By Con Marshall
Sixty-five years ago, Nebraska’s most popular high school track athlete was a guy named Joe. That’s Joe American Horse. In 1957, when he was a senior at Gordon High School, the crowds at the Nebraska State Track Meet at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln reportedly were chanting “Go Joe,” when the Class B mile was about to be run.
Joe didn’t disappoint. For the third year in a row he was the Class B mile winner and also repeated as the all-class gold medalist. His time of 4:28.1 was the Class B state record, improving on the one he’d set the year before by seven-tenths of a second. Nearly everyone thought he would have broken the all-class record if it hadn’t rained and made the cinder track soggy. He won the race by at least 100 yards.
American Horse had placed second in the Class B mile at state as a freshman. It was the last time he was defeated in that race during his prep career.
The good news is, Joe, who lives on American Horse Creek east of Pine Ridge, is still going strong. Earlier this month he was in Chadron, getting his car serviced at Wahlstrom Ford. He had time to chat and had someone call this reporter to do that. It’s obvious that he still enjoys life. He was smiling and laughed often.
As someone who was “lapped” by Joe at least once in the mile when I was in high school, I’ve long admired him. During that era, I recall reading about Joe and have since retrieved stories written by the legendary Gregg McBride, the Omaha World-Herald’s illustrious sports reporter.
Just prior to the 1957 state meet, McBride had written, “It will be ‘Hi Ho Joe,’ not ‘Hi Ho Silver’ at the Nebraska High School Championships. I refer to Joe American Horse, one of the most colorful athletes in Cornhusker prep history.”
McBride went on to tell that when a fan yelled “Go it. Joe,” as the Class B mile was about to begin at state the previous year, American Horse had straightened up out of his crouch and waved at the fans. Less than 4 ½ minutes after the starting gun was fired, Joe had circled the track four times and had knocked seven seconds off the Class B record.
Bill Madden of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, also one of Nebraska’s all-time outstanding sportswriters, wrote in 1957 that American Horse was the first athlete in 21 years to win the same event at the state meet three years in a row.
In addition, the Lincoln Journal and Star named him one of the top 10 athletes in the state in 1956-57. “Never before has any high school athlete won the hearts of so many track fans as Joe American Horse did four straight years,” it was stated.
Now 85, Joe is still on the go. He has fond memories of his track experiences and is a master storyteller.
After his terrific high school career, he received a scholarship from the University of Nebraska. Now he could run cross country and also the two-mile during the track season. In high school, he and everyone else in Nebraska was limited to just one race of 880 yards or more. The only other race Joe could run was the anchor leg on the mile relay. As a senior, he teamed up with his brother Emmitt, Jim Taylor and Jerry Jensen to win that race at state. Emmitt also won the 880 for the Broncs.
Joe didn’t talk much about the races he ran in college, but has lots of memories about related experiences. One was going to a meet at Michigan State. He said the Cornhuskers rode the train from Omaha to Chicago and from Chicago to Lansing. They slept in pullman cars which had beds en route to the meet, but were in passenger cars that contained only seats while returning home.
Another time, he was among the Huskers who flew to the Texas Relays at Texas A&M. The flight wasn’t too sophisticated. Four Piper Cubs were the mode of transportation. This was the first time he had ridden in an airplane. He said getting the pole in the plane for the vaulter took some doing.
Joe chuckles when he discusses a dilemma he had in Texas. The doors of the men’s restrooms said “Colored” and “White.” “I didn’t know which one to use.”
Americans enrolled at Nebraska most of his three years there. But he thinks it’s unique that during the Drake Relays in Des Moines, he was among three Native Americans in the two-mile. The others were Niles Brings, who ran for the University of South Dakota, and Billy Mills of the University of Kansas.
“We were all from the same tribe (Oglala Sioux), but ran for different schools,” he pointed out.
He noted that late in the race Mills took the lead “and I couldn’t catch him.”
A few years later, in 1964 in Tokyo, Mills was the first and still is the only American to win the 10,000 meters at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Mills was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation and periodically returns for special occasions, but lived most of his early life in Kansas and has resided in California much of the time as an adult. Billy Mills Hall in Pine Ridge is named in his honor.
American Horse said he did not know Mills until they had competed against one another in college.
“Now, we’re good friends,” Joe said, who added that the home where he and his wife Dorothy live was built under the auspices of the Running Strong program that Mills founded.
During our conversation, American Horse added that the scholarship he received to run at Nebraska had some strings attached. He was to help sell concessions at NU athletic events. That included at the football game against Oklahoma, just a few hours after he’d competed in a cross country dual with the Sooners.
The Memorial Stadium steps seemed pretty steep that day, he noted. He also recalled selling concessions at state basketball tournaments and helping scrape the Memorial Stadium seats so they could be repainted.
Some of his highlights as a college runner included setting the Cornhuskers’ two-mile indoor record of 9:24.6 and 9:18.2 outdoors. He had a best of 4:12.6 in the outdoors mile. In 2000, he became the first Native American and the first athlete from Northwest Nebraska to be inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame. Rushville’s Kelly Stauffer also went into the Hall of Fame a few minutes later that year.
Joe is pleased that the Hall of Fame’s publication announcing this year’s inductees included photo of him winning the mile at the state meet 65 years ago.
American Horse left college and joined the Marines prior to what would have been his senior year at UNL. He sustained a broken ankle while he was in the Marines, ending his track career.
He’s kept busy while serving his people through the years. He was the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council chairman twice in the 1980s and also the vice chairman twice. He’s also a medicine man, who among other activities, assisted with the dedication of the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center at Chadron State in 2002 and the naming of Highway 27 between Gordon and Ellsworth the Mari Sandoz Trail.
He added that he also continues to attend sun dances and keeps in touch with and assists several of the foster children he and Dorothy helped raise.