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Training Citizens On Cross Country Courses

11/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Trophies, medals and headlines seem to come naturally to the York Community High School boys cross country team each year. But to listen to their coach, Joe Newton, is to be reminded that the structure is built from the slowest runner on up.

Newton has been at the Elmhurst school almost 50 years and you can bet men who ran for him decades ago can still hear his voice in their heads. He hopes they are good citizens and hopes cross country helped them learn life lessons.

York teams have 26 state cross country titles and several Top Ten finishes in the Nike Team National Meet . In 1988, he was the first high school coach named to the men's Olympic staff . The 79-year-old coach says the team goals for 2008 are another state championship and capturing first place at the Nike Nationals.

Newton, who retired from teaching in 2000, insists running is not just about winning. A new documentary about the 2005 York season tells the story of how he challenges every runner at every practice in order to earn the reputation that comes only with a lot of work.

On race days in Elmhurst, a western suburb of Chicago, the York Community High School boys team is fondly known as The Long Green Line. A new documentary film borrows that name. Its audiences will never be able to think of the sport in the same way again.

The film is about the boys that become part of that line and about Newton who has been coaching the York Dukes since 30 years before this year's seniors were born. It is also about motivation, values, and growing up in a sport.

Filmmakers Matthew Arnold and Brady Hallongren are 1995 York graduates who chose to tell the story of a single season. They brought their ideas and equipment from California in August 2005. Hallongren was a middle of the pack runner on York's Illinois championship teams in 1991-94. Arnold was a physical education student of Newton's.

Both young men have been involved with media and cinema and both are producers of the film. It is not a coincidence that they also have taken lessons from Newton and worked with youth: Hallongren has taught summer film courses for middle school students. He is now in graduate school at the American Film Institute . Arnold teaches journalism and multimedia art at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, CA, and coaches middle school cross country.

Arnold and Hallongren realized the legendary Newton was a natural for a film not because of the record number of victories but because of his approach to life, values and ideals.

Newton's strategy is to recruit widely, coach personally, encourage generously, and do some targeted grumbling.

"The movie shows what really goes on," Newton said. It's about the "guy who comes out and does his best."

A school usually sends seven runners into a race. The combined finish numbers of the top five become the team score. Early season races often welcome all competitors. In 2005, York's runners were 221-strong starting out.

In the 1960s, a sportswriter described the amazing participation of runners Newton brought to races as a long green line of York uniforms crossing the finish line.

"It's pretty intimidating to other teams to see such a huge number of runners on a team," Arnold said.

Hallongren believes it holds added significance: "The long green line shows unity in the team and shows that everyone is part of that line no matter where you are. If it's the first or the last guy in the line, everyone is equal and treated the same."

Fifteen years ago, a feature in Sports Illustrated profiled Newton:

"I'll find the scrawniest guy in each gym class and I'll yell, 'Shorty!' Everybody jumps! And I'll say, 'You come with me and four years from now I'll make you an all-state runner. So I'll get Shorty, and then other guys are thinking, 'Well, if he can make Shorty an all-state runner, what can he do with me?' So then I get a couple more. Then I'm grabbing guys by the shirts - my goal every year is to get 50 freshmen."

Of those 50, he'll try to keep 25 around as sophomores and then 15-20 of them as juniors and seniors. Winning at cross country is almost that easy, he said in 1993.

The 2005 season saw the top seven runners shift and change as the season progressed. Losses of individual runners were for unexpected and non-athletic reasons as the team tried to earn its 25th state championship.

The co-producers had an idea of where the team would be in state rankings at the end of the season but they had no idea about the dramatic back story that pushed the boys toward a victory celebration wearing tuxedos. A local tux shop donates the tuxes to the team if they finish first, second or third at state. The top seven runners, coaches, a few managers and alternates get to wear them.

Hallongren calls the tuxes "a big deal" and describes post-state celebrations and pep rallies in Elmhurst as "real motivation for everyone in the community."

Newton has been generous with coaching advice in four books: The Long Green Line (1969); Motivation, The Name of the Game (1975); Running to the Top of the Mountain (1989); and Coaching Cross County Successfully (2001).

Now the documentary has become a motivational tool, too.

Its Elmhurst premiere was at the York Theater in late August. Newton and his wife arrived in a white limousine. The coach has seen The Long Green Line three times and he admits it moves him every time.

It was the opening night film at the Running Film Festival which took place during the U.S. Olympic Trials. It won the Best Feature Documentary at the Lake Forest Film Festival last April.

Other coaches use The Long Green Line with their teams by organizing screenings through a website called Brave New Theaters . Presales of DVD of the documentary are underway. Shipments begin Oct. 14. The producers are also working out details with Netflix , Amazon and at specialty running stores around the country.