Clinton Davis: the Loneliness of One Short-Distance Runner

The Pittsburgh Press

Clinton Davis takes that last stride across the finish line. It is Madison Square Garden, the 1983 Millrose Games, and a 17-year-old high school senior has just upset the world's greatest quarter-milers in the most spectacular debut by a prep sprinter since Houston McTear.

A big, boyish grin breaks out just under his wisp of a mustache as the finish tape goes slack around his waist.

Today that tape would stretch a little tighter.

Davis is 20 pounds overweight, out of college and out of shape. His favorite pastime is sitting at home in front of the television, watching one football game after another.

He is 19, but his promising track career may be over. It may have ended in tears at the U.S. Olympic trials last June. There is no shortage of explanations why.

Some say he was pushed too fast and burned out. Others blame it on greed. Davis took all the money he could from shoe companies and meet promoters and spent it on an expensive foreign car. But most of the criticism concerns his decision to remain near Pittsburgh and train independently with Coach Elbert Kennedy of the New Image Track Club.

Emotions run deep.

"Clinton should get the hell out of here because they don't know what they have," said Steve Dunmire, his former track coach at Steel Valley High School. "He should go to school, get a national coach, somebody who has trained super guys.

"He ran faster times as a 10th grader than last year. He's got to snap out of it soon. If the kid would really bear down and start serious training, in 1988 he would be the premier--not the second or third, but the best--quarter-miler in the world."

Davis has not budged. He appears resigned to sit out the indoor season, if not abandon track completely. He hasn't run a race since the trials or gone near a practice track with the idea of doing much more than jogging.

The result is 20 extra pounds, most of it around his waistline. His once-lean 6-foot frame carries 185 pounds. He spends his time hanging wallpaper and hanging out.

He does the wallpapering with his father to earn some money. He does the hanging out to indulge his passion for playground football and to feed his daydreams of earning a college football scholarship.

"Everyone is teasing him about getting fat," said Kennedy, who started coaching Davis when he was 14. "He just didn't take proper care of himself."

Davis' decision two years ago to forgo a college track scholarship and enroll on his own at Pitt likewise has gone astray. He dropped his classes last October and is not sure he will return for the winter term.

Confident and cocky was the sprinter. Confused and confounded is Davis now.

"I really don't know what my move is going to be," he said. "I've had some family problems and some problems of my own. In the past, people told me to do things; I didn't really think for myself. Now I have to do what my mind tells me to do. I have to be an independent person. I don't want any advice from anybody. I have to do it my way."

Lionell Dudley, another of Davis' former coaches at Steel Valley, said Davis listened to the wrong advice. He said he urged Davis to accept a scholarship to UCLA and train under its respected coach, Jim Bush, now retired.

"He should have gone to UCLA," Dudley said. "That was where it was all happening in '84. The Coliseum, the Olympics, it was all there. If you ask me 100 times, 100 times my decision would have been for him to attend UCLA. Instead he was 17 years old and running against professionals in Madison Square Garden.

"It's just a shame. It's hard for me to believe that Clinton Davis is out of condition and not attending class. Clinton got burned out on the circuit before the Olympics. He was running professional when he should have been running college. I hope he can rebound if he has fallen. And if he has fallen, he was pushed."

Davis and those closest to him are sensitive to criticism that he ran too hard, too soon and instead should have eased into world-class competition.

"A lot of people said we pushed him. But we didn't," Kennedy said. "We just let him go. You can't hold him back if he does something well naturally. How can you hold him back without hurting him?"

It happened so fast. One day Davis was a 17-year-old senior at Steel Valley, pulling away from teammates in practice, the next he was taking on the world in Madison Square Garden. His Millrose Games victory was the first by a schoolboy since McTear had won the 60-yard dash in 1976.

Remember what happened to McTear? He dropped out of college, then dropped out of sight. When last heard from, he was living in Southern California, working as a delivery man for a catering firm and talking about a comeback.

Davis had no intention of following McTear into obscurity. He talked of chasing world records, of taking out the pace and paying the price. Four weeks later, he was back in New York.

This was an even more impressive performance. Davis held off 1981 World Cup champion Cliff Wiley in the first dead-heat finish in the 95-year history of the national indoor championships. It was his first U.S. title. His time of 47.64 seconds was a national scholastic record. The kid was for real.

Everything began to fall into place: 1983 high school track and field athlete of the year, invitations to the big meets and a European tour.

By December of 1983, he was on his way to a special U.S. Olympic development camp in Orlando, Fla., the youngest of an elite group selected by Olympic sprint coach Mel Rosen. Among the participants were eventual 400-meter gold medalist Alonzo Babers, and U.S. team members Walter McCoy and Willie Smith, seasoned veterans of international competition.

Davis was just the talented teen-ager. A few months removed from Steel Valley, all he lacked was experience. He had everything else.

"We invited the people we thought had a real chance of making the Olympic team, and we considered Davis among them," Rosen said. "He had all the ingredients--speed, stamina, smoothness, and something no one can teach, a feel for the race."

But Davis never made it to the Olympics. He got as far as the trials. There, on the same Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum track that would hold the Games six weeks later, his season ended.

His troublesome left hamstring couldn't take the strain. Neither could Davis. He crumbled in tears.

For months, he sensed that something was wrong. Once carefree workouts became drudgery. He was eating poorly and sleeping late. Afterward he learned he was suffering from a strength-sapping virus. Long before that, he had lost his desire.

"The feeling was just not there," Davis said recently. "Running just wasn't there for some reason. I worked hard. And when the meets came I tried to run my best, but it wasn't in my heart."

He has not raced since.

During that heady winter of 1983, such an ending seemed improbable. Davis was at the threshold of what was to be an enlightened era of track and field. With the Summer Games a little more than a year away, equipment companies were pouring money into the sport. Everyone was looking for the next Carl Lewis to wear its shoes and sweats, even before most Americans had heard of the first Carl Lewis.

Where once a track athlete had to search just to find a college scholarship, Davis had his pick of schools and his pick of shoes. UCLA, Georgia, Pitt and Rosen at Auburn all wanted him. Nike, Puma and adidas wanted him too. It was like playing "Let's Make a Deal" with a shiny new car behind every door.

But Davis turned down the college offers to work with Kennedy, who also coaches the Pitt women's team. Because Davis qualified for financial aid based on need, he said he would have the best of both worlds. He would get a free education and train without being tied to the responsibilities of a college team.

His relationship with the shoe companies is less clear. Bush has charged that Davis accepted under-the-table payments. Kennedy said it is his club, not Davis, that has the agreement to wear adidas products in return for financial support.

Larry DeFreitas, adidas' national director for track and field, also denies that his company has an agreement with Davis. But Davis and Kennedy said that if such an agreement existed, they could not acknowledge it without jeopardizing Davis' future NCAA eligibility.

"I wasn't running for the money; I was running for the sport. The first reason I stayed at home is that my parents wanted me to stay at home," said Davis, who was adopted by Jerlene and McGuire Taylor when he was an infant. "I wanted to make a commitment to the (New Image) club. They enhanced my ability. They found me. They trained me. Coach Kennedy and I get along real well. He wanted me to stay with the club and keep my talents in the area."

Other world-class runners, such as world-record hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah at Maryland and Lewis at Houston, gave up their collegiate eligibility to run independently and earn a living under international track and field's liberalized rules. But first they spent at least two years in a college program.

"I've never seen a kid make a national or Olympic team without the benefit of a college program," said Steve Simmons, a member of the U.S. Olympic staff who has coached Wiley and other world-class quarter-milers. "That's never. Not one."

As early as last winter, there were signs something was wrong. Davis won his second national indoor title, but his time slipped to 48.10 seconds. Rosen became concerned after watching Davis struggle to fifth place in a 300-yard dash in another indoor meet.

"He wasn't as competitive as I'd seen him in the past," Rosen said. "I talked to him. He didn't know which way to go (in the Olympic trials)--the 200 or the 400 (meters)."

Rosen and many other coaches agree that the 400 is Davis' natural event. But when Rosen ran into Davis four months later at an indoor meet, Davis was in the 200. He finished sixth in 21.25. The year before he had run 20.29. Rosen quickly wrote off Davis' chances of making the Olympic team.

"This guy was avoiding the quarter mile," Rosen said. "He wasn't sharp. After that, I knew he wasn't going to be a factor."

Davis was finding the adjustment to living away from home difficult, even though it was only across the river at Pitt. He was staying up late, sleeping in, eating a lot at fast-food places and going out late with friends. In other words, doing the things most freshmen do at college, none of which is conducive to world-class sprinting.

He was rooming with Roger Kingdom, the eventual Olympic gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles and his frequent training partner with the New Image club. Kingdom said he let Davis have his fun; he had gone through the same phase.

"When you first leave home, you try new things," said Kingdom, a senior at Pitt. "He was a little undisciplined. And those things start to wear on you."

It showed at practice. Davis was lethargic. He could not complete the workouts. He would vomit. Sometimes he would skip practice altogether. And, for the first time, Kingdom was beating him in the sprints. Soon Kennedy abandoned hope of training Davis for the 400.

"The (virus) hit him early and then the training just didn't come along," Kennedy said. "The 200 is less stress, so we put him there. But two weeks before the trials, he couldn't even do the workouts."

Several weeks before Davis arrived in Los Angeles, he was resigned to defeat. He began talking about playing football and how football--not track--was his first love.

"It was always my dream to play football," said Davis, who returned kicks and was a reserve receiver at Steel Valley. "I think I should maybe go professional."

Reality isn't that simple.

In Los Angeles, Davis hardly left the dorms. He rarely ventured the few blocks to the Coliseum to watch the competition. Knowing what could have been and sensing what was about to happen, sitting in the stands would have been too painful.

"He spent a lot of time sleeping," Kennedy said. "He didn't want to watch if he couldn't compete well. He played the machines (video games) more than anyone there. But he couldn't fool me."

Davis' time on the track was brief: trials and quarterfinals of the 200. His Olympic dream was over by noon.

The second-guessing was inevitable. Even adidas, whose money some say tempted Davis in the first place, joined the cry.

"He was not as successful as we thought he would be," DeFreitas said. "We would have felt much better if he was in week-in-and-week-out competition. I have to agree a little with Jimmy (Bush at UCLA) that a college program would have been best."

Kingdom is defensive about whispers that Kennedy took advantage of Davis and his earning potential; that Kennedy used Davis to promote himself and land the adidas deal for the club and that when Davis faltered and Kingdom came into his own, Kennedy abandoned Davis.

"There are a lot of rumors that now that I'm doing well Ken (Kennedy's nickname) is forgetting about Clinton," Kingdom said. "Well, Ken stayed with Clinton ever since he was a little kid. A lot of people say Ken kept him from going away to UCLA. But who knows what would have happened if he got out there and this happened? He would have been lost."

Kingdom and Kennedy say Davis needs the stability of living near home. They say Davis has retained his NCAA eligibility, and if joining a college team is what is needed, the option remains open. Their concern is that Davis makes his own decision.

"Clinton is going to have to do it for himself," Kingdom said. "If not and he does not do well, he'll blame us. And that's not what we want to happen. We want Clinton to take responsibility for his actions."

Davis ran into trouble when he found competing consistently at a world-class level far removed from coasting through the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Assn. championships. Life was more than a quick dash.

"Clinton is used to having things fairly easy, and I don't mean just running," Kennedy said. "He's had some family problems, and he's the find of kid I found cannot handle all of that at one time. Clinton is a follower, not a leader. The true test is if Clinton can get his head together, come back and maybe take the risk of getting beat by some good people.

"Clinton is very special to me, and it's not because he ran fast. He's like a son. I want him to come to practice, but I'm not going to beg. I'm not going to call. He knows I'm here every day. He's going through a transition, finding what he's about as a person."

Davis' friends say his misfortune was that the Olympics occurred at the same time he was trying to cope with being on his own. Until he learns that lesson, they say, athletics is secondary.

"Like any person, not just an athlete, Clinton is going through a crisis transition from that teen-age status to young adult," Kingdom said. "You face a lot of problems, personality problems. You think everything is going to be handed to you. Then something sets you off on a tangent. Everyone has to back off and let Clinton work things out himself."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°