Navajo Leslie Chases the Legend of Billy Mills
By Mike Wise
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page E09
The three grown men sat squat in the bleachers, elbow to elbow.
"We read about him the other day in the paper," said Ted Tom Jr., 30. "We told our wives, 'We have to go.' "
Freddie Napoleon Jr. and Tom's cousin, Donald, nod their heads. They piled into a Chevy Cavalier the other night and drove 19 hours, a straight shot from Albuquerque, to see one of their own run.
Brandon Leslie, the slight distance runner with the short-cropped hair in the muted yellow tank top and the burgundy shorts, steadied himself at the starting line.
"They said he could be the next Billy Mills," Tom said.
The gun for the 10,000 meters goes off, and the men from the Navajo nation stand.
It was the first night of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, and Leslie began to stride around the oval at Hornet Stadium, staying with the pack, running hard, purposefully.
Lord knows how hard that was the past five years.
Some athletes run for gold here, a spot in Athens. Others run to stay with the elite.
One man ran for his people, who need him to keep running if only because it means he won't have to come back to the reservation and drink and regret and drink some more.
"The people in this stadium don't even know," said Mike Daney, his coach. "Brandon was probably a much longer shot even getting here than anybody else had of getting to the Olympics."
It is an old and depressingly familiar American Indian story: kid leaves "the Res" for college, something better. Comes back one day, begins hanging with friends. Starts drinking heavily, passing out on his mother's couch.
And wakes up one day no longer the prodigal son, but another statistic who succumbed to the despair, alcoholism and lack of education claiming so many of his people.
This was Brandon Leslie's story. Until he began to fight the ending.
By the time he arrived at Northern Arizona University in the fall of 1995 on an athletic scholarship, Leslie was one of the nation's most sought-after distance runners. After he set state records and placed third at a national cross-country championship his senior year of high school, the comparisons to Mills -- the last American Indian to win an Olympic gold medal -- began.
But Leslie competed in only one meet the following spring and left the school. A learning disability had stalled his eligibility. Upon returning home to the border town of Gallup, N.M., which presses hard up against the Navajo Nation reservation, Leslie learned he had fathered a child.
Back to the Res.
"The town we live in, every block you hit there's a bar on the corner," said Brandon's mother, Sharon. "Seems like the only thing in town to do some days is play street ball or drink alcohol. I remember thinking then, 'Oh, no. Another Navajo boy who could have been something.' "
Alcoholism claimed many of her brothers in a family of 10, and if Sharon knew anything about the disease, it was that it is hereditary. Brandon's father, Sibert, has been a recovering alcoholic since the early 1990s.
"I drank a lot when I came home," Brandon said. "I didn't crave it, but I just liked to socialize. I guess I just saw a lot of windows opening and I chose the wrong ones to go through."
He gained 25 pounds, his body and face turning pudgy, his career effectively over.
Daney, the New Mexico junior college coach and a member of the Oklahoma Choctaw tribe, intervened. Daney once helped Leslie earn a scholarship to run at Adams State College, in Alamosa, Colo. He coaxed Leslie into training again.
Leslie began the comeback slowly, gradually moving up to 70 to 75 miles per week, still under the 100-mile-per-week minimal standard for elite distance runners. Then came a few local races in the Albuquerque area. After Leslie's weight dropped and his stamina increased, Daney sent him back to Adams State to train with higher-caliber talent.
"I dangled two carrots in front of him," Daney said. "One, the Olympic trials. Two, a chance to get his degree. I felt the degree part was the most important."
In April at the Mount San Antonio College Relays in Walnut, Calif., Leslie ran four seconds faster than the B standard of 28 minutes 50 seconds. He lowered that time at the Stanford Invitational, running 28:36. Runners who qualify for the A standard automatically advance to the trials. The B standard qualifiers must wait to see if their time made the cut.
Leslie did not know until July 7, 48 hours before race time, that he had qualified. When he stepped on the track on July 9, he had shed 26 pounds. He had also earned his bachelor's degree in sports and exercise management from Adams State at age 27 and had a job as a teacher's assistant at Gallup High School, which paid barely minimum wage.
The Native American Sports Council sponsored his trip to Sacramento, where three men in the stands waited to see the next Billy Mills.
Mills will forever be remembered for winning gold in the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Games, catching and passing the world's two greatest distance runners, Australia's Ron Clarke and Tunisia's Mohammad Gammoudi, in the final 100 meters. He ran a minute faster than he had ever run before, finishing in 28:24 -- an Olympic record. His win was so shocking a newsman came up to him after the race and asked, "Who are you?"
Mills is still the only American to ever win the event. His story -- from Oglala Sioux Indian reservation orphan to Olympic champion -- was chronicled in the 1984 movie "Running Brave."
If you are of American Indian descent and have the lungs, heart and stamina to compete at the distances, you have no choice: Your people want you to be the next Billy Mills.
"He's uneasy about that pressure," Daney said. "On one hand, it's a credit to be even compared to the great Billy Mills. On the other, he just wants to be mentioned as Brandon Leslie."
That was enough last Friday night as his coach and parents watched him circle the track. He fell back from the leaders and lost time. Daney and his mother and father wanted him to run better. Brandon was out of the running now, but he kept churning his legs and arms until the end.
The winner in the field of 25, Meb Keflezighi, finished in 27:36.49. Jason Hubbard, Leslie's training partner who is half American Indian, came in 20th at 29:53.20 and Leslie was 21st in 30:31.77. His father and coach knew he did not run his best race, and it would take a good half-hour after he had run to put the night into context.
Suddenly, as if on cue, Mills appeared from the stands. He is a bear of a man now, fitting snugly into a polo shirt with a Running for American Indian Youth emblem. He had come to watch with his grandson.
Leslie had met Mills before, when he was a young upstart and not a father of two on the comeback circuit. But he was still in awe of his elder, so much that he felt he needed to explain his performance, telling Mills what he could have done better if only he had . . .
"Listen," Mills began, "I'm proud of you."
The legend and the former prodigy embraced and talked more. Proud siblings and cousins who made the trip formed a half-circle around Brandon, hugging and holding him in their arms for several minutes, weeping as they squeezed tighter.
The coach finally handed Leslie a cell phone, and Brandon began describing his race into the receiver.
"No," Daney said. "He forgot to call his hometown paper."
When Leslie left the track, the three men who drove 19 hours from Albuquerque caught up with him behind the stands. They congratulated him for making it to the trials. Told him it didn't matter where he finished.
"We were proud just to see another Navajo run," Tom Jr. said. "Other than the golfer Notah Begay, we don't have many natives to root for. 'Bout time, we're saying."
Monday, Leslie is off to Mammoth, Calif., to begin a new career, to a training camp called Big Bear where he will run and train with elite level marathoners. He hopes to make New York City his debut. Through sponsors, he plans to make a modest living from running. Beijing in 2008 is but a daydream now.
First, he has to cope with marriage and fatherhood the next four years. Besides Brandon Jr., he has a 7-month-old daughter, Haley, and a new wife back home in Gallup.
"A lot of people here, this is it for them," Daney said. "They go home or retire and that's it. The thing about Brandon is, his story isn't over yet. Unlike a lot of Natives who come home and never realize their dreams, I know his chapter will be written differently."
Over the next week, the saga of the sport's stars and their connection to steroids would obscure Leslie's story and many others, further puncturing the myth of sports-hero worship, nearly turning an athletic contest into an inquisition.
But last Friday, going on midnight, track still represented something more than a backdrop to scandal.
"Who was that guy?" a security guard asked as Brandon Leslie walked through the stadium's gates.
That was what the Olympic trials should have been about.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company