Reynaldo Brown recounts biggest high: beating kidney failure
Reynaldo Brown’s greatest leap wasn’t the 7-3 he straddled in September 1968 to make the Olympic team at age 17. It wasn’t the 7-0 1/4 he cleared at Mexico City to take fifth behind the gold and silver of teammates Dick Fosbury and Ed Caruthers. His greatest effort came several years ago while hospitalized with kidney failure. After hearing a doctor say: “I hope this guy is still here in the morning,” Rey vowed to jump out of bed and begin training for his life. A living legend and my schoolboy hero, Reynaldo gained fame for his Compton High School exploits of the late 1960s. But his recent life isn’t as well-known. At the Southern California Striders annual awards banquet November 29, guests including fellow Olympians Caruthers, Dwight Stones and John Carlos heard him tell his story with humor and humility. See my photo gallery of the event at the Foxfire restaurant in Anaheim Hills.
Reynaldo, who jumped 5-6 in 2009, has beaten cancer, cardiac and renal failure.
Reynaldo, who turned 59 on Sunday, was introduced by Striders Vice President Stan Whitley, who long-jumped at the Echo Summit Olympic Trials where Rey, still only a junior at Compton, made prep history.
Stan and Rey became close in ensuing years, and Rey even attended Stan’s 60th birthday party a few years ago. So Stan felt relaxed enough to share stories of his friend from the olden days.
It was in the early 1970s, Stan recalled, when Rey showed up at a neighborhood basketball court, where some young studs were trying to dunk the ball. Rey approached the kids and declared: “I can touch the rim with my foot.”
Of course, that was impossible. So Rey made a bet, and the kids laid their money on the ground.
Said Stan: “Rey put his toe up there and touched the rim. He picked up the money.”
Rey took the microphone and enthralled an audience of 50 for a half-hour. With his wife, Carol, looking on, Rey told how he almost didn’t make it — to the Striders dinner. “I forgot I was going to Vegas this week,” Rey said. He honored his commitment, though, leaving Nevada at 6 a.m. to make it to north Orange County for the 5 p.m. banquet.
“You know, you had that power thing going,” he said to John, alluding to his iconic podium protest with Tommie Smith. “What (John) did was a tremendous thing — it was all about (being) united and bringing us together.
“You look happier,” he told John, seated at a round table just a few feet away. “You look good. You can still talk about it.”
Then Rey launched into a poignant career chronology. He said it wasn’t his coaches who taught him to high jump but his father. In seventh grade, he said, an older sister balked at washing the dishes one night and their father lit into her.
“I walked up to my dad and said, ‘Don’t do that.’ ” In confronting his father, Rey quickly realized he’d made a BIG mistake. “I saw how he looked me in the eye. I knew I was going to be decked.” So Rey ran out the back door to escape his father’s wrath. Ahead loomed a fence. “I had to dive or jump over the fence,” Rey said. He jumped and cleared and escaped a beating.
“(My dad) was amazed at how I got over the fence. That was my first high jump coach. That was how I became a high jumper.”
Of course, his interest in the event had other triggers as well. Rey told how his dad had taken him to the legendary USA-USSR dual meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1964, where he saw Soviet star Valeri Brumel battle American champ John Thomas. Rey, a tall junior high-schooler, also admired fellow stilts Wilt Chamberlain and Lew Alcindor. “If those guys can do something with their height,” he said, then maybe he could, too
But high jump wasn’t his first event in track.
He ran the 330-yard dash, “but everybody shot right by me.” Then he saw some kids jumping over a “stick.” And he thought to himself: “I knew I could get over a fence.”
At first he was clumsy, he said, and even tried jumping off two feet. “After a week, I got it.” His junior high school’s record was 5-2. “I think I went 5-6 that day,” said Rey, who came to be called Big Brown.
One day his coach told him that he could skip track practice the next day if Rey beat him at some challenge (I forget what). Rey won the duel but came to practice the next day anyway.
In ninth grade, Rey cleared 6-5. “They put me in the paper that day” — the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. “Everyone was all excited. Everyone’s taking it all seriously. I was just having fun.”
Amid all the hoopla of expectation, Rey stayed calm. He said he got that from his mother.
“One day I got excited, and she bopped me one,” he said.
By 1966, when he was 15, he began telling himself: “I can make this (1968) Olympic team. Everyone thought I was crazy.”
But his coach at Compton, Willie Williams, took Rey seriously. “He helped me to reach all my goals,” Rey said. “He almost looked inside of me.”
Rey asked Coach Williams: “What will it take to make the Olympic team? Williams said, ‘Hey, I tried that. There are some tough people out there.’ I said, ‘Just teach me what I need to know to get there.’
Coach Williams didn’t blink.
“He said: ‘OK,’ ” Rey recalled.
But first there was a matter of Reynaldo’s grades. He was told to keep up with his schoolwork or risk losing track privileges.
“I really wanted to do the high jump. (So) I got tutoring,” he told a rapt audience of masters athletes. “I loved it so much. I started getting my grades together.”
When he won the 1967 California State Meet, there was much to-do. Rey’s reaction: “What’s the excitement?” He had bigger things in mind.
He trained hard. He found a drill that amazed people — touching a football goalpost with his toe (as seen here).
When 1968 arrived, he learned he had to be in the top three to make the Mexico City team. His confidence was soaring, and he adopted the attitude: It doesn’t matter if I’m in the top three — just as long as I’m in the top five.
“If I’m in the the top five,” he said, “two guys will mess up.”
He pictured himself on the team, he said. “I remember going to Lake Tahoe (for the Trials) — it was so nice. I’m thinking: This is the first time I’ve been out of Compton.” He saw snow for the first time. He also found a mentor: Ed Caruthers.
Ed “showed me the things I needed to do, and worked (with me) every day.” Rey was confident about taking a spot from one of the favorites, counting on someone collapsing.
From the audience, Ed cracked up the crowd: “You weren’t gonna take my spot. I wasn’t going to mess up.”
In fact, Ed and Rey had the same series of makes and misses. Both beat Fosbury, who cleared one height on his last try.
So in front of his mother and grandmother, Reynaldo Ray Brown made the greatest U.S. Olympic team in history. And went on to witness history.
“The day John and Tommie did the protest, that was fantastic. . . . To know the real story behind it,” he said, suggesting the press gave it the wrong spin. “I was there the day they pulled John off to the side, harassing him so bad (for the black-glove salute). I’m glad that I had a chance to witness that . . . with the ’68 team.”
Rey’s later career was less remarkable, although he was a 1972 Munich Olympic alternate, won two national titles and and a pair of NCAA crowns, eventually clearing a PR of 7-4 1/2 in 1979.
“Life is something else,” he said. “My thing is I wanted to have a family and kids.”
Now married 27 years to Carol, they have three daughters, one son — and grandchildren.
His kids “didn’t really understand what I did,” he said. Then one day a gymnastics coach of one daughter noted her father’s track fame. She came home that day and said, ‘How come you didn’t tell me this?’ They (his children) had kids. Life has been good.”
In 2004, however, life became hell. “My kidneys failed — renal failure,” he said. He was taken to intensive care, and stayed seven days. “They thought I was going to check out.” He learned he had prostate cancer at some point. He had a heart attack.
He began two years o
f daily dialysis.
“This was tougher than making the Olympic team,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave my wife, family.”
That’s when he overheard a doctor say, “I hope this guy is still here in the morning.”
Rey said, “I didn’t know how sick I was. I said, ‘Damn! I must have a lot of work to do.’ Well, I was going to fight this.”
He recalled how Ed Caruthers and John Carlos visited him in the hospital. “It was uplifting. Then I started getting calls from other (track friends).”
A 2005 article in the Seattle Times told how the Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund helped him pay his bills: “Two-time Olympian Reynaldo Brown stopped counting when medical bills brought on by heart failure and a heart attack passed $100,000. He needed an OORF grant to pay his car loan for a month.”
Dialysis helped him feel better, but he still wasn’t out of the woods.
“I promised God: If I can get out of this, it’s going to be better,” he told the Striders two years after another track legend, Payton Jordan, told the club about his own medical emergencies and recovery.
Rey was told he would need a kidney transplant to survive. Instead, he vowed to use his Olympian will and discipline to beat the odds.
“My goal in high school was 7 feet. My goal in recovery was to walk three miles.”
So he started slow and worked his way up to a mile — “wishful thinking,” he said.
With his wife, he became a mall walker. Then he noticed something. He could urinate. “It was filtering,” he said of his kidneys. “They said, Hmmmmm.” Rey told them to check his urine. It was clean.
Then one day, “The nurse said: You don’t need dialysis.” His kidneys had recovered 35 percent of their function. “They’d never heard of this happening.”
By January 2007, after a year of 45-minute walks down at the mall, he had become a medical miracle.
“When you’re down and out, you’re not,” he said. “I got that from track and field. . . . Track and field is more than a sport. It’s a way of life. It’s inspiring. We simply don’t give up on anything.
“We know how to set a goal.”
Rey took some questions, including what he could jump now. He said he might clear 6 feet this coming season. But the best question — triggering the best answer — came from the young niece of Striders President Brenda Matthews.
Young Sarah Shaw asked Reynaldo if he could still touch the basketball rim with his toe.
Said Rey: “I can still do that — for a couple of dollars!”