On Saturday, the track and field community received the unfortunate news that legendary high school cross country coach Joe Newton died at the age of 88. Newton served as the head coach at York High School in Illinois from 1960 to 2016. Many tributes have been shared in recent days but it has been clear that his impact went beyond just coaching in the sport. Scott Milling, a former runner at York and Notre Dame, reached out to share his own short tribute to his former coach.
“You better bring some toilet paper, Mills”
This was the greeting given to me by my high school cross country coach, Mr. Joe Newton, on a Monday afternoon in September. At the time, I was a high school sophomore at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois. I had just made the varsity top seven and had one race under my belt with the “big guys.”
But, this week was different.
We had a dual meet coming up on that Thursday vs. Oak Park River Forest High School led by future-Wisconsin standout Malachy Schrobilgen. The Huskies had beaten us earlier that season and Mr. Newton’s nine straight years of victorious dual meets would face its toughest challenge. Knowing I would be that fifth to seventh man spot, I was nervous to say the least.
Come Tuesday I heard it again: “You better bring some toilet paper, Mills!”
The next day brought the same message.
Finally on race day, I walked from my final class to the locker room and Mr. Newton waiting for me with a fresh roll of toilet paper.
“Mills, you know the course is at a forest preserve, so you might be in luck!”
As the race began, I kept telling myself I had to stay with the pack, I had to keep going, and I could not let my coach down. As the race came down to the final stretch, I began to realize that we were going to take the win and Mr. Newton was waiting at the finish line. I crossed into the chut and Mr. Newton, with a big grin on his face, patted me on the back and yelled, “We did it, Mills! We won it!”
In that moment, I felt like I had finally been accepted into the Long Green Line. Looking back on it, it is funny that a moment from a school-week dual meet has stayed with me at the top of so many great memories afforded to me by running for Mr. Newton.
What I realize now is that my first acceptance into the Long Green Line was not in that moment of crossing the chute, but in the first day I arrived at York High School and shook the hand of Mr. Newton. Many in the running community know of Mr. Newton’s incredible accomplishments: 28 state titles, 20 national titles, a coaching position on the 1988 United States Olympic team staff, and turning Jack Libert into a 15 minute three-miler. But, no York runner, manager or student who interacted with Mr. Newton would use the accolades as the first way to describe the man. They would tell you about the moments behind the scenes they shared with him. The motivational message, the funny joke or more likely the lashing of a lifetime they received for showing up one minute late to practice.
In the halls of York High School, the running paths of Elmhurst, the back triangle of Detweiller Park, and the heart of any high school runner, the legacy of Mr. Newton will live on forever.
I’ll never forget the moment my senior year when we first arrived back in Elmhurst to a “Hero’s Welcome” after bringing home Mr. Newton’s 28th state title and final title. It was an achievement my teammates and I had hoped, dreamed and worked for four years. It was finally ours and the moment that it began to start sinking in was when we saw our friends, families, and neighbors waiting for us at City Hall. As I went to leave the bus, Mr. Newton motioned for me to come over to his seat. In that brief moment, he gave me a hug and told me he loved me and would always remember me.
I’ll never forget that moment and will never forget the man who changed my life forever…oh and don’t worry Mr. Newton I have a whole roll of Kleenex ready to go to read over this.
Once a Duke Always a Duke,