Competing in multiple events at a track and field meet is exhausting. Imagine doing 10 events over a two-day span that range 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.
The spring of 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 with a record-breaking 9,195 points.
Rose became Crockett’s first state champion in any sport, and he remains one of just four individual track champions — Brad Kyker (1999 Class AAA shot), Suzanna Roberson (1999 Class AAA shot) and Addisyn Rowe (2017 Class AAA high jump) are the others — representing the Pioneers.
Rose also played tight end on the Crockett football team — a bright spot in some gloomy years — before signing to play for 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,” he said. “I felt like I was more free 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.”
Cicirello reciprocated with his positive impressions of Rose.
“Gary was like the Energizer Bunny when it came to track. He was so intense about anything,” Cicirello said. “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, a member of the TSSAA Hall of Fame, is an institution for Crockett athletics. He’s been with the school since it 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 together,” said Rose, who entered the hall along with Cicirello in 2016. “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.”
“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 icing on the cake,” Cicirello said. “We had a great time and I was so blessed to be a part of his life.”
A BRUISER ON THE GRIDIRON
Crockett opened in 1971, and the Pioneers had some success on the football field early on. During the four years that the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Rose played, that was not the case.
The team, under Jim Crowder in 1976 and Boyd Fox from 1977-79, went a combined 3-37 — a mark that included 26-game losing streak.
Rose was one of the Pioneers’ standouts at tight end/wide receiver, catching six touchdown passes in both his junior and senior year.
“Football and track for me were totally different,” he 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 saw a top-three sweep by Northeast Tennessee athletes, Elizabethton’s Todd Bernhausen finishing runner-up and Rose placing third as a sophomore.
“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.”
“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,” Cicirello noted. “That’s how intent he was.”
The scoring system then was 10 events with set standards and a maximum of 1,000 points per event. For example, if the pole vault’s set max standard was 11-7 and an athlete cleared 15 feet, they still received only the 1,000-point maximum. Today’s scoring system is completely different and Rose’s scoring record will most likely never be broken.
The following season, Rose improved greatly in several events despite poor facilities, like the long jump pit. Some of the different training techniques he 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.”
Cicirello also recalled the equipment issues of the day.
“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,” he said. “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 going into the second day of competition. They were separated by 304 points with two of Rose’s stronger events — the pole vault and 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 noted.
Poe extended his advantage to 319 points after running a blistering 14.2 seconds in the 120-yard hurdles. He was one of the strongest hurdlers in the area, but Rose kept with him and finished second in 15.1, netting 985 points.
Poe’s lead disappeared quickly, however. Rose needed only one vault jump at the max, 11-7, to win the title. Poe cleared 9 feet and earned just 504 points, putting him squarely behind the 8-ball with just the mile left.
“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 — good for 950 points — and Poe crossed in 5:42.0.
Rose’s comeback was complete. He outscored Poe 1950-984 over the final two events to claim the state championship. He also broke Poe’s scoring record from the season before by more than 650 points.
LOOKING FOR A REPEAT
With better facilities built, Rose was looking for a repeat of his triumph in the spring of 1980.
His bid began well in the postseason when 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 more than 1,800 on a rainy day.
Rose didn’t participate in the Inter-Mountain Athletic Conference decathlon on May 20 because of an 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, sitting in fourth place and behind Greeneville’s Larry Snyder by 110 points. Rose needed to hold position because the top five finishers advanced to state.
Rose managed to hold down fourth, but he 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,” Rose 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.”
Cicirello felt Rose had a shot at the repeat.
“I think he could’ve won again,” he said. “He was getting stronger and we had gotten better facilities.”
CURTAILED FOOTBALL CAREER
Rose, who roomed with future St. Louis Cardinals running back Earl Ferrell at ETSU, 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 noted.
“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.”
“In all the media interviews after the state, I talked about how poor the facilities were that I trained at,” Rose said. “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.”