Part 11 of a 12-Part Series: Moments That Changed Wolverine History
By: Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Dacus Wall has lived a lifetime making things fly.
Whether it be a shot, discus, himself, or a commercial airliner, Wall has made a living in the air. As a track and field athlete at Woodruff High School in the early 1980s, Wall helped encourage a team of talented athletes to compete as champions. He began pioneering a novel way to put the shot, all while using mathematics to calculate just how many points the Wolverines needed to win a meet.
An academically gifted young man, Wall’s love was track and field. He also excelled at math. He learned at an early age that there was a recognizable correlation between the two.
“Track and field is a numbers game,” explained Wall. “I was always interested in the Olympics as a child, and what drew me in was the decathlon. I loved track, and I wanted to learn everything that I could about each event.”
Wall attended several Woodruff High track and field meets as a junior high school student, but even as a young man who dreamt of competing for the Wolverines, he remained under the radar to the Woodruff coaching staff at the time. That is until a new, young track coach was hired in 1977.
Coach David Pratt learned about the young Wall from his wife, a teacher at Woodruff Junior High School, and Dacus happened to be one of her homeroom pupils.
“My wife at the time taught art at the junior high school, and she told me about this kid who loves track and was going to come out for the team named Dacus Wall,” recalled Pratt. “I don’t remember the first time I laid eyes on (Dacus), but he wasn’t a very big guy. However, he was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around, and he just loved track. He loved practice and would have done every event if the rules allowed him to.”
Wall put his focus on three events; the shot put, discus, and pole vault. It would be the shot put for which he would make his greatest impact as a competitor.
“I’m no great athlete,” said Wall. “I knew early on that I wasn’t fast enough to be a runner. I would have liked to have been a runner or hurdler, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to help the team in those events.”
Given his small stature, at 5-feet-8 inches tall and around 155 pounds, Dacus was perhaps overlooked at times by opponents. He was good, but to continue getting better, he needed to improvise. A few calculations and some research into an innovative new way to put the shot helped turn the corner.
As Pratt remembers, “This was a time when just about everybody was putting the shot using the glide technique and, you know, you had to be pretty big to do that well. So, Dacus taught himself how to spin. I didn’t teach him, he taught himself, and he was really the only high school shot-putter doing that back then. I talked to Dacus about that years later and how it didn’t just happen overnight, but he just got really good at putting the shot. Not being a very big guy, by spinning, he could create more speed and distance.”
Dacus thought that he was plateauing using the glide technique and needed to change how he put the shot. The result changed forever how Wall approached the event.
“I realized I was never going to get much better using the glide, and I needed to do something different,” said Wall. “I decided to learn the spin technique, which was relatively new and not really seen at the high school level back then. Only a few Olympic shot-putters were using it at the time. I learned using a lighter shot, and I ended up winning the conference in that event three years in a row (in 1979, 1980, and 1981).”
At the same time, Wall felt that the Wolverines were close to having an entire team compete for a state championship. However, the 1979 results at the 2A state track and field meet might not have foreshadowed such a meteoric rise.
After what Wall termed a “disastrous” upper-state meet, Woodruff qualified only two athletes for the state competition and scored just a single team point. Still, Daucus had faith in what he and his teammates could achieve.
“Michael Geter was a great athlete and on the verge of breakout performances,” noted Wall. “Plus, Coach Pratt was not only an outstanding coach of sprinters, hurdlers, and relay teams but also very good at getting great athletes to participate in track. The next year he added future state champions Donnie Pearson and Gene Reeder, and Chris Taylor, who had phenomenal technique, rapidly improved in the high jump.”
Wall was so confident that at the end of the school year in 1979, he wrote a message into a number of his teammates’ yearbooks with a bold prediction.
“I wrote in numerous annuals that the next year we were going to win the state championship,” he said.
And in 1980, Woodruff took 2A by storm. The seasoned Wolverines came together as a unit. Each member contributed a unique skill and athletic ability, and Woodruff became a fearsome opponent on the South Carolina high school track and field circuit.
In ’80, Wall continued his rise in the shot put and placed in that, the discus, and pole vault during a tremendously successful upper-state meet. While he did not place as highly at the state meet in 1980, he competed in all three events while other stars shone brightly that afternoon and helped lift the Wolverines to the title.
Wall said that he will never forget the joy of winning that first state championship.
“Eydie Thomas had just run an inspiring race to victory in the girls’ 800 meters,” recalled Wall. “Then James Thomas ran the race of his life to capture third place in the 200 meters to give us an insurmountable lead going into the last event. We had managed to win without winning a single individual event. However, one event remained and our star athlete, who had scored over a third of our points that night, Michael Geter, ran a blazing anchor leg. He gave us our only event victory in the 4×400 meter relay.”
He continued, “After receiving the trophy, we passed it around during our victory lap. Then Gene Reeder and I hoisted Coach Pratt on our shoulders and carried him off the track.”
The following year, his senior season, Wall and the Wolverines would defend their championship using the same formula that had carried them through the 1980 campaign. Woodruff was not only athletic but deep, and the Wolverines took pride in those attributes.
Wall is, by any account, very unassuming. He makes it a point to say that no success he experienced as an athlete was ever possible without the entirety of the team. It was a collaborative effort, strength in numbers, and Dacus has always been good with numbers.
The Woodruff track and field teams of 1980 and 1981 could dominate the competition and never shy from a challenge. As Wall recounts…
“We had a meet against Clinton at home and (Clinton) arrived a few minutes late. Coach Pratt called everyone together and jokingly said he didn’t think they respected us and that we should shut them out. It wasn’t a shutout. After leading 63-0, we beat them 127-9.”
Woodruff also faced off with conference foe Liberty who had the sensational Tron Jackson on their side. An all-world sprinter, Jackson would later play football as a running back at the University of Georgia.
“Liberty came to us after they had beaten us two years prior in 1979,” recounted Wall. “Tron Jackson was one of the best sprinters in the country, and he had been instrumental in them beating us our tenth-grade year. In our senior year, we led them 105-26, and Jackson had most of their points. Liberty left the meet before the final relay could be run, and they went on to finish second overall in the state meet later that season.”
That dominance, contends Wall, harkened back to the depth possessed by those Woodruff teams.
“We had such great depth the outstanding athlete, the late Reggie Mays, could outjump most teams’ best high jumper,” he said. (Reggie) was the fourth best jumper for our team. We had four guys who could beat just about anyone in Chris Taylor, Donnie Pearson, Reggie Mays, and Wayne Wehunt.”
For as far as he could put a shot or throw a discus, or as high as he could launch himself in the pole vault, Wall also felled two goliaths of his own.
Wall competed in the shot put once against Lee Haney, then an athlete at Broome High School, who would later become an eight-time Mr. Olympia and the greatest professional bodybuilder of all time.
“Lee had broken his leg during football season, so he started lifting weights every day and doing everything with his upper body,” Wall said. “When he stepped off the bus, you couldn’t help but stare because he was one of the most muscular guys any of us had ever seen from the waist up.”
It would be the only time that the freshman Wall and the senior Haney would meet face to face, but Wall came away victorious that afternoon.
“Although he was not an outstanding thrower, it was still nice to think you had beaten someone who went on to achieve so many great things,” added Wall.
And then there was a meeting with David Clayton of Byrnes High School, a highly recruited Clemson football player.
“He was a pretty good shot putter,” noted Wall. “When I ran over from the pole vault pit, I could see that he had thrown about six or seven feet further than everyone else. Fortunately, I had one of my best throws of the season and was able to beat him. I think he was surprised that I had beaten him, and it affected him in the discus.”
Dacus chose not to compete collegiately in track and field. He loved the sport and instead returned to Woodruff to share his enthusiasm with a new generation of Wolverine track stars. Dacus had cemented a tremendous legacy at Woodruff as a competitor, and he was happy to pass on his knowledge to others that followed in he and his teammates’ footsteps.
At different times, Dacus held the school record in shot put, discus, and pole vault. In 1982, he came home and worked with the track team during his spring break from college. Gene Reeder introduced Dacus to a young eighth-grader who he believed might break his own record in the discus, as Reeder himself had supplanted Wall’s mark. That young man was Tony Rice. Ironically, Rice would not go on to break Gene’s discus record. He would, however, eclipse Wall’s final standing record three years later when he set the new Woodruff High School shot-put mark.
“I considered it an honor to have such distinguished athletes break two of my records,” said Wall.
Maybe by happenstance, it was track and field that inadvertently led Dacus to his chosen career as an airline pilot.
“In 1984, Dacus and I went to the track and field Olympic trials in Los Angeles together,” Pratt recalled. “He loved track, and I did too, so we flew out to L.A.”
Wall quipped, “I guess in a way my career choice was related to track. When Coach Pratt and I went to the Olympic trials, it was the first time I had ever flown on a commercial flight. I really enjoyed it, and at the time, I was struggling to choose my career path. After that trip, I thought, I can do this. So, I decided to pursue a career as an airline pilot.”
Wall continued, “As a pilot, you do a lot of math in your head, and I was just fascinated by the whole prospect of getting to see the world.”
Following a stint in the Air Force Reserve, where he flew cargo jets, Wall embarked on a 31-year career flying with Northwest and Delta Airlines. Following a merger between Northwest and Delta, Wall continued flying for the latter during the final years of his career. Wall retired from flying in 2020 but was able to see much of the world before he hung up his wings.
“I flew to about 40 countries and every significant city in the United States and Canada,” Wall said. “I spent many of my off days exploring the Western U.S. and snow skiing, which is the other sport I love.”
Looking back, when adding up his and his teams’ accomplishments, by Wall’s calculation, he’s had a pretty good go of things. The Woodruff track and field program was, and is, immeasurably better from his contributions.
By his own admission, Wall is just a huge track and field fan and wanted his enthusiasm to rub off on his teammates and coaches. The two championship photos on the gym wall at Woodruff High School do more than enough to confirm success in that endeavor. It all adds up to a pretty successful run.
“I am thankful to have been a part of it all because, as Coach Pratt said, it was a great time to be an athlete at Woodruff,” concluded Wall. “I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.”
As for wanting to be a runner? In his retirement, Wall runs five miles every other day. He may not be spinning a shot-put skyward, launching a discus, catapulting himself during a pole vault, or sitting at the controls of the world’s largest airliners but Dacus Wall can still fly….
Even with two feet on the ground.