Back row, left to right: P.J. Leddy, Neil Cusack, Eddie Leddy, Kevin Breen. Front row: Frank Grealy, Ray McBride.
“I wanted to run it with the shamrocks across my chest.”
That’s what the only Irish winner of the Boston Marathon said.
That runner was Neil Cusack and the year was 1974, and he had a dilemma. He was a senior for the East Tennessee State University Buccaneers, the team that paid his way to the race and gave him training and racing opportunities that he might not have had back in Limerick. Ultimately he decided to pay homage to his homeland by sewing a shamrock emblem to his string vest and in Boston that made him a de facto Bostonian. As a bonus, his time of 2:13:39 was an Irish national record and earned him a place on the European Championships team.
Taking 7th, 1st, and 3rd at the NCAA cross country championships from 1971 to ’73, Cusack was the best long-distance Irishman at ETSU but hardly the only one. The ’72 team finished as runners-up, just nine points away from winning it all, and all six men on the starting line hailed from the Emerald Isle. The team was dubbed the “Irish Brigade” (a nod to the Civil War’s 10th Regiment Tennessee Volunteer Infantry, which fought for the Union under the same moniker).
Behind Cusack’s first place in 1972 there was Eddie Leddy in third and his brother P.J. in 15th, both from County Leitrim. Kevin Breen (Birr, County Offaly) was 95th, Frank Grealy (Ballyhaunis, County Mayo) was 104th, and Ray McBride (Galway) was 173rd, all also fellow Irishmen. More came both before and after ’72, more than 40 in all, such as former Irish marathon record holder Louis Kenny and nine-time Irish cross country champion Seamus Power. The greatest of them all was two-time Olympian Ray Flynn, whose 3:49.77 from 1982 still stands as the Irish record.
So how did they get to such an out-of-the-way place as Johnson City? And why? It was all because of Dave Walker.
Walker coached ETSU for 50 years. Originally from Massena, New York, on the US-Canada border, he came to ETSU as a football lineman and a thrower. After a brief gig at an Atlanta high school he returned to ETSU for a masters degree, took the head track coaching job, and never left. Like coaching legends Bill Bowerman and Joe Vigil, he became a top distance running coach despite lacking the personal experience of running himself.
In the late 60s Walker had a chance encounter with Brendan O’Reilly, a top Irish high jumper, singer, and TV personality who had competed for Michigan in the early 50s. O’Reilly helped him recruit Dublin jumper Michael Heery, and the connections began. His ability to keep bringing Irish recruits across the pond for decades depended on his reputation, and Walker was known as a man who cared deeply about his athletes and got the best out of them.
Walker’s teams made 14 straight appearances at the NCAA cross country championships from 1970 to 1983, a record for a single coach at the time. Possibly even more important was his role in constructing ETSU’s “mini-dome”, which opened in 1977 and hosted major indoor meets such as the USAir Invitational, a pro-oriented stop on the IAAF’s indoor Grand Prix circuit in the 80s.
Southern Appalachia seems an odd place for a bunch of Irish runners until you realize it’s almost just like home: hilly, green, damp, and rural. Virtually all of the Irish Brigade hailed from the countryside and they found Johnson City familiar. The area is also heavily of Scotch-Irish descent, and Flynn noted “we shared a heritage and were welcomed here with open arms”. Cusack might argue about that a bit—he once crossed paths on a run with a shotgun-wielding hillbilly—but then again, runners of all stripes were considered weird in 1971 no matter where you were, but had become part of the east Tennessee landscape by the end of the decade.
St. Patrick’s Day is a much bigger deal in the USA than in Ireland because it was historically a way for the Irish diaspora to come together in a new land. For much of the last two centuries it was a poor country that many left whenever an opportunity came, such as running for ETSU. “In 1970 I went to church in a horse and buggy, ” said one member of the Irish Brigade. “That’s how far behind the times it was.” One prime example was Tommy McCormack of Robinstown, County Mullingar.
In 1973 McCormack finished 20th in the World Cross Country Championships junior race, and that attracted scholarship offers from ETSU, Washington State, and Arkansas. He knew nothing of any of these universities but knew Kevin Breen, then the #3 man for Walker’s Buccaneers, and decided he’d join the Irish Brigade at ETSU. After signing his letter of intent the local newspaper carried the triumphant story of a local boy seeking success in the States. But he was poor, like almost everyone else. He and his family didn’t have the money for daily living expenses left uncovered by the scholarship, and certainly not for traveling all the way to Tennessee, so he decided he couldn’t go. A second newspaper article followed with the sad news.
A few days later on a Saturday morning two men appeared at his door and asked if they could come in. They introduced themselves as town commissioners and they’d heard about his trouble. They’d made the rounds the night before at all of Robinstown’s pubs and bars, passing the hat for young Tommy McCormack. They emptied a sack of money on the kitchen table, and off to Johnson City McCormack went.
Some of the Irish Brigade returned to Ireland; Power took over his father’s dairy farm, Neil Cusack lives in Clare, Ray McBride returned to Galway to become an award-winning actor, and Frank Grealy published Irish Runner magazine out of Dublin for over 35 years. Several became Irish-Americans and remained in their new country. Flynn never left Johnson City (Walker coached him through his two Olympic appearances) and now is one of track’s top agents as well as the director of the Millrose Games.
These days Ireland isn’t the running powerhouse it was in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, though some still make an impact on the NCAA. Nor are they concentrated in a few programs like Villanova and ETSU (although Providence still gets more than its share given that coach Ray Treacy hails from County Waterford). ETSU’s last Irish runner was Peter Dalton in 2005, an Irish fell running champion who now coaches at Tennessee Tech.
Walker retired seven years later and passed away just two years after that. Cusack and Grealy had been planning a surprise visit to their old coach and instead came for his funeral, as did many other members of the Irish Brigade. Grealy summed up their experiences coming to America with the words of southern Appalachian author Thomas Wolfe:
to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing;
to lose the life you have, for greater life;
to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving;
to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.