On the last Saturday of April 1979, Renaldo Nehemiah took the baton for the anchor leg of the 4x200 at the Penn Relays and embarked on a footrace that earned an instant place in track and field lore.
Despite running in an outside lane, the Scotch Plains native made up a huge deficit to break the tape for the University of Maryland. There are no official split times for the 4x200, but some watch-wielding observers clocked Nehemiah’s carry at an otherworldly 18.9 seconds. The crowd at Franklin Field exploded in delight.
“It was unbelievable,” Ed Grant recalled earlier this week, speaking via phone from his home in Madison. “That was the biggest ‘wow’ you ever heard at the Penn Relays, when he went around that turn.”
Ed Grant (green jacket) at the 2018 Penn Relays next to his son Ed Grant Jr. (red shirt)
Ed Grant (green jacket) at the 2018 Penn Relays next to his son Ed Grant Jr. (red shirt) (Photo: Jerry Carino)
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The biggest wow ever. If anyone could gauge that, it’s Grant. He attended his first Penn Relays as a fan in 1946, returned as a reporter in 1947 and has watched from the press box every April since.
Until this one.
This week, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, would have marked Ed’s 75th consecutive Penn Relays, but COVID-19 has done what two World Wars and countless other crises couldn’t do — canceled the world’s oldest and most famous track and field meet for the first time since it was founded in 1895.
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The pandemic does not, however, cancel Grant’s streak. Just pauses it. And gives us a moment to step back and appreciate this remarkable run.
“It should be looked at the same way Joe DiMaggio’s streak is, the way Cal Ripken’s streak is,” said Jim Lambert, who took the torch from Grant at The Star-Ledger and now covers the sport for MileSplit.com. “That’s not going to happen again.”
Grant is 93 years old. Last year, at 92, he still climbed Franklin Field’s century-old stone bleachers three straight days, arriving for the first race around 9 a.m. and looking on until dusk, long after just about everyone else with a credential packs it in. Grant retired from newspapers in 1990 and stopped producing his widely read, authoritative “New Jersey Track” publications in 2011, but now his work takes a different form. He’s the godfather to generations of reporters and coaches who show up every year, soaking in his anecdotes, marveling at his recall and learning a thing or two.
“He remembers everything,” said Tom Heath, the legendary, now-retired Christian Brothers Academy coach. “If you mentioned a name he would tell you three or four stories about him, and his brother and uncle, and where he came from and what college he went to.”
Grant can regale you about Roger Bannister winning the mile in 1951 (“I can still see him on that backstretch, when he blew right by the Americans”) or the monsoon rains of ’52 (his wife, Catherine, accompanied him five months after their wedding and spent the meet in the car).
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Year after year, former champions seek him out on press row to see how he’s doing and rehash the indelible moments. Last April a 60-year-old who owned both a world record and a Super Bowl ring climbed the bleachers for an audience.
It was Renaldo Nehemiah, who was serving as honorary Penn Relays referee 40 years after leaving those skid marks in the 4x200.
He wanted to say thanks.
'One of those all-time writers'
Edward Joseph Grant was born at home in Jersey City on Sept. 4, 1926. When he was a youngster in the 1930s he became interested in track and field, largely due to a cousin who competed, and would listen to the Millrose Games and the famous Wanamaker Mile that was a highlight each year on the radio, timing the races by the kitchen clock.
He graduated from St. Peter’s Prep in 1943 and in the spring of 1944 was hired at the sports desk of his hometown newspaper, the Jersey Journal, while attending St. Peter’s College.
In February 1945, Grant was called into service with the U.S. Army, but as his eldest son Edward puts it, “He fought the battle of University City”, serving most of his tenure at or near the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
That’s how he found himself at Franklin Field in April 1946, spectating at his first Penn Relays. After that he moved to the press box, first for the Jersey Journal from 1947 to 1958 after his discharge from the Army, then until 1971 for the now defunct Newark News, and until his retirement in 1990 for the Newark Star-Ledger.
During most of that time his main job had been with the Advocate, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, where he rose from Sports Editor to News Editor to Managing Editor, retiring from full-time newspaper work in 1988 after a 31-year career.
“Ed is just one of those all-time writers,’’ said Dave Johnson, who has been the Director of the Penn Relays for 25 years and has been on staff there for more than 30. “I met him at the indoor Eastern States at Princeton in 1974 and he really has been the same since until the last 10 years when he finally started to age a little.’’
His family adopted his love of track, and especially the Penn Relays.
Grant married his wife Catherine in November 1951 and they were together for more than 62 years until her death in June, 2014. She accompanied him to Philly several times in those early years.
“Every time she came, it rained,” he joked.
The couple had four children, Mary, 67, who married and moved to Ireland, where she now lives in Loughshinny, near Dublin; Edward, 63, a lawyer for the Federal Government who lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.; Stephen, 61, an Emergency Room doctor in Aiken, S.C. and Jean, 55, who’s in retail and lives in Basking Ridge.
“When Edward was 10 years old I brought him down (to Penn), and someone asked me, ‘What’s that kid doing here?’” Ed said. “I said, ‘He’s my assistant.”
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The Penn Relays first recognized Grant’s contributions in 1985 when he won the Jesse Abramson Award, given annually to a media member who has “consistently demonstrated a devotion to the Penn Relays”.
Later he was the Honorary Girls High School Referee and in 2018, he was honored along with his son Edward as the Henry Steinbrenner Award winners — an award that recognizes multi-generational families for their support and dedication to the Penn Relays. Edward missed some meets in the 1980s because of school and business considerations, but has been to 48 Penn Relays since his first one in 1967. He works as an assistant in the annual television coverage of the meet.
“(Edward) has been a major contributor for more than 25 years and like his father, is part of the framework of this meet,’’ Johnson said.
In recent years, Edward has driven from D.C. to Madison to pick up his dad, then take him down to Franklin Field. Their family has grown through the decades; Ed is now patriarch of a clan that includes 11 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren, all of whom he will happily discuss any time you see him.
Years ago his oldest granddaughter, who is a doctor in England now, was baptized over there on the last Saturday in April.
“I missed that baptism,” Grant said. “My wife went over and I didn’t.”
Make no mistake: Eddie’s biggest contribution to track is not his durability, although that remains beyond impressive.
In 1967 he started publishing a New Jersey Track newsletter and twice-a-year “annuals” that charted all the best times, jumps and throws of high school track athletes in the Garden State. He researched back to 1919, when state championships first were held here in the sport, and became the official record-keeper. It was a mammoth task that he performed without the aid of the internet.
“He had and has a keen interest in math and statistics,” son Edward Grant said. “Statistics is such a key component of the sport — how fast, how high, how far — and it led to him to be a consummate record keeper.”
Folks around the country took notice.
“He’s always been a great source for track and field news from New Jersey, not only high school but for college as well,’’ said Johnson. “And I discovered when I got to California (to work for Track & Field News) just how important he was.”
“When I started to get involved in high school track and field, there were only a few places out there where record keeping was important,” Johnson continued. “You had Marc Bloom in New York, Jack Pfeiffer and some others in Washington and Oregon and other sources in Illinois, Texas and California and then you had Ed.”
So respected was Grant’s record-keeping that when he made a rare mistake — inevitable in a sport with dozens of events and several hundred schools competing — it more or less became fact.
“It’s remarkable, what he’s done for the sport,” longtime Hillsborough High School cross country and track coach Rich Refi said. “When he wrote his final newsletter, he said he was being replaced by the internet, but you don’t replace him, period.”
No one did. The records still are not fully updated since Grant packed the typewriter away in 2011. Refi and some others have been working on it — and realizing what a laborious job it is.
“Quite simply, Ed is a New Jersey treasure,” Lambert said. “As much as Carl Lewis, Renaldo Nehemiah and Marty Liquori are, Eddie is part of the fabric.”
So many moments
Grant probably was the first to write about Lewis, when the future Olympic great was a middle-schooler in Willingboro. Inevitably, Jersey’s long line of elite athletes gave the godfather something to spotlight at Penn.
Two of his favorite moments: Liquori anchoring Essex Catholic to victory in the 1967 boys distance medley with a 4:04 mile, then a record split (he would break 4 minutes in the mile a few months later, a feat unmatched by an American high-schooler for the next 30 years), and Trenton Central winning the 4x800 and 4x400 on the same Saturday afternoon in 1978.
Ed Grant, far right, at his 74th Penn Relays in 2019 with Jim Lambert (left) and Jerry Carino (center)
Ed Grant, far right, at his 74th Penn Relays in 2019 with Jim Lambert (left) and Jerry Carino (center) (Photo: Paul Schwartz)
When “Mr. Grant” came over to chat after a race at Franklin Field, you knew it was a big deal.
“When I was coaching, one of the things that pushed me was to have Ed Grant say something about my team,” said Heath, whose CBA runners won Penn's distance medley three times and set a national record for consecutive cross country victories. “If we did something and he said it was extraordinary, then holy crap, you knew damn well you did something really, really well. It had to be special.”
In the early 1990s, when Lambert took over the track and field beat at The Star-Ledger, Heath pulled him aside.
“You’re taking over for Ed Grant?” Lambert recalled Heath saying. “Let me tell you something: You’ve got the biggest shoes in the world to fill. Don’t (mess) this up.”
This would have been Lambert’s 28th straight Penn Relays, and he’s spent many of those days by Grant’s side.
“That’s of the things I’ll miss most about the Penn Relays — Eddie up there with his stopwatch, just as into it as he’s ever been.” Lambert said. “You sit next to him and it’s a history lesson.”
Lambert said he would like to see Grant’s legacy memorialized by having the Penn Relays press room or press box named in his honor. He’d also like to see the NJSIAA do something similar, perhaps along the lines of the "Ed Grant Meet of Champions." Those of us who have seen Eddie’s contributions up close wholeheartedly agree.
He’s promoted the sport for so long, with such vigor, that it’s time to return the favor.
We're all looking forward to seeing him return to Franklin Field for the big, round number, his 75th straight Penn Relays, next spring. And you wouldn't bet against it.
Eddie Grant walks a lot slower, and doesn’t hear (and see) as well as he used to, but when there’s a tight race or a big anchor split in the 4x400 relay on the track, he’s as engaged as ever.
He still carries a stop watch, still jots down splits and other notes in his program and still tells stories about past Penn Relays that’ll grab your attention.
Here’s one, about those torrential downpours of 1952.
Bayonne High was a favorite to win the distance medley that year, Grant said, but had a bad race in the muck of what back then was a cinder track.
“They didn’t have track uniforms,” Eddie recalled. “They ran in these phys ed clothes.”
A year later, Bayonne returned to Franklin Field and won the event.
“I go down to interview them and they’re wearing the same track suits they had worn the year before,” Grant said. “The mud was still on them.”
Later you check the Penn Relays record book, just to make sure.
There it is: 1953 distance medley, Bayonne, first place, 10:51.6.
Then you go back and check your notes.
Sixty-seven years after the race, Ed Grant got the time right, too.
Jerry Carino: firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul Schwartz: SchwartzP@northjersey.com.
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