Perry Metzler

the junior men's track omnium held in Kenosha, WI.Approximately one week ago, on a wintry, overcast Washington D.C. afternoon, I stood mesmerized, somber, and contemplative in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, face-to-face with the name Perry Metzler. Unless you’re either the truly rarified individual of an age and predilection to recall the world of New York City competitive cycling in the 1950s/1960s or, like me, a devotee of Peter Nye’s cycling history, I’d likely surmise that Perry Metzler’s name is drawing a blank. It’s too bad that cyclists like Metzler have been largely forgotten, for his life’s story, particularly from the mid 1950s until his 1971 death in Vietnam, is a fascinating and tragic microcosm of the larger social turmoil which enveloped the United States: discrimination, the effect of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, the Civil Rights movement, mass African-American migration from the South to northern cities, and the Vietnam War. As a corollary, his career as a cyclist documents significant elements of our sport’s history: the still vibrant NYC competitive cycling scene, the seeds being sown for American cyclists re-emerging as world-class athletes on the world platform after lying dormant for several lackluster decades, the creation of the U.S. Army’s Special Services cycling program (the precursor to the current U.S. National Team system), and the emerging career of Bicycling Hall of Fame inductee Al Toefield.

While Major Taylor became the first African-American cyclist to win a professional national title (1900, in Newark, NJ), Perry Metzler is perhaps best known for being the first African-American cyclist to win an amateur national championship, taking the 1957 junior men’s track omnium in Kenosha, WI. Perry Metzler and his twin brother, Jerry, started racing bicycles in 1953 as members of the Crusaders Club of Brooklyn. Under the tutelage of Amos Ottley and 1952 Barbados Olympian Ken Farnum, both Metzlers flourished. As a 14 year old, Perry finished 9th in the 1955 junior men’s national track championships held in Flushing Meadows, NY. In 1956 the Metzlers finished one-two in the NY state track championships earning them a trip to the national championships held in Orlando, FL. While the Metzlers’ struggles against poverty were inhibiting enough on their cycling careers, the ugly specter of segregation proved too much for the brothers to overcome in 1956. According to Peter Nye,

“Segration remained the order of the day in Florida, despite the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision two years prior declaring segregation unconstitutional. Segregation was not something new to the twins. They had lived in Mississippi for nearly 10 years before their family moved to New York. They went to Orlando anyway, taking a bus. They were thrown out of the city and had to turn right around and go back home. Jerry, always outgoing and quick-tempered, became disgusted and quit riding.”

Perry, however, continued competing. Next year, in 1957, Perry’s 2nd place in the NY state championships once again earned him a starting spot for nationals, this time held at Kenosha, WI, but Metzler’s lack of funds prevented him from making the trip. Enter Al Toefield:

“Al Toefield, a New York City police sergeant, was an American Bicycle League district representative. He saw Metzler in a parking lot a few days before the 1957 national championship. ‘I asked him why he wasn’t in Kenosha,’ Toefield said. ‘Perry said he didn’t have any way to get there. So I said he could ride with me in my car.”

About a week later Metzler returned to Brooklyn with a national championship jersey and trophy.

While many of Metzler’s junior peers dropped out of the sport, Perry successfully made the transition from junior to senior level racing and found success in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states. Peter Nye states,

“Metzler’s riding was part of the mystique that grew around him. Another part was that he commuted to races in a shiny red and green Ferrari. The Ferrari belonged to Bill Wilson, an older black man with salt-and-pepper hair who smoked a meerschaum pipe and generally stayed in the background during races. Wilson worked at the Warwick Boys Training School and became a “big brother” to Metzler, who was never close to his father after the family broke up.In January 1960, Metzler was drafted into the army. After basic training, he was stationed at Fort Jackson, SC. Al Toefield, then a member of the U.S. Olympic Cycling Committee, tried repeatedly to get Metzler assigned to the army’s Special Services so he could train for the 1960 Olympic trials. Although the armed forces had been integrated in 1952, blacks were not openly received. Toefield later discovered that a colonel from one of the southern states kept blocking Perry’s transfer to Special Services.”

Metzler failed to qualify for the 1960 Olympic cycling team in the match sprint, and Harlem resident Herb Francis made history instead, qualifying in the match sprint along with Jack Simes II, becoming the first African-American member of an Olympic cycling contingent. Metzler continued cycling until 1967, winning the Eastern States Outdoor Track Championships, Pan-American track meets in Trinidad, as well as repeatedly finishing in the top ten in New Jersey’s Tour of Somerville criterium, but unemployment and the need to take care of his wife and sons ultimately forced Metzler out of the sport. Life as a competitive cyclist is difficult enough these days (even with a nascent domestic professional scene, sponsorship opportunities, and NRC prize money) but in the mid 1960s there was no team or financial infrastructure to support the competitive ambitions of cyclists.

From mid-1967 until late-1969 Metzler’s life path sadly descended into crime and drug abuse. Metzler grew so discouraged that he opted to re-join the army. Then residing in Chicago with his family, Metzler tried to enlist there but was denied by the recruiter since he had a family. Metzler boarded a bus to Detroit, lied about his family status, and was accepted. Perry once again went through basic training, earned his paratrooper wings, and became a military police officer. On February 3, 1971 Metzler was shipped to Vietnam. Eleven days later, on Valentines Day 1971, Metzler was killed in Binh Dihn, South Vietnam. And what a disturbingly cryptic, sanitized cause of death: “Non-hostile, died other. Accidental self-destruction”. How heart-wrenching is that? A former Olympic hopeful, married with 2 kids, blown-up by accident half-way around the world. I can’t help but think of John Kerry’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, only 2 months after Meztler died, and the words “…how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Those same words also dominated my thoughts as I reached out to touch Metzler’s name, one of 58,245 carved in black granite.

The entirety of the biographical information about Perry Metzler, as well as the photograph, came from cycling historian Peter Nye’s indispensable work Hearts of Lions: The Story of American Bicyle Racing. New York: Norton, 1988. If you haven’t done so yet, set aside some time and read this book. And if you ever find yourself at the Washington, D.C. Vietnam Memorial, you can pay your respects to Perry Metzler at panel 05W, row 103.

Comments (12) to “Perry Metzler”

  1. I hope someone can read this. My father is one of Perry Metzlers sons. I would be Perry Metzlers oldest granddaughter. He has one other my younger sister. I just recently found this site and am amazed at this. I never knew any of this. Thank you so much for filling myself, my father and family in on this information

  2. I new Perry Back in the old days we use play basketball in st.john park in Brooklyn

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  4. WOW! You weren’t even scared!!

  5. I am re-reading Hearts of Lions. Mr Metzler was a great cyclist. I remember back in the 1986-87 period in NYC I rode with Hank Williams and Birone Burke two strong black cyclists. Have not spoke to them in some time. I now live in Lubbock Tx. Wind is very strong! Started cycling again.

    Regards to all!

    Mark Reynolds

  6. Remembering a True Brooklyn Legend, a tribute to Perry Metzler, World Class Cyclist and National Champion, can be seen Saturday November 8, 2008 11:00am and again at 9:00pm on Time Warner Channel 56 or Cablevision Channel 69, also on the web at http://www.bcat.tv.

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  8. I met Perry’s Brother Jerry On kingston ave. in brooklyn in early 1980’s . When I was a Jr bike racer from the “hood” raced for Al Toefield ’s team kissena Jerry told
    me the story on the ave when I was a kid. Oh What an inspiration .
    God bless Them

  9. My husband, Perry Metzler is the son of Perry Metzler. We reside in Chicago with the rest of the Metzler clan. We have documents as well as a few magazines that have covered the story of my father n law to our regret my husband was only 7yrs old when he died in Vietnam.It is nice to know there are those who do know the true fact of the plight of African Americans who loved the sport and who wanted so much to compete then;during a time that wasn’t quite ready to embrace them because of the color of their skin. My father n law might not be well known to many of today, but he was and still remains a man of great honor and Trail Blazer for many African American cyclist today.My husband Perry and I thank all for the fond memories and true facts of those who knew him, rode with him,competed with him as well as friends to him.
    Kind Regards…Perry and Karyn Metzler

  10. As a teenager, we hung-out. I went him to Central Park for the Olimpic Trials.

  11. I just wNna say never got to meet my uncle glad he touched a lot of lives he was my d a d twin brother and ghey both are watching over me

  12. I just wNna say never got to meet my uncle glad he touched a lot of lives he was my d a d twin brother and ghey both are watching over me and the rest of the metzler family. So greatful for this information.

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