If you take some time one mild Sunday to walk through Le Vieux Village located near the entrance of Opelousas, Louisiana, after you’ve snagged a boudin ball from Billy’s across the way, you will find that a red brick path winds through sprawling oaks, casting sun-dappled shade on historical landmarks detailing the area’s rich history.
Along this path, red brick becomes interspersed with white. Faces with names and descriptions guide your way to a bronze bust glimmering proudly in the sun. This is Rodney Milburn, a name that is remembered in history as the 1972 Olympic gold-medalist for the 110-meter high hurdles. His time during that defining moment was 13.24 seconds. He is here among the oaks and bricks and first place hurdle sculpture because this is the J.S. Clark Memorial Walkway, and he has earned his place here.
Erected in 2014, this walkway takes you through the staff, alumni, and teachers that made the segregated J.S. Clark High School an enduring name in the community. Milburn attended the school during its vibrant 15-year life. He would graduate in 1969 as part of the last graduating class of the high school under the name J.S. Clark. After him, it would be renamed East Junior High, directly following the school becoming integrated. The building where Milburn spent his formative years still stands today as the Magnet Academy of the Cultural Arts or MACA.
It would be easy to claim that this Olympian began his life with exceptionalism, boasting physical prowess at an early age among his six siblings and taking to the hurdles like a fish to water. But it wouldn’t be true. Until he was 10 years old, Milburn suffered from asthma, manifesting as shortness of breath and preventing him from participating in sports. Once he overcame the affliction, he trained under the tutelage of Coach Claude Paxton. During his first hurdles race, where he volunteered to substitute for a sick player, Milburn hit every single hurdle and barely eked out a victory.
“I told coach Paxton I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Milburn told Boys’ Life before the 1972 Olympic Games. “Well, he gave it to me good. … He said I could be one of the best hurdlers who ever lived. I liked that. He said I’d have to have the desire, that it wouldn’t just come to me.”
It was Paxton who would instill in Milburn the famous “dime” philosophy. Paxton told his young protégé to leave only enough room between him and the hurdles for a dime. This coupled with Milburn’s unorthodox method of holding his hands out in front of him while he’d jump gave the Opelousas native an edge over his opponents. Milburn’s determination landed him a spot on the 1968 All-American team. During his tenure with the team, he tied the national high school record at the Houston Meet of Champions and tied the meet record at the Golden West meet in Sacramento. Before graduating high school, Milburn was among the first two black sportsmen to be recognized by the Louisiana Sports Writer’s Association.
From the handmade hurdles at J.S. Clark to the professional track at Southern University, Milburn continued to dazzle the world, setting or tying the world record for the hurdles five times. In 1971, he won the event at the Pan-American Games and broke a 12-year standing world record with a time of 13 seconds flat on the 120-yard high hurdles at the semi-final race at the National AAU meet. He went undefeated for 28-straight races, earning him the title of Track & Field News’ Athlete of the Year. Despite his amazing talent he barely qualified during the Olympic Trials, in 1972. His jitteriness would smooth out at the meet in Munich, Germany, where he left his competitors with a great view of his back and landed the gold.
He was not able to compete in the 1976 Olympic games, due to his stint in professional track. But even with his amateur status renewed, the American boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow ended Milburn’s chances of earning another medal. Athletes who wanted to participate under the International Olympic Committee flag, to designate the separation of sports and politics, were threatened to have their passports and visas revoked by American officials. Regardless, Milburn remained world ranked until his retirement in 1983.
Milburn’s retirement took him back to Southern University when his former coach, Dick Hill, hired him on as head track and field coach. By 1986, he had a good group of sprinters and hurdlers, including Kevin Savoie, another Opelousas native. Milburn believed in the talent of the kids at Southern and he felt they could qualify for NCAA nationals. However, his time at Southern was fraught with politics and budget cuts. He didn’t have a way to keep the team in competitions without funding and once Coach Hill left, his replacement did not renew Milburn’s contract. Even though he never coached again in any official capacity, Rodney still attended high school and college track meets and visited track clinics in Baton Rouge and Opelousas. He could never stop his love for helping kids interested in sports by giving advice and instructions to anyone who’d listen.
After Southern, Milburn got a job at paper company, Georgia-Pacific. The years he spent at the company are marked by highs and lows. He put a lot of himself into his job, but he also put a lot of himself into his family. However, no matter how much he put into it, he never managed to reach any kind of financial security. This didn’t stop him from traveling between Baton Rouge and Opelousas often to keep up with his mother and his high school coach. Unfortunately, in 1995, Paxton succumbed to his long-time struggle with diabetes.
Everyone who knew him agreed that the death of Coach Paxton hit the Olympian hard. The next year, his financial troubles would lead Milburn’s wife, Betty, to pursue an amicable divorce so she could leave for greener pastures in Texas. In 1997, Milburn died horrifically in a work accident, alone and impoverished. After his death, many of Milburn’s friends and competitors, like fellow Louisianan and Olympian, Willie Davenport, lamented that the humble man never came to them for help. His funeral, where Milburn’s family received a telegram from then-President Bill Clinton offering his condolences, was held at the Little Zion Baptist Church in his hometown.
Many politicians lauded Milburn as the pinnacle of the “American Dream” when he made it to the Olympics, citing his ability to rise above humble beginnings and achieve greatness. Regardless of its low points, Milburn’s life was marked by bright spots where he held the world’s attention. You can learn even more about Milburn’s life at the Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center, where a permanent exhibit details his life and achievements.