‘Unsung hero’: Track coach Willie White dies, legacy lives on

photo of coach Willie White
East Oakland Track Gems/Courtesy
Willie White, known widely in the track and field world for his work both on and off the field, died June 29 at the age of 82.

“Go down in your bag.”

While it may seem like a meaningless phrase to some, to Karen Hill, it was what motivated her to reach deep inside herself and find the strength to persevere through any obstacle she may encounter. The phrase belongs to none other than her husband, Willie White.

Though White died June 29 at the age of 82, he lives on in all of those whose lives he impacted.

Many who knew White described him as a humble, caring soul who always wore a smile. Though he set two world records with UC Berkeley’s sprint medley relay teams and graduated in 1960 having run the sixth-fastest 100-yard dash in the nation in 1958, he never let it affect him.

“A lot of people flaunt their accolades and use that as ego to think they’re better than you, that type of thing,” said Traivon Soto Johnson, president and assistant coach at East Oakland Track Gems, or EOTG. “That was just never him.”

Aside from being a star athlete, White loved learning. As Hill recalled, White found joy in attending clinics and reading everything he could to perfect the art of coaching, which he continued to do no matter his experience level.

He was equally as eager to learn from his fellow coaches, even those who, like Soto Johnson, viewed him as the greatest of all time. Soto Johnson worked alongside White at both Castlemont High School and EOTG, a nonprofit that White founded to promote healthy habits for children through track and field.

Early on in White’s career, it was apparent that he loved the people even more than he loved sports, according to Lisa Rene, one of his former volleyball athletes from Berkeley High School.

“It was not so much about the activity, as much as it was about empowering them to see beyond their current status, regardless of the zip code that they lived in or how other people looked at them,” said Audree Jones-Taylor, former director of Oakland Parks and Recreation.

From Cal State East Bay to Oakland Parks and Recreation to Youth Movement, an initiative for which he won the Pacific Association of USA Track and Field’s 2015 Legacy Coaches Award, White was both an athletic and life coach.

When Kerry Myers walked into White’s office, he half expected to be laughed out, seeing as though he didn’t look like the typical high school jumping star. However, when he told White he could jump 6’7’’, White gave him one look and said, “We’re going to jump 7’ this year.”

“He gave workouts that seemed unreal, but completing them made us the confident self-driven individuals that we became,” said Denise Williams-West, one of White’s former track athletes. “He brought out the best in all of us, and his presence in all of our lives will remain invaluable.”

Even when he came down with pneumonia, White insisted on leaving the hospital so he could enter his athletes into their races, Hill said. He would not rest until he ensured they could compete.

Though White was a no-nonsense coach, his motto being “no pain, no gain,” as long as his athletes did their best, he was happy.

Off of the field, White always put his athletes first, making sure they had clothes to wear and good food to eat, carrying extra in his car just in case.

After his death, calls came flooding in from athletes determined to express how Coach White had done nothing short of saving their lives.

“Some of them said, ‘I was going to be either dead or in prison, he was the father I never had,’ ” Hill said. “ ‘He’s the one that taught me how to trust myself and how to trust others, he’s the one who taught me to go further than I thought I could go.’ And those are the resilience factors that we need to make it through life.”

Myers put it best when he said he would have run through a “wall of fire” for White.

As Hill emphasized, her husband didn’t care about the acknowledgment or the accolades. He aimed to transform lives and community through athletics, and he did just that.

“He lived a full life,” Hill said. “The truth of the matter is, it’s absolutely not how long we’re here. It’s what we do with our time.”

For many years, White paid for the shoes, uniforms and entry fees for the athletes of EOTG. To continue the legacy that he left behind, Hill asks that donations be made to the club in his honor.

Veronica Roseborough is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.