It’s doubtful John Burroughs senior Nathaniel Doty could identity with Humphrey Bogart’s character early on in “Casablanca.” When Peter Lorre’s character Guillermo Ugarte implores Bogart as Rick Blaine for help, he’s told by Bogart: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
That’s not Doty. The cross country runner ignited the imagination of sports fans and people in general with his selfless act of kindness and generosity at the recent Class 3 state meet at Gans Creek Cross Country Course in Columbia.
Doty was cruising toward a top 25 finish and the chance to earn all-state recognition. But about 20 meters or so near the finish line, Doty saw a fellow competitor, Lutheran St. Charles’ Noah McMullen, fall to the ground due to exhaustion. He helped him up and to finish the race.
The reaction caused by his action surprised him.
“I didn’t think this type of story makes waves particularly but we are in such turbulent and divisive times,” Doty said. “The response was overwhelming. Teachers emailed me over the weekend before I went back to class. They were impressed by what I did.
“There was a school function that night and Burroughs posted it on their Instagram and Twitter and people found out about what I’d done and they congratulated me.”
The 74-degree temperature at the start of the race may have been a factor in McMullen’s fall, as it was an unusually warm day for the 5,000-meter race.
Lutheran St. Charles coach Elizabeth Fruend has another theory.
“The issue was the boys went out way too fast,” Fruend said. “That causes anxiety and trouble when you go out too fast. He was just struggling to finish that last 100 meters. That’s what happened. He was just gassed out. He was tired.”
Along came Doty, who let his compassion take over his competitive spirit.
He stopped when he got to McMullen. He first helped him by placing his hand on his back as he got up. He then helped McMullen off the ground after he fell a third time.
With about 5 meters to go, Doty held up McMullen on each side of his waist, helping him to avoid falling a fourth time. The pair crossed the finish line together at the 17 minute, 30 second mark.
“Earlier in the race, I saw another runner (fall) and I tried to encourage him to keep going but I kept going,” Doty said. “I didn’t want this to be twice in the same day I didn’t help somebody who needed it so I carried (McMullen) across the line.”
That other struggling runner was Andrew Snoke, of Lutheran South, who ended up coming in 26th place.
“I passed by him. It was in the middle of the race,” Doty said. “He fell when I went past him. I encouraged him to stick with me and sometimes that’s all it takes to get through it. He didn’t hang on, and I had to let him be and keep running.”
Helping McMullen was not a choice for Doty. It was not something he pondered or examined from all sides. He just reacted.
“It was just a spur of the moment decision,” Doty said. “There was not too much thinking going on. I knew him as a competitor. We had faced each other in the district. We knew Lutheran St. Charles was the team we wanted to beat. At the end of the race, I didn’t realize what the outcome would be. What mattered to me was helping him.”
McMullen declined to talk about the incident.
When he was helping him, Doty said McMullen didn’t say anything.
“He wasn’t really in it. I didn’t say any words to him; I did some gestures,” Doty said. “Afterward, he and his mother came up and thanked me. We went to the awards ceremony. That was kind of cool to be at the podium at the same time.”
Doty’s coach Christine Bugnitz and his Bombers teammates backed his move on the race course.
“It was a noble thing,” she said. “That’s the kind of kid he is. He’s kind of a higher level person. It was no question to him. He knew he was in medal contention. He gave that up to help someone.”
“It’s a beautiful story,” Fruend said. “It’s a story of compassion. All the cross country runners I think in every school are the best kids. They’re highly academic. They’re the cream of the crop.”
After the race, Lutheran St. Charles led the teams competing. The Cougars finished two points ahead of Fatima. That lead was short-lived.
A state official informed Fruend that McMullen had been disqualified. The ruling was made because he had received assistance across the finish line. The rule comes from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and up until 2017, the runner who assisted the distressed runner would have been disqualified, too.
With McMullen’s finish being thrown out, Fatima moved ahead of the Cougars in the final team standings and won its third consecutive state crown.
“Noah got disqualified through the sportsmanship rule,” Fruend said. “We had first place for about 15 minutes and (then) they saw the video of Noah getting assistance. He was disqualified so his score didn’t count. We went to our sixth runner for our last score. So we came in second. It’s our highest finish in school history.”
The collapse at the end unsettled McMullen, Fruend said.
“He was very upset with himself. He takes his running very seriously,” Fruend said. “He was devastated.”
The team, she said, had a goal to win first but were not bothered by second.
“They were more concerned about Noah’s feelings than they could be about coming in second instead of first,” Fruend said. “Noah worked very hard this year. They all wanted Noah to feel better.”
By helping a fellow runner, Doty lost more than 10 seconds off his final time and seven spots in the final stands. He wound up in 33rd place. That cost the Bombers, who finished fourth as a team. The top four teams at state do receive a plaque.
Dropping to 33rd place left Doty looking at the bright side.
“Thirty-third is quite the improvement from 144th where I finished last year,” Doty said. “Overall, I’m happy with it. The reason why I run is to push myself and to better myself.”
Lutheran St. Charles has an award that the school gives out to its deserving athletes. It’s called the Cougar Character award. Fruend wanted to give Doty the plaque and school officials agreed.
McMullen and Fruend went to John Burroughs for a small virtual ceremony to honor Doty and his selfless act.
“We talked about Nathaniel and his act of kindness,” Fruend said. “Noah handed the plaque to Nathaniel. It was nice for the boys to actually meet this way. It was nice to meet Nathaniel. He’s a super nice kid. He’s a high academic student. He seems like a great young man.
“The two did not know each before this. My hat’s off to John Burroughs. They’re teaching their students and athletes to show compassion and kindness and that’s just what Nathaniel did.”
Doty appreciated what Lutheran St. Charles did for him.
“Noah and his mom and coach were there,” Doty said. “They came by at our assembly and gave a little speech and gave me a plaque. It was really nice. It’s a little larger than the state medal, too.”
Doty will run track this spring for the Bombers. He runs the 800 and 1,600 and hopes to qualify for the state meet. He ran a marathon last summer on the Katy Trail. He also wants to keep doing that.
After high school, Doty said he hopes to earn an appointment to either West Point or the Air Force Academy.
“I’m thinking of going to the service academies,” Doty said. “My dad (Grant) went to West Point so Navy is off the table. I also might stay in town and go to Washington University. We’ll see.”
Fruend said McMullen will be back to run as a senior.
“He’ll be back,” Fruend said. “It’s exciting to have him back.”
Doty will be following him, too.
“There’s an app called Strava that’s for runners, bikers,” Doty said. “You can get feedback and comments on what you do. I’ve been able to stay in touch with Noah and Adam there.
“One hundred percent I’ll be following Noah next year. I’ll be cheering him on for the rest of his career in running.”
The two may be forming a lasting friendship.
Maybe even like Bogart’s character, who, at the end of “Casablanca” is redeemed, helps out and becomes a good guy. The film ends with him talking to Claude Rains’ character Captain Louis Renault.
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Bogart’s character says. It looks like it could be between Doty and McMullen as well.