Distance running coach Chuck Sanchez remembers many details.
Tykie Harris, who stood over six feet tall, could jump, dunk, shoot, play defense — most of all run — for his first love, basketball. Track coaches drooled over those running and jumping skills, though.
Truth is, college evaluators might have placed Harris’ track & field skills head and shoulders above his hoops-playing abilities. It might’ve cost him college options at numerous locations.
Harris, who played for San Gorgonio hoops coach Ty Stockham, could often be found at the recreation center, Spartan Gym, anywhere that had a rim, net and a ball.
Said Sanchez: “Basketball, for him, was 24/7. A lot of times we had to drag Tykie out of the gym … for track practice.”
Never ran before. Senior year. Time was running out. Literally. There would be a surprise ending. San G was in the 2001 basketball playoffs. Track had been going for a few weeks.
Track, said Sanchez, was “too boring for Tykie.”
Harris might’ve been a better quarter-miler, then-athletic director John Powell told Sanchez and head coach Ed Clark. Here’s the trouble with the open 400: Starting blocks. It takes some time to master those things.
The 800 has no blocks; it’s a standing start.
Biggest obstacle of all was a track star from Chino.
USC-bound Raphael Asafo-Agyei from Don Lugo High School had one of the fastest 800 times in the USA that year (1:51.76 at Arcadia), trailing only prep sensation Allen Webb (Michigan), eventual holder of the U.S. record in the men’s 1500-meter.
Asafo-Agyei hailed from England, the son of a Ghanan father and a half-Scottish, half-Ghanan mother. A junior, he claimed CIF Division 1 and Masters titles that year.
All that experience — and talent — could have crushed Harris’ spirit.
Meanwhile, Clark’s instructions on Harris to Sanchez: “Keep it simple. Nothing complex.”
It was, in a sense, Rocky Balboa going up against Apollo Creed.
Harris squared off against experienced racers, virtuous in picking up the pace of any race.
It was simple: Stalk or be stalked. Sizing up each runner. Keeping that mental clock running. Knowing when to make a move. Sprint. Stretch run. Final kick.
Harris had few of those skills. It was like replacing Santa Claus a week before the big day. Experience: Lacking.
INEXPERIENCE WINS OUT
Clark remembers Harris weaving in and out of lanes. Stuff an experienced racer never worries about.
Sanchez told him, “ ‘Tykie, you never try to pass on the curve.’ I remember him going from lane one out to lane six or seven — something you never do.”
Remember this: Over a five-week stretch, Harris ran just seven meets.
Dude just kept qualifying.
Won San Andreas League title, advancing to CIF prelims.
Ran 1:57, good enough to qualify for CIF finals, which is no small achievement.
Third place at CIF-Masters, qualifying for State.
Sanchez remembers Asafo-Agyei: “Tykie said, ‘I can beat that guy.’ ”
Asafo-Agyei wore a Superman T-shirt around, in full view of everyone.
Sanchez remembers Asafo-Agyei.
“We’d talk to him. We’d tell him, ‘Good luck.’ He’d look at us like we were peasants. He was getting in his zone.”
“We tried looking everywhere in Old Towne Sacramento,” said Clark, “looking to find a light green T-shirt for Tykie to wear under his uniform.”
Light green. Kryptonite color. As legends go, light-green colored kryptonite is the only known substance that can stop Superman.
“We couldn’t find one,” said Clark.
Who knows if it would’ve made a difference? High school hijinks, right? Kind of a fun sidelight.
“The real Superman,” said Sanchez, “was Tykie.”
The race. Asafo-Agyei would win. Second place would be up for grabs, though. Seven meets of experience, though, didn’t set Harris back. He’d been playing basketball for months.
All that basketball training paid off. Stockham had those guys running at practice. Some outsiders might mistake his workouts for indoor track practice.
All that running kept Harris in shape. For track. In the 400. In the 800. Relays. Changed shoes for the jumps.
Asafo-Agyei appeared to have the race won after passing leader Matt Bates of Los Gatos with 40 meters left. But he eased up just enough in his final strides.
Harris had finished well back of Asafo-Agyei in the Southern Section Division I final and Masters Meet the previous two weeks. At the finish, Harris came up with an exaggerated lean. It gave him the win.
“I had nightmares about that race for a little while,” Asafo-Agyei told the L.A. Times. “I honestly thought I had it won, but then when he dove across the finish line, I was really surprised. I didn’t know what happened.”
Harris leaned. He won — 1:53.80.
No, Asafo-Agyei won. Too close to call. Inspect the video. Wanna get this right.
It might’ve been 30 minutes before Harris was declared the winner. Asafo-Agyei, who crossed in 1:53.87, had raised his arms in triumph. Harris’ lean. Just enough time to pass Asafo-Agyei’s premature celebration.
It sent a buzz throughout Hughes Stadium on the Sacramento State University campus. Media coverage?
“Not really,” said Sanchez. “Not much.”
Asafo-Agyei went on to run 1:51 and 1:50 clockings in the next few weeks. Harris never raced again.
Said Sanchez: “[Asafo-Agyei] went on to run for USC and in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing [for Ghana].”
UCLA track sent word: Interest in Harris had gained steam. Not for basketball, though.
Get it? If Harris had accepted at UCLA, the two could’ve connected in a Pac-12 meet. Oh, well.
Harris is finally getting into San G’s Hall of Fame. It’s probably taken way too long. He was eligible years ago. In all of Spartans’ athletic feats, this one stands out.
Call it the biggest upset in over 100 years of California track & field history.