In 1972, at the University of California's Kennedy Games, Lee Evans suffered a defeat that, by rights, he might simply have shrugged off. The night before in Los Angeles, Evans had been narrowly outrun in his 440-yard specialty by UCLA's John Smith. Dejected by that loss, Evans chose to pass up the quarter mile at Cal for a token appearance in the 220, an event in which he had never done particularly well. So it was no real disgrace when Evans, running as if the cinders in Berkeley's Edwards Stadium were freshly poured concrete, finished sixth.
But he was embarrassed just the same. Evans is a native of northern California and his family had gathered in the stands to picnic on fried chicken and watch him fly. Afterward he listened with chagrin as his son Keith, then five, asked tearfully, "Daddy, why'd you let them beat you?" The question haunted Evans for weeks. "Let them?" he asked. "How do you tell a little boy you never let anybody beat you?"
The episode is of historic importance because it is probably the only time that Lee Evans has ever been called upon to defend his will to win. Eight years have elapsed since a teen-age Evans emerged as a world-beater and at least four since the first sportswriter called him "the grand old man of the quarter mile." Last year, as a professional, Evans became the leading money-winner of the International Track Association's first season. Sprinters, the ephemerids of track, generally stay on top a couple of years at most, which makes Evans seem a venerable, almost Biblical figure.
It is a shock, then, to realize that Evans will be a mere 27 on his birthday later this month. He is not only younger than one might imagine, but far gentler. Before a race Evans stalks, mutters and scowls with a frightful sullenness said to have driven a thoroughly psyched quarter-miler into early retirement a few years back. Out of earshot of the starter's pistol, by contrast, bonhomie radiates from Evans' broad, fleshy, heavy-chinned features and his words take on the softness of the cotton he picked as a boy in the San Joaquin Valley. The Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation impressed Mike O'Hara, the ITA's youthful president, when he was introduced to Evans following the 1972 Olympics. "Lee looks so fierce I was almost afraid to meet him," O'Hara recalls. "I couldn't believe how polite and shy he turned out to be."
February 17, 1974
Evans' mild nature is the more striking considering that he has suffered, besides the agonies of growing up poor and black, such misfortunes as divorce, the drowning of a brother and the lash of public controversy. He also, unapologetically, leads an almost nomadic existence, as if in the hope that further woe will not hit a moving target. His present residence, a rented house south of San Francisco in Redwood City, is his fifth in barely two years, and his jobs and pastimes change as often as his Zip Code. One moment Evans will be "checking out" witchcraft; the next he will be "into" vegetarianism; another moment his "thing" will be writing sentimental verse. The unlikeliest such undertaking occurred last year when Evans, moonlighting from pro track, became, briefly, the world's fastest antique dealer.
Although he talked of having found his life's work, the antique shop he started in San Francisco in February failed by October. The shop, a Secondhand Rose jumble of antiquities that Evans picked up at flea markets and estate sales, was located in the Mission District, an area of cheap cafeterias and bars. Across the street was Frenchy's, a pornography shop. While true antique fanciers continued to browse at the tony shops on Union Street, Evans' store attracted mostly winos and pensioners.
Evans still drives the panel truck he used for hauling bric-a-brac and he sleeps in a Victorian bed with a mirrored headboard, which was among his wares. But he doesn't mourn the shop's closing. "I've always liked beautiful old things," he shrugs. "But those lonely guys from the neighborhood depressed me. Besides, I lose interest in things. Frankly, I was relieved to get out of there."
Uncommitted though Evans may be otherwise, his devotion to track is necessarily single-minded. His flat-out speed is only middling and his blocky 5'11" build calls to mind the old oak furniture he sold in his shop. When he runs his shoulders roll, his arms flail and his head bobs like a marionette's. But he compensates with strength and conditioning. "I've always worked harder than other guys," he says. This pays off, in particular, when he comes out of the final curve, the moment in the quarter mile when the body numbs, the mind fogs.
"I've got more fluid speed but Lee's got desire and momentum," John Smith said at the height of their rivalry. "At the final curve, he's always there." Bert Nelson, publisher of Track & Field News, says, "Lee gets more out of his abilities than any athlete I've seen." And Jim Terrill, a former coach and now ITA operations director, calls Evans "the most competitive trackman in history. I used to think that about Glenn Davis but Lee's got him beat."
His taste for competition sets Evans apart from those of different appetite. After graduating from San Jose State in 1969, he returned to teach physical education and help coach track. As some of the younger trackmen dallied at workouts, Evans' gentleness deserted him. "If I'd had an Olympic champion willing to help me, I'd have worked my butt off," he said. He quit coaching, explaining, "I was afraid I was going to hit one of those spoiled brats."
Alert to social inequities, Evans sometimes seems to waver between laughter and tears. Eyes twinkling, he says, "There are white guys who could run faster than me, only they're too busy making $100,000 a year on Wall Street." Or he asks, slyly, "Ever notice how track trophies all have gold-plated Caucasians on top?" Soon after he became a professional, a conscience-stricken Evans began telling reporters that he had run for pay all along, having routinely accepted under-the-table payments from promoters. Such practices are widespread but seldom had anybody so freely admitted them. "Man, I couldn't even spell amateur," he said. "I kept putting the 'u' before the 'e.' "
There is a random quality about Evans' outspokenness that makes it all the more disarming. When he took to wearing his hair in "corn rows" a while ago—an intricately braided style fashionable among young blacks—he cheerfully admitted that his mother and girl friend, Barbara McCleod, took turns as his hairdresser. "I know it doesn't sound cool to have your mother do your hair," he says, "but I'm proud of it."
It is a heartfelt grievance of Evans that too much cash and glory in track goes to those he calls "the white glamour boys," meaning, on the ITA circuit, the Jim Ryuns and Bob Seagrens. He recently was expounding indignantly on this theme when a white listener noted that Kip Keino, a black ITA performer, was a glamour boy, too.
Evans readily agreed. Cheerfully, he volunteered that another black trackman, Ralph Boston, had landed a telecaster's job. "I'm real happy for Ralph," he said, ending the conversation.
Evans surely would have retired had not the ITA come along. Instead, he signed a three-year contract and joined, besides Ryun, Seagren and Keino, such other barnstorming pros as the Dallas Cowboys' Bob Hayes and the ITA's surprise superstar, shotputter Brian Old-field, a merry giant who became the unlikeliest sex symbol since Henry Kissinger. When the pro circuit opens its second season Feb. 15 in Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, its ranks will be bolstered by the likes of Ben Jipcho, Rod Milburn and Steve Smith. Prize money will be higher this year than last and ABC-TV will cover at least three meets. In April the ITA journeys to Tokyo's Olympic Stadium, thus moving outdoors and overseas for the first time.
Off the first season's showing, pro track's survival prospects seem somewhat brighter than most observers originally believed. The ITA lost money last year but O'Hara says, "The amount was about what we expected." Although poor advance work sometimes held down attendance, most meets were crisply run, with such crowd-pleasing innovations as pacer lights patterned after greyhound racing's mechanical rabbit. And it came as a sign of public acceptance of sorts when Warren Edmonson reported receiving a $5,000 offer to throw a 60-yard dash in Los Angeles.
But it was the quarter mile—ranging, actually, from 440 yards to 600 meters—that drew the ITA's deepest field. Running variously against 1972 gold medalist Vince Matthews, ex-Villanova star Larry James and Edmonson, Evans found himself in barnburners at nearly every meet, the most scorching being the 440 in the season finale in Madison Square Garden last June. The meet was gratifying to the ITA because it drew a crowd of 15,501 and crucial to Evans, whose victory, his 12th in 16 races, clinched a $6,000 grand prize as the tour's outstanding quarter-miler.
The $6,000 raised Evans' total winnings to $13,900. This was not enough to keep his antique shop afloat—but for once it put him ahead of the glamour boys. "The money wasn't bad considering we ran weekends only for just three months," Evans says. "Besides, it's more than I ever made as an amateur."
Driving along a busy California highway, Evans suddenly exclaimed, "Hey, that's how my father always looked after work." A middle-aged black man in work clothes was walking beside the road, his face powdered white like a surrealistic takeoff on Al Jolson in black-face.
Lee's parents moved to Oregon 18 months ago. Dayton Evans, a semiretired hod carrier, has undergone two operations for eye damage caused by cement dust. As a boy in Fresno, Lee wondered why his father always came home from work tired. After becoming a world-class athlete, he visited him on the job. "His wheelbarrow was full of cement," Evans says. "I couldn't budge it." Employment was seasonal for the elder Evans and it was to flesh out the family's income that his wife Pearlie Mae took their seven children into the cotton fields. The youngsters sang spirituals to take their minds off the back-breaking toil under a withering sun. "I laugh when track guys complain about how hard they work," Evans says. "Pick 250 pounds of cotton in 100° heat, man, that's work."
Friends have advised Evans not to talk about his experience in the cotton fields, arguing that it conjures up images of slavery. "For what we got paid, it was slavery," he replies. Far from keeping quiet, he has told of the time he brought his cotton to be weighed and watched helplessly as the white boss cheated him. The boss lifted his foot under the scale, which lightened the load, and he glowered at the young boy. "I was scared they'd send the whole family away, so I didn't say anything," says Evans. "Eve always been ashamed of that."
The Evans family, parents included, often held footraces in front of their house, which was surrounded by peach orchards. It was, by all accounts, a marvelous spectacle, the nine Evanses kicking up dust as the family pet—half dog, half coyote—scampered alongside. The swiftest was Doug Evans, the eldest child, who was an outstanding football player at Fresno's Central Union High. Lee, the fourth eldest, idolized him, which made it all the sadder when Doug went to prison for passing bad checks.
"I was about 15 and he was maybe 20," Lee remembers. "The prison was in the country and I'd visit him weekends. I'd say, 'Doug, you blew your thing, but I ain't going to blow my thing.' Doug was bruising, man. He could have been an NFL linebacker."
About that time the Evanses moved to San Jose and Lee came to occupy a place of high respect within the family, but whether because he succeeded or suffered is not clear. "Lee's so understanding you want to cry," Rosemary, a younger sister, once said. "He's been through so much, he knows how to help other people with their problems."
Lee at times seems almost like a godfather to his large clan. "Got any autographed pictures of yourself?" Donald, a younger brother, asked one afternoon before Lee moved to San Francisco to become an antique dealer.
"The doctor wants one. Says he won't charge anything for sewing me up." Donald held up his left palm, which was embroidered with the 17 stitches it took to close a wound made by a broken bottle.
Lee rose and walked to a cupboard, returning with a glossy action photo. "Write something good," Donald said. "I might get hurt again."
Later that afternoon, as Lee worked out at San Jose State's Bud Winter Field, Doug Evans pulled up in a Camaro. Doug, who became a sheetrock delivery man instead of an NFL linebacker, was huskier than Lee and wore a bristling goatee flecked with gray. Lee greeted him and Doug peeled a $20 bill from a thick bankroll. He pressed it on his younger brother, who was low at the time.
Doug, not Lee, might have passed for the padrone just then but he declined the role. "Yeah, I'm the oldest," he said after Lee returned to the track, "but we all look up to Lee. He's been to college and visited more places. I think of him as the head of the family." Doug watched his brother run awhile, then drove off.
In the 1968 Olympics Evans won two gold medals, and his 43.8 for 400 meters remains one of four world records he holds today. But his memories of Mexico are mixed. "The hate mail was this thick," he says, holding his hands eight inches apart. "There were letters saying, 'We'll kill you niggers.' One contained fake tickets to Africa. It said there'd be watermelon patches on the boat."
The death threats by white racists came in response to the threatened boycott of the '68 Games by U.S. blacks, a cause that Evans, 21 and fired by black pride, espoused enthusiastically. He was upset by the mail but was pained even more by the actions of his fellow blacks following the subsequent ouster from the Olympics of San Jose State teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In a tableau almost as famous as the flag raising on Iwo Jima, Smith and Carlos, one-three finishers in the 200 meters, brandished clenched, black-gloved fists during The Star-Spangled Banner. After his win in the 400 two days later, Evans mounted the same victory stand in a Black Panther-style beret and black socks. But he wore no black glove and he bowed his head during the national anthem and for these sins he was vilified by many blacks.
In his book The Revolt of the Black Athlete, Harry Edwards, the San Jose State lecturer who had organized the boycott movement, acknowledged Evans' early support but accused him of having tried to "stand up and be counted on both sides at once." Others of his race called Lee an Uncle Tom and in San Jose he went uninvited to rallies honoring Smith and Carlos. Evans at first accepted a community-relations job in San Jose and then, realizing it involved working with the police, turned it down. The damage was done. Carlos publicly referred to Lee as "Mr. Cop." He called Lee's wife Linda "Mrs. Cop" and Keith "Junior Cop." Linda felt her husband had embarrassed her, a strain partly responsible for their subsequent divorce.
"I wish I'd done what Tommie and John did," Evans has agonized. "I should've been more militant." At another moment, though, he has said, "I'm too much of an individual to do what others do. That's why I run track instead of play football." Evans muses that Bob Beamon, Willie Davenport and other U.S. blacks had not worn berets on the victory stand, much less black gloves, "But nobody expected anything of them."
Wounded and confused, Evans lived faster than he ran after the '68 Games, spending much of his time in the streets. To the dismay of his old high school coach, Stan Dowell, under whom he was training, he was moody at workouts, only going through the motions. "Lee was hard to get along with after Mexico," Dowell recalls.
His mother says that as a boy Lee loved flowers and plants and "was always asking questions about God." He also daydreamed, prompting his fifth-grade teacher to complain, "You're here, Lee Evans, but you're not here." Evans still daydreams, only now he calls it "spacin'." He enjoys suspense movies, walking out in protest "if the mystery's too easy to figure out." He believes in ghosts and before a race superstitiously snaps off exactly one dozen jumping jacks. After the '68 Games he turned to astrology. "It helps me understand myself," he explained. "I'm a Pisces, which is why I'm friendly and able to concentrate. It's also why I sometimes feel so low."
Divorced in 1971, Lee roomed for six months with a younger brother, Dayton Jr., who urged him, "Don't be dissipating yourself. You've got Munich to get ready for." Early in 1972 Lee and Tommie Smith rented a small house on a dead-end street a few blocks from the courthouse in which Angela Davis was on trial for murder. One day Lee came home and found Smith acting strangely preoccupied.
"Did Dayton go fishing today?" Evans asked.
It was, he still believes, a psychic occurrence. That afternoon 23-year-old Dayton Evans had been fishing in the hills above San Jose when his line was swept away. He removed his jeans, dived in and disappeared. Following Lee's Olympic ordeal and divorce, his brother's drowning, oddly, gave him a renewed sense of purpose. In his grief he remembered the importance Dayton had attached to the 1972 Olympics and resolved to become the first male sprinter ever to win gold medals at successive Games.
"I carry Dayton's memory in every race," Evans said in his living room in San Jose a month before the '72 Olympic Trials. Tommie Smith was mowing the front lawn and the sound mingled with the strains of Richie Havens' I Can't Make It Any More on the stereo. The song had been a favorite of Dayton's, and Lee had turned it on before sitting down to talk.
"I'm not using Dayton for strength," he went on. "It's just that the Olympics was something he wanted for me." Evans said that he had recently begun attending the Church of Christ again. He had lapsed into agnosticism in college but now he agreed with his mother, who said of Dayton's drowning, "That's the way God meant it to be." In his living room Evans shrugged and said, "So now I believe in God and astrology. There's no conflict, though."
An hour later Evans and Smith were working out at San Jose State. Unlike Carlos or Edwards, Smith had stood by Evans after the '68 Games. He had picked cotton in the San Joaquin Valley as a boy, too, and he called Evans and himself "just a couple of country dudes." After his workout, Smith spoke with a mildness that made it hard to credit the turmoil he and Carlos had caused four years before.
"I did something the Man didn't like in Mexico," Smith said. "Lee caught it from both sides. He ran after I did, so he was on the spot. After Mexico he was in bad shape"—he held a hand at his neck—"from here up. But look at him now." Evans, on the track, was huffing like a locomotive, his face twisted with determination. "He's ready," Smith said.
Nearby, Stan Dowell agreed. "What a stud," he marveled.
In 1972 Evans took his fifth AAU title in seven years and compiled the best won-lost record of leading quarter-milers. Just before the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., he suffered a pinched nerve in his back. Wearing a macramé bracelet containing a gold coin that had been found in Dayton Evans' jeans, Lee placed fourth, which left him out of the open 400. It was his worst quarter-mile finish in seven years.
But the fourth place earned Evans a berth on the 1,600-meter relay team, which was a cinch to win a gold medal. Anticipating the medal ceremony, he put Mexico far behind by allowing that he would stand at attention in Munich, adding pointedly, "If somebody else wants to burn down the victory stand, let them." Then Matthews and Wayne Collett, one-two in the 400, chatted and slouched during the national anthem. They might as well have burned down the victory stand: their suspension forced the U.S. to scratch from the 1,600 relay. In the far greater tragedy that stalked the 1972 Olympics, Evans' fate was overlooked. He didn't miss a heat like Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson, nor did he fall in a heap on the brick-red track like Jim Ryun, but he didn't get to run, either. Kenya won the relay.
Evans later had an astrologer chart his horoscope for the Trials. His Mercury was found to have retrograded into his sun sign—a most unfortunate aspect. And Pearlie Mae Evans said, "That's the way God meant it to be." Lee was right: there was no conflict between astrology and religion.
Heads turned as Old Grad Lee Evans strode across San Jose State's shady campus. His undergraduate uniform had been Bermuda shorts and sneakers but look at him now: white bells, platform shoes, body shirt twice unbuttoned. Crossing a lawn, he said wistfully, "Some of these coeds have just taken exams. They're looking for ways to relax"
Evans stopped in the athletic department, where he and two coaches reminisced like oldtimers around a potbelly stove. Somebody asked about Tommie Smith, now track coach at Ohio's Oberlin College. Evans reported that Tommie had offered a scholarship to a younger brother only to have Eugene Smith, a long-jumper, opt for Cal Berkeley. "Recruiting is tough when you can't even sign your own brother," Evans said and the coaches laughed.
During the ride back to San Francisco, Evans said, "I've gone through some tough things, but to me I'm still the best quarter-miler in the world, so it's cool. But now I've got to worry about the future. That's why I don't want to get tied down yet. I got to check out a lot of things. I like to see what's going on. If I dig it somewhere, I'll settle down."
Besides coaching, teaching phys ed and peddling antiques, Evans also, briefly, counseled students at San Jose's Silver Creek High School, where he came under the fatherly influence of Allen Hopewell, now the school's principal. After Evans left the school Hopewell continued to advise him, urging him to consider a corporate career and to improve himself as a public speaker.
"To succeed you've got to be able to communicate," Hopewell said one day when Evans visited the high school. The older man's advice evidently went beyond careers. As Evans was leaving Hopewell's office, a schoolgirl in a yellow dress sidled up and asked, "Where you living now, Lee?"
"Never mind where he's living," Hopewell scolded. To Evans he said, "Don't be messing with high school girls, Lee." Evans winked at the girl.
Evans eventually ruled out a corporate job, reasoning that his "Pisces nature" made him too restless for a nine-to-five existence. Another career he briefly contemplated was forestry management. More recently he has talked vaguely of moving to Europe or Africa and exporting antiques to the U.S. "Maybe I'll live in Italy," he said in the car. "I don't always want to be counting on how fast I can make my legs move around a track."
Evans may still be the world's best quarter-miler, but who can say for sure? Old nemesis John Smith was on the Dallas Cowboy taxi squad last year. Matthews was recovering from ulcer surgery. And the enigmatic Martin McGrady was AWOL. McGrady, another ex-San Jose star, rarely consented to run against Evans under the open sky, yet so dominated their classic 600-yard indoor rivalry that he was nicknamed Chairman of the Boards. McGrady accepted an ITA bonus last year, then vanished. Contemplating the lost investment, Mike O'Hara says equably, "Martin McGrady is very ghostlike."
Evans grieves that, as a pro, he cannot compete against aspiring quarter-milers like Benny Brown or West Germany's Karl Honz. He cannot really test himself against posterity, either: the narrow indoor surfaces on which the ITA operates cause congestion that makes strategy and the proficient elbow as important as speed.
In his eclectic fashion, Evans has lately taken up yoga, which he claims makes him a better runner than ever. Stepping off the track where he had fared so poorly in the 1972 Kennedy Games, Evans recently said, "They think I was mean last year. This year I'm really going to stomp some guys." It was nearly dusk and lights twinkled in the Berkeley hills. A chesty little man, a professor perhaps, puffed along the track, passing two barefoot, braless coeds whose hoop earrings swayed as they ran.
Out of the pack jogged a grinning fellow who had been a friend of Dayton Evans Jr. "Still running track, Lee?" he asked. Considering that Evans was wearing sweats and perspiring from a five-mile workout, the greeting fell squarely into the realm of small talk. Addressed as it was to the ITA's leading money-winner, it further suggested that pro track, for all its promise, had not yet stamped itself indelibly on the public mind.
The two chatted and the other fellow said, "Say 'hi' to your brother."
Evans nodded. When the stranger was gone, Lee grimaced and whispered, "It's hard to tell a guy your brother's dead."
Walking across the infield Evans was asked about the green-and-orange sweat suit he was wearing. "It belonged to a sprinter from Senegal," he replied. "We traded warmup suits in Munich after the competition was over." He reached the street outside the stadium and paused. He seemed, once again, suspended between laughter and tears. "With all the running I got to do in Munich," he said at last, "I could have given the guy my suit even before those damned Olympics began."