US coach had a big heart and led the Irish brigade
Published 16/01/2014 | 16:30
We never called him Dave -- we always called him Coach. That was the level of respect that all of the Irish athletes -- myself included -- had for Dave Walker who for 50 years was track and cross-country coach at East Tennessee State University.
Last Saturday, former Irish marathon record holder Louis Kenny called me from Nashville with the news that my former coach had died. It was an emotional call and I knew that Louis was hurting badly at the other end of the line.
The phonecall propelled me back four decades, to a day in September 1972, when Coach Walker met Ray McBride and I at the airport and took us straight to East Tennessee State University (ETSU).
It would be home to us for the next four years, and with Neil Cusack, Eddie Leddy, PJ Leddy and Kevin Breen, we sat in a circle on the floor of his office and listened to our new coach outline his plans for the forthcoming collegiate cross-country season.
I will always remember Coach Walker's words to Ray and I that day: "The reason you have both arrived here is because I know that you have talent," he said.
"The one thing I will ask of you both, as I ask all my runners, is that while you are here, you give it your best shot."
And so we came to know Coach Walker. And we got to know him even better when his blue Buick cruised into the car park outside our dormitory at exactly 6.30am every weekday that autumn -- the signal that it was time for our opening run of the day.
Neil Cusack and Eddie Leddy had just returned from competing in the Munich Olympics and both were on fire from that experience. They led our group -- known as the Irish Brigade -- on those training runs.
In the afternoons we would head for the mountains where Coach Walker would log our individual mile splits over 11 miles.
Coach Walker was a tough taskmaster who commanded deep respect. In that year of 1972 his Irish Brigade finished just a couple of points short of winning the National Collegiate Cross-Country title in Houston, Texas, as Neil Cusack led the field a merry dance to deliver a brilliant individual victory. Two years later, in 1974, Cusack sped to another famous victory when he won the Boston Marathon.
The Irish athletes link with East Tennessee State University started back in the late 1960s and was triggered by a chance meeting between Coach Walker and the late Brendan O'Reilly, an international high jumper of considerable fame who was also a well-known sports presenter on RTÉ.
O'Reilly recruited Dubliner Michael Heery for Coach Walker in 1968 and that started a link with Ireland and ETSU that continued through the decades.
Coach Walker produced three Irish Olympians at ETSU -- Neil Cusack, Eddie Leddy and Ray Flynn -- and over the years at least 40 Irish athletes have attended the university on athletic scholarships. Coach Walker played a pivotal role too in the lives of all of the Irish athletes who passed through ETSU. He was a big man with great heart.
Two years ago, I went back to ETSU to visit Coach Walker and at an event for my former coach, I presented him with a piece of Tipperary Crystal on behalf of Athletics Ireland. It was a gesture that Coach Walker deeply appreciated and this week I am grateful that I got to see my old coach again.
Last Saturday I called Eddie Leddy, Neil Cusack, PJ Leddy and Ray McBride to tell them the sad news and I was reminded again how, after all those years, none of us call him Dave -- we all still call him Coach.