Message boards and Twitter threads have replaced the water cooler as the forum for discussing and arguing sports today. Boomers and millennials, each sure their generation’s athletes are the best, try to convince the others that their contemporaries are superior, with little luck in changing anyone’s mind.
While comparing generations in basketball, football or baseball are all subject to personal bias, some sports, like track and field or swimming are easy to decide: the fastest or highest or longest is the best, regardless of when it happened.
A great example – and one with an Aztec angle – is the men’s long jump. The 2022 NCAA champ in the men’s long jump is Wayne Pinnock from Tennessee, with a winning jump of 26’3” on June 8. Congratulations.
So why are we talking about an athlete from another school in a sport in which San Diego State doesn’t even field a team? Because of a great Aztec athlete whose name you may or may not know. If you don’t, you really should if you consider yourself an Aztec fan.
Willie Steele, a long jumper on the Aztec track and field team was the first world-class athlete from San Diego State. Willie was also the first Aztec to win a D-1 individual national championship with a winning jump of 26’6”. In 1947.
Let that sink in. The winning long jump (known then as the broad jump) from 75 years ago would have won the 2022 NCAA title by 3 inches. 75 YEARS!
Willie was also the 1947 National AAU champion and won the gold medal at the London Olympics in 1948. Interestingly, neither of those jumps were farther than 26’6”.
Willie’s jumping ability also had a direct impact on the Ables family. My Dad Tom, just out of the Navy, was a freshman at State and sports editor of the Aztec (before it became a daily) for the 1946-47 school year. The school had a general PR guy, but no one dedicated to sports publicity or information.
With Willie and javelin thrower Bill Morales both qualifying for the NCAA finals, the athletic department determined that a dedicated sports publicity director was needed. Since he was the sports editor, Tom was asked first. He accepted immediately, and it launched a 70 year career in marketing and publicity, and a love of Aztec sports.
Tom, Willie and Bill, along with head coach Choc Sportsman and athletic director Bill Terry drove to the finals at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Here’s how Tom described Willie’s winning jump in the foreword to his book GO AZTECS!:
“At the meet, Willie was absolutely incredible! I happened to be down on the field at the time. His winning jump of 26’6” just barely missed Jesse Owens’ world record at the time, 26’8¼”.
“I remember standing there watching Willie as he jumped several inches back on the board to make sure he did not foul. From toe to landing, he had to have flown at least 26’9”. And the world record would have come back with him to little San Diego State College!”
With all that jumping talent one might think that Willie would concentrate only on track and field. Nope. Other Aztec teams needed Willie and he was happy to oblige. He played basketball, jumping center at 6’1”, and first base on the baseball team.
He gave football a try, but was injured in a scrimmage and never got in a game. Tom, who had seen thousands of Aztecs compete in nearly every sport SDSU sponsors (and some it no longer does) said Willie was the greatest pure Aztec athlete he had ever seen.
Willie defended his NCAA title in 1948. Other championships include the 1948 Olympic trials and Olympics, 1946 and 1947 AAU.
Willie is a member of the inaugural class of the Aztec Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Hall of Champions in San Diego. After track, Willie spent most of his working career in Oakland as a director in the parks department. He passed away at age 66 in 1989.
Track and Field is one of the most successful programs in SDSU athletics history, with numerous national champions and Olympic medalists for both Aztec men and women, including Arnie Robinson, Whitney Ashley, Bob Smith, Shanieka Thomas Ricketts and many others. And, of course, Willie Steele.
The Aztec women’s team has won the last two Mountain West outdoor championships, four of the past five, and have sent athletes to 24 of the past 25 NCAA Outdoor Championships, including the 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams this year.
But there’s no men’s team, and that’s a shame. One of SDSU’s most successful programs was discontinued 30 years ago. And it’s also personal to the Ables family. Not only did the program launch my Dad’s career (which I continue, along with my son), I was a member of the 1976 and 1977 men’s track team as a discus and hammer thrower, and my cousin Mark was a hurdler on the 1972-75 teams.
GO AZTECS! – and bring back Men’s Track!
Watch below for the first of our All-Time Aztecs Basketball player list, Milton “Milky” Phelps.