Remembering Joe Clark, Father of Track's 1st Family

Photos courtesy of Hazel Clark

On November 4, 1994 I walked out of the house that I grew up in on Lake Street in Newark, New Jersey and sauntered across the street into Branch Brook Park for my first byline assignment -- the Essex County Cross-Country Championships.

It was a Friday afternoon. The air was crisp. The leaves were shades of umber and falling. My heart felt like it was up near my tonsils.

At 19, a little more than year graduated from Seton Hall Prep, which I knew was favored to win the boys team title, I wrestled with how I was going to interview coach Bill Persichetty, my former American history teacher, afterward. That would be straight weird.

Although we spoke afterward, those words never made print. A tall, spindly girl in a black tank and shorts with "Columbia" emblazoned across the front in block white lettering saw to that not being necessary.

I made my way across the grass expanse and up the hill near the flagpole for a better vantage point. The girls' race was on the course. The coaches and officials in the area were all abuzz about Hazel Clark, the senior who just whizzed by, more than a minute clear of her nearest competitor.

Good time to introduce myself to Columbia coach Len Klepack and let him know I would be wanting to speak with his star after the race.

As I waited for my opportunity to interview Hazel, I was introduced to her father, Joe Clark. I accepted his firm handshake and simultaneously tried to choke my heart back down again.

"Don't be star-struck. Act professional," I told myself.

If you were a born-and-bred New Jerseyan of a certain age it was impossible to not know Mr. Clark. His no-nonsense disciplinary methods and the outsized way in which he meted out that regulation -- baseball bat and bullhorn in hand as he patrolled the hallways of Paterson Eastside High School -- drew national attention and inspired the 1989 movie Lean on MeWhen I was in eighth grade, our entire school served as extras in the film.

We never met on set. I am glad. That November afternoon, and several times thereafter, I got to know a different, more unheralded Joe Clark -- the track and field dad. Earlier today, New Jersey lost Mr. Clark, the father of America's First Family of Track and Field, who passed away after a long battle with illness at his home in Gainesville, Florida. He was 82.

Obviously renowned for his unwavering commitment to his students, Mr. Clark was even more so when it came to supporting his children in the sport, first Joetta, then J.J., and finally Hazel.

And he didn't save the toughness -- or the controversy that followed -- just for his students.

Although he started young Joetta running the 60 meters, he envisioned all three of his kids becoming distance runners, in part to break what he perceived to be a stereotype that African Americans were only capable of success as sprinters and in another part because the longer races provided structure and were more difficult.

If Mr. Clark knew anything it was that those last two obstacles could be conquered through discipline and that if they could master that, they could defeat the former notion.

Did Mr. Clark push his kids, sometimes to the point of tears and beyond? Yes, he did.

In the process did the Clarks master the thresholds of pain required to be champion middle-distance runners. Yes, they did.

Joetta never lost a high school race and won four consecutive 800m titles at Columbia High. She was a nine-time NCAA champion and All-American at the University of Tennessee, made four U.S. Olympic teams, won five U.S. outdoor championships, and did not miss an indoor or outdoor track season for 28 consecutive years. She was inducted into the N.J. Hall of Fame in 2013. 

Joetta's daughter, Talitha Diggs, broke from the family middle-distance mold and was a two-time Pennsylvania state champion in the 200m and 400m for Saucon Valley and the 2020 AAU Junior Olympic champ in the 100m and 200m. She is now a freshman running at the University of Florida.

J.J won state titles in the mile and two-mile for Columbia in 1982 before competing at Villanova and in the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 1500m. He is now one of the most successful coaches in U.S. history. In 2000, he famously coached Joetta, Hazel and his wife, 5-time Olympian Jearl Miles-Clark, to a sweep of the 800m at the U.S. Olympic Trials ahead of the Sydney Games. As a collegiate coach, he has earned 21 coach of the year accolades at Tennessee, Florida and UConn and is now the head coach at Stanford.

Hazel never wanted to follow in those footsteps, fancying herself a figure skater until a fall on the ice put that dream to bed. Like her siblings, she too dominated at Columbia before going on to run for J.J. at Florida where she was undefeated against SEC competition and won five NCAA titles. She made three consecutive Olympic teams in the 800m between 2000 and 2008 and won six U.S. titles.

I never got to see Joetta or J.J compete, but I was there for all of Hazel's final high school races, some of the big ones during her time at Florida and many of the big ones in her professional career, including the Beijing Olympics.

Mr. Clark was always there, too, offering a supportive presence in the stands everywhere from Franklin Field to Hayward Field, and beyond. His handshake was as firm as it was that day we first met, and his eye for the action just as critical.

Having been pushed the way they were, it would have been easy if not understandable if the Clark children resented their upbringing. The exact opposite was the case.

"Dad is about as tough as a father can be," Joetta said in 2000. "I am so grateful for that, even though many of the things he made us do are controversial."

Mr. Clark parented the same way he educated, with a tough but caring hand, and to hell with what anyone not in the know thought about it.

"He was omnipresent in all of our lives," Hazel once told me. "We could have easily found it suffocating. I think we didn't because it was done with such love. 

"Having someone love me so much that he can't bear for me to fail is an extraordinary force to have in my life."

--Joe Battaglia is the VP of Editorial for MileSplit. Previously he spent 14 years as a writer for the Newark Star-Ledger and seven years as a track and field producer for NBC Olympics and Universal Sports.