Craig Darch is author of From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.
My interest in writing the Mel Rosen story has its roots in South Bend Indiana, where I grew up. My father and mother (actually my entire family) were avid sports fans and always talked about Jewish athletes. In their minds, if an athlete was Jewish, then his or her achievement was even more noteworthy, something to talk about and, as Jews, something to be proud of, because American Jews are always looking for Jewish sports heroes.
I vividly remember family dinners where we discussed (or argued about) the merits of a Jewish athlete. I remember my dad and his cousin Gene wistfully describing the pugilistic exploits of Benny Leonard, in their opinion the greatest of all the great Jewish fighters during the 1920s and 1930s. I can remember sitting around the television when I was about 12 years old with my brothers Mike and Lance and my dad watching basketball player Dolph Schayes, one of the few Jewish players in the National Basketball Association, playing for the Syracuse Nationals. Watching him play made the game exciting. Schayes was a warrior and fierce competitor: from February 1952 to December 1961 he played in 764 straight games. Our thinking at that time was, if Dolph Schayes could be a basketball star, then why couldn’t we? I also remember when Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodger’s pitcher and Hall of Famer, and one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball history, elected not to pitch the opening game of the Dodger and Minnesota Twins world series in 1965 because it fell on Yom Kippur. And I remember my family’s pride surrounding his decision not to pitch. It was listening to the stories of Jewish athletes when I was a kid that boosted my life-long interest in Jewish sports stories.
I also remember the morning when I decided to write about Mel Rosen. Here’s the story. I am an avid jogger, and four years ago I was running my typical route on Auburn University’s campus. It was early, about 4 o’clock in the morning, and I was running near Memorial Coliseum. From a distance I saw a Greyhound bus parked next to the coliseum. The inside of the bus was lit up. The bus seemed to glow in the darkness. Curious I ran towards it. As I got closer I noticed a lone figure sitting in the front seat. It was Mel Rosen, then the retired head coach of Auburn’s track and field team, who was serving as an unpaid assistant coach. There was no one else in the bus, just Rosen, waiting to leave for a track meet. I thought to myself, how is it that an 82-year-old unpaid assistant coach can be so enthusiastic about his sport that he beats everyone to the bus at four in the morning. The look on his face seemed to say, I have traveled a long way from Brooklyn and do I have stories to tell! It was then, at that instant, I knew I had to write, From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen. I’m grateful I took that jog.
Craig Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University.