RIO GRANDE — April 30 will always be a fond memory for Wheelersburg native Bernard Tilley.
On the chilly, wet and breezy day, Tilley’s alma mater, Rio Grande University, retired his track jersey at the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference track and field meet at the University of Rio Grande.
Rio Grande recently upgraded its athletic facilities, and as a part of the upgrade, the university decided to display accomplishments of former Red Storm athletes.
Four jerseys were put up on display during the Bevo Frances Basketball Classic earlier this year — all former basketball players. Tilley’s jersey will be the fifth to be displayed in the foyer of the athletic facility. It will also be the first non-basketball jersey on display.
Tilley was first notified of the university’s decision to display his jersey alongside the already displayed jerseys in the foyer of the athletic facility in January.
“I was just totally elated,” Tilley said. “Rio Grande is a basketball school; you know, look at Bevo Francis, but for them to say you’ve got your jersey retired and we want to recognize you. We want to put you up there beside those guys, it was just very special.”
As the university paid homage to one of its best track stars, Tilley said he was not only happy for himself, in that he was being honored, but more so for the track program.
“This was a great moment for Rio Grande track. When you’re trying to recruit someone and you see it’s not just basketball they do here — look there’s a guy from Wheelersburg, Ohio, who is up there and he’s a track guy. I think that helps the whole program.”
The honor the university gave Tilley and his track accomplishments will be a lasting tribute that his grandchildren and future great-grandchildren, along with young athletes in the area.
“Plus, for my grandkids and their kids, to be able to walk into that gymnasium 50 years from now and to be able to see their grandpa or great-grandpa,” Tilley said. “I mean it’s a goal, that if I can do that, coming from Garden City across the tracks, then anything is possible for anyone.”
The former Wheelersburg Pirate hopes his accomplishments, now on display for all visitors to see at Rio Grande, will inspire other young athletes in Scioto County and its surrounding areas to try to achieve more than they ever thought they could.
Tilley’s career at Rio Grande was stellar and filled with accomplishments. He is still a holder, or part of, five records in track at the university, the 800 meters, 1,500 meters, mile run, distance medley relay and the indoor 1,500 meters.
His records still stand today, 39 years after being set in 1977.
“Back then, when I was doing it, people were telling me I was doing really good,” Tilley said. “It didn’t really faze me.”
While he never let the records lead to him being boastful, Tilley realizes just how great a job he was doing on the track during his days at Rio Grande.
“Now that I’m 40 pounds overweight and trying to jog a mile, I think to myself I used to do this in four minutes,” Tilley said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
As the years have passed, Tilley said his respect for what he did on the track grows. The times he reflects on his achievements and those that still remain the best in the school’s history, he realizes how fortunate he was to have those accomplishments and is humbled by them.
“I have a great respect for what I did, not realizing really what I was doing was so special,” Tilley said. “The fact that there’s been some good athletes come through there and not even really come close to any of those records is, to me, it’s like man, that’s pretty special and I guess I was pretty good, I reckon.”
Tilley still finds himself hooked on track these days, whether it is trying to get his grandchildren involved in the sport. One of his grandchildren currently runs track at Minford High School and had a successful season this year.
“He was the high-point man in the SOC meet this year as a sophomore, which is pretty neat,” Tilley said. “He’s not in my events, but I’m pretty happy with (his success).”
With one grandchild already involved in the sport, Tilley hopes to be able to support his other grandchildren in track, should they choose to participate.
This year, during the state track meet, Tilley was able to help one of his friends from track, Gary Moore, the track coach at Lancaster Fisher Catholic High School.
Moore had a two-mile runner that he hoped Tilley could help.
Tilley told the young runner he needed to kick sooner in his race and that kicking with only a few hundred yards remaining was not going to benefit him. Instead, Tilley told him to kick with one lap to go and not to wait to make it a sprint.
The advice paid off for the young runner from Lancaster Fisher Catholic.
“I watched it unfold,” Tilley said. “He was running in second place behind one guy and when the gun went off he took the outside and took off. He opened about a 15-yard lead and the guy could never close (the gap). He ended up winning the state (title).”
After the race, Moore came up to Tilley and thanked him for helping his young runner, saying he had won a state title thanks to Tilley’s help.
“He did the running, but I just knew the type of kid he was,” Tilley said. “To watch him do exactly what I asked him to do and it worked, it was really neat.”
Tilley said he has a lifetime full of fond memories thanks to track and field, which he plans on sharing with his grandchildren and their children. Included in those memories are competitions at the NAIA nationals, even competing against former Olympians, during his four trips to the nationals meet.
While Tilley will always remember being fortunate enough to finish on the podium at the nationals all four years he went, making him a four-time NAIA First Team All-American, as well as the University of Rio Grande’s Athlete of the Year during his sophomore, junior and senior years, one of his most fond memories his athletic career gave him was winning the Ohio State Relays, which were held inside the Horseshoe — Ohio Stadium — in Columbus.
“I’ve been blessed and hope through my accomplishments, others can achieve more than they ever thought possible,” Tilley said.
Bernard Tilley (left) poses with University of Rio Grande track coach, Bob Willey (right) during the KIAC conference track meet at the University of Rio Grande in Rio Grande, Ohio, Saturday, April 30, 2016. Tilley’s jersey was retired and then put on display by the university in its recently upgraded athletic facility.
Reach Michael Hamilton at 740-353-3101, ext 1931, or on Twitter @MikeHamilton82.