Doing multiple events at a track meet is exhausting enough, but imagine doing 10 events over a two-day span ranging from distance running to high jump to throwing the discus.
Decathletes are a special breed and in Northeast Tennessee, they are few and far between.
In the spring 1979 in Nashville, David Crockett’s Gary Rose produced one of the all-time great performances by coming from behind on the second day to win the state decathlon title and set a record with 9,195 points.
He became the first state champion for Crockett in any sport and remains one of just three individual track champs — Brad Kyker (1999 Class AAA shot put), and Addisyn Rowe (2017 Class AAA high jump) are the others — representing the Pioneers.
Also, as a tight end on the Pioneer football team, Rose was a bright spot in some gloomy years and signed on with East Tennessee State.
“The training for the decathlon for me was not nearly as hard as football. I felt like I was confined in football,” Rose said. “I felt like I was freer in track with training. I had run track since the seventh grade, but Coach Santo Cicirello really got me started in the decathlon my sophomore year. He’s a special man and I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Said Cicirello, “Gary was like the Energizer Bunny when it came to track. He was so intense about anything. If you showed him how to do something once, he was intent on working at it and fine-tuning it. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t conquer.”
INSPIRATION FROM CICIRELLO
Cicirello, who is in the TSSAA Hall of Fame, is an institution for Crockett athletics. He’s been there since the school opened, serving in many roles from boys and girls cross country and track coach to the freshman boys basketball coach until 2001.
“He’s a great coach and I was so happy when he and I went into the (David Crockett) Athletics Hall of Fame (in 2016) together,” Rose said. “He gave me a lot of confidence and there were a lot of long road trips that we made together, whether it was to the regional or the state meet.”
Said Cicirello, “After all the time we spent together on road trips and all the hours we spent practicing, going into the Hall of Fame together was the icing on the cake. We had a great time and I was so blessed to be a part of his life.”
A BRUISER ON THE GRIDIRON
David Crockett had just opened in 1971 and there was some success on the football field early on. During the four years that the 6-1, 180-pound Rose was on the team, that was not the case.
The Pioneers, under Jim Crowder in 1976 and Boyd Fox from 1977-79, went a combined 3-37 and had a 26-game losing streak at one point.
Rose did happen to be one of the few standouts, playing tight end/wide receiver and catching six touchdown passes in both his junior and senior year.
“Football and track for me were totally different,” Rose said. “The games that we did better in were the ones where we didn’t watch film. We did go 2-2 against Daniel Boone in my four years, so that was at least something.”
RIVALRY AND RALLY
Sullivan Central’s Steve Poe was the top decathlete in the region and in the state in 1978, winning the title with 8,533 points.
That year turned out to be a top-3 sweep for Northeast Tennessee with Elizabethton’s Todd Bernhausen finishing runner-up and a sophomore, Rose, placing third.
“I remember that there was an article that was in the Kingsport Times-News that came out and said that when I got third that it was a fluke and I had no shot next year,” he said. “I kind of used that as fuel.”
Said Cicirello, “Back then, if you false-started, they’d move you a yard behind everybody. Well, Gary false-started twice his sophomore year at state and he came back and beat all of the guys in his heat. That’s how intent he was.”
The scoring system back then was 10 events with set standards with a maximum of only 1,000 points per event. For example, if the pole vault set max standard is 11-7 and an athlete clears 15 feet, they only receive only the 1,000-point maximum. The scoring system nowadays is completely different and Rose’s scoring record will most likely never be broken.
The following season, though, Rose improved greatly in several events with poor facilities like the long-jump pit. Some of the different training techniques Rose implemented were ballet classes and running up a steep hill beside the track in the mornings before school.
“What people don’t realize back then was that we ran on a cinder track and our high-jump and pole-vault mats were a piece of foam with tires under it,” Rose said. “Yes, probably four of the football players took some ballet classes. I can’t say that it definitely helped me, but one area that it might have was in the hurdles.
“There were some meets where I had to stretch for 30 minutes before the hurdles and I think that ballet classes helped me in that. What’s funny is that the week after I won the decathlon, we had a recital at the school and I was in it.”
Said Cicirello, “Our facilities were not all that great and Erwin had the best track at the time. We’d go over there about two or three days a week and practice on the pole vault, high jump and long jump. We didn’t have the fiberglass poles that were used in pole vault. Gary had to borrow one of the older poles from one of the Erwin kids.”
Rose and Poe were in a two-horse race at the state meet coming into the second day of competition, separated by 304 points with two of Rose’s stronger events — pole vault and one-mile run — still to come.
“I knew going into those last two events that there was going to be a lot of pressure on Steve,” Rose said.
Poe actually extended the lead out to 319 points after Poe had blistered the 120-yard hurdles in 14.2 seconds. Poe was one of the strongest hurdlers in the area, but Rose kept with him and finished second in 15.1, which was worth 985 points.
That lead disappeared quickly, however, as Rose needed only one vault jump at the max (11-7) to win the event. Poe cleared nine feet and earned just 504, putting him squarely behind the eight ball with just the mile left to go.
“I never trained for the mile and it was always kind of a gut run for me. There was a miler in the race and I stuck with him as long as I could,” Rose said. “That last lap, all the motivation that I had came back to me like that (Times-News) article and Coach Cicirello. I gave it all that I had.”
Rose blistered the mile in a personal-best 4:54.6, receiving 950 points, while Poe crossed the line in 5:42.0. The comeback was complete as Rose had outscored Poe 1950-984 in the final two events to claim the crown. He also broke Poe’s scoring record from the season before by more than 650 points.
LOOKING FOR A REPEAT
With better facilities being built, Rose was looking for a repeat of his triumph in the spring of 1980.
His bid began well in the postseason as he easily outdistanced the competition in the Upper East Tennessee Decathlon Championships in Erwin on March 31. He scored 8,112 points, besting Ronnie Kinser by over 1,800 points on a rainy day.
Rose did not participate in the Inter-Mountain Athletic Conference decathlon meet on May 20 due to injury, but he still had a chance in the regional meet in Knoxville a few days later.
At Bearden, Rose was in the hole early in fourth place and well behind Greeneville’s Larry Snyder by 110 points. He needed to hold position as the top five finishers moved on to state the next week.
Rose did qualify by holding down fourth place, but chose not to participate in the state meet. James Church of Overton took the title that year with 8,365 points.
“What had happened was I was running the 440 at the regional and my right shoe ripped apart in the middle,” he said. “I tore my arch and that pretty much ended my track career. I remember Tony Treadway — who was at WJHL at the time — heard that I wasn’t going to go back to state. He actually drove to my house and interviewed me for the evening news about that. I had scholarships from all over the country for track.
“I don’t know if I could have won it again or broken the scoring record, but I know some of my coaches told me that I was ranked in the top 10 in the country at the time for the decathlon. I don’t have any regrets about choosing football, though.”
Said Cicirello, “I think he could’ve won again. He was getting stronger and we had gotten better facilities.”
SHORTENED FOOTBALL CAREER
Rose roomed with future St. Louis Cardinals running back Earl Ferrell at ETSU and suffered two shoulder injuries within a six-month period that ultimately cost him his football career.
“My first shoulder injury — which was a re-injury of the dislocated left shoulder I had in high school — had healed after surgery and we were back at practice soon after,” Rose said. “We were hitting each other with helmets and sweats. Earl came through the hole and hit me in my good shoulder and popped my AC joint.
“The doctor said I had to have surgery again and that’s what pretty much ended my football career. Earl came up after and said he was really sorry and I told him that I understood and it was just a football thing.”
“After Gary won and he talked about the facilities that we had, the county started to take notice that track wasn’t just another sport,” Cicirello said. “I think the lasting impact that Gary had on Crockett was that he proved that state champions could come out of Washington County and that they need proper facilities to do so.”
Said Rose, “In all the media interviews after the state, I talked about how poor the facilities were that I trained at. I was glad that winning state helped improve the facilities at the school and Boone even got a new track out of it.
“It was a surreal experience, that’s for sure.”