While Billy Mills was at KU, the Associated Press recognized him three times as an All-American. He placed in the top six three times at the NCAA Cross-Country Championships, and twice claimed the Big Eight Cross-Country crown. He played an integral role as a member of the Jayhawks’ 1959 and 1960 NCAA Championship teams in outdoor track, and in 1961 captured the Big-Eight title in both the indoor and outdoor two-mile runs.
Mills brought further distinction to his name (and indeed garnered national celebrity) when he earned a gold medal in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He never won, however, an individual national title as a runner at KU, and this technicality prevented him, prior to 1984, from being eligible for induction into his alma mater’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
Mills’ induction into the University’s athletic shrine was not his first such honor. He could claim membership in the National Track Hall of Fame, the American Indian Hall of Fame, the South Dakota Athletics Hall of Fame, and the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame among others. When KU finally enshrined him, Mills joked that there were simply no more halls of fame for which he might be eligible. Although Mills, on that Saturday afternoon in 1984, had come a long way from the poverty of the Indian reservation of his youth, he had not forgotten his roots or the difficulty of his climb to the top. His was a story with which many were familiar, a story that had been popularized after his improbable Olympic victory in October 1964.
Mills was born on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, in the middle of the summer of 1938 to parents of mixed racial ancestry. In a society that took race seriously he was a mixed-blood to the Native Americans of the reservation and a Native American to the mainstream white society of America. His mother died when he was seven, and five years later he lost his father. Although an orphan at the age of 12, he made certain that the legacy of his parents lived on in him and so he never forgot his father’s charge to live his life as a gift back to God. Nor did he forget his father’s advice to pursue athletics as a means of escaping the poverty, alcoholism, and hopelessness of the reservation.
In 1953, Mills began attending Haskell Institute where he started to run competitively. In his sophomore year, he shattered the state record for the two-mile run by 30 seconds. (KU great Wes Santee had set the former record.) As a senior, in 1957, he broke Glen Cunningham’s 18-year old state high school record when he recorded a 4:22.8 mile. Although he was highly recruited, Mills decided to stay in Lawrence after high school to run for the University of Kansas.
While he had been popular at the all-Indian school, Mills found himself to be one of only five Native Americans on Mt. Oread. Racial epithets such as “chief” echoed in his ears and he found himself excluded from many of the social activities he had wished to pursue (most notably fraternities). During his junior year he felt so alienated by both whites and Native Americans that he very nearly took his own life. Only the memory of his father’s injunction to dare to live his life as a gift to God, he later remembered, enabled him to back away from the 16th floor window from which he had intended to jump.
Despite his personal tribulations, Mills continued to excel in his athletic endeavors, especially in cross-country and indoor track. Inevitably, it seemed, his performances tailed off towards the end of the outdoor-track season, but he remained one of the best runners on the team. His failures in spring track agitated an already volatile “love-hate” relationship that he had with KU track coach Bill Easton. A confrontation in the dressing room between the troubled star and his coach before the Big Eight championships in 1961 precipitated a temporary break in their relationship, and sapped Mills’ desire to run. In his last race as a collegiate athlete at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, Mills disappointed himself and Easton by dropping out of the competition.
He returned to Pine Ridge where he began to enjoy running again. His rediscovery of the destitution and despondency of reservation life culminated when two acquaintances died after consuming a bottle of antifreeze. At that point he decided that he could not stay on the reservation and so returned to Lawrence. In January 1962 he married a KU coed, Patricia Harris, finished his degree (a BS in Education), and joined the Marine Corps.
While at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base north of San Diego, California, Mills began training with a marathoner named Alex Breckenridge. The two men would run as many as 34 miles day. Mills later claimed that he “had never done any quality distance training until [he] met Alex.” As he trained with Breckenridge, Mills imagined that he was racing the 10,000-meter run against the world record holder, Australian Ron Clarke. Predictably, he never lost to Clarke in his daydreams. He resolved to tryout for the 1964 Olympic team and qualified by placing a distant second to Gerry Lindgren, a teenage phenomenon, in the 10,000-meter trial.
No one expected Mills to even be competitive at the Tokyo games that would be held in October 1964. He was largely ignored for good reason. He had run in only five 10,000-meter races in his life, and had won none of them. In the entire track season leading up to the Olympics, he had not won a single race. Indeed, he had not even won any of the races in the Camp Pendleton dual meets. Track and Field News handicapped all of the Olympic races and none of the experts on its panel picked Mills to so much as finish in the top six. In the two weeks he was in Japan before the race, nary a reporter bothered to seek an interview with the former Jayhawk. Mills, however, believed that if he could hang with the leaders until the last lap, he would have as good a chance as anyone to win.
On October 14, 1964, Mills lined up with the other competitors for the 10,000-meter run. The announcers had little reason to mention his name until the last two laps when they discovered that he was unexpectedly in fourth place. With one lap to go, the favored Clarke still led the race but Mills had moved into second and was right on his heels. As they were lapping some of the other contestants on the second to last turn, the Australian inadvertently bumped Mills causing the American to stumble. Mills regrouped, but by the time he did another unheralded runner, Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi, had taken over second place. He quickly caught up, but was bumped again, this time by the Tunisian. Once more he regained his composure. With only one hundred meters left, Mills began his push to catch the leaders, and with about thirty yards left in the race he blew past Gammoudi and Clarke.
One American radio commentator had hardly noticed Mills’ spurt until he passed the two leaders. His commentary went as follows: “Gammoudi is staving off the challenge. Clarke is sprinting. Gammoudi is out in front by a HERE COMES MILLS OF THE USA. MILLS OF THE USA. HE WON! HE WON!” Mills crossed the finish line, thrust his arms into the air, and as Los Angeles Times writer Earl Gustkey remembered, wore “an expression of rapture on his face.”
In perhaps the biggest upset in all of sports history, on a tracked soaked by more than 24 hours of rain, Mills had set a new Olympic record of 28:24.4, shattering his previous best time by 46 seconds. The world scrambled to discover who this new and most unlikely champion was. A Japanese race official ran up to Mills after the race to inquire his name. Clarke, when asked if he had worried about Mills prior to race, responded, “Worried about him? I had never heard of him.” Jesse Abramson, of the New York Herald-Tribune, asserted “of all the improbable happenings in this or any other Olympics since Corbeus won the first race on the Plain of Olympia in 776 B.C., this triumph by the darkest of dark horses has to take the prize.” The New York columnist may have been right.
In all the confusion that surrounded his victory, the KU graduate never got the opportunity to take a victory lap. In becoming the first American to ever win the 10,000-meter run, he had instantly become a national celebrity. (No American has since claimed the 10,000-meter gold medal, and so Mills remains the only American to have won the event.) Finally accepted by mainstream white America, Mills found an even greater pleasure when the Sioux bestowed upon him the high honors of considering him a warrior and giving him a ring made of Black Hills gold. Not surprisingly, Mills used (and continues to use) his newfound fame to illuminate the problems attending reservation life and to encourage Native American youths in particular.
In 1965, most of Mills’ Marine unit found themselves stationed in Vietnam. When the Olympic champion received word that his company had suffered 38 percent casualties, he retired from running, unable to “do a sport with friends and people in [his] unit” fighting and dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Before he retired, however, he participated in his last event on KU’s campus, the 1965 Kansas Relays. He also managed to prove that his Olympic victory was not a fluke when he set a new world record of 27:11.6 in the outdoor six-mile run at the AAU championship meet.
His induction into the KU Athletics Hall of Fame capped a very busy year that had seen Hollywood transform his story into a motion picture. In 1983, Mills had granted permission to British filmmaker Ira Englander to craft a movie based on his life. (The Olympic champion, wary of racial stereotyping, had long resisted such offers. Englander, however, he trusted, as the British director had been active in Native American politics for more than a decade.) In November 1983, Running Brave hit the theaters. (Interestingly enough, although Native Americans filled most of the Indian roles in the film, a white actor, Robby Benson, played Mills.) Running Brave was followed early the next year by a television documentary of the former Jayhawk’s life that ran as part of a promotional campaign for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The producers of the documentary flew Mills to Tokyo where he finally had the opportunity to take his victory lap, although the only cheers that echoed down from the stadium were those of his wife.
Mills’ athletic legacy is not limited, however, to a promotional television documentary, a nearly forgotten movie, or a portrait hanging from a wall in Allen Field House. In 1997, the Kansas Relays paid homage to Mills when its board of directors renamed the 10,000-meter run after him. And in 1998, former KU track coach Bob Timmons, who owns Rim Rock Farm, KU’s cross-country course, erected seven life-sized silhouettes of the University’s finest distance runners prior to the NCAA National Championship Meet held there later that year. Mills was among them. Rim Rock contains yet another tribute to the two-time Big Eight cross-country champion’s arduous struggle to win the Olympic gold medal. The fifth mile of the course contains a particularly difficult hill for runners to climb. It has been dubbed “Billy Mills Ascent.” A more appropriate monument could hardly be constructed.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas