Learn more about San José City College’s storied track and field program by watching the premiere of Against All Odds: The Olympic Heroes of City College.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, a relatively unknown sprinter, San José City College alum Millard Hampton, would go on to win a gold and silver medals in the 4 x 100-meter relay and the 200m Track and Field events. He got there through natural talent, hard work, determination, and knowledgeable coaches.
Born in Fresno, Hampton is the oldest of his parents four children. His dad was also a sprinter placing in the 100m and 200m at the state track meet, but Hampton wouldn’t learn that until much later in life. When Hampton was around six years old, he and his family moved to San José because his mother felt there were more
Millard Hampton with his two Olympic medals in 1976
opportunities for everyone there. Hampton acknowledges it was a great move for the family.
He played sports in elementary school but didn’t think about track until his uncle asked if he wanted to join a boys’ track club in East Palo Alto with his cousins. Hampton gained experience sprinting, and over time started showing promise. His family had moved into the Evergreen area of San José, so he was able to attend Silver Creek High School where he met his future teacher, coach and mentor, Robert Poynter who was in his first year teaching at the school. Poynter not only coached at Silver Creek, but soon started coaching sprinters at San José City College where Hampton continued his training and made it to the Olympics. The rest, as they say, is history.
The convergence of the Olympics and San José City College’s Centennial make this the perfect time to talk with Millard (who still holds the City College record for the 200m dash, among others) and find out what made San José City College the right place at the right time to help him win gold.
At what point did you realize you were good at running?
I didn’t know at first. I went through school as a kid, playing kickball, baseball, Pop Warner football. Then in seventh grade, my uncle Melvin Holland approached me. He had his sons in a track club called the Herbert Hoover Memorial Boys Club in East Palo Alto. The boys club was coached by Van Parish, a member of San José State’s Speed City Track Team in the 1960’s. Van Parish mentored many African American youth to later become successful professionals. I joined and started running. I was very bad. I embarrassed my family who all put their heads down when I ran. I had a gangly way of running and hadn’t learned form yet.
As I ran more, I got better. Then I had this great fortune. My parents had moved us to the Evergreen area of San José. For high school, I went to Silver Creek High School. My first year there, I met Robert Poynter. Robert Poynter goes along with this whole story because he also coached me at San José City College. He was the second fastest sprinter in the world in 1960 and was going to make the Olympic team but a pulled muscle kept him out of the Olympics. He probably would have won first or second place in the 100m dash if he had gone.
So, he was starting his first year of teaching at Silver Creek High School and became my track coach. It was a great, great fall of luck for me. Of course, he looked at me at first and said, “Oh, boy, we’ve got some work here.” I started learning how to run properly from him. Each year, as I progressed, I became faster and faster.
My sophomore year was probably my breakthrough year in high school. I started going to the state meets, like the California High School State meet, the League Championships, the Region Championships, and I believe they called it the CCS Championships. I wound up winning those three years in a row in high school. To top it off, I won the State meet in the 200-meters and placed in the 100m.
From there, I went to San José State for about one semester. I didn’t feel it was the right place for me at the time, so I went to San José City College. I attended from January 1975 to June 1976. San José City College was wonderful to me because it seemed to serve the needs of those who lived in San José, even some of my family members. You could enhance your education by getting your General Education requirements there. And back then they had auto shop, plumbing, electronics, and Black history. They had all these things that were really great.
I thought it was a good place to go. They had a good track program with Bert Bonanno as the track coach. Plus, my high school coach who got me to the State meet and all these other successes was there. I thought, “Man, if I want to make the Olympic team, if I get a shot at it, this is the place I need to be to have that shot.”
It sounds like everything came together at the right time.
It was really magic, my time at San José City College. The programs they had were great. They had a fantastic theater program. I have always enjoyed theatre my entire life. And the music was great, too. While I was there, I remember Quincy Jones came to campus to talk to students in the music program. It was like, “wow, this place is phenomenal!” I mainly studied the arts at City College. Later, I started leaning towards economics which was what I got my associate degree in before transferring to UCLA.
They had a great swimming team, and they had tennis and golf teams that won some championships. But probably the two top sports for me, of course, were my love of track and field, and the baseball team, which was really, really good. Women’s sports, especially track and field, were just beginning because Title IX came into effect just a few years earlier. Coach Poynter started women’s programs in high school, so he made sure a women’s program was installed at San José City.
When I was there, suddenly San José City had really good men’s and women’s track and field teams. They both won some state meets. It was fun. I guess a lot of people started calling it a dynasty then. It brought a lot of attention to the campus. I remember there were hundreds of news stories published in the local newspaper, The San José Mercury News, as well as other Bay Area papers about what San José City College was doing in sports and Track and Field.
From top left clockwise: Hampton as a young sprinter; [top right] Hampton with his coach Robert Poynter at Silver Creek High School; [bottom right] Hampton running in the 1976 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon where Hampton won gold with a time of 20.1 seconds; [bottom middle right] Hampton beating USC’s James Gilkes, expected favorite, by a yard at the Amateur Athletic Union Championships; [bottom middle] City College 1976 Junior College 4 x 100m record holders (clockwise from top) Stanley Fincher, Hampton, James Douglas, and Horace Berry; [bottom left] Hampton running for Silver Creek High School winning the 100m at the Central Coast Section Championships held at City College.
We had television cameras on campus, too. Some of the meets I ran in for City College were televised. I didn’t win some of those, because it’s hard to win in track and field on any day. Plus, I was just coming up and so it was great experience and really good for the campus. It was good for me as an athlete to be at a school that provided me the opportunity to take my skills to a just a whole-other level.
While I was there, I won the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Championships in the 200m which is equivalent to the USA track and field championships for colleges and universities. For a junior college school-athlete to win that with UCLA, USC and all these big universities competing was quite a feat. That’s all due to this great school and Coach Poynter, Head Coach Bert Bonanno, and Athletic Trainer Arnold Salazar, who I believe just retired from San José City College. He kept me healthy. It was just wonderful.
That particular year in ‘76 culminated with the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.
How did you make it into the Olympics?
The Olympic Trials were a great experience. It was a big deal just to have the opportunity to go to the trials. There were other athletes who were as fast as I was, but they didn’t have that access, or a school to provide them transportation to get to the trials. The Olympics has a process of elimination, not only with athletic ability, but also with accessibility to be able to get to those areas. I was really blessed to be in the position I was in.
I had been to the ’72 Olympic trials and only lasted the first heat, so I was totally nervous. In track and field, you have to go through four heats and each one gets faster. I kept rehearsing the races in my head before running. I just had to follow the script and make sure I’m running with the right technique – and relax. I went through all four races and won all four.
When you win, people immediately take you into a tent and start measuring you, telling you your life is going to change forever. You don’t know what it means at the time, but things do change forever. It is this big goal you have been working really hard to accomplish, not even being sure you could get there. Then you realize you’re here. “I’ve done it!” It starts to hit you and then you have to prepare for the next goal.
Suddenly, I’m not just Millard Hampton, the local San José kid from the east side who has done well so far. Now, I’m the Olympic athlete representing the United States, my family, first and foremost, and relatives, community, friends. Life takes on a different meaning from that point on.
I took workouts Coaches Poynter gave me to Montreal. The US Track team’s Coach Russ Rogers liked my baton-passing ability. Back then, if you could pass the baton without dropping it, you won a gold medal. He also liked how fast I ran the turn and told me he needed someone to do that. I was probably the fastest turn-runner in the world. Harvey Glance might say no, but I say yes! Harvey ran the first turn, then Johnny Lam-Jones, who became a football player for the New York Jets, me in third position, and Steve Reddick as anchor. We wound up getting the baton around, nobody dropped it, and we won the gold medal.
A few days before that, I had my first race the 200m where Don Quarrie beat me by just inches. I won the silver medal, which I call “that medal” because I made a couple mistakes and lost by such a small amount.
When I came back, my friends threw me a nice little party with folks in the community. Then I headed off to UCLA where I had been recruited and kept training.
What was it like finding out President Carter was boycotting the Moscow Olympics?
That was extremely hard, because you dedicate the next four years of your life towards an Olympic Games, saying, “for the next four years, I’m going to train every day, eat a certain way and do everything possible to be the best performer to try to fulfill this goal of going to another Olympics.” I did feel blessed I made the ’76 Olympics, because those who made the 1980 team really haven’t been given the respect they should have received.
I competed a few years after 1980, and then settled down and started raising a family. Since track was an amateur sport, you didn’t receive funding for much of anything. And there wasn’t enough time to be a parent, work, and train at the same time. I now have a blended family of four girls and a boy. They are great kids and I’m very proud of them. They’re all well accomplished and doing some wonderful things in life.
In rows from top to bottom: [top left] Hampton (fourth runner from the left) coming in second place, just inches behind Don Quarrie (far right) for the silver medal in the 200m at the Montreal Olympics; [top right] Hampton and Quarrie immediately after the race; [second row, left] 4x100m relay gold medal winners (l to r) Steve Reddick, Harvey Glance, Hampton, Johnny Lam-Jones at the Montreal Olympics; [second row, top right] Hampton with President Gerald Ford visiting Silver Creek High School with Coach Poynter (right); [second row, bottom right] SJCC alumni Hampton and André Phillips in May 2021; [third row, left] Hampton and Caitlyn Jenner, then going by Bruce, at City College after winning Olympic gold; [third row, middle left] Hampton being inducted into the San José Sports Authority Hall of Fame in 1999; [third row, middle right] San José Police Officer Hampton with actor Bill Murray; [third row, left] Hampton with former City College President Del Anderson during a graduation ceremony.
What made you decide to become a police officer?
It was part of a childhood dream of mine. My father knew Lee Brown who, when I met him, was a San José police officer, and later became a great detective in Atlanta then the police chief of Houston, and the Police Commissioner in New York City. He had a wonderful career in police work.
I also wanted to make a difference. I was concerned about some of the police abuse that was going on in San José then. San José had recently hired Chief Joseph McNamara to be the city’s police chief. He was very progressive police officer from New York. I really wanted to work for him, because I felt I could really help to make this department a better place.
It did become better. With the hires he made during his tenure, San José police went from one of the worst police departments in the country to being recognized as one of the best police departments in the nation. A model police department. A lot of officers who worked under Chief McNamara later became police chiefs.
I did other things while I was a police officer. I’ve always been a socially conscious person and didn’t want police work to change that. I believe to be in police work, you need to be who you are and retain your identity. While in the department, I was the Vice President of the San José NAACP, and I also started my own newspaper called the Buffalo Soldier. During the crack era of the 90’s, I noticed how the media would always berate people who were African American, or people of color of having or being on drugs. I felt it was terrible that people were getting this singular view of African Americans. We’re just like everybody else. We want the best for our families, want jobs, want opportunities, want education, all that.
So, I co-founded The Buffalo Soldier newspaper with then Police Sergeant Randall Cooper. We published stories about African Americans who were dentists, doctors, lawyers, and police officers, and also articles about African American students who are doing well in school, in sports and music just to show other African American children, as well as anybody who wanted to read the publication, about what really occurs in the African American community.
After I retired from the police department, I went on to coach track at Franklin High School in Elk Grove. My coaches have told me that the true test of a coach is not how well your team performs on the track, but the real test is how well the kids do in the classroom. With the teams I coach, we won two championships in Sacramento, and the students went on to go to college and get their degrees and now are entering their careers.
What’s your favorite memory of San José City College?
My favorite memories of San José City are the people. The time I was there was just beautiful for me personally, but it also was beautiful for several other athletes. There was André Phillips, who attended San José City College and went on to UCLA and also became a gold medalist in the 1988 Olympics in the 400-intermediate hurdles. He earned a doctorate, works at a school district in West Sacramento and has done a lot of great things with his life.
Being a member of San José City College’s National Junior College Record breaking 4x100m relay with Horace Berry, James Douglas, and Stanley Fincher in 1976.
My coach, Robert Poynter, the man is very inspirational, and I was truly blessed to have him coach me. And today, when people watch the Olympic Games, they will see Ato Boldon, who is the sprint sportscaster who is also a San José City College alum. So, you know, we represent, and we’re still representing the world in Track and Field.
Millard Hampton’s comments on San José City’s Centennial Celebration