Rod Milburn, Olympic gold medalist, former world-record holder and member of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame, was found dead Tuesday night in the bottom of a railroad car half-filled with liquid bleach, his body covered with chemical burns.
Only if the reference is to the course of Milburn’s life after his triumph in the 110-meter high hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
Twenty-five years after winning that gold medal, Milburn, 47, was scraping together a living as a utility crewman at the Georgia-Pacific Corp. paper and pulp mill in Port Hudson, La.
Milburn needed the work, having taken the job in 1988 after being dismissed as the track coach at his alma mater, Southern University, in 1987.
Among his assignments at the mill: unloading rail cars carrying liquid sodium chlorate, a chemical used to bleach paper.
According to sheriff’s detectives investigating the death, Milburn was midway through the task Tuesday night when he apparently was overcome by fumes and fell into the solution.
Investigators are classifying his death an accident.
“If he had come along maybe 10 years later, it might have been a different story,” says Pete Cava of USA Track and Field. “If he’d have been born in 1960, instead of 1950, he’d have been right there with Greg Foster and Roger Kingdom, who were able to make a substantial living as (professional) hurdlers.”
Says Johnny Thomas, current track coach at Southern, “He would’ve been a millionaire.
“See, what happened to Rod is that he came along at a bad time in track and field. When Rod won the Olympics in ‘72, he didn’t get a big fanfare. Because he was from a small school like Southern University, nobody made a big deal about it. And because he was such a quiet, inward person, he didn’t sell himself, like Willie Davenport did.”
Milburn, in Thomas’ words, was so quiet “he could always be around and you wouldn’t know he was around.”
Thus, Milburn was doubly cursed - he wasn’t a self-promoter, and he made his mark at a time when Olympic champions were prohibited from cashing in professionally if they ever wanted to compete in the Olympics again.
When Milburn, then 22, won his gold medal - in a world-record time of 13.24 seconds - professionals weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics. Then, in 1973, Milburn relinquished his eligibility by turning pro while helping found the International Track Association, a professional circuit that died shortly after the 1976 Montreal Games.
As an ITA professional, Milburn was banned from those Games. Then, in 1980, after former ITA athletes had their amateur status reinstated by The Athletics Congress, Milburn was shut out again - this time by the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games.
By 1984, the Olympics were open to track professionals, but Milburn, then 34, was too old to capitalize.
Instead, he was hired that year - at an annual salary of $27,000 - as track coach at Southern by his old college coach, Dick Hill, then Southern’s athletic director. Hill left Southern for a similar position at MIT in 1987, and his replacement, Marino Casem, chose not to renew Milburn’s contract - sending Milburn on a job hunt that eventually led him to Georgia-Pacific.
Thomas believes Milburn deserved much better.
“He was one of the originators of the pro tour, but the problem was, all the people he brought along with him were losers,” Thomas says. “Not losers as people, but none of them were Rod Milburn. The tour didn’t have enough of him. So it died out.
“It died out, yet Carl Lewis and all those guys who followed benefited from what he started. They’re all millionaires today… .
“Somebody of Rod Milburn’s magnitude - a gold-medalist, an outstanding person - should have reaped more benefits than he did.”