Milt Campbell was 22 years old when he won the decathlon at the
1956 Olympics, in Melbourne. He returned home to Plainfield,
N.J., as the greatest all-around athlete in the world, only to
discover that his achievements meant very little to his fellow
No one signed Campbell up as a product or corporate spokesman;
no one offered to put him on a cereal box. Indeed, in sharp
contrast to Dan O'Brien, whose endorsement income will soar if,
as expected, he wins the '96 Olympic decathlon in Atlanta on
Aug. 1, Campbell didn't earn a penny from his gold medal. "I've
always said--and I'm very adamant, whether people want to hear it
or not--that America wasn't ready for a black man to be the best
athlete in the world," Campbell says. "Bob Mathias and Bob
Richards would come down off the podium, and Wheaties would
endorse them," he continues, referring to the white Olympic
champions in the decathlon and pole vault, respectively, at the
1952 Olympics (Richards won again in '56). "I got absolutely
What rankles Campbell even more is that as the years have
passed, his achievements have been forgotten. In 1991 Jim Murray
of the Los Angeles Times wrote that winning the Olympic
decathlon between 1952, when the gold medalist was Mathias, a
future member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and 1960,
when the winner was Rafer Johnson, the handsome future confidant
of the Kennedy family, was like "playing a scene with a baby and
a dog." Cute line, but it doesn't explain the continued
slighting of Campbell. In 1983, when the U.S. Olympic Committee
started its Hall of Fame, Mathias and Johnson were among the 20
inaugural members. Campbell was not even on the ballot, nor
would he be for the next four years. It was 1992 before he was
elected to the Hall.
"Not only would people leave me off the list [of great
decathletes]," says Campbell, "but they claimed they couldn't
find me for special occasions, like celebrity golf outings."
There are a number of possible reasons for Campbell's anonymity.
The Melbourne Games took place on the far side of the world and
in November--spring in the Southern Hemisphere but the height of
the fall football season in the U.S. Those were the last Games
not to be beamed around the world on television (although the
boycotted 1980 Moscow Games weren't televised in the U.S.).
Having heard this before, Campbell listens with an air of polite
impatience. "But you know who the 100-meter-dash winner was," he
says, referring to Bobby Morrow of the U.S. "No, I think it had
to do with the fact that America was not ready for a black man
to be the best athlete in the world. And now the press refuses
to go back and do the research. I see things on television about
Rafer Johnson that say, 'Winner of the decathlon. First black
decathlete.' Then they say, 'Oh, he got beat in 1956.' But they
never say who beat him."
"Milt's always been bitter that Rafer gets more attention," says
O'Brien. "But Rafer went to the  Olympics when he was in
Wrong. The two champions were born less than two years apart,
Campbell on Dec. 9, 1933, and Johnson on Aug. 18, 1935. Johnson
was 21 and a sophomore at UCLA when he competed at the Melbourne
Games and won a silver medal to Campbell's gold. It was Campbell
who won the silver medal as a high schooler, at Helsinki in
1952, when he was an 18-year-old senior-to-be. Until the '52
U.S. Olympic Trials, Campbell had never competed in a decathlon
and had never pole-vaulted, thrown the discus or javelin, or run
the 1,500 meters in competition.
Make no mistake: Johnson was a prodigy, too. He set the world
decathlon record in 1955, at the age of 19, and qualified for
the '56 U.S. Olympic team in both the decathlon and the broad
jump. He beat Campbell in the '56 trials and might have given
him a battle in Melbourne but for an injured knee and torn
stomach muscles. Campbell insists that he and Johnson were good
friends back then and remain so today. It's not that he wants to
tear Johnson down. He just wants people to know that his Olympic
record is identical to Johnson's. They each won one gold medal,
Opinion about Campbell in the track and field world is divided.
Mention his name to some people, and you'll get a roll of the
eyes: "Ah, Milt. Great athlete. Thinks the world owes him
something." Mind you, no one says that to Campbell's face. Even
though some of his once extraordinary musculature has slipped
from his shoulders to his belly, he is an imposing figure, with
his huge head shaved clean. He is a man of strong opinions, and
he voices them. To some people that makes him a know-it-all.
But no one suggests that Campbell is a hypocrite. He is a
passionate advocate of self-help through education, and he has
put his reputation on the line to help fellow African-Americans.
During the Newark riots of 1967 he returned home from Canada,
where he had played pro football, and started a community center
and an alternative school, the Chad School in Newark, which
emphasizes black history and culture. "I came back to help kids
progress the way that I think they should progress, and that's
through education and through developing their strengths and
abilities," Campbell says.
Since the end of his football career Campbell has made his
living as a motivational speaker, a vocation for which he seems
to have been training since childhood. His father, Thomas, was a
New York City cabdriver; his mother, Edith, a domestic
houseworker. The couple split up when Milt was young, and he and
his older brother, Tom, moved in with their grandmother in the
racially mixed town of Plainfield. "It was a good house, a
strong house," Milt says. "My grandmother was very religious, so
we were taught a lot of religious sayings: The Lord helps those
that help themselves."
Young Milt kept the Lord busy. Imitating his big brother, who
was the star hurdler on the Plainfield High track team, he built
hurdles out of wood slats and set them up in the driveway. Tom
wandered by one day and started to laugh at the frustrated boy
who was not so much hurdling the barriers as tumbling over them.
It turned out Milt had put them too close together. "Tom put
them the right distance," Milt says, "and I was just running."
In 1952 Milt was called the world's greatest high school
athlete, and while it's hard to imagine on what basis such a
title could be awarded, it's even harder to imagine that any
high schooler on the planet had a superior claim to it. Not only
had Campbell won the silver medal in the Olympic decathlon that
year, but he had also finished fifth in the open high hurdles at
the U.S. trials. He was an All-America swimmer and the freestyle
anchor on Plainfield's Eastern Champion medley relay team.
Subbing once for a sick heavyweight wrestler, he took only a
minute and a half to pin the boy who would go on to be state
Campbell returned home from Helsinki and jumped right into his
last season of high school football, scoring 80 points in
Plainfield's first four games by stomping over hapless defenses.
As Arthur Daley of The New York Times put it in 1953, "The
massive Milt was a fullbacking terror. He was a combination
Blanchard-Davis, a Mr. Inside and a Mr. Outside combined into
one. His terrific speed enabled him to flee wide and his
crushing power enabled him to smash through the middle. Like
Bronko Nagurski, he could be stopped only by gang tackling."
Bigger than the fast players and faster than the big ones,
Campbell was an extraordinary physical specimen. He stood 6'3"
and weighed about 210 pounds, most of it muscle. By today's
standards the 6-foot, 195-pound Roger Kingdom, coholder of the
American record in the high hurdles, is a power hurdler, so it's
easy to understand why experienced hurdlers of Campbell's era
prayed that they wouldn't draw the lane next to him. Said Jack
Davis of USC, the '52 silver medalist in the high hurdles, "That
guy is so huge that he could kill me merely by brushing against
Coaches told Campbell in high school that if he got any bigger,
he would be too large to hurdle. Bad idea, since Campbell made
it his business to do things he was told he could not do. "That
was always my strongest motivation," he says. "It's a concept I
now lecture on: It's not important what you say to me, it's
important what I say to me. So I used to tell myself every day
that the bigger I got, the stronger I would get, and the
stronger I got, the faster I would get." In 1957 he set world
records in both the indoor and outdoor hurdles. At the Millrose
Games he twice ran 7.0 for the 60-yard hurdles to beat Olympic
champion Lee Calhoun, and then, in the final race of his career,
he clocked 13.4 for the 120-yard hurdles in the muddy, chewed-up
inside lane of a track in Compton, Calif. He is still the only
Olympic decathlon champion to have held a world record in an
Along the way, Campbell says, he learned one key lesson: To make
it in a white world, a black man has to work twice as hard.
Consider how he made himself an All-America high school swimmer.
He says, "A white boy came up to me and said, 'We've never had a
colored boy swim for us. I don't think you can swim.' I asked
him why he thought that. He said, 'Because all the waters in
Africa are infested with crocodiles.' And I looked at him and
said, 'What the hell does that have to do with me? I was born in
Plainfield.' That boy was the top sprinter on the Plainfield
High swimming team. So I decided that's what I wanted to do.
That first year I was second to him all year long. But the next
year I broke all his records and made All-America."
Campbell went to Indiana University on a football scholarship
and ran track, also. As a sophomore, in 1955, he won the high
hurdles at both the AAU and NCAA meets and played halfback and
defensive back on the football team. The Hoosiers weren't very
good, but Campbell was. He made three interceptions against Ohio
University, and against Michigan he defied coach Bernie Crimmins
by simply outrunning a defender and catching a touchdown pass in
the end zone to win the game.
The Cleveland Browns selected Campbell in the fifth round of the
1957 NFL draft, after using their first pick to get Jim Brown of
Syracuse. The two rookies roomed together, and though Campbell
believes he was the better all-round athlete, he speaks
admiringly of Brown's talents in the backfield. "Jim was the
finest running back I've ever seen," he says. "If you were to
measure great backs, Jim would be the yardstick."
Campbell says that the late Cleveland coach Paul Brown told him
that he would make Campbell as good a football player as Ollie
Matson. And, notes Campbell, the coach "thought Ollie Matson was
better than Jim Brown." But Campbell lasted just one season with
the Browns, during which he rushed seven times, for 23 yards. He
was cut on the eve of his second season, and he insists that the
reason was his off-season marriage to Barbara Mount, a white
As Campbell tells it, "Paul Brown called me into his office and
said, 'What did you get married for?' I looked him in the eye
and I said, 'Two reasons. Number one, I got married for the same
reason you got married, I presume. And number two, that's not a
question you want to be asking.' The next day I got a notice to
come to the office, where they handed me a letter saying my
services were no longer needed. I waited half a day in Paul
Brown's office, but he didn't have the courage to come talk to
me. And I was blackballed out of the league."
The New York Giants, who had expressed a strong interest in
signing Campbell and told him to report straight to the team's
training camp, suddenly would not return his calls. "I must have
called them 14 or 15 times," says Campbell.
He went to Canada to play for Montreal and Hamilton, among other
teams. One day, after he returned home at the end of the '58
season, he walked into the Giants' locker room, where he was
snubbed by Rosey Grier, an old friend from New Jersey.
Mystified, Campbell eventually cornered Grier, who said, "You
think Cleveland's the only team to play for in this country? You
knew we needed a fullback." Campbell had to show Grier his phone
bill to prove he had repeatedly called the Giants.
Almost four decades later the memory of this makes Campbell
apoplectic. "Here's the greatest athlete in the world in 1956,
and in 1958 I can't get a job in America? With all the things I
could do? I think it's time somebody says, 'Who the hell are we
kidding? This guy got his ass kicked because he fell in love.'
You see, in America nobody is going to dictate to me who I can
love and who I can't love."
He and Barbara were married for 25 years. "We raised three kids
of our own and a couple of other kids who came to stay with us,"
says Campbell. "We had a good life, but it was always hard on
her. She would turn on the TV and see Mathias and Johnson and
[Bill] Toomey and [Bruce] Jenner, and everybody would be saying,
'These are America's greatest athletes.' She would just go into
the bedroom and cry."
The couple divorced in the early 1980s, and Campbell has since
remarried, to Terri Campbell, who happens to be black. They have
a two-year-old son, Milton III. It's got to be tough to be the
son of a professional motivator, especially one as opinionated
as Campbell. "What I tend to teach him is that life isn't going
to revolve around whether you're black or white," says Milt.
"It's going to revolve around whether you want it or don't want
it, whether you believe you can or you can't."
So what does he tell his son about the 1956 Olympic decathlon
champion? Or does he leave it to others to say that he was the
most talented athlete of his generation? Can he trust anyone
else with the truth?
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Campbell believes racism denied him fame and fortune. [Milt Campbell holding discus and javelin]
B/W PHOTO: JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN Campbell took the silver in 1952, then won gold in untelevised anonymity in Melbourne in '56. [Milt Campbell high jumping]
B/W PHOTO: RICHARD MEEK [See caption above--Milt Campbell throwing javelin]
B/W PHOTO: JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN [See caption above--Milt Campbell running]
B/W PHOTO: RICHARD MEEK [See caption above--Milt Campbell throwing discus]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO At 62, Campbell is an intimidating force on the court. [Milt Campbell playing tennis]