Leaping into history: Former Fike star Artis to enter another hall of fame

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“Dr. Leap” is headed to another hall of fame.

In the spring of 1977, Fike High senior Greg Artis lived up to every bit of that moniker as he produced one of the best individual track and field seasons in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history.

Artis set two state records, including a national-best  triple jump of 51 feet, 5 1/2 inches that still stands today as an NCHSAA 4-A mark and helped make him the Track and Field News national track and field athlete of the year. A member of the athletic halls of fame both at Fike and Middle Tennessee State University, where he was a seven-time All-American, Artis will be enshrined again Saturday as part of the 14-member second induction class of the North Carolina High School Track and Field and Cross Country Hall of Fame.

The ceremony will be held at JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem as part of the Mondo Elite High School Invitational. Among Artis’ fellow inductees is former Barton College cross-country and track and field head coach Karen Godlock, who won 21 combined state titles at Polk County High. Headlining the rest of the class are Olympians Joan Nesbit Mabe (East Mecklenburg), Jim Beatty (Charlotte Central) and Wayne Davis II (Southeast Raleigh) as well as DeAnne Davis Brooks (Burlington Cummings) and Julie Stackhouse (Hayesville). Coaching legends Donnie Davis (Cummings), Dennis Cullen (Durham Academy) and Harvey P. Barrett (Charlotte Central) will be inducted along with philanthropist and track builder Irwin Belk, National Scholastic Athletic Foundation’s Jim Spier and national and state meet directors and officials Richard Prince (Charlotte Myers Park) and Frank Davis (Durham). 

Artis, who has made Delaware his home for a number of years, came through Wilson on Friday afternoon on his way to Winston-Salem.

“Actually, I didn’t even know this one even existed!’ Artis said. “I’m honored but I didn’t know anything about it.”

Artis, who gave himself the “Dr. Leap” nickname that caught on at Fike and around town, soared like few jumpers have in NCHSAA history. He won the triple jump at the state championship meet in 1976 as a junior, obliterating the existing mark by soaring 48 feet, 6 inches. By the time the state meet rolled around in 1977, Artis had earned national recognition by hitting the 50-foot benchmark earlier in the season. His 50-0.5 best triple jump was No. 1 in the country and he was top five nationally in the long jump.

But no one, not even Artis, was prepared for what he did that day, May 27, 1977, at the NCHSAA track and field championship meet at Cary High.

On his first attempt in the long jump, Artis soared 24-8, shattering the existing state mark by nine inches. He actually had to put his feet down to keep from landing too close to a short wall that surrounded the jump pit.

That leap, still one of the top long jumps in NCHSAA championship history, was 3 1/2 inches off the national standard, but Artis was just warming up.

On his second triple jump, he crushed his own state meet mark and established a new national best by flying 51-5.5.

With a gaggle of friends in the stands wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Dr. Leap is bad,” Artis validated his burgeoning stardom and then some with his performance that day.

“I didn’t appreciate what I did until years later. When I did it, honestly, I just thought it was a regular routine,” he said.

Artis, still humble about his many athletic feats, said he never concerned himself with his own desires. He even high-jumped and ran on some relays to help Fike pick up points.

“It was always team,” he said. “It was never Greg Artis. I just practiced hard and I peaked at the right time. I had a lot of coaches that would show me, that would work with me.

“I had the school behind me. I had Wilson behind me and I just did it, you know! I don’t know how I did it, I just did it.”

Russ Landen, who was Fike’s track and field coach throughout Artis’ career, said that his star pupil loved competition.

“He got up for big meets; nerves weren’t a huge issue for him and he relished it,” Landen said. “He was a quiet guy, not one of these boisterous sort of folks but he had confidence in what he could do.”

That brilliance, Landen said, became apparent in Artis by his sophomore year.

“We knew and he knew,” Landen said. “And it really made a difference for him, not only motivating him to be better in track but also to become an even better student in school. And he had two really good. His last two years in school were very good and he went to world to college and I think on the dean’s list several times.

“So he was motivated he knew he had to do well in school, in order to do well and track continued to stay on track. But in the 10th grade he was obvious that he had special talents and he just continued to improve.”

The 6-foot-3 Artis was an aspiring basketball player at Charles L. Coon Junior High but he reassessed his situation after being cut from the team in ninth grade. Later that year, he was approached by Jim Boykin Jr., the Coon track coach, about trying a new sport.

A self-described “very shy and insecure kid,” Artis decided to give track a try.

“If it wasn’t for Coach Boykin and some of my friends that went out on the track team, I never would have gone out,” he said.

Long-jumping came easy but triple-jumping took some work, Artis said.

“It took so much technique and coordination, which I didn’t have playing basketball, and they wanted me to do something like that!” he said. “I was so afraid of embarrassing myself that I didn’t want to do it.”

But Artis eventually mastered the technique.

“By the time he was a senior, coaches would just stand around and marvel at his technique,” Boykin said.

After his state championship showing, Artis was named to three All-America teams and even the male national track and field athlete of the year by one publication.

He was pursued by every major track program in the country but decided to go to Middle Tennessee State University, renowned for head coach Dean Hayes’ success with jumpers, especially Tommy Haynes, who had placed fifth at the Summer Olympics in Montreal a year earlier.

Artis never realized his Olympic dream, however. He made the U.S. Olympic team as an alternate in 1980 but America never competed in those Summer Games in Moscow because of a political boycott. He was still hoping to qualify for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles but it all came crashing down at a meet in the spring of 1982. After soaring to what he thought might have been a world record, he landed wrong and broke his leg. His jump never counted and it was the last one he ever did in competition.

Artis never looked back, never involved himself with track and just lived his life, having a long career in social work in Tennessee and then Delaware and the Philadelphia area. He and his wife, Vickie, have a son, Gregory Dakar Artis, who will turn 21 this spring. Artis said he never really talked about it at home and his son, prompted by an instructor in one of classes who recognized the name, didn’t know his father was a former track star until he went home and Googled it.

“That’s the definition of humble,” Boykin said.