KU Track Legend Billy Mills to Receive NCAA’s Highest Honor

INDIANAPOLIS – Kansas track & field alumnus and Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills is to receive the Theodore Roosevelt Award the NCAA announced Friday morning. The award, which the NCAA considers its highest honor, is given annually to an individual “for whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being thereafter have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement.”
Mills earns the award after a standout athletic career at Kansas from 1958-61, which was followed by his iconic 10,000-meter win at the 1964 Olympics. Since the conclusion of his running career he has worked as a motivational speaker and humanitarian, spreading a message of perseverance and dedication to younger generations across the globe.
Mills was born in 1938 to an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) family and spent his early years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His childhood was marred by tragedy though, after both his parents and his sister died, all by the time Mills turned 12.
Mills spent the rest of his childhood at Haskell Indian Nations School in Lawrence, Kan., and, in 1958 was recruited by Kansas head coach Bill Easton to make the trip across town to compete for the KU track team. Mills’ first months with the Jayhawks were not easy as he experienced life for the first time outside the Native American community.
As a Jayhawk, Mills was named to the NCAA All-American cross country team three times, won the 1960 Big Eight Championship and, as a member of the Jayhawks’ track team, helped lead his team to the 1959 and 1960 Outdoor National Championships. While Mills was a legendary runner for the Crimson and Blue, it is his accomplishments following his KU athletic career that earned him international attention.
Mills was forced to persevere through several daunting challenges through his time at Kansas, including dealing with life as a Type-2 diabetic and being faced with harsh racism. He used his running to work through those trying times and, not only made a large impression on the Jayhawk track program, but graduated from the University with a degree in physical education.
After being commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps after college, Mills joined the U.S. Marine Corps Track & Field Team and qualified for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He qualified for the 10,000-meter finals with a time nearly a minute slower than world record-holder Ron Clarke of Australia and hardly drew notice in a field packed with former gold medalists and record holders. In the final, Mills blew past Clarke and other favored runners in the final 100 meters, completing the six-mile race in 28:24.4 and beating his personal best time by 46 seconds. To this day Mills is the only American to win the Olympic 10,000 meters.
Mills considered his win in Tokyo “a gift” and pledged that he would work for the rest of his life to give back for the memorable moment. His wife, Patricia, suggested that he honor those who believed in him by passing his inspiration on to younger generations. Mills co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth. The organization works to help American Indian youth, increasing their self-esteem and improving their futures. Today, Mills travels the world as a spokesman for the organization.
Since his running career concluded, Mills has been recognized numerous times for his contributions on and off the track. He was named to the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1976 and, last February, was given the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Obama. In April, the NCAA honored him by unveiling the “Billy Mills Room” at its national offices, a tradition the organization uses to recognize athletes who used their sport to cultivate leadership skills that made a difference in their communities
Mills will formally accept the Theodore Roosevelt Award at the NCAA Convention to be held in San Diego, Calif., on Jan. 17, 2014.
Recipients for the “Teddy” are selected by the NCAA’s Honors Committee, which is comprised of representatives from NCAA member schools. Past winners include Tony Dungy (2012), Madeleine Albright (2009), John Glenn (2008), Roger Staubach (2000), Bob Dole (1998), John Wooden (1996), George H. W. Bush (1986), Gerald Ford (1975) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1967).
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