Baseball immortal Babe Ruth once famously said, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”
When discussing the all-time greatest track sprinters ever to come out of Northeast Tennessee, the argument starts and stops with one man.
His name is Bond. Darwin Bond.
Born in 1951 as the second of six children, Bond earned the nickname “Flash” at an early age. The Bond family was not known for athleticism, but Darwin was the exception to the rule.
“I was pretty fast when I was young and nobody really wanted to race me because they knew they were going to get beat,” Bond said.
A three-time state champion in the 440-yard dash and a master of all other sprinting events, Bond won 46 consecutive races in high school in the 440, finishing his Dobyns-Bennett career unbeaten in the event.
His senior season in 1970, Bond ran a 46.9 in the 440 at the state meet to break the state record. The 49-year-old mark stood virtually untouched until last spring when Whitehaven’s Emmanuel Bynum broke it with his time of 46.60 at the TSSAA meet. It had been the oldest state track and field record left on the Tennessee high school books.
In the long history of D-B track, Bond, Teddy Gaines and Bryce Barrett are the only three to ever break 48 seconds for 400.
Heavily recruited by big-name universities in track and field at the time, Bond chose to attend Tennessee.
“God made a lot more ordinary people than he did exceptional ones,” Bond said. “I feel like that if you seize your moment and get your 15 minutes of fame, you’ve done pretty good.”
“HE HAD A RARE GIFT”
Bond initially did not make the track and field team in his seventh grade year. However, on the day of the first meet at the old Kingsport Relays inside J. Fred Johnson Stadium, he was in a class and received a note asking him to fill in for a teammate who had gotten sick and could not compete.
“It was actually James Henry that called out sick that day and I was in science class when I got the note,” Bond said. “My coach came into John Sevier Middle and asked if I had my running stuff and I did. He told me I was going to be doing the 100, 220 and long jump that day.”
Bond won all of them — even breaking the school record in the long jump.
“I really don’t know what happened that day,” he said. “Something just clicked and I said nobody was going to beat me any more.”
“He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen,” legendary D-B track and field coach Dan Crowe said in 2000. “He had a rare gift and I still have a mental picture of the beauty of his run.”
In his first track meet for D-B in the spring of 1968, Bond won three events and broke three school records.
“I can still remember that first high school meet that I ran,” he said. “It was at Fulton High School in Knoxville and some of the track coaches there were talking about this guy that had just broken 50 the year before at D-B and set the school record.
“I felt like I could do that pretty easily and so that was my goal the first meet — break the school record.”
Times News sports writer Bob Foley christened bond “Model City Mercury” possibly because of how easily Bond glided down the track.
Bond entered the conference meet in the spring of 1970 with a specific goal.
“At the conference meet that year, I knew reading Track & Field News that I was leading the country in the 220 and 440, but I wanted to lead the nation in the 100, too,” Bond said. “I just ended up having a really good day and had a really fast time in the 100.”
Bond’s finishing time that day was 9.5 seconds, which tied him for the national lead.
OUTDOOR STATE MEET, 1970
Bond was already the two-time defending state champion in the 440 entering his senior season, and he was looking to make an impact.
On that warm May day in Knoxville, Bond scorched the track and his competition by breaking the tape in 46.9 seconds (46.76 for 400 meters).
“My dad rarely came to meets and he was at the state meet that day standing in a corner of the stadium by himself,” Bond recalled. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to show him how good I really am,’ and I think that was that extra motivation that I needed to break 47.”
Bond was a two-time National Junior Olympics champion in the 440 in 1968 and 1969 and became D-B’s first track All-American when Track & Field News recognized him in 1970.
PROUD TO WEAR THE ORANGE & WHITE
Bond made his presence felt almost immediately running for the Volunteers.
In his first indoor campaign, Tennessee finished runner-up to Adelphi in the NCAA Indoor Championships in the mile relay, just one-tenth of a second (3:15.5 to 3:15.6) off the pace. Bond was the third leg.
“Back in those days, you ran with the team you qualified to NCAAs with and we had two half-milers on the team with only two true 400 guys,” he said. “Hardee McAlhaney was the anchor leg and I actually gave us the lead. (Keith Davis) was a really good indoor track runner and he just barely nipped Hardee at the line.”
The following outdoor season, Bond was again part of the mile relay that finished fourth (3:07.9) and was the individual bronze medalist in the 440 (46.0) at the NCAAs. Both brought All-America honors, giving him three during his first full season.
Bond went on to earn All-America honors five more times with the Vols, including a runner-up finish in the 1974 NCAA outdoor meet when he ran 45.63 in the 440. Larance Jones of Truman State won the title in 45.46.
“I lost a lot of close ones like that at the end,” Bond said. “I always said that in high school when you’re good, you win by yards. When you’re good in college, you win by a few feet. When you get to the NCAAs and on the international stage, you win by inches.”
He contributed to the Vols’ 1974 team championship with his eight points from the 440 and also running a leg on the 440-yard relay that finished third (39.69). Tennessee became the first team from the South to win the NCAA outdoor team title since 1933, the year LSU won.
“Being a part of that championship team was something special and it’s a memory I’ll never forget,” Bond said. “I’m part of that championship fraternity forever.”
During that period, Tennessee dominated the Southeastern Conference and Bond was part of four consecutive outdoor team titles. The Vols won 15 straight men’s outdoor conference titles from 1964 to 1978.
Bond was also a member of three team indoor SEC titles (1971, ’73, ’74).
“I remember we lost that indoor championship in 1972 to Alabama and we took the trophy back to Knoxville and smashed it because we never liked to lose,” he said. “We came back in the outdoor season and just absolutely destroyed everybody.”
In total, Bond won five SEC titles, amassing individual championships in the 1974 indoor 600-yard dash (1:09.7) and back-to-back 440 titles in 1973 (46.3) and 1974 (46.0).
Bond held the Tennessee 400 record at 45.08 (converted from 45.2 440 run in 1974) until Gary Kikaya broke the 28-year-old mark with his 44.53 in 2002.
“That one was pretty special to me because it was at home at the Sea Ray Relays that year,” Bond said. “One of my best friends, Maurice Peoples, was going to Arizona at the time and came to Knoxville to race me. I had never beaten him and I beat him that day on my home track and set the school record.
“For years after I graduated, the people at the sports information office kept calling me every time they thought they had someone that could break the record and were saying how they wanted me to be there when it happened. Well, after about 10 years, they quit calling because nobody had even come close.”
“Darwin kept the hammer down the whole way,” said the late Tennessee coach Stan Huntsman. “It was a thing of beauty from that point of view. The power and the determination and the uniform flow.”
ON THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE
Bond competed for the United States in the 1971 World University Games in Madrid and struck gold in the 440, and in the 1973 edition in Moscow, he was part of the gold medal-winning 4x400 relay.
For young U.S. athletes being on foreign soil — especially in the Soviet Union — it was an extraordinary experience.
“I remember that we slept and had our things at the University of Moscow and we went out to get a bite to eat and then went back to our dorms,” he said. “Well, some of us went out to take a walk that night and there were some guards there with big guns and they didn’t speak English, of course. We got the message, though, and went back to our rooms.
“We were still young adults at the time and getting to see stuff like Red Square, Saint Basils Cathedral and the Kremlin in Moscow was really cool.”
THE LOST SEASON
Bond did not compete in the 1972 indoor or outdoor track seasons because of an injury in his left foot.
“I went to the Mayo Clinic and everywhere else and they still didn’t know exactly what it was,” he said. “The (Olympic) Trials were coming up that summer and I lost an entire year of eligibility because I ran in two races that I didn’t even finish.
“I honestly think it was where I just overworked myself. I worked on my grandfather's farm the summer before and would go run in the evenings like 6 or 7 miles then come back and do hill work.”
IMPACT STILL FELT IN KINGSPORT
Upon his graduation from Tennessee and brief return to the Model City, Kingsport Mayor Richard Bevington named Sept. 20, 1974, “Darwin Bond Day” and gave him a key to the city. Bond was the first African American to be honored by the city in that manner.
He was just 22 at the time.
“That was honestly one of the most fun days ever,” Bond said. “I was never much of a speech person, but I gave a short one and everyone was in the gym at the high school. The police were there and they escorted me to my house and everything. I’ll never forget that day either.”
Track coaches and fans who have been around long enough to remember watching Bond run have the utmost respect for him.
His records in the sprinting events have stood at D-B against a plethora of good sprinters through the years.
“When it comes to track and field in this area, Darwin is like Michael Jordan. He was almost a larger-than-life figure,” current D-B track and fieldcoach Bob Bingham said. “He was on a totally different level from everybody else and people of my generation that grew up and watched him run will say that he is track and field royalty in this area.
“I remember Sports Illustrated came down to Kingsport and did a piece on Darwin for their ‘Faces in the Crowd’ section for a high schooler, which was a big deal back then.”
Bingham said Crowe once wrote a book of poems, and one was titled “A Cat Named Fast.” Bond, of course, was the inspiration for the piece.
“I never really was much for records when I ran,” said Bond, who was elected to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. “I just really enjoyed competing and loved running.
“Records are meant to be broken and that’s all they’re there for.”