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Rick Wright: Adolph Plummer was power, poetry in motion

The power of a freight train. The grace of a ballroom dancer.

That was Adolph Plummer.

Plummer, who set a world record in the 440-yard dash while running for the University of New Mexico in 1963, died Monday from cancer. He was 77.

One benefit of my advanced age – in fact, the only one I can think of – is having watched Plummer compete many times during his UNM career (1959-63).WRIGHT-Rick_2012

It was a sight to behold.

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Plummer was a big man, standing about 6-foot-4 and weighing perhaps 190 pounds. It was easy enough to see where his lightning speed came from: His legs were smoothly muscled and startlingly veined.

He ran, though, for all that power, with the smoothness of soft butter.

Bill Wolffarth, the track coach at Manzano High during my years there, said the following about Pat Cox, his star half-miler in the early to mid-1960s: “You could put a full glass of water on both of his shoulders, send him around the track, and he wouldn’t spill a drop.”

The same could be said of Plummer, who, as powerful as he was, had the carriage of that ballroom dancer. He never appeared to be straining, even while running the 440 – a lung-bursting, leg-burning one time around the track run at close to top speed.

But, then, Plummer became a quarter-miler against his will.

As noted by his friend and teammate Pete Brown, Plummer didn’t participate in athletics growing up in Brooklyn., N.Y. The story goes that after his older brother Ken suffered a broken leg playing football, the Plummer kids’ mother said no more.

Plummer discovered his talent for running while serving in the U.S. Air Force. He was a 21-year-old service veteran when he came to Albuquerque, recruited by coach Hugh Hackett.

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In 1988, on the occasion of his induction into the UNM Athletic Alumni Hall of Honor, Plummer said Hackett had told him he’d be running only the 100- and 220-yard dashes – not the dreaded 440.

Plummer’s long legs, however, worked against him in the 100. Shorter sprinters with more explosive starts too often got to the tape ahead of him. He was far better suited to the 220 and won a national championship at that distance in 1965, some two years after his world-record performance in the 440. He also beat Bob Hayes, at the time acknowledged as The World’s Fastest Human, at 220 yards.

That story goes that, at whatever meet it was, Plummer had decided to drop out of the 220. Paul Drayton, another world-class sprinter, said teasingly: “That’s OK, you’re not that good (at that distance) anyway.”

Plummer, beyond irritated, changed his mind, ran the race and hit the tape ahead of Hayes (and, presumably, Drayton).

A superb salesman as well as a fine coach, Hackett eventually prevailed. The 440 became Plummer’s signature race.

Hackett, a former football and track coach at Highland High School, was building a regional power at UNM. Lobo hurdler Dick Howard won an Olympic bronze medal in Rome in 1960. That same year, UNM half-miler Jim Dupree missed an Olympic berth by inches – finishing fourth in his specialty at the trials.

In 1960, Plummer hadn’t reached his peak as quarter-miler; his breakout race at that distance came at the 1961 NCAA Championships, when he defeated pre-race favorite Earl Young of Abilene Christian with a time of 46.2 seconds.

An arthritic knee kept Plummer out of the 1964 Olympic Trials, and he was 30 years old and retired by the time ’68 rolled around.

Plummer’s nemesis in the quarter-mile was Ulis Williams, who was a high schooler in Compton, Calif., the first time they competed. Williams later enrolled at Arizona State.

The pattern was this: Plummer would lead early; Williams, with a superb finishing kick, would run him down and beat him to the tape.

Not, however, on May 25, 1963, in Tempe, Ariz.

At that night’s Western Athletic Conference Championships, Williams – the favorite – was in Lane 3. Plummer was in Lane 4, ahead of Williams at the staggered start.

Williams said later that he fully expected to make up the stagger and catch Plummer before the finish as he had before. But this time, when Williams came off the final curve, he was so far behind that he almost stopped in amazement. Plummer would win in a world-record time of 44.9, eight-tenths of a second faster than the old record and one that would stand for almost four years.

That hot night in Tempe, there was no catching the freight train.

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