A Local Life: Clifton Mayfield, 70, leaped from national fame into a life of obscurity

April 16, 2011

In 1963, Clifton Mayfield was the best college long jumper in the United States. During the indoor track season that year, he led the country with a leap of 25 feet, 10 inches.

At a track meet in Louisville, he defeated Ralph Boston, the reigning Olympic champion. He took first place at the renowned Drake Relays in Iowa, with the meet’s longest jump in 26 years.

As Mr. Mayfield prepared to jump with a back-and-forth rocking motion, crowds would grow silent. He would glide down the runway with a strong and easy stride, then launch himself into flight, his legs still churning beneath him as if escaping the gravity of the earth.

In June 1963, at the NCAA outdoor championships in Albuquerque, Mr. Mayfield leaped 26 feet, 7 inches — just eight inches short of the world record. At the time, it was the longest jump ever at the NCAA championships, but it didn’t count as a new record because a light tailwind was above the allowable limit.

Still, Mr. Mayfield, who grew up in Washington, became the first athlete from his small, historically black college, Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, to win a national title. He was the third-ranked long jumper in the country in 1963, the fifth-best in the world and a favorite for the 1964 U.S. Olympic team.

But because of an injury, he was unable to defend his NCAA title a year later and was not chosen for the Olympics. After that, he seemed to disappear.

More than 40 years later, when his coach at Central State organized a reunion of his old team, Mr. Mayfield was the only person he couldn’t find.

“We heard from everybody but Clifton,” a former teammate, Hamilton Lipscomb, said. “It was like he dropped off the map.”

Mr. Mayfield was 70 when he died Feb. 23 of a heart attack at his home in the District. His coach and former teammates hadn’t heard from him in decades.

Sometimes, in the life of a superior athlete, there comes a sense that nothing will ever equal the exhilaration of triumph tasted in youth. Once the race is run and the cheering stops, colors do not look as bright, the air does not seem as pure.

As a young man, Clifton Mayfield had breathtaking speed and grace. Not only was he one of the world’s best long jumpers, but he could run the 100-yard dash in 9.5 seconds, the 220 in 21.0. He was part of a mile relay team at Central State that broke the world record.

“He was up there with the best,” Lipscomb said. “He was a beautiful runner. Everything was correct – like he was floating.”

As captain of the track team, he often invited raw freshmen to visit the college’s “indoor track,” leading them on a brisk wintertime run through the Ohio countryside until reaching the top of a hill. A road stretched ahead for a mile, with cattle on either side.

“There’s our indoor track,” he’d say. Then he’d race off down the icy road, running ahead of everyone else.

D.C. high school star

Clifton Augustus Mayfield was born Aug. 21, 1940, in New Bern, N.C., and moved to the District when he was 2. His parents found jobs with the General Services Administration, and his mother, Hattie, worked for 27 years as a maid at the White House.

One of six children, Clifton showed early athletic promise while growing up in Northeast Washington. At 6-feet-1 and about 170 pounds, he was lithe and powerful and earned letters in basketball, baseball, swimming and golf at Spingarn High School. His best sport, though, was always track and field.

On May 25, 1960, while competing in a preliminary round of the D.C. Interhigh track meet, he leaped 22 feet, 6 1 / 4 inches in the long jump, breaking a city record that had stood since 1938.

A day later, he bettered his new mark by more than a foot, jumping 23 feet, 8 inches. (The D.C. Schools’ Department of Athletics could not provide information on when or if the record was ever broken.)

In Mr. Mayfield’s senior season at Central State, his coach, Dave Youngblade, took a year’s leave of absence to work with athletes in Africa. That season, Mr. Mayfield pulled a hamstring muscle that never fully healed and kept him from making the Olympic team.

Forty-seven years later, his coach still blames himself and wonders how far Mr. Mayfield might have gone if he hadn’t been hurt.

“That’s one of the things I second-guess myself about,” Youngblade said recently. “Would Clifton have made the Olympic team if I had been there?”

Instead, after graduating from Central State in 1964 with a degree in physical education, Mr. Mayfield joined the Army. He competed for Army track teams and coached athletes and soldiers in Iraq and Tanzania for months at a time. After leaving the Army in 1967, he moved to Ghana as part of a State Department program to train track coaches and aspiring athletes.

By 1970, he was back in Washington, working for the United Planning Organization, a community service group. He later served as a physical education instructor at the VA Medical Center in Washington, then taught mathematics in the Charlotte, N.C., public school system.

A short-lived marriage to Shirley Wallace ended in divorce, and in about 1980 Mr. Mayfield returned to the VA Medical Center. He worked in the maintenance department for more than 20 years, seemingly content to clean rooms and hallways.

Mr. Mayfield lived alone, did not have a problem with drinking or drugs and had no record of being in trouble with the law. He often took leaves of absence from his job and sometimes left town for a year or more before returning.

“We called him a nomad,” his brother Rufus Mayfield, a civil rights activist and a founder of Pride Inc., said. “I don’t know what he was searching for . . . I just don’t know.”

He believes that when his brother missed his chance to compete in the Olympics, something deep inside him was broken and never recovered.

“That level of drive was not there afterward,” Rufus Mayfield said. “We talked a lot of times, but he never did share.”

In addition to his brother, survivors include a sister, Lenora Gudger, and another brother, James Mayfield, all of Washington.

Mr. Mayfield retired to North Carolina in 2003 and was living there when his Central State teammates held their first reunion three years later.

Late in 2009, he moved back to Washington to seek treatment for a form of leukemia. Even then, he never revealed what had become of a life that once soared with so much promise.

“What happens to a dream deferred?” the poet Langston Hughes wrote.

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore —

And then run?

“Maybe,” the poem continues, “it just sags like a heavy load.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.