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Pipeline of running legends: Bill Rodgers talks Johnny Kelley

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published December 07. 2012 4:00AM

Unlike many sports, one of the nice things about writing about running is that it's not hard to land an interview with the biggest names in the sport.

And when you do speak with them, they are typically gracious, appreciate you want to talk to them and are more than giving of their time.

Here's an example:

Earlier this week while writing a story about plans to add items about the late John Kelley of Mystic to a traveling Boston sports exhibit on display at Foxwoods, the casino spokeswoman asked if I wanted to interview Bill Rodgers, who will be the guest speaker when the exhibit is unveiled on Monday at 3 p.m.

I said sure.

About 30 minutes later, my cell phone rang and it was Rodgers calling from his car and apologizing for poor cell service.

For the next 20 minutes, Rodgers talked about Kelley's impact on the sport. We swapped stories about the 1957 Boston marathon winner and two-time Olympian and the days when Kelley and other runners were prohibited from accepting cash and prizes. Rodgers, who along with Frank Shorter is one of the biggest names in American marathoning, couldn't have been nicer.

He would have kept talking if I didn't have to end the interview and thank him for his time. Not sure you'd get that response from legends of other sports.

In addition to being honored to speak about Kelley on Monday, here are a few things Rodgers told me:

He said a line of American marathoners can be traced back to Kelley, who mentored Amby Burfoot, who was his mentor and which then led to Greg Meyer and Alberto Salazar, all of them New Englanders who won the Boston Marathon.

"There are may people who lived and trained in New England who had success in distance running because of Johnny's influence," Rodgers said.

He said all sports have their leaders and Kelley was one of those. In addition, he said it was people like Kelley who paved the way for today's cash purses and sponsorships.

If Kelley was running today he would be making a lot of money based on his success. But it was something Kelley once told me he never thought about. He didn't run for the money.

One of the many great things about Kelley is that not only could he tell great stories about running, there are many people who have great stories about him.

I heard another on Monday when I called Jim Roy, who is heading the effort to put up a statue of Kelley in downtown Mystic and asked if he knew what would be in the exhibit.

Roy said Kelley's family was collecting some of his medals but he said the task was not easy because Kelley gave so many things away to friends.

Roy said that when he was a high school junior and running for Kelley at Fitch High School, Kelley gave him a singlet. Not any singlet but his Team USA singlet that he wore in the Olympics.

It was Roy's most prized possession. He almost never wore it. One day he brought it to school and put it in his locker. When he returned it was gone.

With tears in his eyes, Roy walked down to Kelley's classroom to break the news and apologize.

When he did, Kelley quoted a line from Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."

"When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

He then told Roy, "Material objects mean nothing my man."

He always gave some great life lessons," Roy said.

Kind of sums up the man.

The Kelley exhibit, which is part of "Victory: An Exhibition Celebrating Boston Sports," will have its opening from 3-5 p.m. on Monday, during which Rodgers will speak. The exhibit, which will be on display through the end of February, is located in the Grand Cedar Exhibition Hall.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children ages 3-11, and $12 for seniors. They are available at www.foxwoods.com, (866) 646-0609, or in person at the box office.

A portion of ticket sales to the Victory exhibit during the next week will be donated to the John Kelley Memorial Fund which is raising money to erect the life-sized bronze statue.

Joe Wojtas is The Day's running columnist.

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