Eugene Howard says the bottom line was he wanted a son. His six daughters always knew it, he said, and consequently were always trying to prove themselves. At times, the thought made them mad. But the anger only drove them on.
“I think it got under their skin,” Eugene said, smiling. “It made them tough and strong because they wanted to show that they could be as good as the guys. . . . I think ‘The Son I Never Had’ helped (Sherri and Denean) win their Olympic gold medals.”
Actually, it was the Father They Did Have who helped to make them champions. A former Air Force master sergeant, Eugene demanded mental and physical discipline from his daughters. And the girls--Darlene, 27, Gina, 26, Atra, 24, Sherri, 22, Tina, 21 and Denean, 20--listened.
They received only A’s and B’s in school and excelled in athletics. While living for 13 years in Alaska, they played hockey, skied and ice skated in the winter. They played softball, tennis and ran track in the spring. They played volleyball and baseball in the summer and basketball and football in the fall.
Eugene, of course, was their coach for all seasons.
“We never stopped being active,” Denean said. “We played every sport we could and we did it all together. My dad always said, ‘If you are going to win or lose, do it together.’ ”
In 1979, when Denean was a freshman, Tina was a sophomore, Sherri was a junior and Arta was a senior at San Gorgonio High School in San Bernardino, the girls practiced what their father preached. In their first year as a mile-relay team, the Howard sisters set four national records in four weeks, breaking their own record every weekend for a month until they reached--and won--the state finals.
In 1980, they moved to Granada Hills. While attending Kennedy High, Sherri and Denean finished first and third in the Olympic Trials, earning berths on the U.S. women’s 400-meter relay team. Last summer, they both won gold medals in the Olympics. It was the first time two sisters represented the United States on an Olympic track in the same event; naturally, it was also the first time two sisters won gold medals in the same track event.
Sherri and Denean, representing Cal State Los Angeles, will compete today in the Pepsi Invitational track meet at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. Denean will run in the 400 and Sherri will run either the 200 or 400.
Eugene, of course, is still their coach.
Last year, Sherri ran an Olympic-record 400-meter relay split: 48.83 seconds. Remarkably, she set the mark while running with two stress fractures in her left foot.
“I told her she shouldn’t run,” said Eugene, who served as an assistant coach on the Olympic mile-relay team. “But Sherri said, ‘I can do it. I can run with pain.’ I often wonder what she could have done if she had been injury free.”
Her Olympic teammates were so impressed with Sherri’s performance that they awarded her their highest honor: the Pathenic or Olympian Award. Sherri was selected on the basis of poise, character, community relations and grade-point average.
“I was so excited when she got that award,” Eugene said. “To think I have a daughter in that class is something I am very proud of. To me, it’s more important than the gold medal.”
Neighbors call the Howard’s house in Granada Hills, “The Home of Fame.” More than 1,000 awards and trophies are crammed onto its walls, shelves and tables. There are so many trophies that the family bought a bigger house in January just to have a place to put them all.
Although Darlene and Gina received college scholarships in basketball and Atra and Tina were part of the Howard sisters’ prep track team, most of the recent trophies belong to Denean and Sherri. The two dominated high school track, keeping the Track & Field News’ national high school Athlete of the Year award and TAC national 400 champion title in the family for four straight years.
“I think a majority of our talent is hereditary,” Sherri said. “But we’re also hard workers and have devoted a lot of our time to training.”
Eugene and his wife, Barbara, were both prep athletes. Eugene, 45, was an All-City and All-State track and basketball player at Northwestern High in Detroit and most valuable player of the Alaskan Air Command basketball team. Barbara, 45, was a high school track star in Texas. She ran with her sisters and cousins in prep’s first familial track team--the Polk and the Chamberlain sisters.
Barbara and Eugene believe strongly that the family that plays together, stays together.
“We have always urged our daughters to do things as a family,” Barbara said. “And we have been so proud of all their accomplishments. Sherri, especially, has overcome numerous injuries in the last few years and (has) succeeded far above our expectations.”
Indeed, Sherri’s struggle against career-threatening injuries is the stuff of pure inspiration. In 1982, she suffered bone spurs in her left foot that required surgery. Sherri came back too fast and by early 1983 was suffering from a chipped bone--again her left foot. Her foot was operated upon twice more, and it took 18 months to return to stride. Because of the extensive damage to her foot, when Sherri runs she’s almost always in pain.
But Sherri is determined. “When my idol, Jesse Owens, told me in 1976 that I had ‘the stride of a quarter miler,’ it was all the encouragement I needed,” she said. “Whenever I’d get tired or discouraged I would think of what he said. Or I’d think of what my mother and father always say, ‘You’re so close to your goals. Why not try? Why give up?’ The family has always been a source of support and encouragement.”
The Howards are an unusually close-knit family and were voted Military Family of the Year when Eugene was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska. In the early ‘70s, the Howard sisters even got an act together and took it on the road. Ranging in age from 7 to 13, they sang and tap danced in shows and traveled with the base entourage to perform at different military installations. During those years, they became a featured variety act on Alaskan television, a feminine counterpart to the Jackson Five.
The Howards’ strong sense of family has carried over to their choices of colleges. When Denean decided to attend Cal State L.A. in 1982, Sherri and Tina transferred from UCLA to join her. The move surprised many people--not to mention UCLA’s track coaches--who grumbled to a reporter about “not losing anything at all.”
But the primary motivation for the move was Eugene. The girls wanted their father to coach them--as he always had.
“You have to understand that this is such a close family, it’s a unique situation,” said Kennedy track Coach Pete Nelson at the time. “They have all the confidence in the world in their father. These girls have so much confidence in their father that he’s the only one they’ll train under.”
Eugene looked at the situation this way: Why mess with success?
“We have a chemistry that works,” he said. “We didn’t want to change that at all.”
But Eugene is not an overbearing authoritarian who tries to control his daughters’ lives. Sherri and Denean say they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“When we’re out on the track, dad becomes coach. We don’t look at him as our father, per se,” she said. “He’s just the coach. He’s so many different people to us, really. He’s a father, a coach, a friend, a confidant. It’s a very special relationship.”
Added Denean: “Dad’s a real chameleon. He knows how to be all things to us. He knows when to leave one role and become another.”
Both Sherri and Denean get up at 5:45 a.m. each weekday morning and leave with their father for school at 7 a.m. They practice with him for more than 2 1/2 hours every afternoon before piling back into the car for the drive home and the family meal at 6 p.m.
Doesn’t all this togetherness ever get to be too much?
“Sure, we’re human and we have our problems or fights,” Denean said, “but they’re not very often or very serious. We really do get along well.”
Eugene said he never imagined his daughters would accomplish so much. When he took Sherri and Denean to the Jesse Owens-ARCO Junior Olympics in 1976, he never thought they would someday compete in the real Olympic Games.
But for Eugene and Barbara Howard, who were married on Father’s Day in 1958, the success of their daughters, somehow, seems quite appropriate.
“I used to tell my six little ladies all the time about how much I wanted a son, how much it rubbed me wrong that I never had one,” Eugene said. “But after all they’ve done and looking at what beautiful women they’ve become, I ask: ‘How could I not be proud of them?’
“What more could a father want from his children?”
KEEPING UP WITH THE HOWARD SISTERS
Year Denean 1980 U.S. Olympic 4 x 400-meter relay Named top San Bernardino athlete Received keys to Los Angeles 1981 Track & Field News prep of the year All-American 1982 Track & Field News prep of the year TAC national champion, 400 meters All-American 1983 Track & Field News prep of the year TAC national champion, 400 meters All-American Cal State L.A. dean’s list 1984 Olympic gold medal, 4 x 400m relay 1985
Year Sherri 1980 U.S. Olympic 4 x 400-meter relay Named top San Bernardino athlete Received keys to Los Angeles Track & Field News prep of the year Nermi Award, Sports Illustrated/ Runners World TAC national champion, 400 meters All-American 1981 TAC national champion, 400 meters All- American 1982 Injured 1983 Injured 1984 Olympic gold medal, 4 x 400m relay 1985 Olympic Pathenic Award, given by vote of U.S. team for performance, poise and scholarship