletes tend to stand out and be very cliquish and hang out with their own kind,” says Vincent Romero, a friend and classmate of Etherly’s at Albuquerque High. “But Ray always had a moment for everybody, from the lowest guy on the totem pole to the best athlete in school — which, in my opinion, he was.”
Etherly, a six-time New Mexico state high school sprint champion from 1959-61 and arguably the best prep sprinter in the nation as an AHS senior, died from leukemia March 27 in Albuquerque. He was 70.
A memorial service is scheduled at 1 p.m. Saturday at Macedonia Baptist Church, 1509 Edith SE.
As dominant as Etherly was at Albuquerque High, his story is also one of hard luck and unfulfilled potential. His career beyond high school ended as quickly as it began.
After his storied career at AHS, Etherly had a breakout summer in 1961.
At the Golden West Invitational in California, running against some of the top prep runners in the nation, the former Bulldog won the 100- and 220-yard dashes. The twin victories earned Etherly a mention in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” feature.
Romero says Etherly also won at the 1961 Compton (Calif.) Relays.
“They had all the top high school sprinters in the country, and Ray beat them all,” Romero says.
That same summer, in an all-comers meet at the University of New Mexico, Etherly defeated UNM star Adolph Plummer in a 220-yard dash.
“I was there that day,” Romero says. “He beat (Plummer) in a time of 20.7 (seconds), beat him by about three yards.”
This was no mean feat. Plummer was the 1961 NCAA champion in the 440 and two years later would set a world record at that distance. Plummer also was superb in the 220, having once defeated two-time Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes in that event.
Etherly’s fabulous summer of ’61 culminated with a sixth-place finish in the 200 meters at the United States National Championships. That performance at age 18, against a field that included past Olympian Frank Budd and future Olympian Paul Drayton, clearly suggested Olympic potential — as did his listed career bests of 9.3 seconds in the 100 and 20.3 in the 220.
That potential, however, was never realized.
In 2000, at a news conference held to announce his impending induction into the Albuquerque Sports Hall of Fame, Etherly said he had attended Texas Southern University in Houston. Family concerns in Albuquerque, he said, brought him home and essentially ended his athletic career.
That career lives on, however, at Albuquerque High. More than a half-century since Etherly last wore a Bulldog singlet, says longtime friend and former teammate Bobby Santiago, he still holds or shares school records in four events.
For three consecutive years, Etherly won big-school state titles at 100 and 220 yards.
“The races were never close,” Romero says.
Romero, who covered AHS sports while writing for the school newspaper, says he believes Etherly lost only one race as a Bulldog — that, in Alamogordo, because he stumbled and fell at the start.
“He got up real quick and finished second; he almost won the race,” Romero says. “That’s how good he was.”
Etherly played a starring role in what could be described as a golden age of Albuquerque high school track and field — pitting the Bulldogs of coach Ed Garvanian against the Highland Hornets of coach Henry Sanchez.
Most often, the Hornets’ superior depth prevailed. But in 1960, led by Etherly, hurdler Hiram Carroll and long jumper Del Blanks, the Bulldogs won the team title.
Donald Case competed against Etherly while running for Valley High School. Though Case didn’t have the personal relationship with Etherly that Romero and Santiago did, he became emotional while discussing his former nemesis during a phone conversation.
“He was the kind of guy that would never put (an opponent) down,” Case said. “He knew he was good, but he never walked with a swagger. He never tried to stick it in somebody’s face after the race was over.
“I hold Ray Etherly as one of the premier athletes that ever came out of Albuquerque.”
Born in Pine Bluff, Ark., Etherly came to Albuquerque with his family as a child and grew up in the South Broadway area.
According to his obituary notice, Etherly owned and operated Olympia Building Maintenance in Albuquerque for 20 years. He also crafted jewelry and wood products, and most recently worked part time transporting cars for dealerships.
Etherly continued his relationship with Albuquerque High, says Santiago, as a charter member of the AHS Alumni Association.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal