Brian Sheriff was one of the finest road racers of the late `80s, early `90s. Born of an Irish-American father and Zimbabwean mother, Brian arrived in the USA in 1986 to attend South Plains College in Levelland, Texas before moving on to Texas Tech. Though he ran 28:07 for 10,000 meters, and represented Zimbabwe at the 1987 IAAF World Championships in Rome — and went on to run a 2:12 marathon PR in Tokyo 1996 — Brian was more a pure road racer than track or marathon man, winning prestigious titles at the San Blas Half Marathon, Crim and Cherry Blossom 10 Milers, and more.
Having moved to Boulder after graduating Texas Tech in 1990, the following year Brian took an offer from Mazda to represent their Ekiden Relay team, and moved to Japan, where he lives to this day in Hiroshima with his Japanese wife and family. His story as a hired racing gun in Japan is a saga in itself, but that is for another day.
In response to yesterday’s column WHERE DID THE GREAT MEXICAN RUNNERS TURN WRONG? I received the following from Brian via Facebook. Again, for those a little newer to the sport, here is a valuable insight into the sports more formative years.
“I remember, I think it was in 1987, my coach James Morris laughing the worst kind of laugh possible – a depressed laugh. I asked him what the matter was and he replied: “I was on the phone with the guy at Mount Sac Relays about your entry. He just said to me, “how good is your runner? (that being me) We’re only looking for the best”. So I asked him, “what’s your cut-off point?” And he tells me “what time can your runner do over 10,000?” I told him, ”what time do you think the other runners will do for you?” And his comeback was, “can he beat a Mexican runner?” I asked which Mexican runner do you want him to beat, because he beats them on a regular basis. He responded, ‘I’ve got too many Africans for my liking.” And I asked him, aren’t you African-American? Well Brian, you’re in.”
At that time the Mexican runner was definitely a measure of running standards.
But I saw it coming: the agent killed the Mexican runner. March 1986 – Phoenix, Arizona, Camelback Hyatt Suites, a room designed for two, but sleeping, if memory serves me right, between five and eight runners – and one of those runners, sleeping on the floor, a recent graduate from Texas A& M (Arturo Barrios).
Using his own money he flew to the race and was ‘given’ a place to sleep by the Rodolfo Gomez boys – the studs of Mexican running. The young ‘nobody’, an engineering major and 1985 NCAA 10,000 champion, simply hoped to finish in the money. He set a new world road record in the process (27:41).
A certain Mike Fanelli and Pat Devaney stepped in to help him establish a career even I am proud of today. That runner worked on both sides of the field – the competitive and corporate sides. For the other Mexican runners, though, the work was solely on the one side – the competitive side. They never saw a window into the world of Carlos Slim, they never bartered their skills for corporate funding. They couldn’t even see a potential relationship with the national airline nor with the tequila makers. In short, their agents were a complete disaster!
One in particular made certain that only his Mexican runners got into the race. He had the race closed to any Mexican runners not signing with him. Then Uncle Sam added to the misery. DFW airport wouldn’t allow any runners to land – they were simply turned around and sent back. I remember talking with Dionicio many times (Dionicio Ceron, three time London Marathon champion). I asked him to talk to corporate Mexico. His response? “It’s impossible to get within half a mile of their exclusive areas. We’re indigenous. Corporate America treats us better.”
Thanks Brian. And so it went, and so it goes.