I remember exactly the moment I heard he was dead.
It was 8 a.m. on Friday, May 30, 1975. I was 19 years old and a student at Syracuse University. I had spent the night on a cot in the basement of the home of a college friend I was visiting in Rhode Island. The clock radio was set to WBRU, Brown University's FM station in Providence, and it awoke me with a newscast:
America's hopes in the 5,000 meters in next summer's Olympic Games in Montreal were dealt a tragic blow early today when Steve Prefontaine, 24, was killed in a car accident in Eugene, Oregon . . .
I remember this so vividly because Prefontaine was a hero to me, a hero in a way that no one was before, or really has been since. A British commentator once called him "an athletic Beatle." If so, his persona was much more Lennon than McCartney. Actually, I thought of him more as Mick Jagger -- or ultimately James Dean.
Pre, the subject of two movies this year, was brash, cocky, charismatic. And he was good at what he did, very good.
What he did, from 1971 until his death, was own the American track and field distance-running scene. He took it to a different level, trying almost single-handedly to break the stranglehold the more experienced and better-subsidized European athletes had had on that portion of the sport for years. At the time of his death, he held every American record from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters.
He did it with a verve, a mental toughness and an up-from-the-bootstraps bravado that captured my teenage imagination from a continent away. I, too, was a distance runner. A decent one in the context of Upstate New York but light-years below the level of Pre, who ran the ungodly time of 8:41.5 for the two-mile in high school, made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a freshman in college and won the NCAA three-mile title four times, something nobody else has done. His style as much as his speed made him who he was: The unbridled self-confidence in the face of any competition. The ability to push the pace, from the first step to the last if necessary, and glance up at the scoreboard clock all the while. The flopping shock of dirty-blond hair. The big, intense eyes. The handsome face. The natural magnetism that made him the focal point of every race.
I saw him run in person just once, in the 5,000 meters at the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, then known as "the track capital of the world." I was a junior in high school in Buffalo, and an uncle who was a sportswriter in Portland had finagled a nonpaying job for me as a media gofer. My duty was to run statistical information and other paperwork from trackside up to the press box. During the week-long meet, many luminaries of the era in the sport performed -- among them pole vaulter Bob Seagren, marathoner Frank Shorter, hurdler Rod Milburn, quarter-miler Lee Evans, high jumper Dwight Stones and miler Jim Ryun, now Rep. Ryun (R-Kan.). All were impressive to a 16-year-old. And all paled in comparison to Pre running in his palace, the University of Oregon's Hayward Field.
The moment he stepped onto the track merely to warm up, the sellout crowd of about 14,000 came to life. Yellow-and-green "Go Pre" T-shirts dotted the stands. One of the other competitors, Gerry Lindgren of rival Washington State University, wore a "Stop Pre" shirt as the athletes were introduced on the starting line. Festive students were watching from the roof of a dormitory across the street from the stadium. In the parking lot in recent days I'd seen cars from at least three states -- Oregon, California and Nevada -- with vanity plates that read "Go Pre." All of this, I thought, for a distance runner? Back home, if 50 people other than friends and family showed up for a track meet, it was a rare day.
Throughout the 12-plus-lap race, virtually all of the fans were on their feet and chants of "Pre, Pre, Pre" rang from the stands, the loudest cheering following him around the track in an audio version of the wave. Pre won, of course; he never lost in 25 races longer than a mile at Hayward Field. Afterward, he took a victory lap, playfully donning a "Stop Pre" shirt someone in the stands had handed him along the way. It wasn't simply athletics; it was theater, too. The connection between the fans and Pre was something akin to Cal Ripken's lap around Camden Yards on Streak Night, only at Oregon it happened virtually every time he ran.
All of this comes to mind because of the movies. The first, produced by Disney and called "Prefontaine," opened last week. A more elaborate effort, "Pre" by Warner Bros., is scheduled to come out in the fall.
"Prefontaine" is a simple film. It follows a chronological script, interspersing documentary footage with the acted narrative. My guess is it won't set any box office records or be judged a cinematic success, but I loved it nonetheless. While I didn't know Pre, and thus can't speak to the authenticity of his character played by Jared Leto (other than to say he looks an awful lot like him), I did spend some time with his coach, Bill Bowerman -- and actor R. Lee Ermey nailed his eccentric, blunt, earthy personality.
I got to know Bowerman while I was in graduate school in Eugene three years after Pre died. Bowerman had retired in 1974 after producing 25 Olympians and 17 sub-four-minute milers in 24 years at Oregon. He was a giant in the sport, a pioneer of the jogging/running craze that swept America and a founder of Nike (along with Phil Knight, a former miler of his). He graciously agreed to coach me informally as I attempted to qualify for the 1980 Olympic marathon trials. Under his tutelage, I ran much smarter and much faster than I ever had, but a foot injury ended my hopes for a berth at the trials. Nonetheless, I got to know Bowerman, now 85 and still living on the outskirts of Eugene, well enough to sense that he didn't say much to his athletes, but when he did say something, he said it with a purpose. And he frequently spoke in parables. That comes through loud and clear in "Prefontaine."
In large measure, Pre and Bowerman were cut from the same cloth. Both were born in Oregon -- the athlete in Coos Bay, a gritty logging community on the Pacific coast; the coach in Fossil, a tiny town on the rugged high plains of central Oregon. Both displayed a fiery self-reliance that natives of the state tend to possess. Both wanted to change their sport for the better and didn't particularly care whose feathers they ruffled in doing so. Specifically, both wanted the athletic bureaucracy to work for the competitors, not vice versa. "There's only one group lower than the coaches in the Olympic hierarchy," Bowerman once said. "You know who it is? The athletes."
Both men thought amateur athletes deserved more support than they were getting in the early '70s. "I've got bills to pay. I'm just like any other American. If I don't pay my electric bill, they turn off my lights," Prefontaine told Oregon Journal columnist George Pasero. "After college, our athletes are turned out to pasture. We have no Olympic program in this country. It's as simple as that. No sports medicine, no camps, no nothing. I'm not talking about subsidizing us. I'm just talking about a national plan."
I've always thought that the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs -- which was founded in 1977 and now serves hundreds of amateur athletes in more than a dozen sports, not just track and field -- might never have been built if Prefontaine hadn't been fighting so hard and so vocally.
Just hours before he died, he had made important headway in that struggle. Despite considerable resistance from track and field's governing body at the time, the Amateur Athletic Union, he'd personally organized a five-meet tour of the Northwest by a small group of Finnish athletes. It was the first step in a grander plan to bring the best European athletes to the United States to compete. The windup of the Finns' tour was a meet at Oregon, in which Pre ran and won the 5,000 meters. Afterward, he went to a couple of parties, some honoring him as tour organizer. On the way home, alone at about 12:30 a.m., Prefontaine's 1973 MG swerved on a curve in the hilly Hendricks Park section of Eugene, crossed the center line, jumped the curb, hit a natural wall of rock alongside the road, flipped over and pinned him. He was dead at the scene. An autopsy revealed alcohol in his blood above the legal limit in Oregon.
At least a couple of times a month while I was a student at Oregon, I'd run up into those hills and past that spot -- then marked by a small natural stone on which someone had etched "Pre," the date he died, a simple cross and "R.I.P." Sometimes I'd pause and reflect for a moment, sometimes I'd just keep on going, but each time I'd feel a sadness because somehow I sensed that each of us is allotted only one unencumbered hero in life. And mine was cut down in mid-stride. CAPTION: Going the distance: Steve Prefontaine as played by Jared Leto in the Disney film, left, and at a meet in Norway in 1972. Before his early death, he had pushed for a U.S. Olympic program. CAPTION: Track legend Steve Prefontaine in 1975, left, and his film incarnation, played by Jared Leto in the Disney entry that opened last week.