Mission Viejo – Over the years he made his mother proud as he won Olympic gold medals and set world records, was enshrined in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, appeared on the covers of magazine’s like Sports Illustrated, Jet and Newsweek, earned various college diplomas, was awarded the Congressional Medal Honor, became a globe-trotting Good Samaritan involved in myriad social issues and had a city street named after him in his hometown of Dayton.
But two months ago — just a couple of weeks before her death — Edwin Moses was able to make his mom beam one last time thanks to a special and elusive honor.
Eighty-seven-year-old Gladys Moses found out the image of her son — holding his spikes aloft after what he thinks was a victory in Helsinki, Finland — was finally going to be featured on the front of the Wheaties box.
Two other Olympic greats from a generation past — swimmer Janet Evans and diver Greg Louganis — also will be featured on the “The Breakfast of Champions” boxes to be released next month.
The honor, akin to making the cover of Rolling Stone or SI, is a metaphor for sports greatness.
“I’m really pleased,” Moses said by phone from his home in Atlanta. “I went on line and looked at all the fantastic athletes who have been on the Wheaties box. It’s literally a who’s who of great athletes.
“When they informed me I’d made it, I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone until they announced it, but I did let my mom see it just before she passed.
“What also impressed her was that Greg Louganis was being honored, too. She met him years ago. It was at one of the Olympic Games — probably 1984 — and she really liked him.
Greg and I go back to the ‘76 Olympics. That was his first one. He was just 16 and I was young too. We both lived down in Mission Viejo in Orange County, Calif. — there weren’t a lot of Olympians down there then — and we became very close.
“We were on the ‘84 and ‘88 teams, too. I was one of the people he saw as a mentor.”
Moses said after his mother died at her home in Trotwood, he was going through her things and found something especially touching:
“In my mother’s top drawer she had two photos, one of myself and one of Greg. Obviously we were two of her favorite athletes and I had tears coming out of my eyes when I called Greg and told him. And I think he did, too.”
When he was interviewed by the New York Times earlier this month, Louganis spoke just as glowingly of Moses.:
“He was my hero. God, he was my inspiration…”
Wheaties was created in 1921 by a clumsy Minnesota health clinician at the Washburn Crosby Company — which later became General Mills — who accidentally spilled a wheat bran mixture onto a hot stove.
The mixture turned into flakes that he tasted and liked. The head miller of the company then went through a series of trials to refine the product into a novel breakfast offering since the prominent cereals of the day were all the consistency of oatmeal.
First calling its new product Washburn Gold Meal Whole Wheat Flakes (a name that still stuck to the tongue like mush), the company held a contest to pick a new name and the winner was Wheaties.
By the late 1920s, Wheaties was sponsoring various minor league baseball radio broadcasts and in 1933 another spur-of-the-moment occurrence gave the cereal its calling card slogan.
General Mills was sponsoring broadcasts of the Minneapolis Millers games on WCCO and to promote the venture a large billboard was being erected on the outfield wall.
As company lore goes, Knox Reeves, a local ad man, was asked what else could be printed on the billboard besides the cereal name. He pulled out a pad and pencil, thought a moment and scribbled “The Breakfast of Champions.”
Finally in 1934 Lou Gehrig became the first athlete featured on the cereal box — albeit on the back. It would take a quarter century before athletes finally were pictured on the front.
A year after Gehrig’s debut, Babe Zaharias became the first woman athlete on a Wheaties box and in 1936 Olympic hero Jesse Owens, the pride of Ohio State, became the first black athlete.
The phenomenon started to grow, especially in baseball, and at the 1939 All-Star Game, 46 of the 51 players endorsed Wheaties on the radio.
By then the cereal was being associated with extraordinary — if not downright herculean — performances.
As the Washington Post reported, a Trenton, N.J., man was said to have lifted a 2,700-pound elephant — I’m presuming with some kind of fulcrum though the article didn’t say — as 3,000 people watched. Afterward he told the assembled masses:
“I guess there’s only one thing I eat every day — Wheaties.”
Years later basketball great Michael Jordan — who appeared on the Wheaties box a record 18 times — lifted up the same thought when he said, “You better eat your Wheaties.”
In 1958 Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards not only became the first athlete to grace the front of the orange Wheaties box, but he became a spokesman for the cereal and for the next dozen years he promoted an active, healthy lifestyle.
By 1976 Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner took over as the spokesperson and after the ‘84 Olympics gymnast Mary Lou Retton took on the role, followed by Walter Payton, Chris Evert, Jordan and finally Tiger Woods, who appeared 14 times on the box.
If Wheaties is known for honoring success, it’s also had a hand in creating it.
Back in 1937 Ronald “Dutch” Reagan did Wheaties baseball broadcasts for a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa. He would recreate games using teletype reports and became so good at it that he was named the Wheaties broadcaster of the year.
His prize was a trip to the Chicago Cubs spring training camp in California, where he would broadcast a game live. While there, he took a Warner Brothers screen test, ended up becoming a popular film star and parlayed that into becoming the 40th president of the United States.
A Republican whose name is still much celebrated in the party a dozen years after his death, Reagan could say he too lifted an elephant.
‘I finally made it’
Over the years, there have been around 500 athletes featured on the Wheaties boxes, many individually, but some with teams, the first being the Minnesota Twins in 1987.
Three Miami Valley athletes have gotten on the box: Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter from Middletown, Alter High’s John Paxson with the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, and St Henry’s Jim Lachey with the Super Bowl champ Washington Redskins.
Moses said his being recognized now, some 28 years after he quit competing, is just a case of there being so many great athletes in the U.S. and many sometimes get overlooked. That’s the same with Evans.
For others, from Muhammad Ali to Jim Thorpe, recognition was delayed for years because Wheaties perceived certain social issues.
Louganis thought his recognition was stalled because he was known by many to be gay when he was competing, although he didn’t come out publicly until later.
Last year an HBO documentary presented him in a clearer and much more compassionate light and soon after a woman who was an IT professional in Chicago launched an online petition on his behalf. That quickly garnered 41,000 signed petitions, which she hand-delivered to the Minneapolis office of General Mills.
“Greg has gone through a lot in life, so this is very special to him,” Moses said.
As for himself, Moses said: “I’m just pleased after all my accomplishments that I finally made it. I feel the same for Janet and Greg.”
At his mother’s memorial service, Moses said he heard one common refrain from her friends:
“In talking to them, I heard that the greatest gift I gave her was her ability to travel and see the world thanks to all my track and field. I had six different women tell me how important that was to her to be able to go all these different places.”
And before she died, Gladys envisioned her son going to another place few imagined.
While so many of those other trophies and plaques ended up on hanging on their walls or setting on their mantles, being on a Wheaties box would bring him into the homes — right onto the kitchen tables — of millions worldwide.
“She was very impressed by all that,” Moses said. “That made her quite happy.”