Valdosta Daily Times

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September 5, 2010

Hank Aaron reunites with Valdosta man who followed him onto field

VALDOSTA — Those few seconds have chased Dr. Cliff Courtenay, O.D., as surely as he and buddy Britt Gaston chased Hank Aaron during his record-breaking home run.

That half a minute as a 17-year-old is by no means the definition of Courtenay but it is part of his life just as Courtenay and Gaston’s impulsive dash onto the field isn’t the definition of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, the hit that surpassed Babe Ruth’s legendary record.

Yet, Courtenay, Gaston and Aaron are forever linked by a few seconds on the night of April 8, 1974.

Watch the video now. Aaron’s bat connects. The ball soars and soars, deep into left centerfield. The crowds on its feet. People cheer. Babe Ruth’s untouchable record vanishes in the arc of that airborne ball. Over a BankAmericard billboard. Out of the park. An announcer’s voice runs like electricity through the moment: “Henry Aaron! The Home Run King Of All Time!” Hank Aaron takes his bases. High fives from fellow players ...

Then out of that moment emerges two young men. They look as 1970s as younger versions of Starsky & Hutch. Thick hair bouncing with each bell-bottomed stride. They enter frame right in one video. From another video angle, they dash in behind Aaron. They catch the home run champ. They frame him, one on either side as Aaron rounds second on his way to third. They pat his back.

Their faces thrilled by the moment. The rumble of cheers from the stands. The proximity of Hammerin’ Hank. Cliff Courtenay and Britt Gaston. Just 17 years old. Two buddies from Waycross. Not just witnessing baseball history, but running alongside it, unknowingly becoming entwined in it. Not knowing that nearly four decades later, their run would forever be chronicled on some then-unknown thing that would be called the Internet. That websites would one day refer to them as “The Hank Aaron Kids” even though Courtenay and Gaston would then be in their 50s.

Who could know all of this at 17?

Nearing third base, Courtenay and Gaston peel away from Aaron. On one video, the kids veer off and are gone as Aaron trots home to 715. And the boys, somewhere off camera, two asterisks in the annals of baseball trying to fly away to obscurity and home, they are caught by the law and trapped by an unexpected notoriety.

Thirty-six years later, Cliff Courtenay doesn’t often talk about those few seconds. He’s not embarrassed by them. If the topic arises, and it always comes up, no matter where he goes or how old he gets, he doesn’t deny it. The run didn’t ruin his life. If anything, these days, he seems amused by the situation.

He graduated high school. He attended college. He earned degrees. He became an optometrist. In 1992, he moved to Valdosta. He’s built a practice with Eye Associates of South Georgia. He and wife Lynn have two sons, Sam, attending the University of Georgia, and Dylan, a Lowndes High School junior.

He’s still friends with Britt Gaston, who lives in South Carolina. As time has passed, Courtenay and Gaston have become friends with Hank Aaron.

Late last month, Courtenay and Gaston reunited in Atlanta with Aaron. They met Aaron again years ago, years after the run, and have maintained a relationship. They had discussed this reunion for several months. Amid several scheduling conflicts, they picked the date of Aug. 27 to meet and reminisce both in private and in public.

“He’s always been very gracious to us,” Courtenay says. “We inserted ourselves into his world and he’s been very gracious about it.”

“It didn’t take away anything, not then, not now,” Aaron said during a reunion press conference last month. “It was a moment that I will always remember. These two kids — I call them kids but they’re grown and successful men now — it was just two kids having fun.”

Seated in his Eye Associates office last week, Courtenay tells The Times he and Gaston had no idea of the threats lobbed against Aaron back in the 1970s. They weren’t aware of the threatening racial ultimatums daring the black Aaron to take the record of the white Babe Ruth. There had been reports of political maneuvering so Aaron might make 715 while playing to a hometown Atlanta crowd.

“We were vaguely aware of the threats and the politics,” Courtenay says. “But we weren’t thinking about that.”

They were two kids at a ball game. A historic ball game. Two kids captivated by a moment. Not two white kids. Not a black ball player. No threat. No politics. They meant no harm.

They were pulled by the gravity of Aaron’s 715 sailing across the field.

“We ran onto the field,” Courtenay says. “It just seemed like the natural thing to do. We thought everyone in the stands would be right behind us. We were kind of surprised when we realized we were the only ones out there.”

At the press conference, someone asked why Courtenay and Gaston didn’t follow Aaron to home base. Courtenay says he answered, “I didn’t think it would be appropriate and we were not fast enough.”

They left Aaron near third base. They ran for the stands. Gaston made it over the wall into the stands. Courtenay says he was taken into custody climbing the wall. A hand grabbed his belt and pulled him back onto the field. Authorities took Gaston into custody in the stands.

On video, it’s apparent the teens meant no harm. Authorities realized this, too. Still, they were taken into Atlanta lock-up, arrested on the strange charge of interfering with the lawful occupation of another.

While Aaron has been gracious to Courtenay and Gaston through the years, the legend that he bailed out the teenagers that night is untrue. Gaston’s father, who was also at the game, bailed the teenagers out of the Atlanta lock-up later that night.

Neither the young men nor Gaston’s father spoke much during the drive home, but they’ve heard about the run ever since.

In the Courtenay household, his parents saw the incident as a youthful indiscretion. He doesn’t recall facing any real trouble at home. Instead, his mother had recognized her son while watching the home run on TV. Supposedly, somewhere in the Courtenay family artifacts is a Polaroid photo of the family TV, a fuzzy screen of Cliff and Britt trailing Aaron.

Through the years, Courtenay has been asked about the run. Or an old friend will inform everyone else of the incident. On every anniversary of the run, sportswriters call all hours of the day or night. And Courtenay is aware how some people feel about the run even to this day, and not just because of Internet comments claiming the teens rained on Hank Aaron’s parade.

Courtenay recalls one incident of overhearing a friend inform a person of the run. The person didn’t know Courtenay stood behind him. Courtenay overheard the guy say he didn’t want to meet one of the jerks who shadowed Aaron’s moment. Still, when the guy met Courtenay a moment later, he friendly asked questions about the incident.

Courtenay and Gaston learned years later that Aaron publicly wasn’t bothered by their dash onto the field. They met him during an anniversary and have had a cordial relationship ever since.

“There should be an asterisk beside Hank Aaron’s name for how a young athlete should perform on and off the field,” Courtenay says.

“Every place I’ve gone no matter where I’ve been, the picture follows me around,” Aaron said of the young men following him onto the field, during the recent reunion. “I didn’t know you guys spent that kind of night in jail. It was a lot of fun really. Time really does fly by.”

As for Courtenay, he spends his time tending patients, raising his family, enjoying his friends. But those few seconds are always there.

Amid the dozens of family photos in his practice’s office, sits a mounted baseball bearing the signatures of himself and Britt Gaston. And between their names, reflecting those few seconds from so many years ago, dashes the autograph of Hank Aaron.

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