You pick up a rake, you never know what you might be able to cultivate from the ground up, what might blossom.
Don Romano was recruited from the sidelines to work the long jump pit at the 1965 Eddy Meet, and today he’ll run the pole vault pit in what will be his last one, having missed perhaps one Eddy Meet in the last 46 years.
The voluble 77-year-old Section II track and field official calls himself a lifetime spectator, but he’s seen some extraordinary people, accomplishments and events over the years, perhaps none more chockful of promise than his very first Eddy Meet as a volunteer.
That year, a senior from Jamaica High in Queens doubled in the long and triple jumps; three years later, Bob Beamon would break the world record in the long jump at the Mexico City Olympics, a record that stood for 23 years.
Also competing in the long jump was a powerfully built athlete from downstate; four years later, Calvin Hill would be named to his first of four NFL Pro Bowls and would win Super Bowl VI with the Dallas Cowboys in 1971.
Welcome to the Eddy Meet, Don.
“From a track point of view, I can sit around and have a few beers and tell stories with my friends about how I’ve rubbed elbows with a world record holder and Olympians,” Romano said on Thursday. “I made a lot of friends.”
One of his earliest friends and schoolmates was Art Nelbach, a miler at Newburgh Free Academy and Lafayette College, and Romano was also a fraternity brother of Dr. C. Harmon Brown, who would go on to become a pioneer in sports medicine and long-time member of the IAAF Medical and Anti-Doping Commission.
Through Nelbach and Brown, Romano’s interest in track was piqued, even if he never considered himself as someone with any potential to actually compete in the sport.
“I have no track background,” Romano said. “I used to go over and watch the track meets at Newburgh Free Academy. I was this short, little fat kid. I carried the water bottles for the football team, and kept the statistics for the basketball team.
“At Lafayette, a guy I knew was a track guy, C. Harmon Brown, but I was just a spectator, not a coach or an athlete or a parent. It was just something that I liked to watch. Not many people gravitate to officiating who aren’t from one of those groups. I’m one of the few who is just a track nut.”
Romano got off the sidelines, so to speak, in 1965, after having watched the 1964 Eddy Meet.
In 1964, one of Romano’s friends and co-workers was John Eddy, brother of William Eddy Jr., for whom the meet is named.
“I saw John on the infield and I asked him, ‘What goes on here?’ ” Romano said.
“The next year, I went to the breakfast and said, ‘What do I do?’ Well, report to the long jump pit and pick up a rake, and that’s where I saw Bob Beamon in the long jump and triple jump. As I remember it, it was a cold, cold, rainy day, and the triple jump was more his specialty, but alongside of him was Calvin Hill. I look up and see this huge athlete, and I’m thinking, wouldn’t he look good carrying a football.”
Beamon won the long jump at 22-11 3⁄4 and the triple with a meet-record 47-3. He broke the long jump world record with a 29-2 1⁄2 at Mexico City in 1968 in what remains one of the transcendent moments in the history of the Olympics.
Running into future greatness was nothing new to Romano.
One of his buddies in Army basic training at Fort Dix in 1952 was Lou Jones, a New Rochelle native who had coincidentally competed at the 1950 Eddy Meet.
In 1955, Jones broke the world record in the 400 meters with a 45.4 at the Pan Am Games, then broke it again with a 45.2 at the U.S. Olympic Trials at the L.A. Coliseum. He finished a disappointing fifth at the 1956 Melbourne Games, but won a gold medal as the second leg on the 1,600 relay team.
After the service, Romano was housemates with Fred Shabel, a former Duke University basketball player who would go on to coach the University of Connecticut to a 72-29 record from 1963-67 before becoming the vice chairman of Comcast, one of the largest cable companies in the country.
“Man, have I rubbed elbows with some people,” Romano said.
As Romano became a fixture at the Eddy Meet, he was continually recruited to officiating positions with more responsibility, including finish line judge.
He was a volunteer until receiving his certification in 1997, when Section II started paying him per meet.
Romano was also introduced to the pole vault that year, and is the resident reference source for various athletes and performances from the section.
In typical fashion, he bore witness to greatness right from the start, as Guilderland’s Joel Carusone was a sophomore in 1997 and eventually broke the state record, which he still holds, at the state meet with a 16-5, although Romano was not there at Kingston that day.
“He’s been one of my right-hand guys at the Tuesday summer meets forever,” long-time Colonie coach Fran Myers said. “It’ll be tough to lose him. He’s a good social partner after the meets, too. Nobody runs the pole vault like him. That’s the event he latched on to.
“He’s an institution. He sets the standard for pole vault officiating.”
But this season will be it for Romano, who lives in Albany with his wife of 28 years, Marilyn.
He had both knees replaced in 2008, and finds it difficult to be on his feet for long periods.
“Everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work,” Romano said. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll be around it, but I’m 77 going on 78, and my legs are giving out. The hard thing is standing. I do a meet, and it takes me two, three days to recover. That told me to hang ‘em up.
“I made a lot of good friends, and it’s sort of sad, but, hey, I’d rather go out as somebody who can still do it.”