ALBANY -- They were legends, both of them -- the kind of men who left huge footprints wherever they went and left even more when they said goodbye.
Their legacy lives today, in the heart of Albany at the very core of what high school athletics symbolize in this town and in this part of Georgia, where track & field takes on a meaning all its own.
There's arguably no better place to hold a high school track meet in Georgia than Hugh Mills Stadium, and there's no better meet this time of year in the Peach State than the Smith & Benson Relays, Albany's own celebration -- an event that celebrates the track & field season and the promise of a new year while celebrating the lives of L.C. Smith and Winfred Benson.
The 21st annual L.C. Smith and Winfred Benson Relays will be held Saturday from 9:30 a.m. until about 5 p.m. and at least 19 schools and 38 teams will compete.
"They were both legends at Monroe Comprehensive High School,'' said Westover Principal William Chunn, who coached the Monroe girls track team from 1986 through 1992. It was Chunn who founded the Benson Relays in 1990, an all-girls track meet.
"In the 1970s and '80s, there wasn't a big track meet for the girls,'' Chunn said. "We wanted to participate and we established our own meet. We created the Benson Relays and named them after our legendary athletic director Winfred Benson.''
Johnny Seabrooks, who is now the Dougherty County Director of Athletics, was the boys track coach at Monroe in 1991 when he renamed the Monroe Relays in honor of Smith, who had recently passed away. Seabrooks had been an assistant coach under Smith, who coached track at Monroe from 1954 through 1986 and molded and shaped three generations of student-athletes.
The two meets merged in 1999 when Monroe AD and football coach Venorris Bradley combined the boys and girls meets into what has mushroomed into becoming one of the top meets in the state.
"It's a big, big meet,'' said LaToyia Johnson, who took over Monroe's boys and girls track programs this season after spending a year as Octavia Jones' assistant. Jones left the program after winning three state titles (two girls and one boys) over the past two seasons to become the football coach at Westover.
"It's one of the biggest meets in Southwest Georgia. We're bringing in 19 schools (38 teams) and we could add more before (tonight's deadline),'' Johnson added. "It's a big meet for Monroe. A lot of Monroe alumni will come back to be at this meet. Everyone is going to want to see what kind of team Monroe has, and everyone expects Monroe to win.''
The Monroe girls, who have won the last two state titles and are the defending Smith and Benson champs, will be the favorites. Mimieux Land, who broke the Class AAA state record in the triple jump (39-5), and also won state titles in the long jump and high jump while running on both relay teams to lead Monroe to the state title last year, is just a junior and will lead the Lady Tornadoes again.
Ashley Johnson (100, 300 hurdles), Maikea Davis (200, 400), Jade Perry (100, 200) and Destinee Collins (800) all scored points at state last year, as well as Davone Anduze (400), who will miss the Smith and Benson with a hamstring injury.
Monroe's girls are loaded, but its coach doesn't want anyone to slow down.
"We're very strong, but last year is gone,'' she said. "We are starting a new year and I want everyone to concentrate on this year, not what happened in the past.''
The Monroe girls have finished in second in a couple of recent meets at Bainbridge and Jonesboro, and it will be competitive because Valdosta, which won at Bainbridge on March 12, and Lowndes also have strong teams.
"We have to step up,'' Davis said. "We've been finishing second, and we have to win this meet. In a sense (because of Smith and Benson and what they meant to Monroe) and because it's our meet. It's time for us to step up.''
Monroe's boys team lost a ton of points when Sir Paul Jones, one of the top hurdlers in the nation, graduated and is rebuilding, but Anthony Shurten is one of the top discus throwers in Class AAA, and Dominique Reid (100, 200) an Larry Bellamy (100, 300 hurdles) returned this spring.
Shurten and Westover's Dontrevious Ousley and Derrick Akins are ranked 1-2-3 in the Class AAA discus in the state, but they will face the top discus thrower in Georgia n Thomas County Central's Ray Drew, one of the top defensive ends in the nation who signed with Georgia. Bainbridge's Dwayne Gurley (fifth in the Class AAAA meet last year) will also be competing in the discus.
Bainbridge, which won the Class AAAA state title last spring, will be one of the favorites in this year's Smith & Benson.
The Bearcats get points from every direction, including the field, where Steven Crowell (third at state in the shot put), Gurley and Jamar Venisee-Cosby (high jump) should all rack up points. Shawn Samuels (100, 200), Octavius Scott (100, 300 hurdles) and Joseph Ausgood (400, 800), all scored points at state, and Brandon Handsford ran on the state's fastest 4x100 relay team last year. And state relay team runner Rohan Gaines (sprints and relays) just returned from basketball season.
"It's going to be a very competitive meet,'' said Bainbridge's Larry Clark, who has been coaching track for more than 30 years. "Lowndes, Valdosta and Tift County -- those Class AAAAA schools are going to be here -- and Westover has really stepped it up this year.
"This is a great meet to come to because it's in the middle of the season, and it gives you an idea where you are and where you need to go.''
That's the best part of this meet, which has grown in prestige over the years.
"It really has become a big meet and it's pretty big for Southwest Georgia,'' said Westover track coach Harley Calhoun, who will bring a strong boys team to this year's meet along with some top girls athletes, including Erica Taylor, the best distance runner in Southwest Georgia, and Alysia Potts, who finished fourth in the Class AAA state meet in the pole vault last year.
Westover's boys can score from all over the track. They're loaded at the discus, and they have some of the top sprinters in Region 1-AAA in Chuck Lewis (200) and Reginald Lewis (100). Jeremy Bonner is expected to do well at state in the 800, and Westover distance runners Greg Thorne and Josh Mason give Calhoun's team added versatility. Justin Taylor (triple jump), Don Mills (shot put) and Dolphurs Hayes (pole vault) all should rack up points Saturday.
Calhoun -- like everyone else -- wants to see where his team fits in, and this meet will tell him.
"This meet is in the middle of the year, but it comes a couple of weeks after basketball has ended, so for the first time you have everybody," he said. "You finally have everybody together and in this meet you are kind of making your start toward the region meet.''
The region meets are at the end of April, but this is the gauge, the barometer.
"It's like you pace yourself based on this meet,'' LaToyia Johnson said. "Once you finish this meet, you will know where each one of your students are, and you will know where you are collectively. You'll know what you have to do to get ready for region, which is about four weeks away. This will let us know. ''