(San José, CA) Former San José City College track and field star and social justice activist Lee Evans has died after suffering a stroke a week earlier in Lagos, Nigeria. He was 74.
In 1968 he won gold medals in the 400-meter and 4 x 400m relay races in the Mexico City Olympics, setting world records in both races. In the 400m, he was the first person to officially break 44 seconds with a time of 43.86. And he anchored the 4 x 400m relay team that finished in 02:56.16.
Lee Edward Evans was born in Madera, California on February 25, 1947. He and his family moved to San José when he was a sophomore in high school where he attended Overfelt High and joined the track team lead by coach Stan Dowell.
San José City College alum and Olympic gold medalist André Phillips remembers growing up in close proximity to Evans.
“When my family first moved to California,” said Phillips. “We were literally right across the street from Overfelt High School. That year, Lee Evans would have been going into his senior year in high school. And this is really weird, but his coach Stan Dowell would be my coach at Silver Creek High School eleven years later. It was just amazing that I lived right across the street from the great Lee Evans, and then his high school coach would become my high school coach for most of my years.”
Not many know that Lee Evans attended San José City College for a year before he was recruited by San José State’s Track and Field Coach Bud Winter and was a part of “Speed City” at San José State.
Evans’ first major victory was at the 1966 U.S. Track and Field Championships, (then called the American Amateur Union (AAU) Championships) in Randalls Island, New York with a time of 45.9. He loved San José City College so much, he wore a City College singlet in the race.
From there, he won gold in the 400m at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada. In 1968, he won the NCAA Championships in the 400m before setting a world record of 44.06 seconds in the 400m and a world record time of 01:14.3 in the rarely run 600m event at the Olympic trials in Lake Tahoe before going to the Olympics in Mexico City.
Former San José City College Athletics Director and track coach Bert Bonanno said, “both of his world records lasted 20 years or more which is incredible to say for a sport that moves so fast.”
Both of Evans’ records were set in Mexico City which is at almost a mile-and-a-half elevation. His 400m record lasted three weeks shy of twenty years and his team’s 4 x 400m record lasted almost 24 years when it was broken at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
The awards ceremony for Evans’ first race was the 4 x 400m. Since fellow teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home for raising the black-glove-fisted Black Power salute during the American National Anthem, his relay team was warned the same would happen to them if they followed suit. Yet, at his 400m award ceremony, he and his fellow medalists, Americans Larry James and Ron Freeman all wore black berets raising the Black Power salute.
“He was very politically involved with the movement,” said his long-time friend and former San José City track coach Robert Poynter. “He worked with Sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards and was interested in and worked hard at furthering these causes to raise social consciousness.”
Evans was a founding member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights along with Dr. Edwards, Smith, and Carlos, all of whom he met at San José State. The organization was created in 1967 to protest the racial segregation and injustices occurring in the U.S. and in sports. Its goal was to help find and break down institutional racism and make sports more inclusive for all races.
San José City College alum and Olympic gold medalist Millard Hampton recalled, “Lee was the first guiding light for many East San José sports stars. He showed the way by his hard work at practice and tenacity to win a race. Lee always had something good to say about his competitors. He encouraged younger athletes to practice harder to achieve goals.”
Phillips also remembers Evans being a mentor. “I remember him coming to Silver Creek High School one day to work out. My classmates and I were all in awe whispering, ‘that’s really him! The stories are true that Coach Dowell knows him!’ That was exciting. I didn’t officially meet him then. But after that, I saw him often over the years, at events and track meets. Lee was a laid-back kind of guy. I would hear him talk about some of the races he was in, but I never heard him bragging about them. He was just so cool; he was like a jazz musician. He was that icon figure we all wanted to be.”
Coach Poynter worked with him later in life, as they put on clinics together all around northern California for inner city youth to give kids tips on how to be more successful. Poynter had known Evans for a long time and recalled the time he first saw Evans run.
“The Fresno Relays was one of the largest meets in the country. It was an all-day event, and the stadiums would be sold out. People would come from all over the country. I was there to race, and I watched him anchor a 4 x 400m relay for City College. His teammates were far behind, but when Lee took the baton, he was such a competitor that he came from last place to win the race. The crowd was on their feet to watch the finish. He ran with determination, strength, and talent. He was a superstar. And that was just the beginning.”
“Lee was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen in my life,” continued Poynter. “He was not a natural talent, he just worked harder than everybody else. He kept races close and always made up the difference. Lee was a great example for kids to look up to. He really was a superstar. He is the best athlete to come out of San José City College, a good guy who was also deeply committed to social activism.”
Philips confirmed, “from the time I got into ninth grade, all we heard about was Lee Evans. It was all I heard about. It wasn’t until I was a junior that I saw Edwin Moses run. But in terms of really wanting to run the 400m, it was all of the Lee Evans’ stories that inspired me.”
Coach Bonanno added, “What separated Lee Evans from the normal quarter-miler, is that most only saw the public glory, not many saw the sacrifices he made to get there. When he was at Overfelt, he didn’t have any life goals. But once he went to City College, he was motivated. He has been recognized historically as one of the world’s greatest athletes. Seen in that vein, I truly believe Lee Evans is the most incomparable, matchless, unequaled, unparalleled, unsurpassed track and field athlete in the history of San José State and San José City College.”
Evans went into coaching in the mid-70s at San José State, University of Washington, and University of Southern Alabama before moving to Nigeria.
“When you are a star track and field athlete,” said Coach Poynter, “you get invited to travel all over the world. He went to many different places, like Europe, northern Arabia. When a Black man travels to Africa, there are many who grow attached and get these feelings that this is home. When Lee went to Nigeria, he had those feelings. He once told me that Nigeria is where he wants to die.”
He was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1989, into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1993, and into the San José Sports Authority Hall of Fame in 1995.
Coach Bonanno mentioned a quote he heard from Evans “If you are unable to risk the unknown, you settle for the unordinary.”
“It’s funny, looking at all of us who were at San José City College and how interconnected we all have been in so many ways,” said Coach Poynter.
Coach Bonanno concluded, “I remember being at the Grand Prix Series in Athens, Greece in ‘67, standing in an alcove talking with meet directors, hearing, ‘Bert! Bert!’ to turn and see it was Lee Evans. He came over and started talking. He always wanted to talk about San José City College.”
If you would like Lee’s family visit: https://gofund.me/4aa7a155