Eastword column: Bradenton resident Bill O'Brien still burns with the spirit, higher, faster at age 88

August 5, 2012 

Anyone can be a track and field fan every four years when the summer Olympics roll around.

It's the rare person who, like 88-year-old Bradenton resident Bill O'Brien, burns with the spirit of faster, higher, stronger, year round.

Consider:

n He returned from World War II as a combat-wounded infantryman and became a four-sport letterman -- track, cross country, basketball and baseball -- at Central Normal College, renamed Canterbury, in Indiana.

n He founded the Manasota Track Club in 1975 and was a seven-time state masters track champ (1975-1981) for his age group.

n When he was no longer able to run, he poured his passion into bowling and carried a 172 league average into his 80s.

n For the past 25 years, he has awarded the Bill O'Brien Award to the outstanding boys and girls cross country runners in Manatee County,

n For his 85th birthday, he celebrated with a tandem jump from an airplane.

Like many, O'Brien, a Casa Loma resident, will watch hours of Olympic coverage this year on his television from home.

But he also has memories of traveling to three Olympic games -- Mexico City in 1968, Munich in 1972, and Montreal in 1976 -- as well as to Olympic trials in Indianapolis, Eugene, Ore.; and Los Angeles.

In Mexico City, he recalls seeing Bob Beamon set the world record in the long jump with a leap of 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches.

"It had to be hand measured because the mechanical measuring device didn't reach that far," O'Brien said. Beamon's new mark shattered the old record by nearly two feet.

He was also at ringside when George Foreman won the 1968 heavyweight boxing championship.

His saddest Olympic memory? Without doubt, the kidnapping and killing of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by members of the Palestinian Black September group in 1972 at Munich.

O'Brien might havetraveled to the Moscowfor the 1980 games, butthe U.S. boycotted the Olympics that year after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Afterward, the games became so pricey that O'Brien, the former principal of Prine, Pine View and Parrish elementary schools, "couldn't afford to go back."

"I have loved sports all my life. Sports is one of the best experiences a girl and boy can have during their lifetime," he said.

Tom Flanagan, a board member of the Manasota Track Club, says O'Brien's vision has allowed younger generations to reap the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. The club now has more than 1,000 members.

Harry Kinnan, chairman of the Manatee School Board, says O'Brien was his ninth-grade basketball coach.

"He was a great coach and an inspiration to all of us," said Kinnan, who would go on to notable coaching success himself with the basketball team for what is now State College of Florida.

"He was a model for working with children," Kinnan said.

There is a lot more that could be said about Bill O'Brien.

For the record, he is collecting his reminiscences for a book he hopes to publish within the next year. The working title: "Life of a Dogface -- A World War II Infantryman."

Meanwhile, Bill, enjoy the London Olympics.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021.

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