The great track star Glenn Cunningham nearly died in a fire that burned the young boy’s legs so badly they almost were amputated. Told he wouldn’t walk again, the seven-year-old endured a year of incredible pain exercising until he could stand on his own, then walk, and finally run. The Elkhart, Kan. native kept running, setting world records in the mile and 800 meters and winning a silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This and other inspiring stories about our state’s outstanding athletes, as well as an amazing display of original sports memorabilia, can be found at the Kansas Sports Museum in Newton.
The museum was a winner with my sons when we visited years ago and they saw displays featuring Rolando Blackman, Nolan Cromwell, and Jim Ryan. They also learned a valuable lesson: people just like them overcame great odds to be successful through hard work and perseverance. Besides Cunningham, there’s John Kuck of Wilson who despite a broken ankle won a gold medal in the shotput at the 1928 Olympics, and KU’s Al Oerter who garnered an amazing four Olympic gold medals in the same event, the discus, from 1956 to 1968.
Although I still appreciate these stories, I saw the museum from a different perspective when I recently visited. I was reminded of the large number of sports figures who are from Kansas, such as Eddie Sutton from Bucklin and Albert Pujols from Roeland Park. But the original memorabilia in this museum is what scored big in my playbook. Here’s a sampling:
- K-State Basketball Coach Jack Hartman’s hockey mask he gave to player Mike Evans to wear the rest of the 1975 season to protect his broken nose.
- An autographed baseball from a National Baseball Hall of Fame charter inductee, Walter Johnson of Humboldt who struck out 3,508 batters from 1907 to 1927.
- Covers of Sport Illustrated featuring a number of Kansans, including high school athlete Mike Peterson of Yates Center who in 1971 represented a typical small town “hero” through his accomplishments in three sports.
- A Harlem Globetrotter uniform worn by Wichita’s Lynette Woodard, a top scorer at the University of Kansas who became the first woman to play on the Globetrotter team.
- A high jump bar set at 7 feet, 4 inches, the height cleared by Brad Speer of Wichita East in 1984 when he set the state high school record.
- A saddle belonging to two-time All-Around World Champion cowboy Gerald Roberts of Strong City.
The Kansas Sports Museum will open daily beginning in April, but groups may tour the facility now by appointment. It’s well worth a visit to this all-star facility.Who is your favorite athlete with a Kansas connection?
Cecilia Harris is a professional freelance writer from Abilene who enjoys discovering fascinating attractions, events and people that reflect the arts, culture and heritage found in Kansas. She has been a longtime regular contributor to KANSAS! magazine and also has written for such publications as Midwest Living, Sunflower Living, Kansas Heritage and The Greyhound Review to inspire others to explore and appreciate her home state. She also has authored two books, “Historic Homes of Abilene” and “Abilene’s Carousel.”