One Morning, 20 Years Ago, Changed Track -- Friends Still Struggle With Prefontaine's Death
EUGENE, Ore. - Track and field in the United States has not been the same since that early morning 20 years ago when Steve Prefontaine died.
On a rock wall along Skyline Boulevard, a narrow, winding street in the hills just east of the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, there's a freshly painted reminder of what happened there.
"Pre, 5-30-75," it says. "RIP." A wooden carving of a runner hangs alongside.
The country is about to be reminded just who this charismatic distance runner was.
CBS will weave a one-hour documentary on Prefontaine, "Fire on the Track," into its coverage of the Prefontaine Classic next Sunday, a rare network live telecast of a track and field meet.
At least 15 athletes who have won Olympic gold medals or world championships are scheduled to compete, including Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michael Johnson, Gwen Torrence and Dan O'Brien. A sellout crowd is expected at Hayward Field, where Prefontaine carried on a mutual love affair with the track fanatics of Eugene.
Many of the competitors are under contract to Nike, the athletic shoe giant that traces its trademark spirit, irreverence and philosophy to its early association with Prefontaine. The company plans to bus 1,000 employees to the meet.
Next year, with the cooperation of Prefontaine's family and Nike, Disney plans to release a movie based in Prefontaine's life, just in time for the Atlanta Olympics.
A second Prefontaine movie is planned by Warner Brothers, with Robert Towne the director and track writer Kenny Moore, a friend and competitor of Prefontaine's, writing the script.
Prefontaine's story should be perfect for the big screen because, even though he stood just 5-foot-9, he seemed larger than life.
"If you were around Steve a fair amount, he was the guy who, whenever he was in the room, his presence really dominated what went on," said Geoff Hollister, one of Nike's first employees who befriended Prefontaine and lured him to the fledgling shoe company in the early 1970s.
The man who came to be known simply as "Pre" was born to a working-class family in the coastal mill town of Coos Bay. He was too small for football, so he gave running a try. He set the U.S. high-school two-mile record in 1969.
In college, Prefontaine would show up early and run his warmups on the track, drawing cheers from the moment he arrived. The crowd would chant his name and cheer him on from start to finish. Afterward, he'd blow them kisses and shake their hands. Youngsters would trail after him.
Prefontaine's arrogant image was far off the mark, his friends said.
"He was a very sensitive man and very caring," said Pat Tyson, Prefontaine's college roommate who now is a successful high-school coach in Spokane, Wash. "I never heard him talk about himself. I didn't find him arrogant. He was the kind of guy who could give a hug. I remember when he was off to the Olympics, he just grabbed ahold of me and held on like, `Man, I don't know if I want to go.'
"He was just a good, simple, blue-collar guy."
Between 1971 and 1975, Prefontaine set 14 American records. At the time of his death, he held every American record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.
At Oregon, he never lost a collegiate race on the track. In cross country, he lost twice as a freshman and then won the rest.
In his first NCAA championship race, the 3-mile, he won despite a painful gash on his right foot that required six stitches.
No matter how much he and his friends had partied on a Friday night, he'd be there for the Saturday morning workout.
"He went through four years of college never missing a workout," his coach Bill Dellinger said. "I told him one time that of all the records he'd set while being at the university, that was the one I thought was most impressive."
Prefontaine was the best U.S. hope as a distance runner at the Munich Olympics in 1972. But he was just 21, and in a 5,000-meter race that track fans still remember as one of the best they've seen, faded to fourth at the finish as his friend Lasse Viren won the gold medal.
It was days after the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Village.
"The Olympic goal was to have a good time, to compete to the best of your abilities against good competition and to gain friendships," Prefontaine said later. "But that childhood dream just blew up in our faces."
In 1973, Prefontaine scheduled a race at Hayward Field to pass the hat to raise money for him to compete in Europe.
"It was free. It was almost just a workout. It was, `Come and watch me and I'll run a four-minute mile,' " Hollister said.
But the wind shifted and brought smoke from nearby grass-field burns over the campus. Prefontaine ran the mile in 3:58 anyway.
"You really almost had to drive with your headlights on the smoke was so thick," Hollister said. "He showed up and ran a four-minute mile. It was a pretty gutty and impressive effort.
"It definitely affected his lungs. He got out there with a blow horn and thanked everybody and spit up some blood. That pretty much ruined the rest of his year."
In 1974, he was back, setting five American records and winning five races in Europe. He set his sights on the 1976 Olympics, when he would be 25 and just reaching his prime.
His contemporaries say Prefontaine was far ahead of his time in the fight for athletes' rights for endorsements and earning money to train.
When his college coach and mentor, Bill Bowerman, began experimenting with making shoes, Prefontaine finally agreed to wear them, even though the early models didn't hold together very well, Hollister said.
Bowerman and Hollister were working with Phil Knight, another former Oregon runner, to start a line of shoes called Nike. They decided to pay Prefontaine $5,000, in violation of amateur rules at the time, to come to work for them.
Prefontaine started wearing the Nike logo, and was warned by the Amateur Athletic Union that he was breaking the rules.
"He continued to do it," Hollister said. "He just sort of said, `To hell with you. I'm going to do it anyway.' "
The AAU wasn't happy with Prefontaine in 1975, when he brought a contingent of Finnish athletes to the Northwest for an unsanctioned tour. They traveled to meets in Burnaby, B.C., to the small central Oregon town of Madras and to Prefontaine's hometown of Coos Bay, where Pre set his last American record, in the 2,000 meters.
The tour ended at Hayward Field on May 29. Prefontaine, wearing a black singlet for the first time in his career, beat Frank Shorter in the featured 5,000-meter race in 13 minutes, 23.8 seconds.
Afterward, a party was held at Hollister's house. The Finns were there. So were Prefontaine's parents and his high-school coach.
Prefontaine left after about an hour to take his girlfriend and Shorter home. He took Shorter to Moore's house. The two sat outside for about 20 minutes talking about what needed to be done to help track athletes.
"All the things I've tried to give back to the sport in terms of trust funds, endorsements, advertisement stuff - was the first to do a lot of those things - and I point to that moment in the car as the moment where it all started," Shorter said.
Shorter got out and Prefontaine headed his MG convertible down Skyline Boulevard. A moment later, his car swerved into the rock wall and overturned, pinning the 24-year-old runner inside.
"I've always had to deal with the fact that he wouldn't have been where he was if he hadn't been giving me a ride to where I was staying," Shorter said. "I'm not sure I'm over it yet."
A neighbor rushed out and saw another MG speed away. Police decided the second car was not involved, a conclusion Prefontaine's friends and family dispute.
Police said Prefontaine had a blood alcohol level of 0.16, well above the legal limit of 0.10 at the time. Hollister, Shorter and others who were with him that night have a hard time believing that figure.
"All of us who were there that night, we weren't with Steve every step of the way, but we do know that while he was at the house, he did not have that much time to consume what they said would have taken him to .16," Hollister said.
The other driver, a college student, told police he'd seen the wreck and was rushing home to tell his father, a doctor.
Prefontaine was buried in Coos Bay. The funeral was held at the high-school track, where the hearse made a final lap before the burial.
For a long time, Hollister and other runners would be running on a jogging path that would become Pre's Trail and expect to see Prefontaine run past and give them that familiar wave.
Twenty years later, they still think about him.
"When you tend to think of Steve the most is when things aren't looking up, you're feeling kind of down, you've had a bad day," Hollister said. "All you've got to do is think about him for a couple of seconds and say, `Quit brooding. You still have a chance.' "
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