Feb. 8, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Antonio McKay always believed he was going to win.
Thus recognition for success on the track never surprised him.
He wasn’t really surprised when he learned he was going to be inducted into the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame as part of its 10th anniversary on Saturday night at the Buckhead Theater. He’d been an inductee in four other Halls of Fame.
What caught McKay off-guard was his place in the class with former Braves owner, CNN founder Ted Turner (who also created the Goodwill Games, which would tie him to McKay), future Baseball Hall of Famer pitcher John Smoltz, 1980 Heisman Trophy and 1988 Super Bowl winner George Rogers, Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Cindy Brogden, and legendary high school football coach Corky Kell.
“Going in with Ted Turner, going in with John Smoltz, George Rogers, then [Brogden,] a great female basketball player, those ties mean a lot to me,” said McKay, who celebrates his 50th birthday today and called Saturday night’s induction a nice birthday present. “The people that you go in with, you have so much respect for these people and when you go in with them you say, `Well, maybe I AM a little important, based on who they are.’ “
McKay was important enough on his own merits, just not in the way he originally mapped out.
If all had gone according to plan, McKay might have made his biggest impact on the gridiron.
He was two-time all-state in football, a two-time state champion in the 400, and all-state in basketball at Roosevelt High School in Atlanta, but came to Georgia Tech on a football scholarship, although he had an agreement with then-football head coach Bill Curry allowing him to run track.
But any dreams of him lining up on the same field as dynamic running back Robert Lavette disappeared his freshman year when he hurt his knee, requiring surgery that left his right leg noticeably shorter than his left. But, never short on resolve, McKay simply redirected his focus toward track.
“If you’re an athlete, you have to win no matter what,” he said. “Good things happen, bad things happen. If you look at an athlete’s career we get breaks. You look at a human being whether you’re in business or not, you get breaks. The great ones make it happen when things do NOT go right. I tell my athletes it’s always easy to win the race when the weather is nice and you’re picked to win but when the weather is bad and you’re not picked to win, how do you perform?”
He never accepted anything less than winning.
“Tony never thought that he was ever going to lose a race,” said Buddy Fowlkes, one of his coaches at Tech. “He was humble in his approach but he was what coaches would call `A Saturday Kid.’ On Saturday, he was going to win that race and that was really the only thing that he had in his mind. He had the strongest urge to win of any young man I’ve ever coached.”
McKay ran for Tech’s indoor seasons in 1984 and ’85 and the outdoor season in ’84, but made a huge impact in that time. He set a world record for the indoor 400 in ’84 and still holds school records for 400 yards and as part of the mile relay. He held the school’s indoor and outdoor record at 400 meters for nine and 10 years, before Derek Mills broke both.
McKay turned pro after the ’85 indoor season (although he continued to train at Tech with Fowlkes and Coach Grover Hinsdale) and dominated the 400 on the indoor circuit, winning the U.S. Indoor championship every year from 1985 through ’89, taking home gold at the Millrose Games seven times, winning the World Indoors in ’89 and setting a world indoor record in ’87. He also won at Turner’s inaugural Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986.
But his most memorable track moments came in the Olympics. He earned gold in the 4×400 relay in the ’84 Los Angeles and ’88 Seoul Games, and took home a bronze in the 400 in L.A. His competitive fire and intolerance for anything other than first — but also his class — showed in his post-race comments in L.A. following his bronze-medal-winning performance
“This is one of the saddest days of my life because I ran my best and still got beat,” he said. “It was my personal-best time but it wasn’t enough and I was outrun all the way to the finish line. [Bronze is] still not enough, but I accept it with pride and honor.”
Then, that fire came through, as he added, “I thought I could win it and if you ran it again today, I still think I can win it.”
He’s taken his burning desire to win and what he learned from Fowlkes and Hinsdale to the coaching ranks, where he led Dunwoody High School to six state championships in 10 years. He will begin his first season at North Springs High School this year.
McKay, whose daughter, Antoinetta, and son, Antonio, Jr., went on to run track for Georgia Tech, has found it even more rewarding to coach champions than to win one.
“I can control myself and I can control what time I go to bed and what I do,” he said. “As a team there are so many things going on every day. You go through a whole season, the reward is so big at the end when you see someone the age of 13 to 18 win. You have so many different emotions. You cry so many different ways. So I would say winning as a team and coaching is greater for me.”
Looking back, McKay, who also runs a company called “On Track,” for the majority of the year — high school track requires a four-month commitment — says he is most grateful to Georgia Tech, and relishes his induction into its Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
“Believe it or not, it’s the biggest one out of all of them to me,” he said. “It’s one where your foundation started, at Georgia Tech. You always want to represent your coaches, and eating at the cafeteria there, being on campus there, being around the other athletes there and your peers that you know, it’s like coming home. When you get inducted to your home it’s great.
“To get inducted Into Atlanta, this is big,” he added. “But you have the Atlanta Hall of Fame, you have the Georgia Hall of Fame, then you have the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame, then you have the Georgia Track and Field Hall of Fame, but the Georgia Tech one is the biggest one.”
Mel Pender, Jr., himself an Olympic champion, in the 4×100 at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, introduced McKay at the Atlanta Hall of Fame induction.
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