Fifty years later, catching up with Detroit area high school running standouts

There they were, back on the Detroit Redford High School track after 50 years.

Their heads had a little less hair. Their bellies protruded a bit more. The track asphalt gave way to patches of grass.

But the memories of the time they dominated cross-country and track in the area came rushing back.

“I have wonderful memories of all these guys and this place,” Dick Sharkey said.

They were competitors indeed. Sharkey ran for Detroit Redford. Tony Mifsud represented Detroit Cody. Ted Nelson was at Milford, and Eric Zemper was Howell’s top runner.

All were considered to be among the best high school milers in the state. They were featured in the Free Press on May 20, 1962, as they prepared for the state championship meet. Their story ran with a color photo, rare for that time, taken at Detroit Redford. The photo’s caption read, “Miles of Smiles.”

There were certainly smiles July 21 when the crew gathered to reminisce about that time a half-century earlier.

Despite a little more weight and a lot more gray hair, the men have held up better than the school, which closed in 2007. Yet they stood there on the patchy grass of the football field, with the abandoned school — complete with busted windows, fire damage, a rusting scoreboard, a link-less chain-link fence and a garbage-filled tennis court — as a backdrop and recalled the races and the camaraderie they shared.

Mifsud, who arrived at the school late, surprised the group by bringing an old foe with him — Lou Scott of Detroit Eastern. Scott was one of the first great African-American milers in the Detroit area.

Between them the list of accomplishments goes on and on. Clearly, if it hadn’t been for their competitors, each would have sowed up every championship that existed.

Sharkey led Redford to city cross-country championships in 1960-61. Redford won the state title in 1961. Sharkey was the city champ in the mile run in 1961. In 1962, he finished runner-up in the mile in the city championship and the state championship meets.

Scott won both of those races. The ’62 city mile race is still considered one of the greatest races run in local high school history. Scott nipped Sharkey by 0.2 second, finishing in 4 minutes, 13.2 seconds to Sharkey’s 4:13.4.

“Dick made me a great runner,” said Scott, who later ran for Arizona State and made the 1968 Olympic team in the 5,000-meter run. “I knew in order to beat him I had to run a great race.”

Zemper was accustomed to running great races at Howell. He was all-state in cross-country in 1960-61. He finished third in the state in the 880-yard run in 1961 and set a Class B state record in winning the mile run in 4:22.3 in 1962. He helped his team win the Class B state track championships in 1959-60.

It was in 1959 that Nelson joined the Milford track team. He might have run away with the Class B state titles in mile were it not for that pesky Zemper. Nelson finished third in the state in 1961-62.

“We competed several times through our careers and had some great races,” Nelson said of Zemper.

Mifsud had his own nemesis while running at Cody. He was all-city in cross-country in 1961. That year, Mifsud finished runner-up to Sharkey at the city cross-country meet and at the team state cross-country meet. Also in 1961, Mifsud was all-city in the mile, finishing runner-up — behind Sharkey.

Sharkey, Zemper, Nelson and Mifsud finished their high school careers in 1962. Sharkey and Zemper headed to Michigan State, where they helped the Spartans win the Big Ten cross-country championship in 1963. Nelson matriculated to Western Michigan, eventually helping the Broncos win NCAA Division I team cross-country national titles in 1964-65. Mifsud ran at Spring Arbor Community College and Henry Ford Community College before landing at Eastern Michigan.

Never a hotdog

Sharkey’s father, Bob, played quarterback, but Sharkey found his stride on the track, where he honed his skills under the tutelage of coach Bruce Waha.

“If I remember anything from that period, you never got away with anything (at practice),” said Sharkey, 67. “There was no hotdogging. He would tell you ‘good job, nice finish’ and that was it. We’d run by and he’d say, ‘here comes Mr. all-state’ or ‘here’s Mr. all-city.’ He humbled you.”

Sharkey kept that grounded mentality into college, where he let his actions do the talking. He finished runner-up at the Big Ten cross-country championships in 1963 and earned All-America by finishing 10th at the NCAA championships. He also added a runner-up finish at the 1963 Eastern College Athletic Conference championships in New York.

He was even more dominant in track, winning Big Ten championships in the 2-mile run in 1966-67. He also finished fifth in the 10,000 meter at the NCAA championships in 1967.

After MSU, Sharkey joined the Army and served as a radio operator. He also ran for the All Army track team before spending six months in Vietnam.

After his military service, Sharkey lived in Wisconsin, where he recently retired after 35 years as a cardiac rehab therapist at various hospitals across the state.

A Hall of Fame career

Nelson, 68, credits his love of track to his coaches Bill Golden and Lee Averill.

“They had a huge impact on my running career,” Nelson said.

In addition to helping the Broncos win back-to-back national cross-country titles, Nelson helped Western Michigan win a Mid-American Conference championship in 1963 and a Central Collegiate Conference championship in 1965. He also ran a personal-best mile of 4:09.3.

Nelson was inducted into the WMU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009. He also is a member of the Milford High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

Calling Dr. Green

Green always has been Zemper’s favorite color. He wore it for Howell, for Michigan State and even when he worked for the University of Oregon as the school’s first director of the sports medicine research institute.

Zemper, 68, pulled up at Redford last month in a Buick Lacrosse. The colors: Green and white, of course.

“I wanted green, but this year’s model didn’t have green, so they put green stripes on it,” Zemper said.

Zemper earned all-Big Ten cross-country honors in 1963-64 and 1966. He was all-Big Ten in the indoor 2-mile in 1965 and 1967. In outdoor track, he was all-Big Ten in the mile in 1964. He set school records in the mile in 1963 (4:14) and in the 3 mile in 1964 (14:10).

He held the Ralph Young Field record in the mile (4:10.2) and became the fourth Big Ten runner to break the 9-minute barrier in the 2-mile run (8:59.4, 1967). Fittingly, Sharkey was the third to break the 9-minute barrier, finishing just ahead of Zemper in that same race.

Zemper also was part of the national collegiate record-setting 4-mile relay team.

Zemper earned his bachelor’s degree in microbiology in 1967 and started work as a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin’s medical school. But he was drafted into the Army the next spring.

After his service, Zemper returned to Michigan State in 1971, earning a master’s degree in microbiology and public health and a doctorate in educational psychology, concentrating in medical education.

He spent 11 years on the staff of the Office of Medical Education Research and Development at MSU. In 1978-79, he served as coach of MSU’s women’s cross-country team, leading the Spartans to a 10th-place finish at the national championships. He also was a distance coach for the women’s track team.

“My runners broke every MSU varsity indoor and outdoor record from 1,500 to 10,000 meters,” Zemper said.

Zemper left MSU in 1981 to become the first research coordinator for the NCAA, where he designed and implemented the NCAA’s injury surveillance system. He left for Oregon in 1985, then returned to Michigan to work as a researcher at the University of Michigan medical school.

For the past three years, Zemper has worked as a medical education specialist at MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Zemper also kept busy on the track, officiating track meets. He trains and certifies officials for USA track and field in Michigan. He was also selected to work as a track official at the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games.

Zemper even found love on the track, where he met his wife, Mary, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at U-M’s medical school.

“We first met at national Masters track meet at MSU in 1995 where we both were working as officials,” Zemper said. “We got married 10 years ago this past spring.”

The Maltese Falcon

Mifsud, 68, was born in Valetta, Malta, where his family emigrated from in 1950. The tiny country endured 1,376 bomb attacks in 1943-45.

“The number has been documented,” Mifsud said of World War II battles. “My mother dragged us out, all the time, about 2 ½ times a day. The bombings may have been a mile away, but you don’t know.”

Seeking a better life, the Mifsuds chose the U.S. over Australia and Canada. It cost the family $5,000.

“My dad had to borrow money,” Mifsud said. “He was an engineer, and he had to give up 26 years of a lifestyle to come here.”

Mifsud calls himself the Maltese Falcon because he’s from Malta and his nose “is shaped like a falcon.”

It’s a perfect nickname, especially since he is the coach of the Dearborn Divine Child Falcons girls track team.

Mifsud burst onto the track scene when he ran a 52-second, 440-yard dash leg on a medley relay team as a sophomore.

After graduating high school, Mifsud made All-America as the anchor leg of the 4-mile relay team at the U.S. Track and Field News Magazine meet.

From there, his career took a winding road. He made a name for himself at Spring Arbor Community College and Henry Ford Community College. In the fall of 1964, he was slated to join Scott at Arizona State, only to find out that he was one credit short of being eligible.

Mifsud landed at Eastern Michigan where in 1966 he set an EMU record for the indoor 2 mile (9:07.04). He also became a U.S. citizen that year.

As the 1968 Olympics approached, Mifsud decided to file for dual citizenship so he could run for Malta in the 10,000 meters.

But tragedy ended his attempt. He was involved in a 15-car accident on Labor Day 1967, landing him in the hospital with a lumbar fracture. Mifsud didn’t quite heal from the accident, later spending eight weeks in the hospital in July 1968 with lower back paralysis.

“I was devastated,” Mifsud said. “Running was such a big part of my life.”

He didn’t start running again until 1977 while coaching at Henry Ford Community College.

In 1978 he ran in the Free Press Marathon and finished in 2:59.59, good enough to qualify for the 1979 Boston Marathon, which he finished in 2:47.14. Three years later, at 39, he finished 21st in the Philadelphia Marathon in a personal-best time of 2:25.43.

Mifsud, an Allen Park Hall of Fame member, is still coaching at Divine Child, where he has guided his Falcons to a Division 2 team state track title in 2010, a runner-up finish in 2011 and a co-championship with Birmingham Detroit Country Day at June’s state meet.

Mifsud put the whole day in perspective once he saw all his old track pals.

“These were the greatest guys; they were like family to me,” Tony Mifsud said. “Even though we were very competitive with each other, before and after we were like we are now.”

Contact Perry A. Farrell: 313-222-2555 or

More Details: An Olympic achievement

Lou Scott of Detroit Eastern (now Detroit King) won the 1962 city and state championships in the mile. The Class of 1963 graduate went on to run for Arizona State and participated in the Pan-American Games and the Olympic games.

Scott ran the 5,000 meters in the 1968 Summer Games at Mexico City after finishing third in the Olympic trials. He recorded a time of 15:13.69 in his heat, but failed to advance to the finals.

He won a silver medal in the 5,000 at the 1967 Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg.

His personal bests are 4:04.9 in the mile, 8:35.2 in the 2 mile and 13:46.4 in the 5,000. He also was named Michigan track and field athlete of the year in 1962 and 1963.

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