By Dennis J. Freeman
Don Norford has attained the type of success that would make any coach envy. Norford, the longtime Long Beach Poly High School track coach, has achieved the kind of success that is the stuff of legends. His career is certainly the kind that is deservedly of a movie or even on a small scale even, a documentary.
He’s that good. So are the athletes that parade down his path every year.
He’s coached NFL players, trains elite track and field athletes. Success is nothing new for Norford, who took over the head coaching reigns at Poly during the 1979-1980 school year. Poly High has been better because of it. But Norford is more than a coach. He’s a counselor, a facilitator of peace and a magnet of inspiration to his athletes.
“If I’m one of those ego-maniacs, then I’m not going to care about the kids,” Norford said. “I’m going to do more harm than good. I’m a role model and I carry that. The seed I put in there is coming from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is what tells me what to tell these kids.”
Statistics are cool, but that doesn’t measure up to a hill of beans to Norford. His Poly High track teams are considered every year to be high school track’s equivalent to San Jose State’s famously dubbed teams Speed City with the likes of Olympians John Carlos, Lee Evans and Tommie Smith. Poly High’s track teams don’t just bring speed under Norford; they bring smoke.
Every school has some sort of tradition in which they’re recognized by. Poly High’s claim to fame is its stupendously rich crop of athletic talent that have walked across its legendary campus. In 2005, the school was rated as the top athletic school of the century by Sports Illustrated.
Thanks to the parental, yet hard-driving coaching of Norford, the success of Poly High’s track teams over the years no doubt contributed to that national honor. In his 22nd year as the track and field coach for Poly, Norford has won more state championships than any high school coach in California. His teams annually become the team to beat at the famed Penn Relays.
This year has been no different for Norford and Poly. High expectations, discipline and dominance are the trademarks of a Poly High track team under Norford. Poly dominated the competition to win state titles last week in the boys and girls division to add yet more illustrious hardware for Norford and his group of student-athletes.
It was the fourth straight state title produced by Poly’s girls track team, a feat that is matched by one other high school in state history.
But you won’t catch Norford or his team gloating or posturing with arrogance about the success they’ve been able to attain. That’s not how Norford rolls. A man of strong faith, Norford is a teacher. The subject of a documentary film that will be shown at the Art Theatre in Long Beach on July 7, Norford is guided by what God tells him. He teaches and preaches humility to his athletes. He teaches his student-athletes respect.
His teams are bonded by prayer. And before any athlete joins his track team, he sits down with them, analyzing the person, not the athlete. Sure, at any level of athletics, you have to have great athletes to be successful. Norford has certainly had his share of talented individuals join his track squad.
But if there is an issue about an athlete, Norford will find out about it. His thing is working and shaping the lives of young people in a way when they can no longer run the 100 meter dash in record time, they can still be successful. To Norford, character building is more important than winning titles.
Who the athletes are as people is what matters to him. Being a decent human being trumps any eye-popping statistic they put up, he said.
“When they come on the team, they pretty much know what’s expected of them,” Norford said. “They pretty much know where I am coming from. I love working with teenagers. That’s like my passion. That’s my calling, that’s my ministry. I love it.
“They’re at the age where they have to start to make tough decisions about what they want to do with their life. They need a lot of outside counsel outside of the family. I love the relationships that I have with the young people. That’s more important to me than anything else.”
Dennis is the editor and publisher of News4usonline. He is also the publisher and editor of the Compton Bulletin newspaper. Dennis has more than two decades of reporting experience. His beats include covering sports, social and racial justice, and equal rights. He earned a journalism degree from Howard University. “I write what I’m passionate about.”