Most know that John Birkelbach wound up a national-class athlete in the shot put by pure-dee happenstance. John was a freshman at El Paso Austin High when he wandered into the shot-put ring while waiting for his older brother to get out of practice.
With no instruction nor training, John threw the 12-pound ball farther than all the upperclassmen. His talent discovered, Birkelbach went on to UTEP for Coach Wayne Vandenburg where he routinely placed in the nation’s top 10. He held the UTEP shot put record his first two years.
En route to his August 25 induction to the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame, class of 2021, John long ago carved out a place in the local legal community. Less known but still noteworthy, John was a key member of what might be the most popular — and entertaining — unit in UTEP track and field history.
In what was dubbed the “Fat Man Relay,” Birky combined with fellow weightmen Fred DeBernardi, Vince Monari and Steve Carter for a 400-meter team that weighed more than half a ton. To the delight of Kidd Field crowds, these four burly Miners from the weight events were not just stout, they were fast. Deftly handing off the baton, they circled in the track in triumph dusting foursomes from Southern Cal, Oregon and all comers.
Former running back from Crane, Willie Neal played for Coach Gil Bartosh in the mid-1970s. Willie, now a resident of Midland, keeps trying to retire but his field knowledge of the oil business is too valuable. “They keep bringing me back,” he says … Leeford Fant, (pictured left), was recruited by Texas Western out of Corpus Christi in the late 1950s. After graduation, he settled into a coaching position at El Paso’s Lydia Patterson Institute. Leeford, by now, is in his late 70s. Can we get updated report on him? …
Former football standout Pat Thomason, who played center at UTEP during the early 1970s, has retired from the family custom jewelry in Wichita Falls. After leaving El Paso, Pat taught gun safety courses and shot his way into the state trapshooting Hall of Fame.