Brimley Jumper's Leap Soars On as Finals Best

June 6, 2019

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

BRIMLEY – Thirty years ago this spring, John Payment became an unlikely part of Michigan high school track & field history.

In some respects, it almost seems like yesterday the Brimley High School senior soared 7-feet, 1 inch, to set an MHSAA Finals high jump record that still stands. In fact, Payment is the only Upper Peninsula athlete in this sport to own an all-Finals record – meaning his performance remains the best all-time from any class or division in either peninsula.

Payment is still approached by strangers about his performance that 1989 day in Marquette, and is stunned people remember what he did.

Think about it: A high school senior with a minimal high jump history from a tiny Upper Peninsula town accomplished a feat that has not been duplicated by hundreds of athletes from big cities like Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids.

It is mind-boggling it happened, and mind-boggling the record still stands. Talk about doing something very notable well beneath any radar screen.

"It is kind of neat to say no one in the state of Michigan has ever done this," Payment said in a telephone interview on the eve of the 2019 Upper Peninsula Track & Field Finals. "It is actually kind of weird to say it.

"It is very humbling. It is amazing people haven't forgotten. It never gets old."

Payment still finds it hard to believe it happened. He had never been able to break the 6-10 barrier in a meet, even though practice jumps convinced him he could surpass that mark.

At the U.P. Finals, he even passed until the bar got to 6-11. He missed twice at 7-0, then easily cleared it on his final try, by a couple of inches. He then asked officials to put the bar at 7-1, but his next jump was delayed until the height could be measured officially to ratify the record attempt.

By that time, the public address announcer had explained Payment’s opportunity to the huge crowd in attendance at what remains the Upper Peninsula's largest one-day prep athletic contest. The meet basically came to a stand-still as athletes in the infield gathered around the high jump bar.

"(The official) stood on a folding chair and measured the bar at 7-1," said Payment. "He then told me, 'Son, if you do this, it is a state record.'"

After clearing that record-setting height, Payment said, "I was excited. Then I tried 7-2, but my legs got rubbery and I just couldn't do it. They said I cleared 7-1 by 3-4 inches. I just couldn't do it anymore. I had an adrenalin rush, but I just wore out."

Obviously very excited at what had just happened, the request to go at 7-2 came up instantly – and he never really had a chance to collect his thoughts and rejoice.

"I couldn't wait for the other jumpers to jump because they were done. It was like boom, boom, boom. I couldn't just sit down and let it sink in," he recalled.

In the immediate aftermath, Payment said he understood what had just happened. "It was huge; it was like a sigh of relief that I just did 7-feet. I was more in awe than anything. (But) I didn't get a chance to savor it."

The realization of what he did hit home on the way back to Brimley when he learned the Detroit Free Press was trying to contact him for an interview. "It was like, wow, this is something. Now it is a bigger deal. It took a little while to have it soak in about the caliber of the jump," he said.

Payment and teammates Bob Carrick and Kevin Sutton finished 1-2-3 in the high jump in U.P. Class D that day, and Payment said having good teammates and their competition helped him reach record heights. In fact, Carrick helped him adjust his approach by having Payment start a step closer on the blacktop rather than begin on the grass.

"I had three teammates always helping. We would be laughing and joking. It wasn't stressful. That was helpful. It was an individual event, but we made it our individual event," he said.

He also adjusted from a J approach to a straight-on Fosbury Flop to clear the bar.

Blessed with strong legs, Payment said he "messed around in the gym" and then his coach, John Morrison, said he should try the event. "I cleared it pretty good," said Payment.

As a junior, he drove to Mount Pleasant and worked with the Central Michigan University coach, who later came to Brimley for some on-site coaching. "We just jumped. It was fun," he said, indicating he quickly was clearing 6-8 but the mental block struck at 6-10. "I couldn't get past it," he said, even though he was sure he could clear that barrier.

He is still shocked at the response of athletes and fans who focused on his state record effort. "High jump is not a flashy sport, it is not the main (track & field) attraction," he said.

"It was definitely exciting (that day). Once I cleared seven feet, people went crazy. Believe it or not, but I just focused on doing it. I don't think I noticed the crowd until afterward. People shook my hand and asked for autographs. It was really something."

The accomplishment opened a whole new world to the innocent youngster. He competed in all-star track invitationals in Indiana and Chicago against athletes from across the country, quite a leap for someone from the shores of Gitchee Gumee just south of the Canadian border. In fact, he flew to Chicago, which was his first airplane ride.

His part of the world was so small, but suddenly it had enlarged well beyond his imagination.

College track coaches and recruiters were now after the unsung champion, who was somewhat uncomfortable being the talk of the town.

He turned down the chance to attend college and compete at the higher levels of high jump. "The opportunities were there, but for me it just wasn't my thing," he conceded, indicating it became more important to get a job and start earning money.

"It was a real eye-opener. You don't realize what is all out there, and to leave a small town and see what was out there," he said, adding more classroom work was not a priority.

"The schooling I wanted to be done with," he said, noting his parents encouraged him to attend college. "Maybe I was just scared. My grades were not the best. Life goes on, the what-ifs go on."

Payment, who also played football (wide receiver), basketball and baseball at 6-3, 175 pounds, for the Bays simply decided to move on with his life. He got a job with the road commission and still works there, although he now weighs about 275.

"The world is full of what-ifs. I've got some regret I didn't go on and try, but we've got four kids and four grandkids and another one on the way. I'm doing all right," he said.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012 and currently is in a second stint as the interim in that position. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTO: Brimley's John Payment flies over the high jump bar in 1989 to set an all-MHSAA Finals record in the event that still stands. (MHSAA file photo)

Hastings Relays Reigns as State's Oldest Continuous Track & Field Meet

By Steve Vedder
Special for

April 10, 2024

Bob Branch remembers dabbling in other sports, but his first love was always running.

Mid-MichiganThe Hastings High School graduate admits he could never hit a baseball, football didn't especially appeal to him and basketball was just another way to spend time with friends. But for Branch, now 93, there was always track. That's the sport where his fondest and sharpest memories remain. And if you're talking track, many of his favorite memories come from participation in the state's oldest continuous track meet, the Hastings Relays.

Always held in early April, the meet dates back to 1937 – a bygone time that saw the first hostilities of World War II, gas at 20 cents a gallon and a loaf of bread selling for a dime.

And at a dusty old track surrounding the county fairgrounds in Hastings, a small relay event that included a scattering of participants from a dozen high schools was taking its first tentative steps.

Branch recalls a time when kids would run home after track practice because there were no buses, inexperienced young coaches had little actual knowledge of running fundamentals, and athletes looked at the sport as an afterthought after spending most of their high school days playing football and basketball.

The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago.For Branch, the relays were the ideal way to ease into the track season.

"I just liked to run," said Branch. "I remember I anchored a relay with my brother, and it always seemed cold when we had that meet. I remember teams would come from all over and you saw a lot of good athletes. Everybody seemed to have someone who was really good. Track wasn't very popular at that time, but I have a lot of good memories from running."

The Hastings Relays, which has changed formats and even names during its nearly nine-decade history, would traditionally kick off the track season. The meet was originally held at a makeshift quarter-mile track which surrounded the town's fairgrounds and was part of the city's annual Hastings Carnival – the track would become the midway during fair time.

The meet eventually moved to Johnson Field when the football field was dedicated in 1949 and ballooned to as many as 50 teams at its peak in 1957. For more than seven decades it was known as the Hastings Relays and then the Hastings Co-Ed relays before becoming the current Hastings Invitational, with the latest edition scheduled for Friday.

Johnson Field had a cinder track before it became an all-weather surface in the 1980s. During a time long before computers would be used to organize meet heats in mere minutes, Hastings coaches of all sports – defined as "volunteers" by the athletic department – would meet on the Friday before competition to hash out events.

People associated with the meet still recall the camaraderie built on those long Friday nights, followed by working what would often become 10-hour meets. Steve Hoke has been involved since watching his father, Jack, who coached teams at 15 of the meets beginning in 1951 and also had run in the first Hastings Relays. Steve Hoke later competed in the Relays as well during the early 1970s before becoming an assistant track coach, later the Hastings athletic director and now a volunteer worker.

"It was always a huge deal," said Hoke, who said the meet began as a pure relay event before transitioning to its current team format in the 1990s. "I remember we'd line the track the night before, and all the coaches would come to the house to organize everything. There was a brotherhood.”

Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s.If you quiz many of the fleet of volunteers who've worked the relays over the years, each has a different memory from the meet. While Hoke describes the brotherhood and Branch the outstanding competition, others remember weather and the time a thunderstorm wiped out the line markings on the cinder track, or waking up to find three inches of snow that caused a rare cancellation of the meet. Others recall the shock of moving from the cinder to all-weather track or using the meet as an early measuring stick of what it would take to qualify for the state meet. The real old-timers remember the meet disappearing for three years during World War II.

Hastings native and Western Michigan grad Tom Duits was the state’s first collegian to break the four-minute mile when he ran a 3:59.2 at a meet in Philadelphia in 1978. Duits, who ran in three Hastings Relays, was in line to join the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 before the United States pulled out of the games due to tension with Russia.

Duits has his own memories of the meet and the competition he faced there.

"I remember sunshine and being excited to be competing again. There were all these athletes swarming around; it was an awesome display of talent," he said. "It was always one of the best meets we'd be in. You could pretty much see the level of runners who would be at state, which made it a big deal. It was always early, but you could tell where you stood. It was great exposure."

Hastings track star Wayne Oom competed in four Hastings Relays from 1984-87. One of his sharpest memories was the difference between running on a raw cinder track versus the far more comfortable all-weather surface.

"Those cinders would grind into your skin," said Oom, part of the Hastings school record in the two-mile relay. "But I think it helped us because when we'd go to other tracks, it seemed we would run faster. I remember how competitive it was, especially in the distances. There were some great runners."

While participants have their unique memories, so do coaches. Former Saxons coach Paul Fulmer remembers 2008 when his team finished first on the boys side of the meet while his wife, Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer, saw her girls team win the championship.

Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays."I knew we were one of the favorites to win because we were usually near the top of our conference and Regional," he said. "But then Katie's team was pretty good, and it was cool for them to win too."

Fulmer, who coached Hastings from 1978-81 and then 1985-2010, said at least part of the meet's popularity was derived from a unique way of scoring. Instead of individuals earning points solo, participants worked in pairs. For instance, two athletes would combine their shot put or long jump scores. New events such as the 1,500 relay and sprint medley were added.

"We had a tradition of being the state's oldest meet, and that was a big deal," Fulmer said. "And we ran a good relay; that attracted teams too. We took a lot of pride in that.

"And we'd get quite a lot of people to come to the meet. We'd set up until like 9 or 10 p.m., and then we'd have a party with all the coaches on Friday night."

While the meet has stretched 87 years, Branch said early participants and current runners have one thing in common: a drive to win. Branch ran in an era when the popularity of high school track was in its infancy. Today some of the best all-around athletes at a school are involved in the track program. The relays span the nearly nine decades in between.

"The quality of teams has gotten better and better," said Branch, the 1947 Lower Peninsula Class B Finals champ in the 220. "And this has made for a better meet. We would get guys who played football or baseball kind of drift into track, and that made the sport better. I think people began to appreciate track because we'd get teams from all over.

"We went from not really knowing what we were doing to track being a good sport. Even then, I'm not sure we appreciated what we had. We really liked the Hastings Relays and always wanted to do well there. It became popular and quite an honor to do well. Those are the kind of things I remember."

PHOTOS (Top) Racers run at the Hastings Relays, with several more awaiting their turns to compete at the longtime meet. (2) The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago. (3) Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s. (4) Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays. (Top photo by Dan Goggins, Hoke photo provided by Steve Hoke and Duits photos provided by Tom Duits.)