Sunday, September 12, 2010
DEERFOOT..LEGENDARY INDIAN RUNNER
Crowds of 10,000 onlookers overflowed grounds to watch him run. His races and private life filled magazines. A play based on him was a London hit. A dance-tune was named after him. His exotic sex appeal and skimpy red Indian outfits lured numbers of women as sports fans for the first time.
Born full-blooded Seneca in a hut on the Cattaraugus Reservation near Buffalo, N.Y., he once dined with the future King Edward VII in Trinity College, Cambridge. While the Civil War raged at home, this extraordinary American dominated English professional running from 1861 to 1863. His names were Hutgohsodoneh (He who peeks through the door) and Louis Bennett, but he raced as Deerfoot -- the most famous celebrity in the early history of running.
Deerfoot raced in a rowdy, rough-edged era when tracks were primitive, race-fixing prevalent and showboating part of the game. He terrified English spectators with bloodcurdling war whoops as he crossed the finish line. Once in a bar in the sleepy cathedral city of Worcester, he quarreled loudly with another drinker, emitted "a hideous yell," whipped out his tomahawk and scalped him, hurling victim and scalp into the street. It turned out the scalp was a loose wig, the tomahawk was made of light wood and the victim was a teammate in disguise, but the publicity packed in curious spectators for Deerfoot's next races.
We can't be sure exactly how good he was, but few runners can do 47:54 for 15K, 51:26 for 10 miles or cover 11 miles 970 yards (18.589K) in one hour, on rough grass, soft dirt or crumbly cinders. The one-hour performance was Deerfoot's fourth world record for that event. Achieved despite a foolhardy first mile in 4:41, it stood for 34 years. Big for a long-distance runner, at 5-foot-11_ and 166 pounds, Deerfoot was strikingly Native American in appearance, with bronzed skin, black hair, eagle-beak nose and piercing eyes. With his heavy stride and swinging rock 'n' roll gait, he defied fussy rules about elegant "style." Another Native American, Billy Mills, did the same when he won Olympic 10,000m gold a century later.
Despite his fame, Deerfoot seems to have been reticent and modest. He perhaps had a drinking problem, understandable at a time when professional running was inseparable from public houses, and for a man from a despised minority trying to invent a risky new profession in a foreign country. To run so consistently well speaks for deep strength of resolve.
The first full-length biography of Deerfoot has been written by Rob Hadgraft, who previously gave us equally fascinating books on Alf Shrubb (2004) and Walter George (2006). Researched mostly from newspaper sources, it throws light on matters as important as popular culture, racism and the early history of advertising and promotion. Deerfoot's grave can still be visited at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo.