Houston McTear, once the world’s fastest human, was down and out in Santa Monica, where he lived in a park overlooking the Pacific Ocean. McTear had hit rock bottom because of his addiction to cocaine.
Penniless, McTear slept on the tennis courts at the Pritikin Longevity Center at the beach. He had it better, however, than most of his buddies, who lived in cactus condos at the park--stands of cactus plants littered with empty wine bottles.
“I was one of the homeless for 3 years,” McTear said. “I had my sleeping bag, and I slept on the beach or wherever I could find a place. Actually, I think (the homeless) have got it really easy. There’s a lot of help out there, but most of them don’t take advantage of it.”
His career as a sprinter began to decline after the breakup of the Muhammad Ali Track Club, which had supported him. Harold Smith, who was also known as Ross Fields and was the head of the club, was convicted of embezzling $21 million from Wells Fargo Bank in Beverly Hills and although McTear wasn’t implicated in the scam, he said he turned to drugs as an escape. But his drug habit quickly ate up his life savings.
“Houston would come by the office occasionally with a hard-luck story, asking for money, and we gave him $100 once or twice,” said Al Franken, veteran track promoter. “He’s a nice young man.”
Although he lived a bleak existence, McTear said he never went hungry. He ate at the Clare Foundation, a Santa Monica mission for the homeless.
“Houston went through tough times, but he’s a tough man,” said John Smith, the former Olympic sprinter who used to coach McTear. “Houston’s a very independent man. Until he gets to a point where he can’t solve his problems by himself, he won’t ask for help.”
McTear, as did the bum in the film “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” found a good Samaritan, who rescued him.
Arlene Francis, whose son, Russ, plays tight end for the New England Patriots, took McTear into her home in Southwest Los Angeles 2 months ago.
“She was a gift from God,” McTear said of Francis. “She was there most when I needed a friend.”
Their friendship has blossomed into love.
Francis, who is divorced, said she plans to marry McTear. A grandmother, Francis is 53 and has six children, including four sons older than McTear, 31. McTear has two young children from a previous marriage.
“In some ways, Hou is a lot older than I am,” Francis said. “He’s been through a lot more than I have. I’m sure if I were walking down the street, Houston wouldn’t have looked twice at me.
“When we first met, we didn’t have anything, necessarily, in common. But as we got to know each other we found out what we were all about. We found a common ground.
“When Hou introduces me as his baby to his friends, I tell him he doesn’t have to. This is no one-night stand. It’s a for-real thing. And it came about so gradually. It’s amazing how it happened. It’s weird.”
When Francis met McTear 3 years ago, she was living in a mobile home at the beach because she was saving money to buy a house. She was starting over after a divorce from her husband, Ed, a wealthy pro wrestling promoter and cattle rancher.
“I was sitting with a friend (at the park), talking about my kids, when Houston interrupted and said that he had kids, too,” said Francis, recalling their first meeting. “I thought it was awfully presumptuous of him.”
McTear, however, intrigued her.
“He had the profile of an Egyptian Pharaoh,” Francis said of McTear. “I didn’t know much about him because Hou is an extremely proud man and he never talked about his past or his problems.”
Francis saw in McTear something more than just another bum, but she didn’t know about his extraordinary track career until an autograph seeker discovered him in the park.
“He told me his whole life story and I told him mine,” Francis said. “He’s a super human being. What happened to him should never have happened to him.
“He’s got the heart of a child and the intellect of a giant. People misunderstand his intellect. This man has a mind like a steel trap. Because of his childlike innocence, people don’t expect this intelligence to follow. I think the reason Houston hurt so very badly was because he knows exactly what’s going on and people think he doesn’t.
“He told me the whole insidious story of how he got into cocaine. At first it was 1 day a week, and then it became 2 days a week and then he was doing it every day. That’s all he did.”
Francis’ mobile home became a sanctuary for McTear.
A psychiatric nurse, Francis sized up McTear’s motives and proceeded cautiously.
“I didn’t get to be 53 by being dumb,” she said. “When I moved into my house last year I just let him stay at the park. I’m not going to say to the world, ‘Look, we’re together,’ and have him come and go as he pleases. I guess I’m old-fashioned in a lot of ways.”
The situation changed, though, when her youngest son, Ed, 25, moved in with her earlier this year.
“I never told any of my family about Hou for a long, long time,” Francis said. “When Ed came to live with me, I told him that I wanted to take him down to the park to meet someone.
“They clicked immediately. Ed said, ‘Do you realize who he is? And I said that I did but what am I supposed to do, get down and kiss his feet?’
“Ed asked me why I let him stay out in the cold and I said that I didn’t let him stay out in the cold, that I made sure he had a motel room or blankets or whatever.
“I asked Ed if he would approve of Houston moving in because his approval meant a lot to me. Ed said yes and that was all I needed to hear.”
McTear moved in last September. With his personal life stabilized, he hopes to get his career on track.
“When Houston was down and out and somebody just about broke his spirit, Houston said that the only way he’d ever run again was if somebody was trying to hurt him,” Arlene Francis said. “Now he can’t seem to get enough of (running).”
McTear, who claims that he has been drug-free for the last 2 years, hopes to make a comeback on the indoor circuit next January.
“I had been thinking about (a comeback) for a long, long time,” McTear said. “I had two choices. I could go try out with a pro football team and there’s no doubt in my mind that I could make it. Or I could try to make a comeback in track.”
McTear, whose track career declined after he made the 1976 Olympic team but couldn’t run in the Montreal Games because of a pulled leg muscle, thinks he’ll have no trouble regaining his place in the fast lane. He has tried to comeback before. The last one ended when he entered a drug rehabilitation clinic 2 years ago.
Track officials and promoters, however, are skeptical.
“It’s a long shot at best,” said Franken, who promotes the Sunkist meet at the Sports Arena. “I’d say the odds are against McTear, but I hope he can do it. He’s been away from track for a long, long time and he abused his body with drugs. Look at (hurdler Renaldo) Nehemiah. He was away from track for a long time (playing football for the San Francisco 49ers) and he had a hard time coming back.
“Houston was incredible in his prime. As a high school junior in 1976, he came out to the Sunkist and blew away world-class sprinters. The great part about Houston’s race was the first 60 (meters). Had he not pulled a muscle in the 1976 Olympic trials, he would have been a sure bet for a medal. He was virtually unbeatable.
“Houston had a stunning start. I think he and Ben Johnson are the two greatest starters of all time. Said Smith, a UCLA assistant coach: “With the kind of talent Houston has, I’d say his chances (of making a successful comeback) are 60-40, rather than 50-50, because he’s out there training. He’s serious about this.”
McTear, whose inconsistent training habits led to nagging leg injuries that hampered his career, is working out regularly with Ed Francis, whom he has nicknamed White Lightning. They run at UCLA and Santa Monica College and train on hills near the beach.
Said Ed Francis: “Houston is in just as good a shape now as he was in his prime. He’s running regularly now. You can’t train when your shop is the beach.”
McTear, 5 feet 7 inches, weighed 170 pounds when he was competing, but he’s down to 160. Still, he claims to be in the best shape of his career.
“The first 4 years I competed I never trained,” he said. “I was just going on natural ability. I was just running off leg ability alone. Now I’m lifting weights.”
It’s difficult to gauge McTear’s fitness level, however, because he refuses to be timed. McTear said he has never been clocked during workouts.
“I never go on the track and get timed until it’s time to run,” he said.
The story of Houston McTear’s bizarre career may be coming to a theater near you soon.
McTear says he is working on his autobiography and has had feelers from a movie production company.
He launched his career in 1975 when he set a world best of 9 seconds flat hand-timed in the 100-yard dash as a Florida high schooler.
“Houston was fun to watch,” said Bob Larsen, UCLA’s track coach. “The 9.0 he ran in high school is still a record.”
“I remember when he was at Baker High (in Baker, Fla.) they didn’t have a track so he’d run the 100 on the football field and he had to grab onto the football goal post to make his turn.
“He was immensely gifted. It’s too bad that he wasn’t in the right setting. He got out of it way too soon. He and Ben Johnson may be the fastest starters of all time. I’d pay a lot of money to watch those two guys go at it.”
One of nine children, McTear lived in a shack in the Florida panhandle backwoods. Muhammad Ali bought a $30,000 home for McTear’s family after reading a newspaper story about him.
Ali also helped McTear move to Southern California, put him up in an apartment and gave him an allowance.
Harold Smith, the head of the Muhammad Ali Club, promised to support McTear for life.
“As long as I’m alive and Ali’s alive, I can honestly say that Houston McTear will never have to worry about going hungry again,” Smith told The Times in a 1979 interview.
But Smith wasn’t being honest.
A year later, he was arrested and McTear was abandoned. McTear, who hadn’t finished high school, took menial jobs to support himself. He sold sandwiches in Century City and worked for McDonald’s.
“People took advantage of me,” McTear said. “I was a kid coming out of Florida and I’d never had much. It was a shock when Harold Smith went down. He had a good thing going with the track and boxing club.
“It caused a lot of problems for me financially. I had stashed some money, but it ran out after 3 years and things went downhill for me.”
McTear sent his wife and two children to live with her family in England. He was supposed to join them later, but he stayed here because he didn’t want her to support him.
McTear began drifting and the future was bleak. It appeared that he had wasted a golden opportunity.
Now, McTear, with the support of Francis, is trying to write a happy ending to his story.