His life began with polio, the paralytic curse of three generations, and the fact that he became the fastest man on the planet is not so much an irony to Frank Budd as it was a lesson of what an iron will can do for a man.
His wife of 50 years, Barbara, tells him this almost every day. She’s a critical care specialist, and this isn’t something they teach you in nursing school, but she applauded the stories from her mother-in-law — notably, how Frank’s mom applied a concoction of goose grease, nutmeg, mutton fat and witch hazel to a slightly deformed right leg, and transformed this limping child into arguably the greatest sprinter New Jersey has ever produced.
“She believed it was going to help Frank, and it obviously didn’t hurt,” Barbara said the other day. “But I think it was more about will and determination. I still believe it’s about having a positive attitude, and having a strong family around you, and Frank has both.”
“And keep in mind,” Frank Budd added, “that polio was more of a theory than medically proven. The doctors said it was ‘probably’ polio because my left leg was stronger, and the calf was an inch larger in circumference than the right. When I got to Villanova in 1958, a coach told me I was limping as I ran — I guess I just didn’t notice — but it gradually grew stronger.”
Frank Budd with Jumbo Elliott in 1961
There is a long and distinguished thread of world-class sprinters that binds the fabric of our state’s track and field history, including many men who carried the title of World’s Fastest Human – from Eulace Peacock in the 1930s to Dave Sime in the 1950s to Carl Lewis in the 1980s.
And along the way, there was Frank Budd.
“New Jersey has been home to a long line of incredible track and field athletes,” said Elliott Denman, the track historian and 1956 Olympian, “and Frank Budd surely ranks as one of the best of the best.”
We get another reminder of this today, when he hands out some medals at the eighth annual Frank Budd Track and Field Meet, an open USATF-sanctioned event at his alma mater, Asbury Park High School.
Some impressive athletes got their starts at this meet. Ajeé Wilson of Neptune, who is winning gold medals all over the world now, won the women’s mile here in 2006 at age 12.
It is but a small tribute to the man who broke the world record for the 100-yard dash at the AAU Championships at Randalls Island on June 24, 1961.
The extraordinary part of that achievement is that the previous mark of 9.3 seconds (held by USC’s Mel Patton) had stood since 1948. Nowadays, sprint records seem to last as long as it takes for Usain Bolt or Asafa Powell to lace up their shoes.
Budd, of course, ran on a cinder track, not the rubberized ovals that bounce Bolt and Justin Gatlin along at speeds that were unimaginable 52 years ago.
“And that day, I was in the first lane, where everyone runs during the distance races, so it was chewed up more than usual,” Budd recalled.
“But that 9.3 stood for a long time, and my theory is that it was because timers were just reluctant to give out a 9.2. But that day, just before I got in the block (Villanova coach) Jumbo Elliott said, ‘I want a 9.2 today.’ And I think the only reason they gave it to me was because the guys who came in second and third were timed at 9.3.”
In Sports Illustrated’s recap of that historic race, Roy Terrell wrote, “Patton himself always said that the first man to run 9.2 would be tall and strong and quick, a young giant with the reflexes of a cat. Budd is completely middle-size — 5-feet-10 inches, 172 pounds — and he never seems to be in a hurry until he runs. He lacks the effortless grace of a Patton . . . the catapult start . . . (and) he has none of the incredible finishing power. He just hustles along.”
It had been a year since his disappointment at the Rome Olympics, where his 4x100 relay team thought it set the record, only to be disqualified for an illegal handoff, but the 21-year-old from Villanova was now immortal. And though Budd’s 9.2 wouldn’t hold up long (Bob Hayes ran a wind-aided 9.1 the following year), he continued to dominate indoors and out, setting another record for the 220-yard dash.
By 1963, he was in the NFL, even though he hadn’t picked up a football since high school. He caught 27 passes over two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins, then played three years in the CFL. When he returned to Jersey, he had positions with the Department of Corrections and at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City.
He is 73 now and lives in Mount Laurel. For the past four years, Budd has been in a wheelchair, fighting multiple sclerosis, which was diagnosed in 1996. Twice he also experienced acute renal failure and was given long odds to beat it, yet he did.
“This is a man who walked both our girls down the aisle, which was very important to him — he put aside his walker in 2003 to dance with one of them,” said Barbara, who has three kids, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren with her husband.
“But that’s Frank. He’s still the most remarkable man I’ve known, considering where he was as a young man and where he is today, remarkable in that he doesn’t let MS get him down. I like to think that’s why he was a champion.”