The cooling breeze came around 7 p.m., bringing relief from the intense dry heat that had pressed down on Bakersfield, Calif. most of last Saturday. But the wind out of the north couldn't alleviate the tensions surrounding the 440-yard dash, the most ballyhooed event of this year's national AAU track and field championships. With still an hour to the starter's gun, Lee Evans, the Olympic champion, rested under a lamppost, alone with his thoughts. He had drawn lane 8, which meant that with the staggered start he would be running blind, the rest of the field behind him, and he was trying to convince himself that this was best. He knew it wasn't.
Seventy yards away Larry James, the silver-medal winner at Mexico City and the 1970 NCAA champion, sat on a rubbing table. People came by to wish him luck, but when he smiled and said nothing they left. James never wears a watch. Every few minutes he'd ask someone for the time, which was moving slowly. On a table next to him Curtis Mills, the world record holder, sat talking idly with an acquaintance. Mills and James did not talk to each other.
Wayne Collett, of UCLA, came by and stood next to James. The week before Collett had broken the world record in the 440 hurdles at the NCAA championships but had finished behind Ralph Mann, who had run four-tenths of a second faster. Now Collett was back in his specialty, the 440 dash, and there were those who said he could win the AAU title.
"I'm a little stiff," Collett muttered. James looked away and yawned. "I need a bed," he said. John Carlos, who had pulled up lame in the 100-yard dash the night before and had scratched in the 220, walked over and put an arm around Mills. "Hey, man," said Carlos, "I've already told the AAU not to send you to Europe if you finish second or third." Laughing, Mills got up and walked away. Carlos spotted John Smith, a sophomore who had run behind Collett at UCLA all year. Smith was running because they needed eight men to round out the field. He had failed to make the finals at the NCAAs the week before and was going into the race with the slowest time in the field. "No sweat, man," Carlos said to him. "Just lift your knees, pump your arms and don't worry about anyone else." Smith nodded. In less than an hour he would do exactly that, and would become the 440-yard champion, shocking everyone but himself. His was only one of many upsets: Tom Hill of Arkansas State won the 120 highs in 13.3, for example, Willie Davenport finishing third; Howell Michael of William & Mary took the mile in 4:01.8, Marty Liquori finishing third.
July 5, 1970
It had been a rough week for Smith. After his failure in the NCAAs, he had called home from Des Moines and his mother told him that his cousin and close friend, Andy Young, had died. "He was just two days older than me," said Smith, who is 19. "We had been close all our lives. It really hit me. Then at the funeral I broke down and cried." He decided not to run at Bakersfield.
"Son," said his mother, "what happens in life happens. You can't do a thing about it. And I want you to run in that race. You are as good as anybody there. Always believe that."
"Then she gave me her blessing," said Smith. "It was something very special, something very deep. I knew then I had to race."
For Lee Evans, the week before the race had been just a little less trying. Saturday morning he paced his hotel room, unable to rest, alternating between despair and hope. For nine days he had been taking sleeping pills. Even then sleep had come grudgingly.
"I have this great personal problem and it's driving me crazy," said Evans. "But I've got to get my mind off it. At this moment I have to have one purpose in life: to run around that track once faster than those other cats. That's all I'm supposed to think about. But because of what's bugging me I just don't have the same drive I had three weeks ago. But I've got to win. I've got to. I've got to. It will show me I'm on my way toward conquering this pressure from my problem."
Evans got down on his hands and knees and began working his feet into imaginary starting blocks. He came up in the start position, held it for a moment, then stood. "I want it bad, man, real bad. There's a lot behind this race. Oh, Lord, life is a weird trip."
That same morning at breakfast Mills, who had finished third in defense of his NCAA championship, was feeling the pressure of his world record. "Last year, before I set the record, I was just another unknown," he said. "I was running against Evans and James and if they beat me, well, so what? Nobody expected me to win. Now everybody is looking to climb No. 1—and that's me. At least they think it's me. I think it's Evans. He's the king. Of course, I beat him twice last night. I ran two great races in my dreams. Forty-fours. At least I think I beat him. It was pretty close. But in real life Evans is the man."
Then James stopped asking the time. The call had come for the 440. The fans began to stir. They had already seen some fine performances. The night before George Frenn (see cover) had won the hammer with a throw of 230 feet (he reportedly had a practice throw of 248 feet, 3½ feet over the world record, earlier in the week); Ivory Crockett had taken the 100 in 9.3 in a photo finish over Ben Vaughn (who won the 220); and Frank Shorter, the ex-Yalie who is Jack Bacheler's running partner on the Florida Track Club, had won the three-mile in 13:24.2. Shorter almost didn't make it to Bakersfield. While training in Taos, N. Mex., where his parents live, some hoods tried to run over him with a car because he had reported them for attempted rape.
Saturday night Shorter would win the six-mile as well, finishing hand in hand with Bacheler in 27:24. He was voted the meet's outstanding performer, but the three-mile was the greater triumph. Steve Prefontaine, running on the foot he had cut at Des Moines last week, was in contention until the gun lap, then faded to fifth. "All week I've been favoring the leg," he said, "and when I went to kick I felt like someone had hit me with an ax. I'm doing great. Last year as a high school senior I finished fourth. How's that for progress?"
As the 440 field was setting up the blocks, Ralph Mann, who had won the 440 hurdles a few minutes earlier, hustled over to pick up his gold medal and then set another world record getting to where the race would start. "I wouldn't miss this for anything," he said. "It may be the greatest 440 in history. People say the hurdles are the toughest. I say this is. Look at Lee, he's out for blood. And that Mills, he'll be flying scared. I'm sure glad I'm a hurdler."
The runners crouched. Mills turned to John Smith and said, "Nothing to worry about. Just stay on my tail until the last turn and take off. Just run your own race and you'll do fine."
Evans is a close friend of Wyomia Tyus, the former Olympic champion, and her husband, Art Simburg, the Puma shoe representative in the U.S. Last year Smith dropped by the Simburgs' house to pick up some shoes. Evans was there and they became friends. "Lee was sort of an idol to John," says Simburg. "And he asked Lee to help him. Lee said sure. And it was more than just do this, and do that. Lee really took a lot of time with him. It was a deeper relationship than just teacher and pupil. It's something beautiful to watch."
So was the race. Evans flew from the blocks, charging toward what could have been his fifth straight AAU title. "When we come off that last turn," he had said earlier, "I figure Collett will be in the lead and I'll be just two steps behind him. Me and everybody else. And then I'll just blow right past him."
And that's where they were coming off the last turn: Collett, Evans two steps back, Smith. "By then I was out of it," said James. "If I was with them I could have stayed, but I lost contact, and when you lose contact with guys like this, forget it. I felt good. But they were already gone."
Thirty yards from the tape Evans passed Collett. "I saw Wayne good and I knew I had him," he said. "But I never saw Smith until he went past me." Smith saw him. "I wasn't concentrating on anything but running until the last 110 yards," he said. "Then I saw Lee and I just started thinking about lifting those knees and pumping those arms. I figured if the stuff is there, it will come."
It came. Smith caught Evans 10 yards from the tape and beat him to it. They both finished in 45.7. Collett was third in 45.8, then Mills (46.1) and James (46.2).
As they crossed the finish line Mills turned to Smith and asked who won. Smith pointed to himself. "You won!" said Mills.
"John won?" said Collett, groaning. "Oh, no! My coach has created a monster. I knew John was tough mentally, but damn! Next year is going to be a gas, a real gas."
A photographer asked Smith to pose for a picture. He did. "Uh," said the photographer, "what's your name?"
The photographer went away in anger.
"What a tough break for Lee," said Smith. "Nobody can win in that lane. Anyplace else and he would have won. He couldn't see me and I just snuck up on him. Just like Mills did last year. And he's my teacher. He built my confidence, taught me how to run past people at the end. Then I do this to him. Damn! Anybody else! I admire Lee enough to bow down to him."
Evans walked away to be alone. Then he sat down on the second step of the victory stand. "The races I lose," he said. "One a year and it's always the big one. I just never saw John coming until it was too late."
Smith approached the stand. Evans jumped up and put an arm around him. "I'm glad it was you, baby," he said. "If it had been anybody else it would have killed me. You run so much like me now it scares me. I just didn't figure you to do it this year." He pushed Smith toward the stand. "Climb up and get your medal. And if you don't win at Munich, I'll kick your butt all the way around the block."