Franklin Jacobs, the high jumper, was speaking about height, his own. "Tallness is not measured in inches," he said, "but is determined by your state of mind." Now, Jacobs stands but 5'8", which fact, if you were anyplace but the Millrose Games last Friday night, would lead you to believe that his reasoning had come up as short as his body. But at Madison Square Garden, and after his ninth trip to the men's room, the Fairleigh Dickinson sophomore suddenly believed himself eight feet tall, carried that self-enlargement 14 flying steps across the runway and, much like a man falling up stairs, flew and flopped over the bar at 7'7¼" for an indoor world record. "Which," he said upon landing, "wasn't as hard as it looked. Once I got high enough all I had to worry about was falling over the bar backward."
For his grand ungainly leap—one that carried him 23¾" above his own head—Jacobs was named the outstanding performer in a meet that was outstanding. Two other world records were set: one by Renaldo Nehemiah, 18, in the 60-yard hurdles (7.07); the other by Houston McTear, 20, in the 60-yard dash (6.11). Then there was a heroic performance by Dick Buerkle, the 30-year-old ex-long-distance runner from Buffalo, who turned back challenges by Filbert Bayi and Wilson Waigwa to win the Wanamaker Mile in 3:58.4. And a grueling double by Jan Merrill, who won with driving stretch runs in the women's half-mile and 1,500.
After his record jump Jacobs was asked if he would like to try an even greater height, which was his right. He declined, explaining to the officials that he didn't feel nervous enough. Unless his stomach is in knots he doesn't think he can compete very well. Besides, he wasn't sure he wanted to make another trip to the men's room.
Instead, he found a metal chair under the stands. There he rested. It had been a long day, most of it spent moving into a dorm on the Fairleigh Dickinson campus 10 miles distant in Rutherford, N.J. Then, en route to the Garden, the car he was in became entangled in heavy traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel. Time crawled. That's when Jacobs' nerves let go.
February 6, 1978
"Suddenly I felt very afraid," he said. "I thought, 'Franklin, here's another moment under heavy pressure. What are you going to do? Quit? Or are you going to have a good night, Franklin?' I'm not crazy, but I do talk to myself."
After the high jumpers warmed up, the officials announced the opening height: 6'11". It didn't do anything for Jacobs' nerves. "I'm a little guy; 6'11" is like starting at seven feet." Dwight Stones, the Olympic bronze medalist and former outdoor and indoor world-record holder, declined to start at such a lowly height. Feeling for the moment only 5'8", Jacobs made his first try at the bar—and nearly sailed under it.
His one-sided conversation went, "Franklin, what kind of a jump was that? It was awful. All the superstars are here. They're all looking at you. Franklin, are you going to beat the superstars?"
Deciding he was, Jacobs settled down. As the bar went up, the field diminished, losing along the way Jacek Wszola of Poland, the Olympic gold medalist. When the bar reached 7'3", Jacobs made his second poor jump of the night. On his way to the bathroom he passed Bill Monaghan, his coach at Fairleigh Dickinson. Monaghan told him to move his push-off point back six inches.
On his next jump the 150-pound Jacobs cleared the height easily. Greg Joy, the Olympic silver medalist from Canada, made it, too, but then failed at 7'6". Three weeks ago, at College Park, Md., Joy had jumped 7'7" to break. Stones' indoor record. Now Joy was gone, leaving only Stones and Jacobs.
"I knew I'd blow Joy's mind," said Stones, watching as the Canadian thudded into the foam padding for the last time that night. "I knew if I was here he'd come unraveled. If I had been in Maryland he'd never have broken my record. No way."
Again the bar moved up, and up, finally to be placed at 7'7¼". Both men missed twice. Monaghan beckoned Jacobs to his side. "Your last two jumps were beautiful," the coach said, "but you have to move back another two feet. And plant that foot hard. Real hard."
Deep in concentration, Jacobs was the first to take his final try. He stared at the floor. "I never look at the bar," he said later. "I know I'll get over it. I just don't want to look up at it. All my life I've been looking up at things."
Neither did he look to his left at Stones, who was watching Jacobs intently, if perhaps incredulously.
"He'll make it," Stones was thinking. "His last two jumps were too close for him to miss a third time. Oh, Lord, his form is terrible, and if he makes a world record he'll set high jumping back 20 years."
Jacobs began his run. He calls his style the Jacobs Slop, as opposed to the Fosbury Flop. His vertical leap is remarkable, and once he reaches his highest point he seems to rip off his arms and legs and hurl them across the bar. He says he explodes across the bar; he's right—it's like watching a grenade go off. This time as he exploded he was above the bar. When he came down, in pieces, the record was his.
Stones' last try was esthetic but unsuccessful—a poem begun by Byron but finished by a bricklayer. The bar clanked down. "I was better off with Joy holding the record," he said. "Now I'm not even the American record holder."
From his seat under the stands, Jacobs was describing his record leap. "I planted my foot faster, and when you plant faster you go higher. But it's no surprise: I planned it and I'd seen it before I ever got here. I enjoyed it before I got here. It's like I was thinking as I flew over the bar: 'Franklin, you did it just like you told me you would.' "
Nearby, Dick Buerkle stopped and stared at Jacobs. Shaking his head, the miler said, "What do you think of this guy? He jumped two feet over his head. Two feet! He's got to be crazy."
Crazy. That's the word some used when Buerkle, after a career of running 5,000s and 10,000s and then a year of self-imposed exile from competition, announced not long ago that he was coming back—as a 30-year-old miler. He quit racing after the Montreal Olympics, where he had finished ninth in a 5,000-meter heat. From there he went home to Buffalo to sell contact lenses.
"But I started training again," he said. "I've always wondered how fast I could run the mile. There was only one way to find out."
Making his first indoor start in early January at Long Beach, Calif., Buerkle finished third in the 1,500 in 3:40. Right then he knew he was fast enough to break Tony Waldrop's 4-year-old world indoor mile record of 3:55. His next race was at College Park, Md. He called his father in Buffalo and told him he'd break the record. His father thought he was kidding. Then he called his wife Jean and asked her to come to Maryland for the race. "I thought about it, but then I decided to save the money to wallpaper the house," Jean said.
That night in Maryland, the Villanova graduate won in 3:54.9 and fulfilled his prediction of setting a world record. Jean said he owed his success to his pre-race diet: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookies. "He thinks peanut butter is the perfect food," she said.
Buerkle had planned on skipping the Millrose to run in this weekend's Olympic Invitational at the Garden. The record changed his mind. And so, last Friday he stepped to the line against the likes of Bayi, the world-record holder in the 1,500, and Waigwa, the NCAA indoor mile champion. Before the gun the Tanzanian and the Kenyan eyed each other. Buerkle thought, "Let them ignore me now, but I've got the record. Let's see who chases whom."
Bayi, his training set back by a weeklong bout with malaria, broke on top and set a comfortable pace for the first lap. Buerkle stayed close, while Waigwa, who has a magnificent kick, drifted back to last. Then for two laps they were content to be led by Paul Cummings, the Wanamaker winner in 1976, who was running despite a touch of the flu.
At last Buerkle thought "enough." They were moving too slowly. Taking the lead in midrace, Buerkle quickened the pace in an effort to remove the sting from Waigwa's kick. With Bayi on his shoulder, Buerkle began to pull away from the rest of the field. Then, with four laps to go, a worried Waigwa began to close. For him the move was too soon.
With less than a quarter-mile to go, Bayi took off. Suddenly he was at Buerkle's shoulder, was held there for a moment by a jutting right elbow and then the tiring Tanzanian was obliged to drop back to second. Sprinting now, Buerkle never looked back. "I was afraid they had made me kick too soon," he said later, "but I wasn't about to stop." Buerkle crossed the finish line smiling, his arms raised high; Bayi was two yards back in 3:59; and another two yards back was Waigwa in 3:59.4.
"You can't train on quinine," said Bayi, with a smile. All he had been able to eat the day of the race was an omelet and two pieces of toast with grape jelly. "Right now Buerkle is the best indoor miler in the world. The best. But we will have to wait until the outdoor races to see how good he really is."
Indoors or out, Jan Merrill and Francie Larrieu are easily the class of the women milers. Merrill had been pushed harder than expected by Darlene Beck-ford while winning the half-mile in 2:10.1, and she said she was running the Millrose 1,500 against Olympic veteran Larrieu strictly for fun. In fact, Merrill ran with deadly seriousness. She had spent last summer in West Germany building her strength, and she would use this race as a yardstick to measure her progress. And, too, she remembered last year's loss to Larrieu in the same event.
Merrill ran in front of Larrieu throughout most of the race but fell back as Larrieu kicked with a lap and a half to go. On the final back stretch, Merrill sprinted and just caught Larrieu at the wire to win in 4:19.7.
Obviously pleased, Merrill said, in a rare postrace interview, "I was running the 1,500 to enjoy myself. I wanted to see what I could do. Indoor meets are just a way of preparing for summer races; they are a lot of fun."
His campaign for the dignity of little men closed for the night, Franklin Jacobs collected his high jump trophy and, with his coach and a friend, stepped out into the cold New York City night. It was after midnight. The three decided to eat before driving back to New Jersey, and with Jacobs lugging the three-foot trophy, they went into a nearby restaurant. The kitchen was closed.
"We can still serve you booze," said the bartender.
"No thank you," said Jacobs.
"Say, do you want to trade that trophy for a case of Schlitz?" the bartender asked.
Jacobs left, clutching the trophy. The next restaurant they tried, across from the Garden, was full of track fans. As Jacobs walked in, the people there gave him a standing ovation. For nearly an hour he signed autographs. "I guess my life is not going to be the same anymore," he said.
The eight-foot college kid who looks only 5'8" had a glass of orange juice while the others had beer and hot dogs. Then they climbed into their car and headed home. As they passed through the Lincoln Tunnel, Jacobs kept saying, "My dream is fulfilled. Imagine, me a world-record holder."
But by the time they reached Rutherford, Jacobs was working on a new dream, this one the outdoor world record of 7'7¾" held by Vladimir Yashchenko of the Soviet Union. As he stepped from the car, Jacobs said, "I guess I won't really be satisfied until I have it all."
Which makes sense. What's another half-inch to a giant?