Brooks Johnson recruited Ross Fields for American University's track program, recalled him as one of the most "brilliant tactical runners I've ever seen indoors," and admitted last night that he was "shocked by all of this, but not really surprised, if you know what I mean."
Since 1975, Ross Fields has gone by the name Harold Smith, the same Harold Smith who was also chairman of Muhammad Ali Professional Sports Inc. (MAPS) and who promoted some of the richest prize fights in the country over the last few years, as well as several indoor track meets.
In a federal court in Los Angeles yesterday, Smith, who is also being sued by Wells Fargo National Bank for allegedly defrauding the bank of $21.4 million, admitted his true name was Ross Fields.
And that's what shocked -- but did not surprise -- Johnson, now the track coach at Stanford University.
"He had a fantastic capacity to work and put together schemes," Johnson recalled yesterday. "When he was in school, I know he promoted some rock concerts in the Washington area, and at some of the black colleges. He'd put together all these groups. He got Sammy Davis Jr. involved.
"There also was a very famous picture of the march to Selma, Alabama, that was on the front page of just about every newspaper in the country, and Ross was right there behind Dr. King. The guy had a way of getting close to celebrities like no one I've ever seen."
Johnson, then a part-time, unpaid assistant track coach at American, said he recruited Fields from Tennessee A&I. "We had run in a meet down there, and when I first met him, his leg was in a cast," Johnson recalled. "He was unhappy with the treatment he was getting and you immediately had empathy for him. I told him about our program, and he came up (to Washington), sat out a year and then ran for the team. He had good grades down there, a B student. He was no dummy.
"I'll tell you something else. I believe he was very well-intentioned. The guy was not malicious or greedy. Everybody around him shared what he had. He came from very poor and meager circumstances, and I believe he wanted to help other people.
"It's also kind of funny. With me being involved in track so deeply, and him, too, we never did cross paths (recently). That's why this is so amazing to me."
Incredulous, too, was Jack Linden, the head track coach at American when Fields was in school. Linden said Fields was in school. Linden said Fields was a member of American's mile relay team that won the IC4A indoor championship in 1965-66. He, too, recalled Fields as an excellent tactical runner who combined speed and brains to run sub-50-second quarters and 1:50 half-miles indoors.
"For someone not brought up in an indoor track environment, he learned quickly," Linden said. "Skill and cunning were essential, and he had both. He was also an extremely quiet kid, but he was a very hard worker. He hustled for every yard he ran and every grade he ever got. He was the guy who would run the extra lap after practice.
"I recalled either in his junior or senior year he did get involved with some kind of entertainment promotions. I remember a big blowout they had at DAR Constitution Hall, and somehow he managed to get Sammy Davis Jr. into being the emcee. I honestly don't recall what happened to him. He sort of faded out of the program, and I know he didn't graduate from school."
In the years since he left American, Fields put on a considerable amount of weight and grew a beard, one reason Brooks, Linden and several of his former teammates had not hint that Harold Smith was Ross Fields.
"The pictures I've seen (of Smith) don't look anything like the guy I knew," Linden said. "I had no idea."
Nor did Peter Chen, a pole vaulter on the American track team with Fields. "I remember him as a guy with a very nict personality, and a guy with big ideas," Chen said. "He was very ambitious, definitely. He wanted to do things right, first class."
"He was always the operator," recalled Buzz Agniel, an 880-man on the AU team."When he was in school, he was always promoting something on the side -- bands, parties, one gig or another. He always had an angle working form him."