THE LEGEND LIVES ON : Even though Steve Prefontaine died almost 10 years ago, the memory of his life and controversy surrounding his death are as alive as ever
Nowhere is the legacy of Steve Prefontaine more acute than in the Pacific Northwest, where in the early 1970s he captured the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens as readily as he did headlines and first-place finishes.
In his native Coos Bay, they’ve built a memorial to him and named streets after him. The biggest day of the year for that small coastal town is the Prefontaine Memorial 10-kilometer Run, when every September a thousand runners from across the country labor in the footsteps of the man that many believe was America’s best distance runner ever.
They remember him, too, here in the Emerald Valley, between the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges, where Prefontaine’s brief but brilliant career first flourished at the University of Oregon.
His name is magic, whether in visiting his old dorm room at Douglass Hall--”You mean Pre used to live here ? Awwright!”--or on the jogging trail named after him in the city center.
Jogging along Pre’s Trail, part of which winds its way along a tributary of the Willamette River, one almost expects to find the short, stocky runner with the long hair and mustache barrelling by as you approach the finish.
Such an apparition certainly seems feasible, considering the hold that he still has on this community, a decade after his death. Ten years ago this month, Prefontaine died in a car accident at age 24, yet to the people here his presence has hardly diminished.
The week leading up to the annual Prefontaine Classic track meet June 1 will be Prefontaine Week, with his memorabilia on display. The meet will feature Mary Decker Slaney, Joaquim Cruz, and Czechoslovakian Jarmila Kratochvilova.
All that might seem excessive for someone who never won an Olympic medal or set a world record, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the hold that Prefontaine has on this city and state.
The early temptation is to compare him with James Dean, the patron saint of all those who have died before their time, but Pre’s People--the aggregate of his family, friends, supporters, and townsfolk--resent the label because to some it can carry a negative connotation.
There are , however, some eerie comparisons between the two. Both came from small towns and gave new meaning to the phrase meteoric rise; both died at 24; both died on the 30th of the month (Dean on Sept. 30, 1955; Prefontaine on May 30, 1975); both died in accidents in their sports cars; and both died with their best work clearly ahead of them.
“He was a great and colorful champion, popular with friends, track fans, and everyone who has admired his intense dedication to excellence. Time, for all its claimed healing effects, has not done much to ease the loss of Steve Prefontaine. He remains sorely missed.”
--Inscription on a plaque introducing the Prefontaine memorabilia collection in Coos Bay.
Coos Bay, 116 miles south and west of Eugene, is a city of 14,000 with the ambiance of a small town in the midwest.
And, like most small towns, whether by cause or effect, the fortunes of the local high school athletic teams are tied to the town’s economic fortunes.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when, as the locals claim, more lumber products passed through the port of Coos Bay than any other in the world, Marshfield High was state champion in football three years running, and in ’59 and ’60 the basketball team, led by Mel Counts, finished second in the state.
Coos Bay is the kind of place where athletics is behind only cleanliness, godliness, and the Douglas fir tree in esteem.
It’s the kind of place where at the Egyptian theater--Coos Bay’s last picture show--Marshfield High team pictures are given a place of honor in the lobby.
It’s the kind of place where the Egyptian’s former owner, known as The Kernel (as in popcorn), had license plates that read GO PRE and keeps a tape of the radio broadcast of that thrilling 75-71 overtime win against The Dalles in the state basketball semifinal in 1952.
It’s the kind of place where the son of a carpenter and his German war bride might emerge to become the best distance runner the country had ever seen.
It’s the kind of place where it was appropriate for the pallbearers to wear track sweats and the hearse to take one last victory lap around the Marshfield High track when its favorite son came home for the last time.
It’s the kind of place that remembers Steve Prefontaine.
There is the Prefontaine Memorial, a simple but compelling cement sculpture designed by architect Stuart Woods, a contemporary of Prefontaine. It’s located next to the Chamber of Commerce, and a copy is being built in Coos Bay’s sister city of Chochi, Japan.
“It’s different, but then he was different,” said Walt McClure, Prefontaine’s high school coach.
It has fallen to McClure, now an insurance salesman, Prefontaine’s father, Raymond, and the other members of the Prefontaine Memorial Committee to try to raise $13,500 to establish a Prefontaine Gallery in the Coos Art Museum. The proposed gallery would house all of the Prefontaine memorabilia currently making the rounds of local banks and insurance offices.
The undertaking is no small task. The economy is supposed to be improving but you can’t tell it by Coos Bay. Its unemployment rate hovers around 18% and demand for the city’s principal industries, lumber and coal, is off.
So the drive is as much a struggle for the town as for the memory of Prefontaine. He brought widespread attention to the town by setting a then-national record of 8:41.5 in the two-mile run at Marshfield High, now Pre’s People are trying to give the attention back.
To understand Coos Bay’s dedication to Prefontaine, one need look no further than the Prefontaine Memorial Committee’s reasons for commissioning the town sculpture:
“By honoring Steve Prefontaine in this manner, the citizens of Coos Bay honor themselves. If it is true that young people reflect the environment which surrounds them, each of us can take some personal satisfaction in Steve’s accomplishments and the quality of his life.”
Ron Sherriffs, Steve Prefontaine’s academic advisor at the University of Oregon, tells the story about the time that author Erich Segal went for a run with Prefontaine in the early 1970s. “Segal was just coming off of the wealth of ‘Love Story,”’ Sherriffs recalled, “and when he asked Pre about his diet and training regimen, Pre told me Segal was surprised to find that he could afford to eat meat only twice a week.” The love affair between Oregon’s second-largest city and Steve Prefontaine began at a dual meet between Oregon and UCLA in 1970, when the knowledgeable Hayward Field crowd took note of the precocious freshman who won both the mile and two-mile runs, even though the home team lost.
Later that spring, Prefontaine was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, touted as America’s distance running prodigy at the age of 19. That summer, he gained further attention by winning a 1,500-meter race at Moscow.
Under Oregon track coaches Bill Bowerman and Bill Dellinger, the 5-foot 9-inch, 145-pounder quickly established himself as America’s premier distance runner.
Despite such immediate success, Prefontaine apparently took his acclaim in stride, living a Bohemian-student life style in a trailer near the Willamette River through most of his collegiate career. He was also once a bartender in what little spare time he had.
Before his death, Prefontaine set American track records 14 different times, broke the four-minute mile nine times, ran 25 two-mile races under 8:40 and 10 five-kilometer races faster than 13:30.
He also finished fourth in the 5,000-meter run at the 1972 Olympics. Only 21, Prefontaine challenged eventual winner Lasse Viren of Finland right to the end when fatigue overtook him as much as the other runners.
What apparently set Prefontaine apart from his peers was his character as much as it was physical talent. “Man imposes his own limitations, but limitation was not in Steve’s frame of reference,” Walt McClure said in his eulogy. “He was continually extending the boundaries of his frontier.”
Said 1973 Boston Marathon winner Jon Anderson, whose father Les was mayor of Eugene during the Prefontaine years: “Oregonians have a certain nature, I guess, and people here saw a lot of Oregon in Pre. Many people really lived their glory through him and I think that’s what made his death difficult for some to accept.”
Columnist Bud Withers, writing in the Eugene Register-Guard, reflected on that same idea in 1984: “Pre may have died, but we did not easily let go. I think a lot of us saw in him some qualities we wished for ourselves.
“We liked his sass and his independence and his willingness to speak out against the AAU or the smog in L.A. or the Russians.”
Despite a reputation for being track’s angry young man, however, Prefontaine seemingly never lost his sharp sense of humor.
Once, he even took a victory lap in one of the “Stop Pre” T-shirts that someone had brought to the track to make light of the “Go Pre” chant that the Eugene crowds had quickly made a tradition. Another time, he ran a race with his track jersey inside-out so that OREGON read NOGERO.
Prefontaine figured that by the time he graduated from Oregon in 1974, he had run more than 20,000 miles, averaging at least 4,500 miles a year from 1969-1974. He knew that his high standards could be met only by himself, if at all.
Noted Mary Slaney: “I first met Prefontaine in 1973 while touring on a European senior team. He took a great interest in my career after that and warned me about over-racing or over-training. He laid the groundwork for the success of a lot of people in our sport.”
Prefontaine apparently was among the first distance runners to give a loud and profane voice, as another eulogy claimed, to the problems of amateur athletes. This was before big shoe company contracts and lucrative road races started to change the definition of amateurism.
It was Prefontaine who arranged a track meet between Finnish and U.S. athletes on May 29, 1975, in Eugene. In his last race, Prefontaine beat his good friend, Frank Shorter, in the two-mile run, although he fell a few seconds short of his own American record in that event.
After attending a local party, Prefontaine, one of the early favorites for the 5,000-meter run in the 1976 Olympics, dropped Frank Shorter off at the house of Kenny Moore, the Sports Illustrated writer and former Olympic runner, in a fashionable part of Eugene.
Said Prefontaine’s girlfriend, Nancy Alleman, now Nancy Stanwood of Palo Alto, who was with him at that party: “I thought he was fine. He seemed capable of driving. He was not slurring his words. I wouldn’t have described him as drunk. He was happy because he ran a good race.”
Said Frank Shorter: “He was in the same condition I was in. We’d had three or four beers and he seemed fine. I trusted him to drive.”
It wasn’t out of character for Prefontaine to have been drinking that night. Once, when he failed to break his record for the two-mile at the Sunkist Invitational, Prefontaine said: “I’m not in shape. If only I could keep my weight down.”
A friend said: “Stop drinking beer.”
Prefontaine replied, “I’d just as soon stop breathing.”
After talking with Shorter for a few minutes about mutual track concerns, Prefontaine left Moore’s house a little after midnight early Friday morning, May 30, but he never made it home.
“The sad thing about it is that he was only 24 when he died. He had at least six good competitive years ahead of him at that point. Even then, people who didn’t like track used to come out to watch Pre run, just like people who don’t like tennis will go see John McEnroe play. He had the charisma to be able to take track to a new level of popularity. Now we’ll never know.”
--Tom Jordan, senior editor at Track & Field News and author of “Pre!”, a 1977 biography.
Lieutenant Richard Loveall, 43, is a day watch commander for the Eugene Police Department. Ten years ago, Loveall was a patrol seargeant who was the first police officer on the scene of Prefontaine’s car accident.
The career that began with such promise a mile away at Hayward Field ended on a sharp curve in the foothills of east Eugene, on Skyline Drive, exactly 156 feet from where that drive intersects with Birch. It was there that Prefontaine’s gold 1973 MGB hit a rock wall and he was killed.
“There’s no doubt in my mind or the department’s mind about what happened that night,” Loveall says today. “He was a drunk driver.”
Around Eugene, however, the police department appears to be singular in that conviction and all that it implies. It is bitterly ironic that Prefontaine’s death has been at least as controversial as his celebrated life.
Many in the community--Pre’s People in particular--believe that Prefontaine was instead run off the road either accidentally or intentionally and did not die through his own negligence.
It’s still a sensitive issue in Eugene because the police department resents the belief that it didn’t handle the case professionally.
Pre’s People in turn resent that the department released Prefontaine’s blood-alcohol level, found to be .16. At that time, in Oregon a level of .10 was considered driving while intoxicated and .15 was a criminal offense. Also in 1975, making such information public was not customary.
The National Alcoholism Council in Santa Ana said that a 150-pound man would have to have at least five to six drinks to register a .16 blood alchol level. Loveall said that what remains with him most about that accident was the pungent smell of alcohol, although no containers of any kind were found in the car or at the accident scene.
Loveall added that the department even went as far as to summon a fire department ladder truck so that the crime lab photographer could take aerial photos of the accident scene.
The pictures--something the immediate family has not seen--show Prefontaine splayed on the pavement, with the car pinning him at the chest. Prefontaine’s MGB hit the wall at an undetermined speed and upon impact--he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt--Prefontaine was thrown to the pavement with the car following on top of him.
The Lane County coroner’s report said that Prefontaine had died of traumatic asphyxiation, a form of suffocation, and could’ve lived no longer than a minute under those conditions.
The speed limit on Skyline Dr. is 25 m.p.h. and driving that blind curve at that speed requires the driver’s utmost attention. The curve at 30 m.p.h. requires two hands on the wheel to negotiate and in only third gear at 35 m.p.h., it becomes a most treacherous road to handle.
Still, that road was hardly an unfamiliar one to Prefontaine, who had run and driven the route hundreds of times during his years in Eugene, according to Pre’s People.
Retracing Prefontaine’s route in a five-speed subcompact hardly solves the mystery. If anything it only adds to the frustration because, yes, if that part of the road at night is unforgiving even to a sober, attentive driver, what would it be like for one with .16 blood alcohol?
But yes, too, if something or someone were in one’s lane going around that curve, the tendency would be to swerve to the left--across the center line and into a rock wall, if you couldn’t recover in time.
Even if one accepts the official version that he simply lost control of his car and crashed into the wall, there are some nagging points that persist:
--In the Eugene Register-Guard’s account of the accident, skid marks 40 feet from the crash site are cited, yet the police report specifically states that no skid marks were found. It’s an important point to Pre’s People because skid marks suggest that Prefontaine was braking to avoid something or someone.
--There was also official supposition that Prefontaine had lost control of his car going around that curve while changing an audio tape. John Denver’s “Back Home Again” was supposedly found on the pavement at the scene. Yet, Prefontaine’s sister Linda said that she found Steve’s “Back Home Again” tape while driving his van a month later.
--The driver of the so-called mystery car in the case was determined by police to have happened upon the scene after the accident--and was given a polygraph test which he passed--but Pre’s People steadfastly believe otherwise.
They are not specific about that driver because without proper evidence, they’d just be opening themselves up to a lawsuit.
Although many questions remain unanswered, the public record in Eugene Police Dept. Case No. 75-9498 stands as follows:
“The victim was alone, driving his vehicle eastbound on Skyline Drive and crossed the centerline to the left side of the roadway. The vehicle went over the curb and hit a solid rock embankment and flipped over onto its top in the roadway. The victim was pinned partially under the overturned vehicle. The victim was dead at the scene.”
About three months after Prefontaine’s death, Kenny Moore was driving Bruce Jenner and another athlete to Hayward Field for a U.S.-USSR-Poland track meet. “You know, it’s strange being in Eugene knowing that Pre is gone,” Jenner said. Incredulous, Moore asked, “My God, do you know where we are?” after the car had sped around a sharp curve on Skyline Drive as it wound its way toward Birch. Jenner, who had been Prefontaine’s roommate at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, would go on to set a world record in the decathlon over the next two days.
Eugene is now a bustling regional commercial and cultural center of 104,000 people, but it’s still the kind of place where Mom and Pop can take an evening stroll without looking over their shoulders.
Most folks in Eugene are friendly to a fault, especially to strangers. That changes, however, when one says that he is in town to exorcise the ghost of Steve Prefontaine.
Then they react in a predictable two-stage pattern.
First is a wariness that another carpetbagger is doing a story on their guy. The second thought is then, well, if you’re going to do a story on him, do it right, and they proceed to come up with their favorite anecdote about the time he started a sports club at a local prison or addressed the state legislature.
Which is why if you’re visiting Eugene to do a story on Prefontaine, you’re will get anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night inquiring as to the progress of your work.
Or to remind you not to forget to get hold of the tow-truck driver that night, a guy who’ll swear that Prefontaine’s car was in only second gear, and that he wasn’t speeding after all.
All of this is because Pre’s People believe--and rightly so--that it will be up to Kenny Moore to write the definitive “Pre, We-Hardly-Knew-Ye” piece because he is in the best position, having been a confidante of Prefontaine’s, a Eugene resident, and a fellow runner.
At the same time, it would be misleading to attribute Prefontaine’s ongoing cult of fame simply to his being the proverbial hometown-boy-making-good at the time of his death.
Critics of Prefontaine harp on the fact that he never won an Olympic medal or set a world record, but that is entirely the point.
That is, there are gold medal-winning athletes today whom most people wouldn’t care to walk across the street to meet, yet here was a guy who got standing ovations just for warming up.
As Tom Jordan, author of a biography entitled “Pre!” and a senior editor at Track and Field News said: “I’ve seen four Olympics. I’ve seen track meets all across the country and in Europe, but I’ve never seen anything like when Pre ran in Eugene.”
Prefontaine did all of this, remember, in the backdrop of a city where it is commonly held that babies are weaned on stopwatches.
“When Steve ran there was tailgating on the lawn,” Ron Sherriffs, Prefontaine’s academic adviser recalled. “All of the cars with Coos Bay license plate frames--everything from pickup trucks to Mercedes--were parked outside. He was as much theirs as ours, you know. The whole atmosphere was like an old fashioned county fair.”
Prefontaine’s genius--and if that seems too strong of a word, consider that when the rest of us die, they will not close schools and businesses, write up to a dozen poems, one song, rename streets, or build memorials in honor of our lives--lay in his ability to move the masses through sheer physical exultation.
Very few athletes have that intangible ability. But, from most accounts, Prefontaine was such an athlete, one who could stir what one poet later described as that thrilling madness in Eugene. Prefontaine was the conductor at Hayward Field--with its large wooden grandstands, it is easily the Carnegie Hall of collegiate track--leading the crowd in the symphony, “Go Pre.”
In a 1974 interview with The Times, Prefontaine explained just who and what he was.
“My philosophy is that I’m an artist,” Prefontaine said. “I perform an art not with a paint brush or a camera. I perform with bodily movement. Instead of exhibiting my art in a museum or a book or on canvas, I exhibit my art in front of the multitudes.
“You go to a museum to look at something, say a Rembrandt. And when people go to a track meet they’re looking for something, a world record, something that hasn’t been done before. You get all this magnetic energy, people focusing on one thing at the same time.
“I really get excited about it. It makes me want to compete even more. It makes it all worthwhile, all the hours of hard work.”
The ultimate tragedy of Steve Prefontaine’s life was that, as American distance running’s first budding superstar, he didn’t live long enough to reap the benefits of his prodigious efforts--something that Pre’s People believe would’ve eventually led to gold medals, world records, and beyond.
The ultimate triumph of Steve Prefontaine’s death was that he was that rare individual immortalized more for what he might have done in the future than for what he had actually accomplished in the past.
“If he’s having a good day and running the right race nobody can beat Frank Shorter at 10,000 meters. . . . nobody except me.” --Steve Prefontaine On Prefontaine’s gravestone, located on a gentle slope outside of Coos Bay, are inscribed these words: “Our beloved son & brother who raced through life now rests in peace.”
While that may be a comfort to his survivors, it is also somewhat misleading.
The body might have died in that car wreck on Skyline Drive, but the spirit of Steve Prefontaine runs on.
And, like the man, it most assuredly is restless.
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