Editor’s note: In this unprecedented, unexpected time with no games to watch, our staff of five reminisces about the best individual performances by one athlete they’ve covered during their time as News-Post sports reporters.
All you had to do was look at his dark eyes, burning straight ahead as the legs beneath him seemingly spun in a blur.
This was Ronnie Beard’s best race face, and he was wearing it well on a fine May afternoon in 2003 at Century High School. As I recall, he sort of looked calmly angry while steaming to victory in 10.66 seconds over 100 meters.
There was always an intriguing dichotomy to Beard, the fantastic Frederick High hurdler/sprinter/jumper of the early 2000s. When he wasn’t propelling himself with focused, fluid aggression and splendid form through whatever event had consumed his undivided attention at that moment, Beard was an unassuming, soft-spoken kid.
But, no matter the degree of Beard’s modesty, his talent had seized a megaphone during those Central Maryland Conference championships on May 1 of his senior year.
I covered a lot of track meets early in my career. I had a history in the sport (though rather unremarkable), so it was natural that I enjoyed reporting on it.
There’s no high school athlete I enjoyed watching more than Beard, who cut it loose and dropped jaws that day while winning four events.
And he didn’t even compete in his specialty, the hurdles.
This was a plan hatched by his coach, the demanding Randy Jones, for Beard to cement his full greatness by entering a pair of events he normally didn’t run — the 100 and 200 dashes — against another local standout.
“This was back when Urbana had Jon Cooper, the great sprinter,” Beard recalled last week from his home in Columbia. “He was a big guy, muscular. ... He’d been cleaning up on the circuit at that time. So, [I said], ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
After nipping Cooper by one-hundredth of a second with that furious 100, Beard was typically stoic as I engaged him for a quick interview in the infield. Through heavy recovery breaths, his comments were less about what he’d just done and more about what “a beast” Cooper was.
Of course, that contrasted his scowl as he burned to victory moments earlier. No one flipped that switch easier than Beard.
“I loved competing, loved to be able to turn it on, loved being able to turn it off after the race,” said Beard, 35, who teaches social studies and coaches track at Oakdale High. “You just can’t stay that wound tight the entire time.”
Not long after his first win, though, he was all wound up again — this time for the start of the 200 final. Poised for another duel with Cooper, Beard had confidence his training for the 300 hurdles — overseen by the diabolical Jones — gave him the stamina to prevail.
Beard edged Cooper, who was a junior, in a scorching 22.14 seconds.
“I think we shook [hands] after both the races there,” Beard said of Cooper. “I could see he was a little frustrated.”
What a feeling that must’ve been: to interlope against another preeminent performer in his forte — and win. Twice.
“It’s always nice to switch it up,” said Beard, who earned a track scholarship to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, largely based on his six hurdling state titles. “It’s good to see if you’re good all-around instead of just specialty events.”
Besides hurdles, Beard’s other specialty was the triple jump, which became a focus his senior year. Beard — who also won the long jump that day — loved triple-jumping because of the technique involved. The rhythm, the phases, the science of it.
As Beard says today, no doubt preached by Jones, “It’s all about the craft of the sport.”
His grasp of the craft culminated in a staggering jump of 46 feet, 2½ inches.
While talking about the triple jump last week, Beard burst into a kind of mini-tangent, perhaps revealing the teacher and coach he has become. Today, he’s the one doling out the type of painful workouts he once endured, helping his athletes reach their full potential.
He’s not much of a runner now, but he’s still in shape, still flexible enough to get over hurdles while modeling for his Oakdale charges — who probably aren’t quite aware of their coach’s incredible credentials.
All those years ago, I was in the press box late in the meet when the CMC triple jump results were announced. As they echoed in the air, I shook my head, just as Jones stepped into the room and called my name.
The plan for his star pupil had worked to perfection. I made reference to being in awe of Beard. A beaming Jones laughed a knowing laugh and patted my back.
Meanwhile, Beard was chilling somewhere else. His day was done, so he could turn it off.
He was probably thinking little of what he’d accomplished — yet also yearning for the next time he would get to turn it on.
Follow Joshua R. Smith on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith