New Jersey has certainly had its share of legendary track and field coaches and all-time great athletes over the years. But how about someone who is both? Someone who is an all-time great track and field athlete who became an iconic coach in the state. Someone who is a Hall of Fame athlete and a coach!
How about Martin Booker! His resume on and off the track is just ridiculous. Try to find someone who can match what Booker has done.
Most of you probably know Booker as the current head coach of the Willingboro boys team. But that's just a very small part of his amazing track and field journey.
Booker is probably the only coach in state history to win an outdoor Meet of Champions title as an athlete, coach a team that still owns a state record, and pile up nearly 30 state championships in his coaching career.
That's not all.
One of the most important and impressive pieces to Booker's track and field life is the great family legacy he started, which his daughter, Dominique, and son, Martin Jr., continued by each winning Meet of Champions titles. There are a couple other father-son MOCs winning combos in state history, but there is no other father-son-daughter who hit the trifecta!
There just isn't anyone in state history quite like Booker, and I haven't even told you about his All-American career at Villanova, which included a great performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials, and his time spent with the Philadelphia Eagles.
We will get into all that and much more as we rewind the clock and take a look back at the track and field life of Martin Booker, a true legend of the sport, in NJ MileSplit's latest installment of "The Starting Line.''
And at the end we will also reveal the top moments that Booker has witnessed during his illustrious coaching career.
Like lots of young kids, Booker's introduction to running came on the playground when he would race classmates and other students in grammar school to see who was the fastest in the school. He was always one of the quickest kids at John Greenleaf Whittier School in Camden, but there was one student he couldn't beat, his sister Helene.
"As a young student in grade school we did a lot of competitive racing one another to determine who was the fastest in the school,'' said Booker, born and raised in Camden. "I started in about second or third grade (age 6/7). My older sister, the late Helene (four years older) was faster than me and it drove me crazy that a girl who was heavier than me could out race me. She always made fun of me for beating me, and that really drove me to work harder to run faster. ''
After starring at Morgan Village Junior High in South Camden, it didn't take Booker long to make an immediate impact as a freshman at Camden High.
"In my freshman year, I established the fastest time ever for a freshman in the high hurdles with a school record 15.8, and as a sophomore I split 48.5 for 400,'' said Booker.
By his senior year in 1981, Booker was the premier 400 high school hurdler in NJ and one of the best in the nation. He won the quarter hurdles at the 1981 Meet of Champions, and ran a PR of 51.5, No. 8 in state history, when he placed second at the Junior Nationals in Knoxville, Tenn. He also ran PR's of 13.5 in the 100H and split 46.9 on the 4x400.
Winning the Meet of Champions title is something Booker is extremely proud of.
"It was very meaningful,''' Booker said of winning the Meet of Champions. "I was representing Camden High which was known to have great hurdlers. I wanted to be the best of them all. Dingo Stevenson, Kenny Still, Keith Sharper, Earl Thompson, Randy Smith, Keith Curtis, and Mark Purdell were all individuals before me that were spoken of highly by Coach Bill Simpson, and he stated that I would be the next state champion. I remember my future college teammate Craig Morris (Monmouth Regional) beating Randy Smith in the 400h (at the Meet of Champions in 1980). I claimed then that I will win and post a faster time than he did the next year.''
Booker's senior year featured a chance encounter that wound up having a big impact on his career.
"We had a dual meet against Cherry Hill East and there was someone in the stands yelling non-stop that I couldn't win the high hurdles because he was coaching the hurdler from Cherry Hill East and there was no way I could beat him,'' recalled Booker. "I didn't know what he was talking about because no one in South Jersey was even close to me. I couldn't believe why this guy was saying all this stuff. He obviously didn't know how good I was.''
Booker won the race handily, and afterwards the coach came down to talk to him.
"It was Wilbur Ross, who was the best hurdle coach there was,'' said Booker. "He was a private coach who coached with the Philadelphia Pioneers Track Club. He was working with the Cherry Hill East kid, who had great form. But he's known for working with all the great hurdlers like former world record holder Renaldo Nehemiah (who starred at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High), 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Jack Pierce (Woodbury High), Greg Foster, and Tony Dees, and many others. He said he didn't know I was that good, and asked if I wanted him to train me in the summer.''
Booker took Ross up on the offer and joined up with the Pioneers that summer after he graduated from Camden in 1981, and ran on a team that included star hurdlers like Pierce, Eugene Norman of Rutgers, and Rodney Wilson of Villanova.
"Ross is probably the best hurdle coach ever, but he was a little crazy,'' said Booker. "In the summer he would have us come to his house in Somerdale and he'd set up hurdles all up and down his street and he'd really work us. He had a drill called the "critical zone'' where we'd have six hurdles set up, the first three and the last three. He said whatever you can run without those middle four hurdles, you can run with all 10 hurdles if you work hard enough. I thought that was impossible, but he was right. I ran 13.5 without those four hurdles, and by the end of my career I ran 13.5 over all 10. He made me a much better hurdler.''
THE COLLEGE YEARS
Booker, also a football star at Camden, wanted to play football and run track in college. He was recruited by lots of big-time Division 1 programs to do both sports, including Tennessee. But a broken leg that limited him to one game in his senior season in 1980 scared off lots of schools.
He thought South Carolina State was his best option to be a two-sport college star.
"The South Carolina State track coach said I could participate in football if I committed to run track there,'' said Booker. "So I went there.''
But Booker never played football for South Carolina State.
"They acted like they wanted me to play football, but then when I got there I just wasn't in their plans,'' said Booker, "It was very frustrating.''
After one semester at South Carolina State, Booker gave up on his football dream, or so it appeared at the time, when he transferred to Villanova. Booker was heavily recruited in high school by Villanova coaching great Jumbo Elliott.
Villanova had shut down its football program in 1981 for monetary reasons before restarting it in 1985, so it was all about track for Booker.
Although Booker never got the chance to run for Elliiott, who passed away in March of 1981, Booker excelled under new head coach Charlie Jenkins Sr. and assistant Jack Pyrah, putting together one of the greatest careers in the storied Wildcats program.
During his career at Villanova, Booker racked up 12 gold medals at the Big East Championships, won numerous IC4A and Penn Relays titles, ran at the U.S. Olympic Trials, and earned All-American status at the NCAA Championships.
Here's the breakdown of Booker's Big East titles.
- 1983 - Indoors - 4x400 / Outdoors- 400IH, 4x100, 4x400
- 1984 - Outdoors 110H, 4x400
- 1985 - Indoors - 55H / Outdoors -110H, 4x400
- 1986 - Indoors - 55H / Outdoors - 110H, 4x400
As a sophomore in 1984, Booker placed sixth in the opening round of the 110H and fifth in the first round of the 400H at the U.S. Olympic Trials. He capped off his college career by placing third in the 100H at the 1986 NCAA Championships in a personal best 13.51. Booker was rewarded for his remarkable career by being inducted into the Villanova Hall of Fame.
While Booker was training for the NCAA Championships in 1986 and weighing an offer from Puma to run professionally in Europe, he was approached by Eric Bass, an NFL talent evaluator and owner of a nearby gym in Doylestown, Pa. Bass had been watching Booker workout.
"He said that I had a lot of speed and wanted to know if I was interested in playing professional football,'' said Booker. "He said he had contacts with a few teams but I thought it was just some kind of big prank. But the next day the Giants called me for a tryout. I said no. Then the next day the Eagles called and wanted to know if I'd workout for them. I said yes, but still didn't believe it was real. Eric (Bass) called me and asked if I wanted him to come with me, and since I didn't know if this was a joke or not I said yes. So a few days later we got to the Vet and there's Randall Cunningham and Ron Jaworski warming up, and then I see Buddy Ryan, who was just hired as head coach after helping the Bears win the Super Bowl as a defensive coordinator. That's when it finally hit me that this was no joke.''
Booker dazzled the Eagles coaching staff.
"First they timed me in the 40, and I ran 4.35,'' said Booker. "That really impressed them. Then Cunningham and Jaworski took turns throwing to me, and I caught everything, slants, outs, nine routes. On one pass the ball drifted and looked like it was going out of bounds along the sideline, but I rotated my head and grabbed it before it sailed out of bounds. I made catches like that all the time when we played street ball and you had to catch the ball before it hit the roof of a car. They got all wild about it.''
After the 20 minute tryout, Booker, who hadn't played football in six years, was handed a contract.
But he didn't sign it.
"My mother always told me not to sign anything without reading it through and making sure you understand everything,'' said Booker. "So I told them I had to get lawyer to look at it and that I'd get back to them.''
The move paid off as the Eagles raised their offer by $20,000 after Booker's lawyer looked it over. Booker wound up signing a two-year deal for $95,000.
"If I signed with Puma to run in Europe, you had to run well to make any money,'' said Booker. "But with the Eagles I had a guaranteed $95,000 right out of college.''
Unfortunately, injuries ruined Booker's chances of ever playing in a regular season game for the Eagles.
He spent the 1986 season on the injured reserved list after suffering nerve damage in his foot while running a route in practice.
"I was going against Herm Edwards and I planted my foot and heard a pop,' said Booker. "It didn't hurt, but I couldn't feel anything in my foot. It just went dead. They wiggled my toes and my foot and I couldn't feel anything. I went to a bunch of specialist in D.C. and Maryland and they said it was permanently damaged.''
But Booker made it back on the field in 1987.
"I went and ran up and down this big hill alongside Route 676 near my house, just like I did after I broke my leg in high school,'' said Booker. "And I was able to recover.''
But in a 1987 preseason game vs. the Patriots, Booker caught a 22-yard pass from Matt Cavanaugh and was drilled over the middle and suffered a broken arm, which required a permanent rod to inserted for it to heal.
Booker was placed on IR again.
He battled back yet again, returning in 1988 to again fight for a roster spot, but surgery on his pinky in the preseason led to his release.
"Randall Cunningham throws the ball so hard that my hands were getting beat up quite a bit,'' said Booker. "I was still able to make the catches, but it was very painful for my pinky, so I had surgery.''
Booker came back for a preseason game vs. the Steelers with six pins in his hand, and Ryan asked him to return punts.
"The pain was killing me to catch punts, so when the first punt came to me in the game, I let it bounce before I picked it up. After that game, I was cut. Assistant coach (Ted Plumb) told me Buddy really liked me, but they had just drafted Cris Carter the year before, and there were lots of receivers on the team. They wanted me to come back the next year, but Buddy wanted me to work on my game in the Canadian Football League. It was all set up for me to play with the Argonauts.''
But Booker decided it was time for his life to go in another direction.
"My body was pretty beat up, so it was time to use my knowledge,'' said Booker.
HOPPING ON THE COACHING BUS
During his stint with the Eagles, Booker had begun his track and field coaching career when Chick Morton, who once drove the bus for the Camden track team when Booker was competing, asked Booker to be his assistant at Camden Catholic in 1986.
"Chick got me started coaching when he asked me to become his assistant at Camden Catholic, '' said Booker. I had no idea my old bus driver was such a good coach. We turned in some great teams. We won the South Jersey Sectional 4x400 in 1988 and '89, defeating Camden, Edgewood, Willingboro, Vineland, and Woodrow Wilson, and Washington Township. No one could believe it!''
BACK TO HIS ROOTS
After four years coaching with Morton, Booker returned to his alma mater and was an assistant coach at Camden under Calvin Gunning from 1990-92 before taking over as head coach.
From 1992 through 2005, Camden was a state and national powerhouse under Booker!
- Camden won 16 state titles under Booker, seven indoors (four individual and three relays), and nine outdoors, including seven straight tom 1995-2001, which is tied for the second longest championship winning streak in boys state history.
- In 2001, Camden won the 4x400 at the Penn Relays and captured the adidas National Scholastic title in the 4x400 in 3:09.91, which still stands as the state record.
- Camden also ran 41.09 in the 4x100 in 2000, No. 3 in state history, and 1:24.90 in the 4x200 in 2004, No. 2 in state history.
- At the 2004 Eastern States Championships, senior Dwayne Lewis ran 21.9, senior Sherron Bullock 21.3, senior Alonzo Brown 21.9, and junior Carl Smith (21.8) as Camden smashed the national indoor record in the 4x200 with a time of 1:26.90.
- Four of Booker's athletes won outdoor Meet of Champions titles (Dwight Ruff (400h in 2001), Danyne Brown (HH in 1999), Maurice Young (400h in 2002), and Jamar Ervin (100m in 2000).
Booker left Camden in 2005 and served as an assistant coach at Highland Regional for the next two years.
"The guys at Highland, Wags (Bob Wagner) and Bill Collins, reignited my fire and taught me a lot about distance running. I owe those guys a lot.''
In 2008, Booker accepted the head coaching position at Willingboro, and he promptly returned the Chimeras, one of the greatest programs in state history, back to its status as a state power.
During his 13 years at Willingboro, Booker has racked up 11 state titles (10 indoors-six relays and four individual titles), and last spring he led Willingboro to the Group 1 state title, its first state outdoor title since 2003.
Booker has now captured a staggering total of 27 state titles in his coaching career!
"It's funny how things work out,'' said Booker. "I never thought I'd ever wind up coaching at Willingboro. They were always a big rival when I was at Camden. I'm sure Bill Simpson is rolling around in his grave right now.''
WORKING WITH A LEGEND
One of Booker's assistants at Willingboro during its resurgence was the legendary Carl Lewis, who served as an assistant for three years. The stadium at Willingboro is named after Lewis, who starred at Willingboro and is one of the greatest track and field athletes of all-time. Lewis is now an assistant coach at the University of Houston.
Booker said it gives him great pride and satisfaction to help put Willingboro back on top
"When I was working with Carl Lewis (2009-11), he told me how proud he was to see his old school become a track power again,'' said Booker. "It meant a lot to him and to myself as well. It was great having Carl coaching with me. There was never any ego thing with Carl. It was all about helping the kids all get better. We became friends and we talk or text all the time now.''
Booker has earned numerous prestigious honors in his career.
He's in the Villanova, South Jersey Track Coaches, and Camden High School Hall of Fame as an athlete, and he's a member of the NJSIAA Coaches Hall of Fame.
Last spring, Booker was named the 2019 New Jersey Boys Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross-Country Coaches Association.
Booker has learned a lot from the coaches he's worked with over the years.
"From Coach Simpson, keeping calm, never quit, look ahead to the positive,'' said Booker. "Charlie Jenkins-workouts that become meaningful. Wilbur Ross-hard workouts will benefit high success. Buddy Ryan-challenge to excellence by view of film to evaluate talent and improve an individual performance. And I've been blessed with great assistants over the years that have helped me build programs and reach great success.''
Booker said the key to coaching is getting athletes to believe in themselves and to push them to get the most of of themselves to reach the greatest success possible.
I tell my guys at Willingboro all the time they can do the same things my Camden teams did,'' said Booker. "They just need to have the determination, commitment, and loyalty. Anything is possible with hard work, and there''s nothing better than seeing that light go off and seeing your athletes succeed. That's what has always driven me as a coach. I want to see all my athletes achieve success and have the same opportunities in college and in life that I was fortunate to have. I can honestly say that every moment with all my teams has been great because every athlete I coached makes every season great and special to me. They all are champions, and I am proud of each of them.''
Booker has been around long enough to witness some of the greatest feats in state history. But which ones does he rank as the top three he ever saw? Since he's had so much success with his own teams, we asked Booker to pick his top three moments from the teams/athletes that he has coached, and his top three from athletes/teams he didn't coach.
Here is what he came up with.
Martin Booker's Top Moments From His Teams
1) Camden's 2001 4x400 relay team.
They became the first NJ team in 20 years to win the Championship of America race at the Penn Relays with a time of 3:11.30 - over the Jamaicans. Then they finished off its season by capturing the adidas Outdoor National title in Raleigh, N.C. in a state record 3:09.91. That broke the record of 3:11.2 set in 1984 by Edgewood, which was anchored by U.S. Olympic gold medalist Dennis Mitchell.
At the adidas Nationals, Camden's 4x400 crew consisted of Maurice Young, (48.4), Dwight Ruff (46.4), Jade Smith (47.8) and John Morris (47.3). Morris made a remarkable comeback that year. As a junior in 2000, Morris broke his leg when he was hit by a van while being chased by a dog and had a metal rod and several screws inserted into his leg, which will be with him forever.
In the last 19 years, only one other team in NJ history has broken 3:11 in the 4x400 (Winslow 3:10.47 in 2003).
2) Jamar Ervin's electrifying victory in the 100m dash at the 2000 Meet of Champions.
Ervin, a freshman at the time, blasted a state record 10.35 at South Brunswick High School, the national freshman record at the time!
There was some controversy surrounding Ervin's record performance as many people felt he jumped the gun.
"He was on top of the gun, just timed it perfectly,'' said Booker. "He did the same thing in the sectionals when he beat Dennis Davis of Edgewood. During the indoor season, he never got out fast in the 55 and we kept working on his starts. By the time outdoors came around, he just had a knack for getting out right on the gun.''
3) Danyne Brown's triple at the 1999 State Group 3 Championships
As a senior, Brown ran the fastest 110H automatic time in state history with a victory in 13.43, won the 400h in 53.57, and ran on the winning 4x400 to help lead Camden to the state title.
Martin Booker's Top Moments Not From His Teams
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Booker's top two moments were easy for him to choose.
The first came when his daughter, Dominique Booker, won the 55 dash title as a junior at Immaculate Conception High in Montclair in 6.92 at the 2009 Meet of Champions.
And then his son, Martin Booker Jr., won the 200 as a senior at Pennsauken at the 2017 Meet of Champions in 21.57 as the Booker trio made state history by becoming the first father-daughter-son combo to ever win NJ MOCS titles.
"It comes full circle for me,'' said Booker. "To witness and help develop my own to become state, county, and state champion was really a treat to me. I am immensely proud of Dom and Martin, who took on the sport of track & field and enjoyed it as much as I did. They were watching, listening, and processing the elements to winning from dad: hard work, dedication, and commitment develops champions.''
No. 3 - SUPER MARIO
The triple by Mario Heslop of Franklin at the 2019 Central Jersey, Group 4 Sectional Championships was something Booker will never forget. Heslop won the 100m in 10.33, the fastest all conditions time in state history, the 200m (21.29) and the 400m (47.34).
"What a sensational performance in capturing three events with exceptional state marks,'' said Booker.