Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Billy Mills

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Growing up, we all have different dreams. Some want to become a doctor or an astronaut, but the moment we realize that dream and choose to chase it to reality is special. Billy Mills found his dream during a challenging time in his life.

“When I was a child, eight years old, my mother died,” Mills said. “My father told me I had broken wings and I needed to find a dream. He said, ‘It’s the pursuit of a dream that heals a broken soul.'”

Mills’ story took another tragic turn at the age of 12 when his father, Sidney, passed away. The elder Mills was just 49 years old. Suddenly orphaned, Mills found his way to Lawrence, Kan., from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to start as a student at Haskell Institute, a school for Native Americans that would later become Haskell University. While at Haskell, Mills started to really focus on running, which, four years later, earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas.

At KU, Mills was named a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) All-America cross country runner three times, won the 1960 Big Eight Championship and as a member of the Jayhawks’ track team they won the 1959 and 1960 Outdoor National Championships. Along with those events, another event gained respect in his heart.

“I have such powerful memories of the KU Relays. In many ways, the Relays represent the highs and lows of my athletic journey,” said Mills. “As a young high school athlete competing, and winning, at the KU Relays was more important to me than winning the state title. Today, the Relays still hold a very special place in my heart. The sport has better prepared me for the challenges I would eventually face later on in my life.”

For Mills, college would be an eye-opening experience.

“The Lawrence community played a vital role in my life.” said Mills. “When I attended Haskell for four years of high school, Lawrence was the very first non-Indian community I was truly exposed to for a lengthy period of time. Four years at Haskell and then four years at the University of Kansas were such critical, formative years for me.”

The challenges and experiences he gained off the track during his collegiate years rivaled the ones he had on the track.

“I experienced the Plessey vs. Ferguson 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision; White and Black America Equal But Separate being overturned by Brown vs. Board of Education,” Mills said. “I experienced the winds of change that eventually brought about the civil rights movements of 1964.”

These high-court rulings that directly affected Mills were the first time he really felt he was alone on this journey. However, he’d soon find out his teammates would become his new support system.

“At first, I frequently felt out of place. It was an uncomfortable feeling,” Mills said. “I would keep inside of me. But then, who could resist the friendship teammates like Cliff Cushman, Bob Covey, Bill Dotson, Bill Thorton and many more offered to me. They became like brothers to me.”

Mills’ defining moment at the University of Kansas happened when the young track star met the love of his life.

“Patricia and I met while we were students at KU. She was a young artist; I was a young athlete. The attraction was immediate. We spent long hours together walking and talking. We knew we were falling in love. We married in January 1962,” explained the happy husband of more than 50 years.

With Patricia’s encouragement, Mills continued to pursue his athletic goals. After graduating in 1962, Billy nearly gave up running for good.

“The fire to become an athlete was nearly extinguished,” Mills said. “A few months later, Patricia said I was not the man she married. She felt the original spark to pursue my dream was still there. She placed her dreams of being an artist on hold to help me pursue my dream.”
His wife’s declaration and unselfish act would be just the beginning of the turning point in Mills’ athletic career. He continued running, chasing his dream, searching for the ‘wings’ his father once told him about. His athletic journey hit a climax in 1964 as Mills not only represented the United States of America in the Summer Olympics, but he won a gold medal in the 10,000-meter race, the only American to ever win this event in what’s considered one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.

As he rounded the track in Tokyo that day, Mills thought to himself, “About 30 meters to go my thoughts became: I may never be this close again I have to do this now!  Wings of an eagle!  I won!  I won!  I won!  Then I felt the finish line tape cross my chest.”

“A Japanese official was saying what I thought was ‘who are you, who are you?’  I responded with ‘Do I have one more lap to go?’  He said, ‘Finished, Finished. You are Olympic Champion!’ Then I asked if I was number one, meaning did I really win?  He responded, ‘Finished. Finished,’ and stated what I thought was, ‘Olympic Champion!'”

After winning his gold medal Mills turned from pursuing his own dream to helping others find their own dreams and giving back to the community that helped him reach his goals.

“In the Lakota culture when you bring honor to your people and honor to yourself, you are asked to give back to those who helped empower you,” Mills explained. “This is called a ‘giveaway’. After I won a Gold medal at the Olympic games, I was asked to give back to those who helped empower me. I was made a warrior and given my Lakota name – Makoce Te’Hila, meaning Love his Country.”

The love for his country and his community inspired Mills to co-found Running Strong for American Indian Youth in 1986. Running Strong brings programs such as clean water, organic gardening and diabetic clinics to Indian Reservations. His efforts with Running Strong and his drive to better his native community have earned Mills another medal.

“Based on the wonderful deeds Running Strong has provided for communities in need over the last 25 years, I was one of the recipients of the Presidential Citizens Medal presented by President Barack Obama,” said Mills of his 2013 honor. “I felt I was a patriot. It’s our younger generation of citizens, who as patriots will lead us into this rapidly changing world and choreograph our journey based on the dignity, character and beauty of our citizens. Unity, through the dignity, character and beauty of diversity, is the future of America and the future of human kind.”

Even with all of his accomplishments, extremely busy work schedule, including travelling and “speaking on empowerment,” Mills still finds time to cheer on his alma mater which recently won a national championship in the sport he holds nearest and dearest to his heart.

“What a thrill I experienced when our KU women’s team won the 2013 NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships! However, I was not surprised. The last two seasons, our women’s team provided Patricia and myself some incredible highlights; Diamond Dixon winning an Olympic Gold Medal in 2012 and then our women’s team becoming the NCAA National Champion in 2013.  What a team effort!  It doesn’t get any better,” said Mills.

Through all the changes and adversity Mills has encountered during his life, a couple of things have stayed constant. He will always be a Jayhawk and Lawrence will remain a special place for him.

“To describe what it means to be a Jayhawk can quickly take you on a journey of reflection; a journey filled with moments that are like power phrases,” Mills said. “Moments of hope versus doubt, joy versus sadness, success versus defeat.”

For him, success would come from a path he chose as a young man, one that began in Lawrence.

“College has many roads,” Mills concluded. “Some can become misleading and easy to lose sight of your vision or dreams. As a young freshman, I saw many roads, but there was one road that kept calling. I started to follow it. It was the road of opportunity, responsibility and accountability. It taught me that I alone was responsible for my journey, but it would provide me mentors, confidence, direction and clarity. It was the Jayhawk road.”

Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.