by Tom Ash, Omaha World-Herald, June, 2005
Lincoln–Mountford and Zimmerman. Zimmerman and Mountford. Their names are inextricably linked through 58 years of Nebraska High School track history.
For the winner, Bill Mountford of Red Cloud, it would mean induction into the state prep Hall of Fame. For the runner-up, Marvin Zimmerman of Nebraska City, it would mean the longest-remembered and most celebrated nice try in state history.
But they remain connected as equal partners in one of the most dramatic head-to-head match-ups in Nebraska sports annals.
On May 17, 1947, Mountford and Zimmerman hooked up on the red cinder track of the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium for four remarkable laps and an outcome that outlegged the unprecedented promotional buildup to what the World-Herald’s legendary sports writer Gregg McBride dubbed the “Magic Mile.”
It was McBride, both runners said, who instigated the special challenge race under a high school rule at the time that allowed an athlete to move up in class. Zimmerman was the defending all-class gold medalist from Class A Nebraska City; Mountford had dominated Class C for three years at Red Cloud.
Mountford eagerly accepted the challenge, and the entire four-man Red Cloud team moved up to Class A. Zimmerman eagerly awaited the fresh competition to help him get Gil Dodds’ 10-year state record of 4:28.1. “Dodds was kind of my idol because I was born in Rulo, which is just nine miles from Falls City, where he was from,” Zimmerman said.
At the end, it was Mountford, 4:26.2 and a state record that would hold up for 17 years; Zimmerman, 4:26.5 and closing.
“That, ladies and gentlemen,” public address announcer Joe Di Natale hollered over the roaring record crowd of 5,500, “is why it was called the Magic Mile.”
They smiled and shook hands in the parking lot of a Nebraska City restaurant. Then they hugged. They had a special bond despite only three or four brief visits in the past 58 years.
They were honorary referees of the 1977 state track meet, and both were honored 20 years later when the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame chose their race for one of its “Great Moments” awards. There was one other time when Zimmerman was at the state meet watching his son, Dan, and he found himself sitting behind Mountford. There might have been one other time, but neither could recall.
On this day, Mountford, 76, had come from his Lincoln home to have lunch with Zimmerman, 75, and to visit his 10 acres on the north side of Nebraska City, with its 17 horses and a menagerie other animals.
Mountford had brought along a large picture of the finish of their famous race, framed in Red Cloud red. Zimmerman had lost most of his high school athletic memorabilia in a house fire last year. Would Zimmerman like a copy of the picture? Mountford said he would have it framed in purple and gold, the Pioneers’ colors.
“Sure,” Zimmerman said, even though the camera angle made it look like Mountford’s victory margin was wider than it really was, he said.
Over lunch, Mountford wondered aloud why some people like these two old milers “are just better at some things than other people.” Said Zimmerman: “I dunno.” Neither had set out to be great distance runners, they said. It just happened.
Both were 5-foot-8. Mountford weighed 118 by the time he was a senior. Zimmerman weighed 145 and was “barrel chested,” according to McBride. Zimmerman’s favorite sport was football; Mountford’s was basketball.
“I don’t know why I got into running, but I was good at it. It was just natural ability. Everybody said it was from running from the law,” Zimmerman said. “I was pretty ornery. If it wasn’t for sports, I would probably have been in court.”
As a freshman, Zimmerman challenged the team’s star quarter-miler and beat him in a school record :54.4 “wearing tennis shoes two sizes too big. I won the half-mile, too, and ran under five minutes in my first mile,” he said.
That same year, 195 miles away, Mountford was a sophomore who was looking for something to do in the spring between basketball and football seasons. Red Cloud had no track, and no track team, but Mountford had remembered that there was a miler in town when he was in sixth grade, and he remembered his coach telling him to keep his elbows in. So he started running in the streets and dirt roads around town, with his elbows in.
The new Red Cloud all-sports coach, Quentin Sommerfield, took him to a meet in Hastings that year. “I didn’t know I could run,” Mountford said. “I ran 4:51.6 in my first mile, and a guy from Alma edged me out. That’s the only race I ever lost.”
Zimmerman became a serious miler in his sophomore year and won the all-class Gold Medal in 4:44.6 while junior Mountford won Class C. “The only one who ever beat me was Bill,” Zimmerman said.
“When he won the gold medal that year, that’s when I became aware of Marvin,” Mountford said. Zimmerman still didn’t know about Mountford until a Nebraska City girl, Anita Ailes, spent some time in Red Cloud that summer. “She came back and talked about Bill and how he was going to beat me,” Zimmerman said. “By golly, she was right!”
In the historic year of 1947, Zimmerman, the defending champion, led the state going into the district meet at 4:37. Mountford, the two-time Class C champ, was at 4:38.1.
McBride started promoting a match race, and Mountford asked his coach and teammates Wayne Whitaker, Kenneth Johnson and Jerry Gass to move up to Class A. “It never entered my mind that it was just for me. It was selfish. I have to give them the credit for sacrificing. They’re a part of history, too” Mountford said.
The Class A district meet in Beatrice was their first encounter. Both were just running to qualify for state and didn’t push the pace. Zimmerman, more the tactician, hit his splits, and Mountford settled in behind, as was his custom.
“I never ran for time. I always ran to win. I always followed,” Mountford said. He passed Zimmerman on the backstretch and raced home first in 4:42 to Zimmerman’s 4:44. “I was just running to qualify,” Zimmerman said. “But he was faster on the backstretch than I thought. I couldn’t catch him.”
For the rematch and the record run, Zimmerman’s coach Ernie Gorr, who would later coach at Omaha University, outlined a blistering pace for three quarters that Zimmerman followed perfectly: 66 seconds for the first lap, 2:13 at the half, 3:23 at three quarters.
“Marvin had a good sense of pace. I never had that. I just got in behind,” Mountford said. “If he had slowed the pace, I would have set back down.”
At the start of the gun lap, Mountford made his move and took the lead. “I dropped back on the curve and then tried to take him on the backstretch,” Zimmerman said. The purple and gold singlet pulled even with the dyed red T-shirt on the inside lane as they flew down the backside.
“People who were there said we looked like one guy, stride for stride” Mountford said. As they approached the final turn, Zimmerman dropped back. Gorr had coached him to never run outside of the first lane around a turn to save ground.
Looking back 58 years, Zimmerman said he should have kept the pressure on and “tried to stay on his shoulder.”
Down the stretch, Zimmerman was surprised that Mountford was holding him off. “Bill was fast, but he was thin. He didn’t look like a sprint guy. He drifted out, and I tried to pass him on the inside momentarily, and he moved back in.”
“I was just trying to find the finish line,” Mountford said.
At the string, Zimmerman was inching closer but came up a stride short. “Maybe if it had gone a little farther, who knows,?” Zimmerman said.
“I had no idea it was a record. I was just trying to win the race,” Mountford said. He realized the magnitude of their dual achievement when “Joe Di Natale announced that it was a state record, and I heard the crowd roar. But I was sick as a dog. I think we both left it all out on the track.”
“Sure, I was disappointed. No doubt about it. There was nothing to celebrate,” Zimmerman said, “but I was elated that I had broken Gil Dodds’ record. We both wanted to win the race, but that can’t happen.”
“I’ve always had a lot of admiration for Marvin. He had that air about him. He was confident. I said at the Hall of Fame dinner that I would never have set the state record without Marvin.”
Zimmerman won his second mile Gold Medal as a senior in 4:40.1, then ran for one semester at Wayne State College before returning to Nebraska City to marry and raise three kids. He retired from simultaneous careers as a rural mail carrier and power plant operating engineer and said he now works harder than ever on his 10 acres.
Mountford ran for two years at the University of Nebraska before dropping out to return to Red Cloud, where he married, raised three kids and spent most of his professional career as partner, then owner, of an insurance agency. He retired in 1985 and later moved to Lincoln.