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Robert “Bevo” Looney said he was a slow starter, but — man oh man — could he ever finish.
“I was terrible out of the starting blocks,” said the fastest man to run 100 yards in Springfield. It was in the early 1960s and what a show it was when Looney lined up in his best event for Central High School’s track team.
Better not have blinked, or else you missed it. Looney set a Springfield high school record with a clocking of 9.6 seconds in the 100 yards. He said he once ran a 9.4 and then 9.3 in the Pittsburg Relays in southeast Kansas — running in his sweats — but the time wasn’t recognized as a record.
“There was a 4.5 mph crosswind and they said it was behind me,” Looney said. “If anything, it slowed me down.”
Looney was also a star in football and basketball in a glorious era of athletics for Central High School. He is one of six individuals set for induction Tuesday night, Oct. 3, into the Springfield Area Sports Hall of Fame. The dinner and ceremony will take place at the Oasis Convention Center and tickets remain.
‘Some things you have to accept’
By Looney’s estimation, and that of many others, his induction is long overdue. It’s bitterly ironic that the man who could move so fast now has a difficult time getting around after a stroke a few years ago and a leg amputation.
But like in his track and field days, when the way of life wasn’t fair to Black people in American society, Looney is taking the honor in stride. He recalled a big Central basketball victory at Joplin when Bulldogs coach Jim Ball called ahead to the Mickey Mantle Steakhouse and ordered food for his team.
Upon arrival, Looney and the Black players were denied entry.
“They told him, ‘We don’t allow blacks to eat here.’ He told them, ‘If they can’t, none of us can.’ So the varsity, junior varsity, the cheerleaders, everybody with us … we got back on the bus and went somewhere else.
“That’s the way it was back then. Some things you have to accept.”
Looney feels he could’ve made 1964 Olympic team
Looney also had to accept the fact that he didn’t get an opportunity to run in the 1964 Olympics. As a Southwest Missouri State freshman at the Kansas Relays, Looney — despite his standard sluggish start from the blocks — caught Charlie Greene, a University of Nebraska star who went on to win six NCAA championships and earn a gold and bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics.
“I caught Charlie and he looked over at me and said, ‘Where you been?’ Of course, he then pulled ahead and beat me,” Looney said.
Not by much. Looney is confident he was good enough to have competed for a shot at the 1964 Olympic team, but he didn’t have the opportunity to attend the team trials in San Francisco.
“(SMS) Coach Aldo Sebben said we didn’t have a track budget, that they couldn’t send one man to the Olympic trials,” Looney said.
Asked if he felt he could have made the team, Looney nodded and said he knew he could have.
“If you believe, you can. Success comes from here,” Looney said, tapping his chest.
Breaking records, including his own
Looney enjoyed plenty of success in his hometown, first realizing how fast he was while at Eastwood Junior High and outrunning opponents from Jarrett, Pipkin and Reed. During the meet at Pittsburg, he broke home-state hero and NCAA champion Charlie Tidwell’s meet record in the prelims and broke his own record later that night.
Looney joked about being boosted by performance enhancers Central coach Rex Walker gave him.
“Before the (night) race he gave me some honey to drink and a Hershey’s chocolate bar,” Looney said with a smile.
Before the final race, Looney recalled how the stadium announcer told the crowd to “get ready, you are in for a treat.” He obviously enjoyed being in the spotlight and rarely let the crowd down, losing only once in the 100 during high school.
How Robert became ‘Bevo’
At Central, “Bevo” became one of the most storied multi-sport athletes the city has ever seen, a halfback in football and a guard in basketball. Asked how he got his nickname, Looney said it was because his brother was unable to pronounce Robert when the two were little.
So he became “Bebo” until the local newspaper referred to him, by mistake, as “Bevo the Flash.” He liked it and the name stuck.
Looney also ran a spectacular 21.8 in the 220, one of the fastest times in Missouri, and anchored the 440 and 880 relay teams along with excelling in the broad jump (a forerunner of the modern long jump).
Competing in track at SMS, he ran a 9.6 in the 100 at the 1964 Southeast Missouri State Relays in Cape Girardeau, breaking a Houck Stadium record that had stood since 1938.
Looney excelled at basketball, football as well
On the basketball court, Looney and his year-younger brother Mike teamed with future Harlem Globetrotters big man Manny Oliver, future SMS star Danny Bolden, Carl Gardner and sixth man Denny Whayne. Bevo’s senior year saw the Bulldogs lose once in the regular season, to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and finished fourth in the state at 28-3.
“That was a fantastic basketball team,” said Mark Stillwell, the retired sports information director at Missouri State and a 1963 Central graduate. “I remember on a game day, as soon as school was out you ran home as fast as you could to get a bite to eat, then ran back as fast as you could to get a seat in The Pit. It was something to see.”
His football accomplishments were quite legendary as well. Mike O’Brien, a longtime Springfield News-Leader reporter, columnist and editor, was in high school at St. Agnes during that time. He recalls seeing Looney impress at what is now Kennedy Stadium near Parkview High School.
“When some buddies and I walked into the stadium, the game already was underway,” O’Brien said. “Before we could find seats, the Bulldogs ran a play from deep in their own territory at the east end of the field. All of a sudden a small Central back squirted through the line of scrimmage and headed west at what honestly looked to be superhuman speed.
“It was, of course, Bevo. I remember standing in an aisle, watching slack-jawed, until seated spectators yelled at me to sit down so they could see. That stunning image is the one that has stuck with me for 60-some years. He was f-a-s-t!”
Induction class includes Grant Wistrom
While the Hall of Fame recognition did not arrive fast enough, Looney finally receives his honor on Tuesday night. Proceeds from the Springfield Area Sports Hall of Fame banquet, presented by the Cook Family Foundation, benefit nonprofit local youth agencies through the purchase of sports equipment.
Other inductees this year are Barb Cowherd (Drury University athletics administration), B.J. Flores (boxing), Casey Garrison Powell (basketball), Jeff Rogers (soccer coaching) and Grant Wistrom (football). There’s also an Era of Excellence award for Marshfield High School Girls Basketball, 1986-99.
Want to go?
What: The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Fame 2023 Induction Dinner and Ceremony. Proceeds benefit local youth agencies through the purchase of sports equipment.
When: Tuesday, Oct. 3; 5-6 p.m. social hour and 6 p.m. dinner and ceremony
Where: Oasis Convention Center, 2550 N. Glenstone Ave., Springfield
Who: Inductees are Robert “Bevo” Looney (track and field, basketball, football), Barb Cowherd (athletics administration), B.J. Flores (boxing), Casey Garrison Powell (basketball), Jeff Rogers (soccer coaching) and Grant Wistrom (football). An Era of Excellence award will be given to the Marshfield High School Girls Basketball, 1986-99.