When William Reed was just a 15-year-old phenom, he often got so dizzy after running the quarter mile that he would nearly collapse at the finish. Nobody could figure out what was happening to him until his father looked closely at a videotape.
"It doesn't look like you're breathing," said William Sr.
"I'm not," said William Jr.
The high school freshman had been running the quarter in an astonishing 47 seconds without taking a breath. If he had been going a little slower he probably would have passed out. Nobody had ever told him to come up for air.
February 2, 1987
Reed's father and coaches thought he was too tense, concentrating too much. To give him something else to think about during the 47 seconds, they put a Premium saltine between his thumb and forefinger and made him run intervals without breaking the cracker. They worked him through bags of increasingly fragile junk food: from Fritos corn chips to Ruffles ridged potato chips to Herr's flat-backed ones. "The Ruffles gave me the most trouble," Reed says. "Once the grooves got soggy with sweat, the chips just broke."
He's 16 now, a junior at Central High in Philadelphia, and breathes like Pavarotti warming up for La Bohème. He has taken several breaths on the way to a whole array of schoolboy races from 60 yards to 800 meters. He's a teenage track sensation, and when he makes his big-time debut, in the 600 yards at the Millrose Games this week, onlookers will be holding their breath.
"Reed's so good some kids won't even show up to run against him," says Fred Rosenfeld, coach of Overbrook High, which had its string of 14 Philadelphia Public League outdoor titles snapped last year by Reed-led Central. "He's the best track athlete I've ever seen."
Extravagant praise is being heaped on Reed even by the more chary members of the track establishment. He has been touted by some coaches as the quarter-miler most likely to eclipse the mythic 43.86 run by Lee Evans at the 1968 Olympics, one of the two oldest world records in track and field.
"William is the best short-sprinter in the country," raves Auburn coach Mel Rosen, who will coach the U.S. men's team this summer at the World Track and Field Championships in Rome. "I've never seen anyone so young with such impressive credentials. When he's a senior, he'll be the nation's No. 1 prospect. I would have signed him last year if he wasn't a sophomore."
"I would have signed William out of eighth grade," says John Smith, UCLA's quarter-mile coach. "Even then his accomplishments were fantastic."
"He has the makings to be the best quarter-miler we've ever seen," says Villanova track coach Charlie Jenkins, the 1956 Olympic 400-meter gold medalist. "He has strength, speed and a great competitive spirit. At this point his development is comparable to that of Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses or Jesse Owens."
Lest these assessments seem premature, consider that Reed has set national records in every age group he has competed in since he was seven. At 15 he posted the best-ever schoolboy times in the 300 yards (30.15) and 400 meters (46.84), and the second-fastest 500 meters (1:03.03). Barely 16, he ran the 100 meters in 10 flat to tie Houston McTear's national hand-timed high school mark, set in 1975. At the World Junior Championships in Athens last July, Reed anchored the 4 x 400-meter relay team in 44.52, the fastest high school split ever. His 33.19 in the 300 meters is the fifth-best American indoor time ever and eighth on the alltime world list.
A 6-foot, 175-pounder with thick thighs and thin ankles, Reed may be Central's most otherworldly alumnus since Larry Fine (Class of '19) of the Three Stooges buzzed Venus in Have Rocket, Will Travel. Academically rigorous, Central is the second-oldest public high school in the country. "It's been around for 150 years," says Arnie Shiffrin, Central's indoor track coach, who graduated in 1956, "and I've been here for about 100 of them."
In addition to teaching social studies and doubling as Central's outdoor track assistant, Shiffrin tutors Reed in history, geography and English. "We spent so many weeks on Ivanhoe, I know the book by heart," Shiffrin says. "I'm the world's resident expert on feudalism." A fancier of California wines, Shiffrin spends his summers bumming around the vineyards in the Napa Valley and waxing cars in Manhattan Beach. He calls his one-man operation Arnie's Waxworks. His motto: We Wax Eloquent. "That's Arnie," says Jim Weinrott, a Philadelphia wine distributor. "What would you expect from a guy who invites 20 people over to bob for shot-put shots in a barrel of Riesling?"
Shiffrin tends to see life through a rosè-colored glass. But he takes his metaphor from French viticulture to describe his protègè. Shiffrin compares Reed to a Latour, one of the most majestic Bordeaux. "William is big, robust and powerful," Shiffrin says, swishing the thought around in his mind. "Yet he also has a great complexity. He gets even better with age. A good Latour can keep 50 years, though I don't expect William to last that long. Now, if you're talking Burgundys...."
Reed has fermented into a calm, courteous, rather handsome young man who speaks with an air of mild tentativeness and calls his competitors "gentlemen." "William's a cool guy, a shy guy, an in-with-the-crowd guy," says teammate Kenya Pittman. "He doesn't let fame go to his head."
Reed first raced as a four-year-old at a family reunion. He beat the field, which prompted distant cousins to ask Pop, "What are they feeding that kid?"
"Well, you know," Dad replied mischievously, "I hear his father could really run."
William Sr., a field inspector for the Philadelphia water department, is a wide, cheerful man. As a senior at Germantown (Pa.) High he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.9. His sweetheart and future wife, Anita Deas, was the fastest girl on Pomona Street. The union produced two other offspring: 13-year-old Terence, an aspiring half-miler, and Ivy, 5, who, Dad thinks, "may have more natural talent than William."
Anita used to send her oldest boy out to Page's Corner Store for a loaf of bread. He would return so quickly that she thought he was riding his bike. William Jr. wanted to join a track team, but William Sr. was skeptical. "You can't beat those runners," he said. "They train every day."
"They go to school with me," William Jr. protested. "I know I can beat them."
To teach his son a lesson, William Sr. took the seven-year-old to the track. Young William was so tall that the coach stuck him in with nine-year-olds at practice. When the tyke won, he stepped up to the 11-year-old class. The coach didn't know William's age until his father produced a birth certificate for the opening meet. Moved to the seven-and-under division, William ran the 100 meters in 12.3 to set a national age-group record. Two years later he became the first nine-year-old to run 400 meters in less than a minute.
The punishing quarter is sometimes called the longest dash. "It's the toughest race in track and field, period," says William Sr., who coaches at the Morris Estates Track Club. "In the sprints you don't have time to think and to adjust. In the 400 you have to do both."
"It will take you down," says UCLA's Smith, who was a quarter-miler on the 1972 Olympic team. "You need the speed of a sprinter, the endurance of a distance runner and the grace of a dancer. You must always have a work ethic and keep it fun. You don't grow up like a normal kid. How can you?"
William Sr. steered his son to Central for its academic programs, but the school has no practice facilities for its indoor track team. The Lancers do intervals on a makeshift course laid out in the third-floor hallways. To run the quarter, Reed starts at a trash can set between Ms. Wilcher's biology lab and Dr. Lipton's chemistry classroom. "We borrow Ms. Wilcher's trash bucket every day," says Vince Williams, one of Reed's relay partners. "She's got just one rule: No spitting in the can." Reed hangs a sharp left at Mr. Diviny's science office, ricochets off a row of lockers down a straightaway and into the cafeteria. There he makes a left, a left and another left through the lunch line (HALF-HOAGIE 85 CENTS). He then reverses the route back to Ms. Wilcher's trash can.
Reed threads the halls like a Marine on a Quantico obstacle course. Over the years he has smashed into open doors, sailed over lunchroom tables arid blind-sided cleaning ladies. The real danger, though, is slipping on the orange peels and Tastykake wrappers left on the scuffed stone floor of the cafeteria. "Especially," says Reed, "after a sixth-period food fight."
So far Reed's biggest obstacle has been the pressures of his talent. He worries about getting good enough grades to stay at Central. He frets about colleges—he's leaning toward a warm-weather school like UCLA or SMU. He gets anxious about his Olympic prospects; some think he has an outside shot at next year's Games. He has become an instant celebrity. "Every time William steps out on the track," says Steve Korsin, his outdoor coach, "people not only expect him to win, but to set a record."
"We tell him all the press and all the excitement could disappear tomorrow," says Anita Reed. "We let him know that even if it goes no farther than this, we're still proud of him."
In fact, recent history is full of burned-out teenage quarter-mile stars. "So many great young sprinters have peaked too early," says Rosenfeld. "This kid has tremendous ability, and it's the coaches' job not to mess things up. The worst thing that could happen is if he is overraced and overexposed."
The prognosis for Reed looks good. His coaches put him in a variety of races, and he likes team events. "I'd rather run a relay than by myself," he says. "I like to see my teammates do well. It's more fun." That kind of attitude may take the heat off individual expectation.
"I'm really no different than anyone else," says William Reed Jr. "It's just that I move at a faster pace."