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By LENA JOYAL
One would think that when picking a topic to write about when it comes to 200 years of Perry County’s sports history, the task would be difficult. Compare it to a needle in a haystack. The possibilities are endless really: sectionals, state championships and accomplishments in women’s sports. Throw in basketball, baseball, football, high-school teams, adult leagues and business leagues. The underdogs of Derby and Rome triumphantly defeating the “big” schools of Cannelton and Tell City. Rarities like the Cannelton vs. Troy basketball game ending in a tie, and being the only known basketball game in Indiana to have ended in a tie.
I could go on for days about all the sports, people and events that could be written about, but I had no trouble deciding. I knew instantly what or rather who, I would talk about. I’m not going to lie, I am 100 percent biased in my selection, even though I’ve never even met him. I feel like his accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of the more popular sports. And I get so excited when I hear his name mentioned in sports-related conversations.
In fact, this past year, I, Brandi Hess and Chris Cail were invited to speak to the “We the Youth” group about Perry County’s history. At the end of our presentation the group was allowed to add events that they thought needed to be added. One of them asked, “What about that guy from Cannelton that won state for track and field?”
I cannot express the amount of joy I felt when I heard that question. I thought to myself, “Finally someone is talking about him!”
I quickly answered, “Yes! Marvin Sturgeon.”
However, “that guy” didn’t just win state once, but twice in consecutive years. An accomplishment that Sturgeon shares with only six other Hoosiers in the 76 years the event he ran existed. He was also the first person from Perry County to win a state event in track and field. His event was the 880-yard run, it would later become the 800-meter or half mile, when it was agreed that running distances would be done in meters, since that is what most of the world follows. His times at state were 1:55.6 in 1954-55 and 1:58.5 in 1955-56. Just think, if he was able to continue that pace for another two laps around a modern day track, that’s under a four-minute mile!
As a novice runner myself, I can only dream of running that fast. His time during his run in 1955 also was a state-record-setting run. They say he had a 30-yard gap between him and the second-place runner. His slower time in 55-56 can easily be explained. I’ve already mentioned how we use the metric system today, another difference in track and field today compared to when Sturgeon ran is the track itself. It was simply dirt.
And on the day of Sturgeon’s state run, it was raining and the track was no longer dirt, but mud. And even with a slower pace than the year before, he still finished 40 yards ahead of the second-place runner.
It’s worth noting also, that Sturgeon still holds the fastest half-mile time in the county. I apologize if I am incorrect, since my information came from what Perry Central and Tell City currently have on their webpages as to what their top male 800-meter record times are. Plus, 880 yards is just slightly longer than 800 meters.
But is this not a testament to how much of an amazing runner Marvin Sturgeon was? That after almost 60 years his time still stands among the top of our county’s fastest runners in that distance. In 2009, Michael Ernst came close, when he broke Perry Central’s half-mile record with a time of 1:56.32.
But even with Sturgeon’s amazing showings at state, they still aren’t his personal best. In 1956, he also ran in the Olympic trials in Bakersfield, Calif., and finished with a time of 1:52.5. He was one of 50 of our nation’s best runners competing. Even with his incredible time, he still placed fifth with the top four going onto the Olympics. However, what he did in that race is still an accomplishment. At the time of this race Sturgeon was only 18 years old and was competing against college athletes. So when you consider the pedigree of talent he was up against, coming home in fifth place is nothing to hang your head about.
His time during this run also earned him a listing in the second volume of Dennis McNulty’s book, “Indiana’s Best” where he is listed at that time as having the 16th best half mile time in Indiana. McNulty lists the top 50 times.
I was asked by a friend, “How do you think he got so fast?” I honestly think he was one of the lucky ones, and he was born with it. He was naturally athletic, and if you’ve ever seen his picture, his body was built for it. His grandson, Mark, told me often that his accolades on the track have overshadowed the other sports he was also good at, like basketball.
The same time Sturgeon was getting scholarships for running, he also had some schools offering him basketball scholarships, as well. But how could he not go on to run, when he had the resume he did? Out of 22 races during his junior and senior years, he went undefeated.
He also held the 880 record on every track he raced. It was simply incredible. His natural talent, coupled with coach, Edgar Etienne, not to mention his hard work, he couldn’t be beat. Sturgeon would go onto accept a track scholarship with Indiana University, but health issues would cause him to end his college career early. When he was 42, we would lose one of Perry County’s fastest men to cancer.
In 1995, he was inducted into the Indiana Track and Cross Country Hall of Fame. He is the only person, male or female, from Perry County to be inducted into the hall of fame. Thanks to his induction, his accomplishments on the track will never really be forgotten. He is forever enshrined there.
But Marvin Sturgeon has left us with his family. It is thanks to them that I have learned as much as I have about it him. And I want to thank them for graciously helping me with this article. They are incredibly proud of what he has done and are always willing to share his successes. I remember in high school listening to Mark talk about his races. They know the details so well, and describe the events so perfectly, you can picture yourself there.
So even though I get upset when great Perry County athletes are mentioned and often Marvin Sturgeon’s name is never whispered. I know that thanks to his family, his story will always be told and his accomplishments will never be forgotten.
Editor’s note: This is one of a series of stories exploring Perry County’s history ahead of this November’s bicentennial celebration.