The Transformative Power of Friendship

This is one of the most amazing stories about friendship I have read in as long as I can remember.

It’s not enough that these two men in the picture, Jesse Owens and Luz Long, both Olympic athletes who competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, should have not have become friends at all. Luz Long was not an ordinary athlete in the Olympics because he was a German athlete and was being watched closely by Adolph Hitler.

Long was expected to hate Owens and beat him in long jump simply on the basis of skin color. Long was expected to prove Hitler right that Aryans were the best.

Today this may seem completely ridiculous that skin color makes you the best, but, at the time there was far more going on in the world than met the eye.

Hitler wanted to prove that he was right in his thinking that all races were inferior to his favored race of Aryans. And Long was a perfect Aryan: blue-eyed and blond-haired and expected to win in the Olympics. And Hitler expected Long to beat Owens because Owens had dark skin.

This isn’t enough to make the story truly remarkable and extraordinary. You probably know that Owens broke records in that Olympics and proved that Hitler wasn’t right which made history. But what you don’t know about is that something extraordinary was only beginning to happen.

Long and Owens had become friends after meeting and trading tips on long jump and even stayed in touch after the Olympics began to fade into memory. This was completely unexpected.

It was after they had traded letters over the years that something truly amazing would happen. This is a transcript of the final letter that Luz wrote to, as you can see Luz call Jesse in the letter, his brother. Luz wrote it while he was serving in the war for the German Army; it took a year to reach Jesse and it was after Luz had died. Many years after the war, Jesse did fulfill Luz’ request in the letter and would eventually became a best man at a wedding for someone he had yet to meet.

The following is the translated letter from Luz to Jesse…

I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.

My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.

If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.

That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.

Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.

And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.

I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.

I think I might believe in God.

And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.

Your brother,

Jesse did reach out to Luz’ son and traded letters over the years until he was a man. He did what Luz had asked and even became his best man when he got married.

“That business with Hitler didn’t bother me,” Owens wrote in an autobiography. “I didn’t go there to shake hands. What I remember most was the friendship I struck up with Luz Long. He was my strongest rival, yet it was he who advised me to adjust my run-up in the qualifying round and thereby helped me to win.

“You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”