The NCAA announced Friday morning that Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills is to receive the Theodore Roosevelt Award which is given annually to an individual “for whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being thereafter have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement." He will receive the award in January 2014.
In 2013, President Barack Obama honored Mills with the Presidential Citizens Medal, which is the second highest honor that the president can award a U.S. citizen. The Theodore Roosevelt Award is considered the NCAA’s highest honor.
Named after the former president whose concern for the conduct of college athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906, the award is given annually to an individual who exemplifies the ideas and purposes to which collegiate athletics are dedicated.
Mills was born Oglala Lakota in 1938 and spent his early years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Tragically, he lost his parents and his sister all by the time he was 12 years old.
But his father told him to dream big.
“During tough times, my father would tell me that I needed to have a dream in life, because it’s pursuit of a dream that heals broken souls,” Mills said to NCAA.org. “He would say, ‘You have broken wings, and if you follow your dreams, someday you’ll have the wings of an eagle.’”
Mills spent the rest of his childhood at Haskell Indian Nations School in Lawrence, Kansas. And in 1958, Mills was recruited by Kansas head coach Bill Easton to make the trip across town to compete for the Kansas University track team.
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He faced several challenges as a Jayhawk. Mills struggled with life off the reservation, coped with type-2 diabetes, and dealt with racism as a college athlete.
“Whether or not they were aware of how uncomfortable I felt, I have no idea, but I had teammates and professors step forward to help me make the transition to college from the Native American community, and they truly empowered me,” he said to NCAA.org.
But, he persevered. Mills was named to the NCAA All-American cross country team three times as a Jayhawk, won the 1960 Big Eight Championship and helped lead his KU track team to the 1959 and 1960 Outdoor National Championships. He graduated with a degree in physical education.
After college, Mills joined the U.S. Marine Corps Track & Field Team. He qualified for the 10,000-meter finals with a time nearly a minute slower than world record-holder Ron Clarke of Australia and hardly drew notice in a field packed with former gold medalists and record holders. In the final, Mills blew past Clarke and other favored runners in the final 100 meters, completing the six-mile race in 28:24.4 and beating his personal best time by 46 seconds, said KUAthletics.com. In 1964, Mills qualified for the Olympics in Tokyo. And is still the only American to win the Olympic Gold in the 10,000 meters.
Mills has been celebrated with several awards for his contributions on and off the track field. In April, the NCAA honored him by unveiling the "Billy Mills Room" at its national offices — the organization recognizes athletes who used their sport to cultivate leadership skills that made a difference in their communities.
Recipients for the "Teddy" are selected by the NCAA's Honors Committee, which is comprised of representatives from NCAA member schools. Past winners include Tony Dungy (2012), Madeleine Albright (2009), John Glenn (2008), Roger Staubach (2000), Bob Dole (1998), John Wooden (1996), George H. W. Bush (1986), Gerald Ford (1975) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1967).
Mills is also travels the world to speak on behalf of his non-profit organization Running Strong for Native American Youth, which among other goals, helps youth increase their self esteem and improve their futures.
The award will be presented in San Diego, California on January 17, 2014.
“There are 350 to 500 million indigenous people worldwide,” Mills said to NCAA.org. “And I think, in many ways, I’ve become a very respected Olympian – kind of a global ambassador – toward global unity, through the dignity, character and beauty of diversity, which is the future of human kind.”