Life Lessons from The Toothpick Man


Last Updated on May 21, 2024

Willie Spruill is in mid-sixes and happier than ever. He’s running fast and feeling fine.  

“I’m relaxed. I’m able to take care of my home, my finances, and just go where I want,” Spruill says. I just want to go down to the Oval Office, wherever it may be. Every week I’m going somewhere to somebody’s track meet, to support the masters athletes.”

The track is what Willie calls his “Oval Office.” It’s his passion and his purpose. It’s where he found himself and the community that inspires him to keep going.   

“The reason I’m out here [at the track] is because while I was in the army, I cracked my spine and my pelvis jumping out of an aircraft,” Spruill recalls. “I got to a place where I couldn’t run one step.  

“I was on all these narcotics, walking with a cane and I couldn’t think clearly. I almost committed suicide during that time.”  

At his lowest point, ready to give up on life, Spruill found track and field.  

“I saw a flyer that said ‘The National Senior Games,’ and it sparked something in me,” Spruill told Growing Bolder. “I said, ‘I can run again!’ So, I started walking for two weeks. The games were in three weeks. And so in that third week, I ran the 50, the 100 and the 200 races, and I won all three. I’ve been running since. I won’t give up.” 

Willie Spruill loves his community of runners, and they love him right back. Spruill can always be found supporting his competitors and greeting runners of all ages at all the races he attends. And inside Willie’s mouth, along with a smile, you can always find a toothpick. Growing Bolder’s Marc Middleton got a chance to ask Spruill about the importance of always having a toothpick in his mouth at the 2023 National Senior Games.

 “I put the toothpick in my mouth one day playing baseball, in 1976, and I felt real relaxed, and I’ve been having toothpicks in my mouth every day since,” Spruill said. “I don’t bite on it that much. It just rests on my lip. I don’t advise anyone else to do that because they may swallow it. It can become dangerous. But it has made me very comfortable. I run with it in, and it’s only fell out once. It just makes me comfortable. It just like, don’t want to say nothing bad, but to me without the toothpick, it’s just like me leaving my drawers off because that’s how it just makes me comfortable.”

Spruill says he goes through five Diamond toothpicks a day. It’s become his trademark look, part of his brand and identity, just like track and field.

“I am thankful and humble to be known all over the world for this toothpick, because that’s what most people know me by,” Spruill said. “If they see me without toothpick, they think something is wrong and something may be wrong.” 

These days there is little wrong in Willie’s life. He still has plenty of aches and pains but he’s learned life’s biggest lesson. 

“I’ve learned that it’s the small things that counts, that the small things that matter in life,” Spruill said. “Taking care of your family, enjoying the small things. Everybody wants cars and houses, we want awards, but it’s these little small things, being with your grandkids, spend a little quality time with them, going to the circus, little stuff like that that matters.

Willie Spruill represents the best of what Masters Track and Field is all about. The resilience, the passion and determination, the individuality, and the camaraderie. 

“I’m thankful for everything, and I try to respect everyone regardless of race, color, [or any other differences.] I try to respect everyone and treat everyone fairly, and just enjoy the games. Just tell them you love them and pat them on the back every now and then. Even my fierce competitors.”

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