VAULTER VAULTER

Jim Brewer’s pole-vaulting feats caught nation’s attention

Jim Brewer ran on grass barefoot, springing himself up on a steel pole on his makeshift vaulting pit in his backyard and clearing over a bamboo crossbar, landing feet-first into sawdust.

It became an obsession joined by next-door neighbor and North Phoenix High teammate Ernie Bullard. Because nobody could get up enough speed in one backyard, the makeshift pit crossed the Bullard and Brewer yards.

They would get up early on summer mornings in the mid-1950s and launch themselves into the air. Over and over.

“When it got too hot, we came inside to cool down,” said Bullard, who was a couple of years older. “When the sun went down a little, we went back out and kept on going.”

Brewer became the first high school vaulter in the nation to clear 14 feet (in 1955, his sophomore year in a meet at Arizona State) and first in the country clear 15 feet (in 1957, his senior year at the end-of-the-season Luke-Greenway Meet).

Brewer’s remarkable feats brought Sports Illustrated out to do a feature story on him that ran in the April 15, 1957, edition. At the time Brewer had vaulted a national high school record 14 feet, 9 inches. The world record then was 15 feet, 8 inches.

From the SI article: Jim Brewer is a remarkably unremarkable young man. He wears his blond hair in a flat-top crew cut, likes sports, ice cream sodas, jazz (not rock ‘n’ roll), movies and a pretty, blonde girl named Marabah Wilson who also attends North Phoenix High School. He has not considered seriously what he would like to do for a living, although he leans a bit toward engineering. He wears the uniform of his kind in Phoenix, when he is not on the practice field—faded, beltless blue jeans which hang precariously on lean hips, and a white T shirt. He is a quiet, popular youngster, indistinguishable from any number of quiet youngsters in a thousand high schools in America, except for one thing.

Jim Brewer, equipped with the quick, sure coordination of a hunting cat and a spare, strong body, has, too, the one thing which separates the great athletes from the good ones—an obsession.

“It was kind of surreal looking back at it,” said Brewer, who is now 74 and living in California, still pushing himself these days on marathon bicycle rides. “I was obsessed with what I was doing. I was very competitive. I was the first to jump 14 feet. I had the highest jump in the nation as a freshman at 13-6. I didn’t even have shoes. I ran barefoot.”

Brewer, being inducted into azcentral.com Arizona High School Sports Hall of Fame, was the pole vault pioneer in Arizona high schools that has produced a long line of elite vaulters, including Olympic gold medalist Nick Hysong.

Brewer was a part of a track and field factory in the late ‘50s that was coached by legendary Vernon Wolfe. Dallas Long came along a year after Brewer as the nation’s top shot putter. Long still holds the state record of 69 feet, 3 inches that nobody has come close to touching since Tempe’s Dwight Johnson heaved it 67-½ in 1987. Then came Karl Johnstone, who broke the national high school discus record.

Todd Lehman, an associate head track coach at Grand Canyon University, vaulted at North in the late 1980s at a time when vaulting was gaining steam in the state again, competing against Hysong. Lehman ended up breaking Brewer’s high school record, using the refined, bending fiber-glass poles. Lehman was coached in high school by his dad, Dean, who vaulted at North Phoenix in the early 1960s and had a best in ’63 of 14-6, which was considered very good at that time.

“I was geeked out on the vault and wanting to be like my dad,” Lehman said. “But I also knew the history of what my dad did and what Jim Brewer did. My dad was younger than Jim, and he idolized him.”

Todd Lehman was raised on stories about the North Phoenix track and field legacy started in the ‘50s, astounded by how vaulters used aluminum and steel poles that jarred the body. Brewer said fiber glass came in late in his prep career. He said he tried it back then, but “it felt like I was carrying a log,” and he went back to the joint-jarring steel.

“I was absolutely aware of it,” Lehman said. “They had a Hall of Fame coach in Vernon Wolfe. Dallas Long, Karl Johnstone came along. Three consecutive years, they all broke national records. And they all came out of North.”

Wolfe, who moved on to coach at the University of Southern California, where Brewer vaulted and won the NCAA championship in 1961, lined out a pile of sawdust with two bales of hay to support the landing.

“He’d use a pitch fork to fluff it up every two days,” said George Davies, the eventual world-record holder who was a year younger than Brewer and vaulted at North Phoenix. “Jim was so far ahead of everybody else. He was the eighth man in the world to go 15 feet. That’s how outstanding it was. Nobody could touch that. He was the greatest high school vaulter I ever saw.”

Davies and Bullard recall a quiet, soft-spoken kid who had a heart of a lion.

When Brewer was a freshman at North Phoenix, he finished third at the state championship behind his teammates, Bullard and Bobby Charles.

The following week was the Luke-Greenway meet, and Brewer said, “I beat them all.”

“I couldn’t stand third place,” Brewer said.

When Bullard was a senior at North Phoenix, he once said, “I’m the second-best high-school pole vaulter in the world, and I’m not even my neighborhood champion.”

After his vaulting days ended, Brewer worked at a hospital before spending 37 years as a teacher.

“I tried coaching a little bit,” He said. “I got into cycling. I love it. I did 73 century rides last year. I’ve been across the United States. Anything challenging.”

Jim Brewer
Jim Brewer

FROM:  http://www.azcentral.com/sports/preps/articles/20130924brewers-pole-vaulting-feats-caught-nations-attention.html

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