Josh Culbreath, above, clears a hurdle while running for Morgan State at the Penn Relays. The Norristown native will be inducted in the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame Nov. 26. Dinner tickets are $60 (tables of 8 are $440). Mail checks to: Montgomery Coaches Hall of Fame; 803 Northview Blvd., Norristown, Pa., 19401. For more information, call 610-279-9220 or e-mail Gordonglantz50@gmail.com or email@example.com.
By GORDON GLANTZ
When Josh Culbreath came out for the Norristown High track team as a sophomore, he faced a bit of a conundrum.
The spikes needed to run on the cinder track at Roosevelt Field were property of the school and only handed out to those already on the team.
Any hopeful for legendary coach Pete Lewis’ squad had the challenge of out-pacing an existing letterman while wearing the familiar Converse basketball sneakers that many in the working class community bought at a local pawn shop.
He walked away, in silent protest, vowing to clear the figurative hurdle being laid in his path.
In 11th grade, Culbreath – after already running for track glory in middle school events at the Penn Relays – decided to take matters into his own hands.
Or feet, that is.
He decided to run barefoot on the cinders.
Culbreath – who also played basketball and football at Norristown High — made the team, and the rest is track and field history.
“I knew I was capable,” said the 81-year-young North Wales resident. “I paid the price, but I proved my point.”
The hardware in Culbreath’s trophy case includes a bronze medal from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and two goal medals from the Pan American games.
On Nov. 26 — at Westover GC in West Norrition, Pa. (ticket information at bottom of article) – Culbreath will be inducted in the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame, just miles from where it all began on the East End of Norristown.
Along the way, he always remaining a fierce but friendly competitor. Well-traveled and interested in other cultures, Culbreath would speak to foreign rivals in their own tongue and then say “I’m gonna whip your butt” in English, while they still smiled and nodded.
And he continued to fight injustice in his own way.
Sometimes he paid the price, but he kept on proving his point.
Such was the case when he was summoned from the campus of Morgan State in Baltimore for the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico and met up with the team in Houston.
Culbreath and his fellow black teammates were not allowed to stay in a fancy hotel, instead being put up on a local Army base.
When the same hotel arranged for the athletes at the to have steak dinners brought in, Culbreath refused.
“They said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that,’ … I said, ‘Oh, yes I can, and you don’t what to get me started,’” he recalled, shaking his head from side to side, still displaying a combination of disbelief in the scenario and pride in his stance.
“And they didn’t,” he added. “They knew better.”
When he went on to win gold in Mexico City, pictures of him collapsing after crossing the finish line prompted him to enroll in law school at the University of Colorado so he could train in high altitude.
He paid the price once, this time for not being prepared enough to win with dignity.
He was going to prove his point the next time around.
That chance came in 1959, taking gold again at the Pan American Games in Chicago.
Before scoring a scholarship to Morgan State, Culbreath was hoping against hope to use athletics as a springboard to a college education, but was prepared to follow his older brother into the Navy.
Culbreath did serve in the Marines after college, where he was a three-time national champion, and was the first active-duty Marine duty to both participate – and win a medal – in the Olympics.
He taught and coached in the Norristown School District, getting a Masters’ degree in education from Temple University, often using unconventional methods to get across to students labeled unteachable.
He moved on instruct young people around the world in track and field.
In 1988, Culbreath took the job as head track and field coach — for men and women — at Central State in Ohio.
Winning 10 NAIA titles – men and women, indoor and outdoor – had him and his team at the White House Rose Garden, being honored by President Bill Clinton.
Again, like that high school junior running barefoot on a cinder track, Culbreath was willing to stay true to himself.
Known as “Pop” to his athletes, he was willing to pay the price to prove a point.
When Deon Hemmings, a female runner from Jamaica, said she didn’t want to run anymore at practice, Culbreath offered to help her to pack her bags.
She stayed, and went on to win a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (where three of his other athletes also competed) and two silver medals at the 2000 Sydney Games.
A male runner with Olympic pedigree, Neal de Silva of Trinidad and Tobago, was actually sent home but welcomed back when he “became a man.”
De Silva, who placed seventh at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, paid the price.
Culbreath, his coach, proved a point.
Dinner tickets are $60 (tables of 8 are $440). Mail checks to: Montgomery Coaches Hall of Fame; 803 Northview Blvd., Norristown, Pa., 19401. For more information, call 610-279-9220 or e-mail Gordonglantz50@gmail.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.