Nov. 8, 2011
By Eric Trainer, Associate Director of Media Relations
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Runner. Pioneer. Champion. Friend. Vol for life. Former Tennessee cross country and track standout Alf Holmberg was all of those things. He also was the kind of guy his teammates would want to stay closely-connected to for more than 60 years, despite the many miles and deep blue sea that separated them.
That earthly connection between long-time comrades sadly came to an end Sunday, as Holmberg, the first All-America cross country runner in Vol history, passed away at the age of 83 in Stockholm, Sweden, after a lengthy illness. His legacy and the memories of his three-year stay at UT, however, will live on.
After learning and inquiring about an opportunity to get an education and run at an American university, Holmberg was told by a Swedish National Team coach that he might be able to handle reading books, but he wasn't good enough as a runner to earn the attention of American coaches. After defeating 1948 Olympic 1500-meter gold medalist Henri Eriksson late in the summer of 1949, though, Holmberg soon found himself on a plane to the United States with the promise of a scholarship to the University of Tennessee.
After a mix-up in New York, where he thought a football recruiter from UT would meet him at the Idlewild Airport, Holmberg arrived in Knoxville in September 1949. He chugged into the railroad station on the famed Chattanooga Choo-Choo and was met by the man who would mold and mentor him, Vol Track Coach Carlton Crowell. The rest, as they say, is history.
Among his many firsts, Holmberg was believed to be the initial Swede to receive an athletic scholarship to an American University. He certainly made the most of that opportunity as a Volunteer thinclad while living in East Stadium Hall and honing his craft on the cinder oval at Neyland Stadium and other landscapes near UT's campus.
Among his many accomplishments as a Big Orange cross country runner, he won Southeastern Conference individual titles in 1950 and 1951, and he carded a runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships in 1951, earning that signature moniker as the first All-American in UT cross country history. Along with teammates such as Frank Albertson, Tom Scott and John Trent, the Big Orange captured four-straight SEC team trophies from 1949 to 1952.
Holmberg was equally proficient on the track, as he seized SEC victories in the mile and two-mile runs in both 1951 and 1952, setting conference records at each distance in 1952 at 4:16.2 and 9:18.1. The 1951 mile triumph, though, he unselfishly shared with two teammates, orchestrating a three-way tie for Tennessee and illustrating the kind of person he was, according to Albertson.
"In his first SEC meet race in 1951 in the mile run, he was clearly ahead and was going to win easily," Albertson recalled. "He looked back and saw that I and John Trent were in strong number-two and three positions. He slowed up and waited for us, and we crossed the finish line together for the first and only three-way tie in SEC history.
"The time was very slow, and a number of coaches were upset. It was the force that brought about ending ties in the championship meets. Of course, there were no photo finishes in those days. Alf, did not wish to cause problems. He just wanted to be a good teammate."
After their careers were over, and Tennessee began to cement itself as a perennial national and conference power under Chuck Rohe during the 1960s and early 70s, Holmberg, roommate Martin Korik, team manager Don Henry and their pals from the late 40s and early 50s began to refer to themselves as the "Ancients." It was a nickname that stuck and became part of UT lore.
"This group has stayed together through friendship and commitment," said Albertson, a three-time Vol letterwinner and the 1952 SEC cross country champion. "We are bonded through UT and track, but it is the friendships that have allowed us to stay together and keep in touch."
In 1998, the Ancients gave their friend a worthy tribute, establishing the Alf Holmberg Scholarship in his honor. It was apparent just how touched Holmberg was by the gift that was made in his name.
"I am not overstating when I say this is the proudest day of my life," Holmberg shared at the time. "Nothing can surpass this. I just don't have words to express what I feel. This may sound corny, but I have had a love affair with UT for soon to be 50 years. It has not been one-sided after all.
"I thought that being made All-American was the greatest honor I could ever receive in the U.S. or elsewhere. I was completely stunned when I learned what you are creating in my name. It is far beyond my imagination, really."
Though he came from the town of Tullinge in Sweden and was a stranger in a far away land in a world not many years removed from the grips of World War II, Alf Holmberg became a Vol through and through. His love for the university, his friends and Knoxville never waned as the years passed. His feelings only became stronger, as did the fondness his friends felt for him.
"The news of Alf's passing is quite sad," said Korik, a two-time SEC and Penn Relays champion in the pole vault. "Yes, good old Sweden was his home, but we know his heart still remained very close to Knoxville. It was not a case of love at first sight, coming here as a total stranger as he did, but his likable qualities enabled the romance to blossom."
Thanks to the scholarship that bears Alf Holmberg's name, it's a love affair that will endure forever.
Anyone wishing to honor UT's first cross country All-American and one of the most grateful men ever to wear a Tennessee uniform, donations to the Alf Holmberg Scholarship Endowment can be sent to the Tennessee Fund, P.O. Box 15016, Knoxville, TN 37901. To contact someone at the Tennessee Fund office, please call 865-974-5197 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.