By Con Marshall
Their high school graduation dates are 55 years apart, but the two outstanding distance runners in Sheridan County annals will always have fond memories of their accomplishments. Joe American Horse was without question the outstanding distance runner in Nebraska while running the mile for Gordon High School in the mid-1950s. Now, Cole Wellnitz goes into the books as the best in the new century after earning nine medals at the Nebraska State High School Meet the past three years for Gordon-Rushville High.
Wellnitz capped his career this past weekend by winning the Class C 1600 and 3200 meters and claiming the silver medal in the 800.
American Horse and Wellnitz were pretty well versed on each other’s accomplishments, but they had never met until April 25, when the two superstars had a brief get-together at Gordon-Rushville High before Wellnitz had to join his teammates for practice.
American Horse came from his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation for the session. He had heard about the latest Sheridan County distance star and enjoyed swapping some information with Wellnitz.
The recent Gordon-Rushville graduate was just as excited to meet the person who still is a legend among long-time track and field fans in northwest Nebraska. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Wellnitz said.
“I know you are a really good runner, too,” American Horse responded. “I hope things keep going well for you.”
American Horse had some difficulty absorbing the fact that Gordon and Rushville are now one school. He remembers that the Longhorns were the Broncs’ major rivals for many years. He also is envious of the multitude of opportunities for today’s distance runners.
Besides winning both the 1600 and 3200 and taking second in the 800 this year, Wellnitz placed third in the Class C 800, 1600 and 3200 meters at the state meet as a sophomore in 2010, and he was second in both the 800 and 1600 and won the 3200 last year. That gives him a collection of nine state medals—three golds, three silvers and three bronzes. Besides that, he was the state champion at the Class C cross-country meet each of the last two autumns.
As strange as it now seems, when American Horse was a high school runner, he was limited to just the mile and a leg on the mile relay team. Cross-country didn’t become a high school sport in Nebraska until 1960 and the two-mile (now 3200 meters) wasn’t added until 1967, a decade after he had graduated.
American Horse couldn’t even double up in the half mile and the mile. Prepsters in those days could run just one race longer than a quarter mile, the equivalent to today’s 400 meters, in individual competition.
American Horse definitely proved he was Nebraska’s premier miler during his career. He was second in the Class B mile as a freshman in 1954 with a time of 4:41.1, won the B championship as a sophomore in 4:43.6 and won the all-class gold medals the next two years in 4:28.9 and 4:28.1, respectively.
The time his junior year knocked seven seconds off the old Class B state meet record that had stood for 32 years.
He was never beaten in the mile his final three years of high school.
Many were hoping that he would break the all-class state record of 4:26.2 his senior year, but a soggy cinder track and wind slowed him down. High school classmate and fellow track standout Jim Taylor also recalls that American Horse had no one to push him as he circled the Memorial Stadium oval four times.
“He won the race by about 200 yards,” Taylor said.
Along with Taylor, another member of the Class of 1957 at Gordon High, Mike Shald, attended the get-acquainted session between the two distance greats. They laughed and added a few footnotes while American Horse discussed his track career. The trio’s friendship dates back to the second grade when American Horse’s parents, Charles and Louise, moved to Gordon so Joe and his younger brother Emmett could attend school.
Taylor and Shald also were in the audience in Lincoln in the fall of 2000 when American Horse was the first person from northwest Nebraska to be inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame. Quarterback Kelly Stouffer of Rushville, whose father, Lannie, also was a member of the Class of 1957 at Gordon High, was inducted a few minutes later.
American Horse said his father made the living with a team of horses and a wagon. He cut and sold wood, hauled garbage, plowed gardens and did other jobs that kept the family fed and clothed.
Taylor and Shald remember seeing young Joe running behind the wagon to help with his father’s next project. “He was always running,” said Shald.
By the time he was in the eighth grade, American Horse’s reputation as a distance runner was already blossoming. The high school track coach at the time, Bob Kerth, had him run with the high school milers, but none of them could begin to keep up. “Joe was usually running in jeans and oxfords,” Shald said.
In addition, Shald remembers that American Horse frequently ran on country roads near Gordon to keep in shape. “The coach also gave me a key so I could run in the gym if it was too cold to run outside during the winter,” American Horse said. He also related that during the noon hour, he ran the eight blocks from the high school to his home in the southern part of Gordon to make a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and then ran back to school. American Horse said that while he enjoyed running, he was envious of the attention the football and basketball players received when he was in high school. “Those were the big sports. Nobody cared much about track,” he said.
But his attempt to play football was short-lived. “I got the wind knocked out of me one time that fall and that was enough football for me,” American Horse recalled with a chuckle.
Taylor, who was an all-state running back for the Broncs, noted that Dick Anderson, who coached all three sports their final three years of high school, didn’t want American Horse playing football, anyway, because an injury might end Joe’s great potential as a runner.
News of American Horse’s feats spread across the state and he became a favorite of state meet crowds. He was often mentioned in sports columns by the Omaha World-Herald’s Gregg McBride.
Just prior to the 1957 state meet, McBride wrote, “It will be ‘Hi Ho Joe’ not ‘Hi Ho Silver’ at the Nebraska High School Track Championships in May.”
“I refer to Joe American Horse, one of the most colorful athletes in Cornhusker prep history.
“Fans in attendance at the state meet last year will recall the action of the Gordon miler in advance to the Class B marathon. Just before the event a spectator yelled “Go it, Joe,” The Indian responded by straightening up for his crouch and waving to the stands.
“Then he went out and knocked seven seconds off the 32-year-old Class B mile record—oldest mark on the books.”
Another sportswriter in that era, Bill Madden of Scottsbluff, said American Horse was “one of the most colorful track athletes in Nebraska history and maybe the most popular I’ve ever seen at a state meet.” Standing ovations and loud cheers were commonplace when Joe was running and receiving his awards, Madden said.
Madden also wrote that American Horse was the first athlete in 21 years to win the same event at the state meet three years in a row. In addition, the Lincoln Journal and Star named him as one of the top 10 athletes in the state for 1956-57. “Never before had any high school athlete won the hearts of so many track fans as Joe American Horse did four straight years,” it was stated.
American Horse’s classmates gave him another honor about the time he won the mile for the third straight year at the state meet. They elected him the king of the Gordon High prom. Joe had to share the track spotlight a bit at state his senior year when Emmett won the Class B half mile. The American Horse brothers also teamed with Taylor and Jerry Jensen to win the mile relay for the Broncs.
Wellnitz also has a younger sibling who is a budding distance star. His sister, Dani, who is just a freshman, placed third in the Class C 3200 and sixth in the 1600 at this year’s state meet.
After Joe graduated from high school, he was on the track and cross-country teams at the University of Nebraska for three years. He has some special memories of those days. “It was a big change from going to school in Gordon,” he recalls. “There were about 10,000 students there at the time and only three of us were Native Americans. Freshmen couldn’t compete on the varsity as freshmen, but the coach sent me to a meet in Austin, Texas. I had to go to the bathroom and there were two restrooms for men, one for whites and one for blacks. I didn’t know which one I was supposed to use.”
American Horse earned letters in both cross-country and track his sophomore and junior years. Records provided by the NU Sports Information Office prior to his induction into the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame, state that he finished sixth in the Big 8 Conference Cross-Country Championships his junior year in 1959 in 14 minutes and 22 seconds and was sixth in the mile and third in the two-mile at the conference’s indoor meet the following winter. He also was fourth in the two-mile at the conference’s outdoor meet in 1960. He owned the Cornhuskers’ two-mile records of 9:24.6 indoors and 9:18.2 outdoors and had a best of 4:12.6 in the mile outdoors.
“I ran a 4:13 mile at (the University of) Kansas and placed second,” American Horse said with a grin. “There was plenty of good competition.” He said another highlight was helping the Cornhuskers with the four-mile relay at the Drake Relays.
Joe American Horse has continued to do well since hanging up his track spikes. He served two terms as vice president and two terms as president of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council. He’s also a medicine man who, among other activities, helped with the dedication of the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center at Chadron State College and the naming of Highway 27 between Gordon and Ellsworth as the Mari Sandoz Trail.
His numerous other activities include representing indigenous people and giving the prayer during a memorial service at the site of the World Trade Center in New York two years after the 9/11 tragedy.
It’s evident that American Horse is still a favorite with his Gordon High classmates. Shald said in a couple of weeks several of them are planning to help Joe and his wife Dorothy get settled into a new home they have built on American Horse Creek east of Pine Ridge.
The creek is named for American Horse’s grandfather, a famous Oglala Sioux chief in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Editors Note: Cole and Dani’s older sister, Sage Bosch, was also an accomplished runner. She placed 7th in the 100m hurdles and 4th in the 4x100 relay at state as a sophomore, 4th in the 4x100 relay as a junior, and placed 4th in the 100m high hurdles at state as a junior. Sage then received a track and field scholarship to Chadron State College where she competed her freshman and sophomore years, redshirting as a junior.