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Penn Relays, Friday April 25 Amy Guttman chats with Bill Cosby Credit: Taylor Howard

In the last 60 years, beloved Philadelphia comedian Bill Cosby has been a mainstay of the Penn Relay Carnival.

He started off modestly as a competitor way back in the late 1940s and has competed on just about every surface at Franklin Field. While in junior high he participated in the 4x75 yard relay on the infield, and when he moved on to Central High School he ran in the 4x110 relay.

His lifetime passion for track and field even brought him back to Philadelphia one year while he was serving with the Navy in Newfoundland. And after leaving the military he earned a track scholarship to Temple and continued to be a regular presence at the Relays as a long jumper.

While sports were a major part of his childhood (he also played football, basketball and baseball at Central), it is not nostalgia that keeps Cosby coming back.

It is that third word of the event's title - Carnival - that draws Cosby to Franklin Field almost every year.

"As a kid looking up, that stadium and the area around it, the campus and then of course downtown Philadelphia, the carnival stretched from there all the way downtown and into North Philadelphia," he said. "It was something at age 11 to see all of this and all of the people and all of the relays. [It was] probably the most exciting time ever because there was always something going on."

As he grew older his interests transcended the hoopla and hysteria of the races and related events. Instead, he noted a surprising social trend that escaped the gates of Franklin Field.

"It became an example of college life . of mating," he said.

There were the runners, but there were also students who had come from various universities for a sort of spring break. And any college student knows what that means.

"It was boy meets girl, girl loves boy, boy loves girl, with more respect and getting to know each other, of course," he explained.

"You have on your Central High School sweat suit and you walk around and present yourself and hope that maybe you can get eye contact from somebody you think is very, very attractive."

Though he claims he never got in on the action - "Just walking around looking at them . that was good enough" - he's sure there are plenty of married couples that met at Relays. There were parties every night, and on Saturday everyone would exchange hotel room numbers before the final night of festivities.

To this day Cosby cherishes the atmosphere that surrounds the Relays, and has himself become a valued part of that special aura as a regular celebrity starter, spokesman and sponsor.

"It's a dream come true to be able to do those things," he said. "I think and I've always thought that as a celebrity I can give Bill Cosby to all those kids: college, high school, middle school, elementary."

But the kids give something to Cosby as well. The Penn Relays was his first exposure to the intensity and dedication of female athletes.

"This was the first time that I was jarred by the reality of the competitive athletic spirit of the female," he said.

He recalled one instance when he was trying to get the attention of a woman from Temple who was lined up for a race, and she ignored him as she yelled across the infield to her relay teammates.

"I tapped her to show her Bill Cosby, and she was so focused she looked at me like one second, and went back to yelling at her teammate," he said, "and the focus was tremendous man, and I mean the face showed that [the women] were ready . the look on the faces, I mean there is dedication."

Cosby sees that same "athletic intensity" in a certain nonathlete who graces the Relays with her presence every year - Penn President Amy Gutmann.

"She will be out in the middle of that field with those elementary schools kids and she is out there because she loves to see that competitive look on the faces of these children," he said.

Gutmann and Cosby were the honorary starters for the elementary school races last year, but Gutmann usually refuses to let Cosby sound the gun. "This is my university. You give me that gun," she once told him.

Although his busy schedule has caused him to occasionally miss the Relays, Cosby will be at the event this year on Friday for the elementary school races and Saturday for the High School public championship.

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