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“The Buckeye Bullet”: Looking back at the early life and career of Ohio State’s Jesse Owens

As a Buckeye, Owens earned “world’s fastest human” label.

Jesse Owens, in his Ohio State uniform, posing with rival and later Olympic teammate Ralph Metcalf

I realize that old-timers might argue for Chic Harley, and youngsters might contend that Chase Young is OSU’s “greatest athlete.” Though his teams were really the start of Buckeye football greatness, Harley was well before even my time. But, given Young’s freakish combination of size, speed, and strength, I must agree that he’s quite an athlete.

Yet, Jesse Owens was special. His accomplishments on the track, his history-making victories in 1936 Berlin Olympics, and his career as a spokesperson make his name one that everyone knows, everyone respects. But, of course, not everyone knows that he ran for Ohio State and was known as the “Buckeye Bullet.”

In this first article, I’ll look back at Owens’s early life and his phenomenal achievements on the track in high school and at Ohio State. In a following piece, I’ll consider the Berlin Olympics and Owens’s life following Berlin.

Owens was born on Sept. 12, 1913 in the little town of Oakville, Alabama. His father was a sharecropper; his grandparents were slaves. When he was nine, Owens and his family became part of the “Great Migration,” that vast movement of over six million African Americans from the rural American South to the cities of the North. They sought employment in the burgeoning industries, and they sought better treatment, a better life. The Great Migration began during the First World War and ended when the civil rights legislation of the 1960s took hold. The people of the Great Migration are those chronicled so well by African American playwright August Wilson in his ten-play series (including “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson”) of African American life known as the American Century Cycle.

The Owens family settled in Cleveland. The story goes that James Cleveland Owens was always called J.C. until a Cleveland teacher taking roll misheard him and thought that he said “Jesse.” He was called Jesse ever after. Owens himself revealed that the junior high track coach used to follow him around, watching as Jesse played on the playground, as he ran. Owens went on to set national junior high records in the high jump (6 ft.) and the running broad jump (now called the long jump).

Jesse enrolled at Cleveland East Technical High School, a public high school focusing on developing trade skills. When I was a kid in Columbus, I remember well the East Tech basketball teams of the 1950s. In 1958 and 1959, the Scarabs went 51-0, taking state titles both years. East Tech players through the 50s and 60s claimed that practices were always more competitive than games.

A sports powerhouse then — and in the years that Owens went there, his East Tech track and field team won the Ohio state track meets three consecutive years. At the national high school track meet in Chicago, during Owens’s senior year, he set three national high school records: he ran a 9.4 in the 100-yard dash and ran the 200-yard dash in 22.7 seconds. In the long jump, Owens’s 24 feet, 11 ¾ inches set a world record for his age group.

Owens easily wins 100-yard dash over Southern Cal runner in 1935 national championships.
Getty Images

Owens had scholarship offers from a number of colleges and universities, but he chose to go to Ohio State, even though the Buckeyes didn’t offer a scholarship. As a consequence, during his years in Columbus, Owens worked a variety of jobs in order to make ends meet: elevator operator, gas station attendant, waiter, OSU library worker, and page at the Statehouse.

One wonders how Jesse had time to train, study, and participate in meets. But he did. And his legend grew. Here are a couple of examples of his feats. At the Big Ten championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth — all in the incredibly short period of 45 minutes! I guess that he caught his breath, took a sip of water, and ran to the next event. In both 1935 and 1936, Owens won four NCAA championships. During his junior year, Owens competed in a total of 42 events and won them all.

Near the end of his Ohio State career, Jesse Owens was being called “The World’s Fastest Human” and was primed for the 1936 Olympic Games, to be held in Berlin, Germany, with Adolph Hitler presiding and all of the world watching.

In the next article in the series, I will discuss Owens’ triumphs in the games and what happened in his life when he returned to America.