POSTING BY JB MADDAWG
The gift. It is within us, and it is what makes us truly unique. I have always held a sense that each and every one of us is meant to rise above, transcend even, the everyday masses. It is just something I don’t doubt anymore, because I’ve seen it in action, and it is truly breathtaking. It is where our individual talents take over and we step into our space in history. It may take someone a short time to find his/her gift, or it may take a lifetime. Yet, the gift is there. Buried far beneath the unimportant of the everyday.
I saw the gift the night Michael Jordan hit six three-point shots in a row, something he wasn’t known for, and put up 35 points in a half of basketball. Famous is now the image of Jordan shrugging on that night of the NBA finals as if to say “this, this is my gift”. Not just in the world of the famous, I saw the gift in the doctor that delivered my first child. There was a tense moment during delivery, and amidst the chaos, the doctor sensed my anxiety, looked over at me and simply winked. He had it all under control. It was his gift, and he damn well knew it.
Most of the state of Oregon can tell about the gift as well, as they witnessed it embodied in one Steve Prefontaine. The majority that are familiar with “Pre” knew him as a runner, but that was just the sport he was attached to. He was more warrior, a Rocky Balboa on the track, driven by his guts until all the other runners had nothing left. Yes, Pre was conditioned and physically built for the task, but it was his mentality that propelled him.
Pre joined the cross-country team at his high school in Coos Bay, Oregon and showed signs of his talent his first two years, but it wouldn’t be until his junior year when he payed dividends. Pre was undefeated that year and won his state final. He duplicated the feat in his senior year, and would go on to be recruited by no less than 40 colleges across the country. Pre had confided in those close to him that he wished to stay in state, and the University of Oregon seemed like a perfect fit. The only problem with the scenario was that famed head coach Bill Bowerman really never actively courted Pre. Bowerman would give several interviews later that indicated he had watched and fully desired for the runner to join them, but would not over recruit, as many coaches tended to do. He simply wrote Prefontaine a letter, and informed him if he came to the University of Oregon, Pre would become the world’s greatest distance runner. The young runner signed a letter of intent shortly after.
The year of 1970 would have Pre already gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, and at age 19 holding several U.S and world records. Under the tutelage of the guru Bowerman, Pre was realizing his dream and would start to take his place as one of the greatest long distance runners alive. Although, the new-found fame was a mixture of Pre himself, and his blistering running style, competitors would come to respect both. Pre became one of the most feared runners in the sport when he stated not only his intentions to win, but more importantly to find out just who had the most guts in the race.
“Somebody may beat me, but they’re going to have to bleed to do it”, was one of the famous phrases Pre would utter, and he made good on the statement. When it came to a 5000m race, there would be no laying in the weeds or pacing himself. Pre’s game plan was simple, and completely unorthodox in the long distance world. He would take the lead early on, and begin to set a bludgeoning pace that would drain any spirit his competitors brought along. If there was any chance of victory, one would have to keep up with Pre, and run the risk of depleting energy faster than expected. The fellow runners that had enough to stamina to keep up with Pre’s suicide pace would reach the final lap, and that’s when Pre really went to work on them. There would be nothing an opposing runner to do but watch as the young man would start to pull away. Pre not only beat his opponents, he beat them down.
When the 1972 Olympics rolled around in Munich, Steve Prefontaine would be humbled by his own style. Leading at the end of the race, Pre was bankrupt on energy, as the world’s best runners kept pace with him. He would find himself finishing fourth in the 5000m, out of the medals. His fellow runners were just as gassed, and Pre forced them to beat him at his own game. He may have lost, but the running world would respect the race the young man ran. For the way Prefontaine ran a race, was a metaphor for life. Grabbing the brass ring was simply not enough to the man. He had to exhaust every bit of spirit to do so. Anything less, was cheating.
The loss at the Olympics would make Prefontaine question running, but eventually, he pulled himself up and began training harder. Many close sources of Steve Prefontaine admitted later that the man had one clear goal: gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Pre believed his finest work would be seen there, on the world stage, and he was a heavy favorite, since his freshman appearance at the games was now behind him.
Unfortunately, Pre’s tale of guts and spirit would not wrap up with a storybook ending, a gold medal gleaming around the neck of one of the most heralded runners in the world. Steve Prefontaine would leave a party, on May 30th, 1975 and was pronounced dead in a single car accident. Although many have disputed the reports, Prefontaine was found to have alcohol in his system. Steve Prefontaine, and his gift were taken from this earth at only age 24. He was alone in his vehicle.
The legacy that Steve Prefontaine would leave behind would be enormous for the short time we knew him. His legendary coach and friend Bill Bowerman was the man that co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports. Most famous for trying to develop lighter soles for shoes on his wife’s waffle iron, Bowerman would test out many of his inventions on the feet of Steve Prefontaine. The company is still around, but the name has changed. You may recognize the logo:
Bowerman giving Prefontaine apparel set off a chain of events, however. The Amatuer Athletic Union (AAU) would not allow profit or gifts for track and field athletes, which for a time, had Prefontaine living on food stamps. He fought the organization up until his death, and three years later Prefontaine’s legacy would play a part when the U.S. Congress would remove the AAU from governing track and field.
There are several movies and documentaries about the “Legend”, but 1998’s Without Limits always seems to capture the spirit of the man, best. And spirit was certainly the makeup of the runner from Coos Bay, Oregon.
It’s tough to know what the sports landscape would look like if Prefontaine were still alive. Yet, in this world we see “the gift” often, especially in the world of athletics. The irony of it is that of all the famous athletes that have worn and advertised the Nike logo, is that he came before. He was the beginning. He was PRE. And he lives on.