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First letterman

Bill Keegan was part of the first intercollegiate sports team at the University of South Florida, shown here with his track team.

Bill Keegan was part of the first intercollegiate sports team at the University of South Florida, shown here with his track team.

Brittni Larson

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It had been 45 years to the minute since his first race. As “go!” was shouted, he thought in those decades he might have become a little rusty.

“I joked they should bring an oxygen tank — we may need it,” Bill Keegan said, “and they all figured they could probably go out to lunch while I ran around the track.”

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Bill Keegan, 63, a Winter Park native, was part of the first intercollegiate sports team at the University of South Florida, shown in the photo he holds.

But he was wrong. The adrenaline kicked in, and even though he thought what he was doing was crazy, Keegan bolted off the starting line, whipped around the track and flew through the finish line like his last race was yesterday.

Maybe it was being on his alma mater’s track, or the official University of South Florida warm-up suit he was wearing, or the cheering friends and family, but Keegan ran with more gusto than he ever thought he could that day.

“It felt natural — going that fast,” he said. “Nobody was more surprised than me.”

Keegan, a Winter Park native, was invited back to USF turf to honor and remember the school’s first intercollegiate cross-country race on Sept. 25.

In 1965, Keegan, a fresh graduate from Bishop Moore High School, joined two other Winter Parkers, an Orlando transplant and one from Florida’s west coast to make up the school’s first varsity sports team.

Keegan had raced his Central Florida teammates many times before as a competitor, and said that former sense of rivalry helped make their team great.

“It was the glue that held us together,” Keegan said. “When practicing, I’m not beating John, I’m beating Colonial High School. It helped us push each other.”

But the rivalries stopped with practice.

“You bond with your team regardless of where they’re from,” said Lindsey de Guehery, Keegan’s teammate from Winter Park High School.

Keegan was also the first person at USF to receive a varsity letter from the school. The mustard-colored letterman sweater wasn’t pretty, but it held a close place in Keegan’s heart.

“The sweaters were so ugly my girlfriend wouldn’t wear it, but I wore it all around campus,” he said. “I bled for that.”

Forging memories

And that sweater was where the track ceremony got its start. Keegan has the 45-year-old sweater still, along with the tiny, sweat-stained white tank top and shorts that were his race uniform, and some very worn, crusty track shoes, along with many old photos and stories to share about his college sports days. And USF, very new in 1965, didn’t keep any record of the first varsity sport, or the men who started it all.

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Photo courtesy of Bill Keegan

Bill Keegan with his track team at the University of South Florida. He is pictured second from the right.

“This was the beginning, and they didn’t have it,” Keegan said.

Keegan helped the school discover part of its past. He’s donated all his cross-country memories to USF. And in return, he’s also discovered something — a connection to the school he hasn’t had in 45 years.

“Now I feel like I’ve reconnected,” he said. “Nobody had a better time at that university than I did.”

Bill Moore, who ran on the team, got to watch his former teammate and fraternity brother run that Saturday on the track.

“It’s pretty emotional. It all starts coming back to you — who you are and what you did,” Moore said. “This was the springboard for the rest of our lives.”

Keegan said he feels the same way, and that day on the track brought it all back to him. His wife, who had never seen him run before, loved that Keegan was finally recognized by his school.

“It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had with him; I was so happy for him,” Gail Keegan said.

It’s a day Keegan won’t soon forget. As his sneakers pounded against that USF track, 45 years later, he became a Bull again.