ALAMEDA -- Up to a few years ago, a sports fan might not find it unusual to read what pretty much amounted to an obituary for track and field. It's heyday belonged to another era, the argument went; the sport had lost its swagger.

Today, a closer look reveals a sport far from dead. And in Alameda, for one, track and field's popularity arguably is on the upswing, especially when using the new Don Grant Alameda Point Youth Track Club as a measuring stick.

Started earlier this year by former Berkeley High School track standout Ralph Walker and run in conjunction with the Alameda Recreation and Park Department, the club drew much initial interest. Though some attrition in any sports organization -- especially a new one -- almost always can be expected, a recent surge in turnout perhaps best underscores the sport's improving popularity.

"We've had good turnout." Walker said. "When we first started out, we had 30 kids, then it got small, but now I'm back up to about 20."

And perhaps growing even more.

For Walker, who still holds the school and league records for the junior varsity 100-yard dash that he set in 1970 at Berkeley High, track and field offers an opportunity to give back to the communities of his youth.

Six years ago, Walker restarted the Berkeley East Bay Track and Field Club. Having lived as a child in Alameda's Estuary Housing Project before his family moved to Berkeley, Walker hoped to give the same opportunity to young athletes in and around the island.

Open to participants ages 3 through 14, the club's name honors the late Encinal High track and field Coach Don Grant. And as with the Berkeley club, Don Grant Alameda Point Youth Track Club members participate free of charge.

"All kids are welcome," Walker said. "I'm going to keep it free for as long as I can do it."

At the start, the club met twice weekly at the Alameda Point gym. As the weather warmed, became drier, and days became longer, practices moved to the College of Alameda track. Currently, the club meets there Thursday and Friday afternoons from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., sometimes to 5 p.m.

For coaches and athletes alike, College of Alameda provides a safe and productive environment.

"At Berkeley High, we had to share the track with three other clubs -- plus there would be lacrosse on the field," Walker said. "We had to dodge lacrosse balls. We were afraid that the kids would get hurt. Here (at COA), we have the track to ourselves. It's more relaxing."

Walker, who in 2002 suffered a stroke leaving his left side paralyzed, depends much on the help of volunteer coaches. To that end, he's brought such luminaries as two-time Olympic gold medalist Jim Hines.

The coaches not only provide track and field instruction, but speak to the young athletes about the broader aspects of life. In the near future, Walker hopes to introduce his young charges to two people who made a big impact on his own life.

One is Willie White, Walker's mentor and track and field coach at Berkeley High. The other is Dr. Mark Alexander of 100 Black Men of the Bay Area, an organization that Walker said provided him with much help when he needed it.

Walker also hopes for another kind of help from the city of Alameda.

"The city manager said he was going to help me fund the track program," Walker said. "I hope he keeps his word. These kids are really starting to get into it."

Judging by the Don Grant Alameda Point Youth Track Club, perhaps those reports of track and field's demise from a few years ago were most premature.

FYI
Ralph Walker has his athletes focused on the upcoming Tommie Smith Youth Track Meet. Sponsored by 100 Black Men of the Bay Area, the meet takes place June 1-2 at Cal's Edwards Stadium. Opening ceremonies kick off the event at 8:30 a.m. on June 1.
Looking further ahead, team members will travel to Reno for the AAU West Coast Junior Olympic Track and Field Meet, slated to take place June 27-30 at Reed High School.