Many know him simply as “Doc,” but Jon Mather is so much more of an intricate part of track meets than just the guy at the check-in tent.
“I’ve been a certified track and field official for 35 years,” Mather said. “I felt like when I moved back to Kingsport that I wanted to give back to the sport that has given me so much.”
During his high school running days at Dobyns-Bennett, Mather was twice all-state in cross country and was a key member of the Tribe’s back-to-back state team champions (1971-72).
He also ran a leg on the school-record 4x800-meter relay (then the 2-mile) team that ran a 7:50.6 in 1971 during the old Duke-Durham Relays.
“One of the funny things I remember about that track meet is that we went up to the top of Wallace Wade Stadium and for some reason the track looked much bigger,” Mather said. “I can’t remember who made the remark to Coach (Dan) Crowe, but I remember Crowe responded, ‘Boys, that’s a college 440. This isn’t a high school 440 and that’s why it looks bigger.’
“Of course, there’s no difference, but that’s the sense of humor that Coach Crowe had.”
Growing up in the early 1970s and being a distance runner was almost a given.
“Steve Prefontaine was everyone’s hero and we all paid attention every time that he raced,” Mather said. “Jim Ryun was always one of my biggest heroes, too, because I ran middle distance and he was one of the best milers in the world at the time.”
Running was much different back then. The tracks weren’t all rubberized and the cross country courses were not as manicured, to say the least.
“I remember going down to the state cross country course and it was just basically out in the middle of cow pasture,” Mather said. “There were blackberry bushes everywhere and it looked like they only mowed it once or twice a year for the races and that was it.
“We also ran only 2 miles, which compared to today is nothing. Two miles was a long ways for a middle distance runner like me, though. I would’ve hated to run 3 miles back then.”
BOYS OF SPRING
While the great Darwin Bond was in school at D-B, the Indians never won a team championship at the state meet. But the year after Bond graduated, Crowe finally got his state ring.
D-B won its first track and field team state championship since 1947, starting a string of three titles in nine years for the Tribe.
The quartet of Mather, Tanzy Simonton, Parker Smith and Marvin Bond had gone unbeaten all year, capping their run with a state championship.
“I remember that Memphis Southside was our biggest competition,” Mather said. “I was the only underclassman on that relay and I led off a lot that year. I led off at the state meet and I really wasn’t all that much intimidated. We got in front and stayed there.”
D-B’s final time that day was 8:04.4. The Indians had repeated their winning performance from the 1970 season in a then-state meet record of 7:58.6.
“The state meet that year was in Memphis and this was long before Interstate 81 was between Kingsport and Morristown,” Mather said. “So we hopped on 11-W and went down to Knoxville to catch I-40. It took forever to get there and much longer than it would today.
“The old Alamo hotel that we stayed was one the worst places I’ve ever been in my whole life.”
Mather and the Tribe made it back to the state meet the next spring but could not make it a “three-peat.” Memphis Southside edged them out by one-tenth of a second (7:57.2-7:57.3) to knock the Indians off the pedestal.
The Tribe got the last laugh, however, by taking another team title back home to Kingsport.
Mather graduated and walked on at Alabama. There he threw down times of 4:12 for the mile and 1:52 for the 880-yard run, and he placed as high as fifth in the Southeastern Conference indoor championships in the 1,000-yard dash, running a 2:12.
He went on to receive his doctorate in dental surgery from Memphis in 1976. Mather’s dental office is now on Wilcox Drive in Kingsport.
GIVING BACK TO THE SPORT
Mather is one of the most recognizable figures at any level of track and field throughout the Southeast.
He’s officiated everything from D-B home meets on weekdays to NCAA East Regional meets with bids to nationals on the line. He’s seen the best in action, and Tribe coach Bob Bingham will be the first to say that Mather is one of the most important people at any meet.
“We couldn’t run any of our home meets without Jon,” Bingham said. “Jon is probably one of the most selfless people that I have ever met and he absolutely loves this sport.”
Having seen some of the best athletes in the world in action with his own eyes, Mather noted that it’s hard to pick out a specific favorite moment, but he did get to watch one of the world’s brightest young stars while he was still at Tennessee.
“Christian Coleman was just on a completely different level from anyone else,” Mather said. “He was so fast coming out of the blocks. I probably liked working the SEC championships the most when they were at Tennessee. They are so well run and everything almost goes off without a hitch.”
Mather also has had the pleasure of working with his son David at meets over the last few years.
“It’s a real honor and pleasure to have him help,” Jon said. “Hopefully I’ve been a good influence on him. He seems to enjoy helping at meets and interacting with officials and athletes.
“It’s really been a pleasure to see him beginning to be the starter at races. He is usually quite good at whatever he decides to get involved with and has taken to being a starter.”
COACH CROWE STORIES
“We had some good athletes at D-B, but I came through when we were getting some really good athletes from Douglass,” Mather said, referring to Kingsport’s African American high school that closed in 1966. “We were fortunate to get some of those athletes. Coach Crowe realized that and he was always a fair man.
“There were a few times when we were traveling to meets and we would sit down in the restaurant and they refused to serve us. When that happened, Coach Crowe would always get up and we’d find somewhere that would serve all of us.”
Crowe was also known to be big into history, especially local history where he was from — the Siam community in Elizabethton.
“He would always tell us that he was going to go up to Siam on the weekends and I thought he was pulling our legs,” Mather said. “I had no idea there was a community up there. I later found out that he had written a book on the old town of Butler and that he had written a book of poems.”
Mather noted that Crowe also did not always do all of the driving to meets.
“There were a few times where he would get so sleepy on the long road trips that he’d have one of us teenagers drive while he slept,” Mather said. “So you can imagine 10 teenagers piled in the back of his big car flying down the interstate with no seat belts and the coach was nodding off in the passenger’s seat. I drove a few times and thankfully nothing bad ever happened.”
A FINAL NOTE
“I’ve had some great experiences in my running days and officiating,” Mather said. “I’m so fortunate that I’m able to stay involved with what I love and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”