My friend Randy flew over hurdles with record-setting grace and wrote sports stories with the best of ’em. And then he courageously tried to outrace his toughest foe.

When my longtime friend Randy Lightfoot called me early on the morning of Nov. 1 and left the briefest of messages, he didn’t sound right.

“Hi, Frank,” his message began before a long pause. “This is Randy Lightfoot. I was just touchin’ base, seein’ how you were.”

That was it.

Though we’d stayed in touch through Facebook and emails over the years, I hadn’t heard his voice in a long time. We were newspaper colleagues, mostly as fellow sports writers, at The Odessa American from 1983 to ’87 in my first job after graduation from Texas A&M.

Randy was a HUGE fan of the University of Texas, one of his two college alma maters. (Randy Lightfoot photo)

When I received his message, it was early in a busy week at my still-new job at UT Southwestern Medical Center. I didn’t have a chance to respond until the following week, when I sent Randy a text on Nov. 8, his 70th birthday. I wished him a great day, promised we would connect soon, thanked him for reaching out and told him I was thrilled to hear from him.

Randy responded that evening, sharing terrible news that I somehow wasn’t surprised to hear:

“I wanted to get in touch with you because you’re one of the best friends I’ve had and I am kind of making a farewell tour. I would prefer to call you, but as you noticed my voice is starting to go out. I got diagnosed with small cell lung cancer a couple of weeks ago. It’s very aggressive and has no real cure or even treatment. It is a terminal disease that gives me maybe a month.”

At 1:30 a.m. this past Monday, Randy – an extraordinary father, husband, grandfather, journalist, teacher, coach and national record-breaking track star – lost a brief but brave struggle with small cell lung cancer.

***

Within the hour after getting Randy’s text telling me of his diagnosis, I texted him back to tell him I was heartbroken to hear his cruelly unfair news. I told him I wanted to talk to him and see him. He and wife Melissa, who’ve been married since October 2019, live in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Randy’s son David, grandson and granddaughter also live there.

It was a Tuesday, and I suggested the possibility of my driving that Saturday from Arlington to Bentonville for a visit, during which Randy and I could watch the Texas-TCU game together. Randy attended and ran track at the University of Texas in the early 1970s and bleeds burnt orange, and I root for the Horned Frogs because my wife Kay graduated from TCU.

Randy and wife Melissa, and with his son David’s two children. (Lightfoot family photos)

I had a colonoscopy scheduled that Friday, so I wasn’t sure how I’d be feeling to make the six-hour drive early the next day, but we made tentative plans. By Thursday morning, Randy messaged back:

“Frank, I’ve been sliding down a pretty slippery slope the past couple days. I’d love to see you, but you probably should save your gas. The lung cancer has made an unholy alliance with my bones. In other words it’s spread everywhere. I’ve lost 50 pounds in last four months. I am down to my racing weight from high school.”

We nixed the visit and decided instead to try doing a Zoom video call in the coming weeks, if Randy’s voice and strength could handle it.

***

Randall Lee Lightfoot was born to glide across the plains of the Texas Panhandle – more specifically, over hurdles while competing against other track and field athletes. At Plainview High School, he excelled – no, he was almost untouchable – in dominating opponents in the 120-yard/110-meter high hurdles.

By the time he graduated in 1971, Randy had set or tied six national high school hurdles records and became national prep champion in the 120-yard highs. He also competed in the 330-yard intermediate hurdles, but the highs were his calling card.

That June at the All-American high school meet in Chicago, Randy set a national record of 13.4 seconds – non-wind-aided – in the high hurdles after having tied the previous record of 13.5 seconds a remarkable six times earlier in the year and also posting a wind-aided 13.4. In 1972, during his freshman year at UT at age 19, Randy won the 110-meter highs with a time of 13.9 seconds at the USA Track & Field Junior National Championships.

This photo shows Randy setting the prep national record in the high hurdles in Chicago in 1971. (From Randy’s Facebook page)

When Randy walked into the Odessa American newsroom to join our sports staff in late summer 1983 at age 30, right around two months after I started, I had no idea he’d been a track star – but I soon learned. I wasn’t exactly a track and field buff, plus he was almost nine years older than me.

I thought he looked like a cool guy. He had a curly mop of light-brown hair, he was tall and slim, he smoked, and he had a smooth way of talking and walking.

And, I came to find out, he had a smooth way of writing. Randy was one hell of a sports writer, and for the next several years, he was part of what I thought was a talented sports staff of four – sports editor Chris Magee (may he also rest in peace), my dear friend Loretta Wolske (whom I’m still friends with), Randy and me. “We really had a good team,” Randy told me in one of his recent texts. A couple of other sports writers, Brett McMurphy and Dennis Ball, joined us later.

Not long after Randy started, we all embarked with some of our staff photographers on our annual tour of West Texas high schools, interviewing coaches about their teams and taking photos for our preseason football section. On our first trip, Randy and I paired up and drove south/southwest, where we ended up in places like Fort Stockton, Marathon, Alpine and Marfa – where I remember we stayed in the old Thunderbird Motel, which has been transformed into a boutique hotel.

During our two-day trek across West Texas in Randy’s sedan (wish I could remember what he drove), we filled each other in a bit on our lives. I learned about his track exploits, including his years at the University of Texas, where he said he and coach Cleburn Price (who took over the program when Randy arrived), didn’t get along well and Randy later lost his spot on the team – partly, he told me, because he was having a bit too much fun in Austin.

UT track photo of Randy

Randy didn’t finish his journalism coursework at UT, and although I’m not sure of this, he may have gone back home in ’75 to work with his dad at his insurance agency. He enrolled at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview in fall 1976, not long before turning 24, and also joined the track team, competing in both the indoor and outdoor seasons in the high and intermediate hurdles, relays, long jump and triple jump.

At the 1976 NAIA national indoor meet, Randy clocked 7.37 seconds in the 60-yard high hurdles, placing second to earn All-American status. In the spring of ’77, he finished second at nationals in the 110-meter high hurdles, gaining All-American honors again.

During his two years at WBU, where he graduated in ’78 with a bachelor’s in education/journalism, Randy set school indoor records in the 60-yard highs and intermediates, and as of 2001, his mark of 13.65 seconds stood as the school mark in the 120-yard highs.

When Randy was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Honor in 2001, many still regarded him as the finest male track athlete ever to come out of the Texas Panhandle. In 2000, the newspapers in Amarillo and Lubbock named him one of the Panhandle’s Top 100 Sports Legends.

Above: Randy (left) and fellow members of UT’s 480-yard shuttle hurdle relay received first-place medals at the Texas Relays in 1973. Below: Randy competed in a quadrangular meet at Rice University in Houston in 1974. (From Randy’s Facebook page)

What I don’t remember Randy telling me is whether he ever had a shot at the U.S. Track and Field Championships, which could’ve led to a spot in the Olympics. I’m guessing he didn’t, which is a real shame with the success he enjoyed in high school and college.

***

But back to The Odessa American. It was an afternoon newspaper when we worked there, with a circulation of around 30,000, which meant one of us four had to get to the office between 4 and 5 a.m. to design and edit the sports section. That person might then have interviews for a story or two for the next day’s paper, then might have a football or basketball game to cover that night. That’s how it is on sports staffs at smaller newspapers; you do everything and work your butt off – but man, is it fun.

I never told Randy this until we had our Zoom visit Nov. 19, but during our years working together in Odessa, he was like a big brother to me. I was a literal rookie right out of school, and he was a veteran with some journalism and life experience, a wife (Penni), two little boys (David and James), and what seemed to me a lot of knowledge about a lot of things. I remember visiting the Lightfoot family at their Odessa home with my girlfriend Carolyn. Those boys were so adorable and so rambunctious.

Randy taught me a lot about the newspaper business and covering sports, particularly track and field, which I knew almost nothing about. Thanks to him, I sopped up specifics about hurdling and sprinting I’d never known, and I was able to write about Odessa College and high school track without sounding like a complete idiot. And with the OC men’s program piling up national indoor and outdoor titles, we had a lot of big track news to cover.

Randy wrote this sports column for The Odessa American in early February 1987, not long before he and his family moved back to Plainview, where his mother was battling cancer. (Frank Christlieb OA collection)

When Randy and I visited by Zoom, it was the first time I’d seen his face other than in photos since our Odessa days. We’d talked for years about getting together – including when he was teaching newspaper journalism and British literature in Lake Dallas ISD north of Dallas between 2005 and 2011 – but sadly, we never did. Randy was a teacher and track coach in five Texas school districts starting in 1995, and his track and cross-country teams at Floydada High won four consecutive district titles.

Randy endured plenty of family tragedy. When we were still in Odessa, cancer struck his mother, Clara, and Randy and his family returned to Plainview so he could help take care of her while working with his father. Clara died at 55 that November of 1987. Randy lost his father at 88 in November 2020, and his second wife Julie, also a teacher and mother of twin boys, suffered major health problems and died the day before Thanksgiving 2013 when she was only 44. Randy lost his brother Mike at 66 four years ago.

Randy (left) with his sister, Patti, and brother Mike, who died in 2018. (Lightfoot family photo)

After all that November heartbreak over the years, Randy expressed to me in a text that he was sure he’d be gone that month, too. When he finally had the courage Dec. 1 to post on Facebook that he was dying, he wrote: “I made it to my latest birthday and then Thanksgiving, and now I’m hoping for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Not sure about 2023 yet but we’ll see.”

I’ll always be grateful for our Zoom call, which lasted about 15 minutes. We talked about our Odessa days, college football, how he and Melissa met (through an over-50 singles site called OurTime), and more than I would’ve expected in such a short chat.

And what was really special: I got to hear Randy laugh a few times. He made me laugh, too, when we were talking about him watching his Longhorns, as he playfully took a shot at my alma mater, which just finished a disastrous season.

“They’re entertaining games,” he said of the ’Horns. “More entertaining than the Aggies, anyway.”

I had almost forgotten that during our last year or so in Odessa, Randy had grown weary of writing about high school sports – “Who wants to have their whole career defined by a bunch of 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids?” he asked me on Zoom.

He’d also come to realize that Chris, the sports editor, was entrenched in town and his position and there probably was no chance for Randy to move up from assistant sports editor. So he moved to news side as copy desk chief – and he reminded me he was in that position when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in late January 1986.

When Randy enrolled at Wayland Baptist and joined the track team in 1976, he was almost 24 years old. He competed for the Pioneers for two years. (Wayland Baptist photo)

Later that year, Chris also grew tired of sports and joined Randy on the copy desk (I’d definitely forgotten that), then Randy moved briefly back as sports editor while I was his assistant. But when Randy had to return home to be with his sick mother in February ’87, I became interim sports editor for a few weeks until getting a new job as a features copy/layout editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that April.

When Randy started to grow short of breath, we had to end our call. We didn’t have any more correspondence after that as he continued going downhill, but Melissa and I have stayed in touch by text and spoke this week the day Randy went to heaven.

Part of one of the texts he sent me on his birthday gave me comfort:

“With regard to the cancer, it is very aggressive to the extent that it can double every 25 days. This doesn’t bother me. I’ve lived a really great life and my faith is my rock.”

There are bound to be a few running tracks in heaven, and I know Randy’s already there, back in smooth-hurdling form.


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