By John Goralski
The Greek god Hermes was said to streak across the heavens in a barely visible blur. The Romans called him Mercury and lent his name to our fastest planet. In paintings and sculptures, he’s shown with wings upon his feet. In myths and poems, he’s described as having the wind at his heels.
Southington’s version was Rick Black, and his stories are just as legendary. He blew through town in the early 1980s, collecting four varsity letters when track was a three year varsity program. He captured two Class LL titles in cross country and paced his teammates to Southington’s only state title as a long distance team.
Wings on his feet? Not quite. Legend has it that Rick Black didn’t need them.
“He was just a great kid, and it was almost pathetic he was so easy to coach. He was serious about what he was doing, and it was his passion,” said former Blue Knight track and cross country coach Wayne Nakoneczny. “There’s no question that he was talented. He couldn’t have done what he did without the physical ability, but he would have probably just been an average runner if it wasn’t for his diligent work. He worked so hard.”
In fact, Nakoneczny said that Black was one of the only athletes that he ever had to send home to rest. Black had just tied a state record at the Class LL meet as a junior, and he showed up on the track the following Monday to prepare for the state open race. The heat continued to build, but Black wouldn’t quit. Nakoneczny remembers throwing in the towel on that Memorial Day practice.
“I actually told him that he had to back off a little bit,” the coach remembered. “It was a hot day. It was a tough workout. We were on the track, and it was right before the outdoor state meet. He did some reps, and I’m talking about half mile reps that were incredible. He was sucking eggs at the end of the workout, but he was eating it up. He wouldn’t quit.”
Black was a runner. He wasn’t interested in anything else. As a kid he played baseball and tried soccer, but it was the running that really captured his imagination. By the time he reached DePaolo Junior High School, Black had committed to his long distance dreams. For two years, he competed with the Patriots until the town slashed the junior high school program at the start of his ninth grade season.
Not one to give up, Black petitioned the school board to be allowed to compete with the high school team. He begged them through the fall and pleaded his case all winter. Finally, they relented. In the spring of his freshman year, Black joined the Blue Knights one year ahead of schedule.
That was the spring where he met his cross country teammates, a group of long distance runners from St. Thomas Junior High School. They had risen to the top of the Catholic school ranks, and Black was the final piece of the puzzle. It set the stage for their rise to the top of the varsity ranks.
“I actually got to meet the coach and train with him in ninth grade, so when I actually went up to the high school we already had the same core of runners—the Cavaliers, the Theriaults, and Marty Burns,” Black said. “We had run together as freshmen even though they had gone to St. Thomas Junior High School, and I went to DePaolo. They were actually faster than I was, so I was lucky that they didn’t really run my event. Had I ran the distance races they did, they would have probably beaten me.”
Even if that was true, it didn’t take long for Black to rise to the top. He earned a varsity letter in the 1500m as a freshman and swept into the lead by start of his sophomore season. Black captured all-conference titles in each of the next three seasons and claimed all-state titles as a sophomore, a junior, and a senior.
As a sophomore he won the Class LL title in the 1500m (4:09.8) and as a member of the 4x100m relay team. As a junior he captured the Class LL title in the 3000m (8:43.24) and eclipsed his winning time in the 1500m by nearly 30 seconds (3:54.08) to set a new state record in the final year of that event. As a senior, Black fought off early season injuries to place second in the 3200m in both the Class LL and state open races.
Almost three decades later, his time in the 3200m (9:12.5) is still the school record.
“Set your goals high. Break down your goals into small steps, and do it,” he said. “Stay focused because, if I can do it, there are plenty of kids that can do it. That’s they key thing. I hope kids say that, if I could rise up to those levels and reach outside myself, they can do it too. That’s the most important thing that coach taught us. He taught us to set goals, dig deep, and strive for things that are bigger than ourselves.”
Black graduated as one of the most accomplished track runners in school history, but it was his cross country accomplishments that really pushed him over the top. For three years, he paced a group of runners to the top of the state rankings.
As a sophomore, Black broke into the top 20 at the Class LL championships and pushed past a big field of upperclassmen to claim 13th at the state open. As a junior, Black captured the Class LL cross country title (15:27). In his senior season, Black won the Class LL race again, paring almost 30 seconds off his time (15:01) to claim back-to-back titles.
He finished in the top five at the state open in each of his last two seasons.
“I think what sometimes happens with runners is that you get into the off-season, and you kind of get lazy or lackadaisical after a good season,” Nakoneczny said. “He wasn’t like that. He just kept running. He trained, and he had a great attitude. He wanted to work, and he did it.”
Black said that he was surprised by his success, especially in his first season when he overtook runners that he had looked up to for years.
“One of the trickiest things to do is to beat people that are heroes for you,” he said. “It takes a certain mindset, and it’s as much mental as it is physical. You have to overcome the barrier, so that you can actually beat a person that you might have thought was untouchable before. That was my biggest challenge.”
Barriers never stopped Black. As a senior, he paced his teammates to Southington’s first and only team championship at the Class LL race. He continued into the state open, where he led them to the Blue Knights’ only cross country state title. When the dust had settled on his high school career, Black’s teams had earned an impressive 39-1 record in dual meets and finished as No. 1 in the state.
“People said that we were the best team in about 20 years. Our score was a 99, and that was unheard of at the time,” said Black. “It was a great team. In fact, I would argue that I wasn’t the best runner on the team. I ran the fastest, but there were some really talented guys on that team. There were a couple of them with more raw talent than I had.”
Black wasn’t done after graduation. The Southington harrier earned a scholarship to Northeastern University where he collected 12 varsity letters over his college career. An injury sidelined him as a sophomore, but Black made up that season in his fifth year at school to finish with four letters in cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track. In 1989, his team was devastated by injuries. Despite the challenge, he narrowly missed qualifying for his third national championship, missing the cutoff for the finals by less than one second.
“I had a good college career,” he said. “It wasn’t great. It wasn’t as good as I wanted, but I ran some good races. I ran some bad races, and I ran everything in between. It was a good experience. I finished my eligibility. It was pretty grueling, but I did it.”
With his long distance success in high school and college, it was no surprise that Black was selected to represent the town in the Southington Sports Hall of Fame. On Thursday, Nov. 8, he will be inducted in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“I was kind of surprised. My first thought was that I wish my legs were in as good shape as the memories of the guys on the committee,” he said. “I hope that people respected me as a competitor. As an athlete, I gave it all I could. I would have always loved to have done better, but I put all that I had into it. I don’t have any regrets. I’m just amazed that people remember it.”
For tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335.
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