Syracuse Online


Dr. J. on Running

Varsity Letters

Expectations Have Changed

Published April 23, 2001 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Stuart Lisson ran track at Nottingham High School in the early sixties. He contributed to the team by scoring occasionally in his event. He filled in on many winning relays. He assisted around the pits. He was an exemplary overall runner. As graduation approached, Lisson fell one point shy of earning his varsity letter.

Don Merrill was the head coach of Nottingham track and field at the time. A former US Marine fresh off duty in Korea, Merrill was not about to lower his standards to give Lisson his letter. After all, Lisson had not met Merrill's point requirement for a varsity letter. Lisson graduated from high school without one.

Those were the glory days of track and field in Central New York. Merrill boasted of over one hundred city kids on his team. After he moved to Henninger High School, George Constantino continued the tradition at Nottingham. Many suburban and parochial programs provided the necessary competition. Kids ran fast. They ran proud. Many of the records set in the sixties and seventies still stand.

High school track has changed around here. By providing an escape from personal responsibility, the appeal of ball games and team sports has eroded the constituency of track. Poor compensation for coaches has resulted in high attrition and turnover. Although a few programs enjoy dedicated coaches, others are not so lucky, and many kids change coaches more often than toothbrushes during high school.

Lettering criteria have also changed in today's feel-good society of participation points and "everybody is a winner". Off the subject, but to the point, the entry form to a recent county chess championship proclaimed "Everyone wins a prize," while the varsity letter requirements of a former track powerhouse read like a poor comic strip.

As if the class system of scholastic athletics has not diluted competition enough to allow most kids to win medals or score, eager coaches have created new ways to achieve the desired outcomes.

So, if you are too slow to score in track meets, you can still earn a varsity letter for participation. You earn points for attending practice and showing up at meets. You earn points for raking the long jump pit and setting up the hurdles. You earn points for cheering on your team of for tasting the chili. You earn points for turning in a health form. You even earn points for reading the requirements for earning points.

At least one of the stories had a happy ending. Time away from the battlefield softened the Marine's heart, and guilt slowly took its toll. Two decades after Lisson's graduation, Merrill returned to Nottingham High School, and requested an official certificate and varsity letter, which he awarded to Lisson.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at

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