One recent day during the fury of a UCLA spring football practice, Coach Pepper Rodgers placed the ball seven yards from the goal, turned to his white-shirted offense and said, "O.K., take it in." Mike Flores, who was the quarterback of the moment, responded by calling a play new to the UCLA repertoire. It's named panzer division straight ahead and, instead of the usual hut-hut-hut, the quarterback sets it in motion by yelling ready-aim-fire. That's after he asks the defenders if they would like a last cigarette and a blindfold. Quite simply, Flores tucks the ball into the hard flat stomach of James McAlister (see cover), a 19-year-old freshman, who then hurls his 200 pounds through the enemy ranks with equal amounts of extraordinary speed and power. This time, as he covered the required seven yards, he left seven defenders strewn on the ground behind him. Surveying the casualties, Rodgers shook his head. "He just may become the greatest football player ever," he said. "One man alone can't even slow him down, much less stop him."
A short time later the bullhorn blared, signaling the end of practice. McAlister sped to the locker room, where he quickly exchanged his football uniform for the lighter costume of a track and field athlete. "Hey, Clark Kent," a teammate yelled. "Instead of a locker, they should give you a telephone booth." Within a few minutes, McAlister was on the track, trying to work the football out of the huge, muscular legs that make him a world-class long jumper. Until last weekend's dual meet against USC, McAlister had made the longest jump in the world this year, 26'6½". In a previous meet, against Stanford, he jumped 27'10" only to be red-flagged on a foul of less than two inches.
"He has got to be the best athlete I've ever seen," says Jim Bush, the UCLA track coach, who is torn between being grateful to football for bringing McAlister to UCLA and being unhappy when he thinks of all the 250-pound linemen who will be taking shots at his prized athlete. "There's no doubt that he has to be the finest long-jump prospect ever. He has the most powerful leg muscles I've ever seen. I haven't the slightest doubt that James would be in the 28-foot range right now if it wasn't for spring football. His legs are really beat up. And he's still over 25 feet consistently. It's amazing."
But then, McAlister has been amazing people ever since he jumped 22 feet in junior high school. "I really wanted to be a runner," he says, "but I just wasn't fast enough to beat the other kids. So I went to the other events, starting with the high jump. But when I went 22 feet in the long jump and the coach said that was pretty good, that became my game. I really liked the feeling of flying in the air. The day I did 26-6, I felt I was so high up in the air I'd never come down."
May 16, 1971
At Blair High in Pasadena, McAlister found another game: football. As a senior, he gained 2,168 yards, averaged 9.27 yards per carry and scored 31 touchdowns. In the Shrine High School All-Star Game, he capped his prep career by running for 132 yards and one touchdown, catching two passes, running for an extra point—and kicking a 20-yard field goal.
McAlister enjoyed football, but track remained his first love. A 25'7" long jump he made last year equaled the national prep record set by Jerry Proctor of Pasadena in 1967. (His 26'6½" bettered Proctor's international age-19 mark by four inches.) Just to keep busy, McAlister also high-jumped, ran the low hurdles and anchored the 440 relay team. He was a high school All-America in both football and track.
"In basketball I was all-disaster," he says. "Just for the heck of it, I went out for the team my junior year. I made it but I never got to play more than a few seconds a game. Then one game I got in the last 10 minutes. I was almost as tall as I am now [6'1"] and I could jump, so I'd rebound and pass off. But I could never bring myself to shoot. Finally, as a joke, a guy on the other team fouled me. I went to the line and just stood there bouncing the ball and staring at the basket. I kept saying, 'You can do it, you can do it.' Finally the referee said, 'Do it.' I pushed the ball up and it fell five feet short of the rim. You should have heard the crowd roar with laughter. I said, 'That's it, I quit.' "
His baseball career was equally short. As an 11-year-old catcher, he was the slugging sensation of a kids' minor league in Pasadena. After hitting five home runs in eight games, he was asked to join a major league team. "My cousin Jimmy, who lived next door to me, was in the majors," McAlister says. "He was two years older. He kept kidding me about how tough the league was and how I wouldn't do so good. I bet him I'd hit a home run my first time up. And I hit the first pitch out of the park. But it went foul. Jimmy was watching the game and he went running after the ball. He had a history of heart trouble. He dropped dead before he got to the ball. I set that bat down and said I'd never play that game again. And I never have."
When McAlister graduated from high school, the recruiters lined up three deep. He had three close friends at Blair: Kermit Johnson, another running back; Eugene Jones, a 6'3", 230-pound tight end; and Billy Williams, a 6'1", 190-pound defensive back. UCLA, Oregon and Arizona offered the four a package scholarship deal. USC said it would take McAlister and look at the other three after a year of junior college. Everybody else wanted McAlister period.
"We talked about it and decided a package deal would be bad," McAlister says. "That three of us might be happy but the fourth might be unhappy. We decided everybody should make up his own mind and not tell the others. I began to look around, I went to Notre Dame and the coach said he'd make me the first black running back All-America at Notre Dame. I knew I didn't want that. I just wanted a school where I'd be happy. If you aren't happy at school, then you won't be happy playing football. I finally narrowed it to UCLA and California at Berkeley. Then my high school coach told me to make out a list of anything I could think of, like environment, the coaches, the people, the smog, the hills. I love green hills and green trees. Then I took the list and checked off each school with a plus or minus. I had 25 items. Berkeley had a lot of pluses. The coaching staff was out of sight and I loved that little street that runs through the campus. It's like a little ant farm with all kinds of people going their own way. But when I added it all up, UCLA won by two points. Most schools guaranteed I'd play. UCLA said it wanted me but I had to earn it. I liked that."
When McAlister's high school coach, Pete Yoder, joined the USC coaching staff, it was assumed he'd take McAlister with him. USC never had a chance. "Already people were starting to compare me with O. J. Simpson," McAlister says. "I had that on my list as a minus. I don't want to be another O. J. I want to be James Edward McAlister. He had his style and I have mine. And I really liked the UCLA coaches, Tommy Prothro and Earnel Durden."
"I made my choice," McAlister told his friends. They said they had, too.
"I picked UCLA," said McAlister.
"Me, too," said Johnson.
"So did I," said Jones.
"Well, see you guys," said Williams.
Which did you pick? they asked.
"UCLA," he said, laughing.
With the freshmen last fall, McAlister was every bit as sensational as expected. In three games, all won by UCLA, he ran 66 times for 384 yards and three touchdowns. He saved his biggest game for last, the one against the USC frosh.
"It was in that game I learned that in college you don't just run over people," McAlister says. "Some little USC linebacker gave me a shot in the head and after that everything was a total blank." Up to that point he had scored once on a 13-yard run and had another, for 85 yards, called back. That's the last he remembered.
"I asked somebody who won," McAlister says. "He said us, 28-6. Then they had to open my locker for me because I couldn't remember the combination. Then they told me I had run 95 yards for a touchdown. I said, 'Ah, man, get away, you're crazy.' Then on Monday I looked at the films. What a shock! I had gone 95 for a touchdown. But I figured if I couldn't remember something like that, I wasn't going to try and run over any more people."
Then came the news that Prothro had moved on to the Los Angeles Rams. McAlister heard it on his car radio—and almost drove off the road. " 'Oh, Lord,' I said. But when I thought about it, I thought, heck, I can't blame a man for trying to better himself. The next big thrill was waiting to see who would replace him."
It was Pepper Rodgers, coming in from Kansas. And one of his first moves was to meet with Prothro and McAlister.
"What about James and track?" Rodgers asked.
"I told him he'd have to practice football this spring and that he couldn't compete in any away meets," Prothro said. "And I promised him he could just run track in the spring after this first year."
"Is that it, James?" said Pepper.
"Fine, then that's it," said Pepper. "Whatever Coach Prothro promised you, I'll deliver."
"Coach Rodgers is something else," says McAlister. "Right off all the guys took to him. He calls you into his office and all he wants to do is chat and play Aretha Franklin records."
For those who don't dig Aretha, Pepper also has Dean Martin or Ray Conniff. "And on Sunday I play religious music," he says.
That settled, McAlister went out for track. "My idea of a long jump," he says, "was to run as fast as I could down the runway and just take off. They taught me the double hitch. It's like walking on air. Two steps. I was just getting it good when football started. But that's part of the deal. I love track but football brought me here and I'm obligated."
While UCLA was going unbeaten in nine meets, McAlister was undefeated in the seven he was allowed to compete in at home. He also asked Bush if he could compete in the sprints. Bush said no. McAlister took on two UCLA sprinters in a 50-yard dash. He beat them easily in 5.1—just [1/10] off the world indoor record (the event isn't run outdoors). Bush still said no. "And I was slacking off at the end," says McAlister.
"Can you believe that a man that big and powerful can run that fast?" says Bush. "I don't want to put him on the spot, but he could very well be the first man to win both a gold medal in the Olympics and the Heisman Trophy."
But for McAlister there were to be no medals or trophies against USC last weekend. Rodgers gave him Thursday off from practice, and he gave the whole team Friday off—for Mother's Day. Really. USC came in with Henry Hines, the NCAA indoor long-jump champion, and a lot of people who can run from one place to another very quickly. Last year UCLA won the dual meet 100-54, and under Bush had won three of the last five. Before that, USC had won 33 out of 33. "Don't think they aren't up for this one," said Bush.
"Relax, Coach," said John Smith, his AAU quarter-mile champion. "Go home, have a nice dinner and take it easy."
The morning of the meet came in hot and clear, but was quickly obscured by varying shades of gray followed by a chilling wind. The first event was the long jump. Before it began, McAlister said his usual pre-meet prayer. "I pray everybody competing will do the best they are capable of," he said. "I know everyone comes in happy and I pray that everyone goes away happy."
"Even the guys from USC?"
"Gosh," someone said, "don't tell Bush."
Hines jumped first. He fouled up his timing and ran through the pit. It was McAlister's turn. He stood at the end of the runway, his head down as though still in prayer, shaking his arms and legs. Then he began a rocking motion. "What I'm doing," he said, "is trying to isolate my muscles completely. The rocking starts by itself. I don't even know I'm doing it. Then I take a deep breath, make myself burp and take off."
His first leap was 23'8¼". He looked at the pit as though considering digging a hole and jumping in.
"I felt so good when I came here," he said sadly. "I really felt like jumping. I got my calves loose but I couldn't get my thighs loose. They're so tight from football. And the tension of the meet. I kept telling myself I've got to beat Hines. Then, on that first jump I'm halfway down the runway when I realize I'm only trotting. I say, 'Hey, stop!' But I keep on going. And I do 23 feet. Twenty-three feet! Lord, I could do that in junior high school. Until that moment I was high, really up. Then I went plop! Right down to zero."
On his second jump, McAlister managed 25'6", but that would be good only for third. On his fourth jump, Hines sailed 26'8½", giving him both victory and the longest jump in the world this year. UCLA's Finn Bendixen finished second and, on a 5-3-1 scoring basis, USC led 5-4. It was a lead it would never give up.
USC won the meet 75-70, with the Trojans establishing 1971 "world bests" in four events, including the long jump: Willie Deckard in the 220 (20.2); Edesel Garrison in the 440 (45.4) and the 440-yard relay (39.3).
After the meet James Edward McAlister picked up his shoes and silently walked from the field. Later that night, at dinner with John Smith and two friends, McAlister said he was very grateful that no one had tried to stop him on his way to the locker. "I've been mad before," he said, "but I was never so mad as I was today. I was ready to smash somebody into the ground. Hey, John, I was looking in the paper and I saw where we had run in nine meets and they had only run in five. Do you think we're over our prime? Or under it? Or something?"
"Man, all we are is tired," said Smith.
"Yeah," said McAlister. "And psyched out. At least I was. That Hines, he's a superpsych. When I go out on the field I say 'Good luck' to everybody and that's it. But not him. He's got to get involved in some deep conversation. He says, 'Man, you can do 27-8 with no sweat.' He acts like my cheerleader but he psyches me. So I make a bad jump. Then he comes up and says, 'Hey, man, relax. Take your time. You can do it.' Wow! He blows my mind. So I foul. Then when he does his 26-8, I am out on the runway psyching myself up for a great jump. Then I hear the people in the stands yelling, 'Henry, what are you doing behind him?' I look around and he starts clapping his hands and saying, 'Come on, you can do it. It's easy. Go get it. Hey, man, is this your last jump?' Now that was a superpsych."
McAlister shook his head. "Today wasn't my day," he said. "A girl I know told me if I did 27 feet she'd have a surprise for me. Now I'll never find out what it was. But football practice ends in a week and a couple of weeks after that I'll have my legs back in shape. Twenty-seven feet, shoot! Maybe I'll just tell her to save it for me."