WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: JEFF NELSON : Distance Dandy Walked When It Hurt to Run : Untimely Injuries Ended Promising Career That Produced U. S. Record and 2 State Titles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His former coach calls him the greatest distance-running talent in the United States, yet he has not raced seriously in eight years.

A former teammate called him the heir-apparent to Olympian Steve Prefontaine.

Yet to Jeff Nelson, such talk is a little unsettling.

Sure, Nelson set the national high school record of 8 minutes 36.3 seconds in the two-mile as a Burbank High senior in 1979. And yes, he stills holds the three-mile course record (14:32 in 1978) on the vaunted Mt. San Antonio College cross-country layout. But that's history.

While he grudgingly admits that he had some success in high school, Nelson does not dwell on it.

"Back then, those times never really seemed that impressive," he said. "I never really thought my marks were that good. But here it is, 11 years later, and they're still standing. . . . It does make you feel pretty good."

Dave Kemp, 51, Nelson's high-school coach, trained a slew of elite runners during his 16 years at Burbank. But he said none were comparable to Nelson.

"The guy was from another planet," Kemp said. "He was a one-in-a-million kid. The first time I saw Jeff run, I couldn't believe someone could come out of the woodwork with that kind of talent.

"There was something about him that was so unique. I remember telling (Burbank Athletic Director) Frank Callum, 'This kid is going to be unbelievable.' Jeff just had that kind of natural talent."

So why didn't he become the next Prefontaine? Part of the answer lies with Nelson, who still lives in Burbank, less than a mile from his parents, and who has spent the past seven years working as a pressman at Librascope, a defense contractor in Glendale.

Unlike some elite runners, Nelson was never obsessed with his exploits. Nor did he derive a lot of ego gratification from his achievements.

Instead, Nelson was a big rock 'n' roll fan. He once ran in the high school 1,500 meters in the Muhammad Ali Invitational wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt with the patented Sticky Fingers lolling-tongue logo.

Nelson ran for the fun of running, pure and simple.

But after a series of injuries during his first three collegiate seasons--the first at Oregon, the next two at Glendale College--he gave up serious competition in 1982. And he was able to walk away without looking back.

"I think what I did was right at the time," said Nelson, who won the two-mile run in the 1978 and 1979 state high-school championships. "I don't regret my decision. (1982) was the third season in a row that I'd been injured and running just wasn't worth it to me any more."

Cal Linam, a teammate of Nelson's at Burbank who recently was named as cross-country coach at the school, said that running had never been "life and death" for Nelson, despite all his success.

"I honestly think it was just something fun for Jeff to do," Linam said. "He and Lin Whatcott were buddies in junior high and Lin's brothers had run at Burbank, so when they got to high school, running just seemed like the natural thing to do."

Nelson said that Burbank's rich distance-running tradition influenced his decision to compete there, although he had never run competitively before.

"In junior high, we had heard about guys like (Mark) Covert, (John) Musich and (Kevin) Burkin," Nelson said. "And we wanted to be a part of that."

Covert went on to win the NCAA Division II cross-country title for Cal State Fullerton in 1970. Musich won the 880-yard run (1:51.0) in the 1974 state meet and Burkin set a then-Burbank record of 9:02.8 in the two-mile in 1976.

Burkin's record would stand for only two years, however, as Nelson lowered it four times during his career at Burbank.

The fourth occasion took place in the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA in May, 1979. Competing against a field of Olympic-caliber runners, Nelson finished third in 8:36.3.

That mark destroyed Craig Virgin's national outdoor record of 8:40.9 and was also faster than Gerry Lindgren's indoor mark of 8:40.0 set in 1964.

So when Nelson enrolled at Oregon, the comparisons to Prefontaine--a former Oregon runner who broke every U. S. record from 2,000 through 10,000 meters--were inevitable.

Alberto Salazar--who would set U. S. records in the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon--and Rudy Chapa--who set a national record in the 3,000--were seniors at Oregon when Nelson arrived, and he was expected to follow in their footsteps.

But Nelson soon discovered the camaraderie that had existed among his teammates at Burbank was nowhere to be found at Oregon.

"Every workout was a race," said Nelson, who at 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds is 13 pounds heavier than he was as a senior at Burbank. "Every run was incredibly intense and, being a freshman, I wasn't used to it. I felt like I was being thrown to the lions. . . . Your teammates weren't really teammates. Everyone was out for blood, all the time."

Despite his uneasiness with the Oregon way of doing things, Nelson was the No. 5-man on a cross-country team that finished second in the NCAA championships.

After visiting Burbank during the Christmas break, Nelson returned to Eugene in 1980 with a renewed spirit. But things did not improve.

Nelson had a major altercation with Salazar because he--a freshman--had the audacity to outkick the senior at the end of a workout.

"That just wasn't done up there," Kemp chuckled. "The freshmen were supposed to be cannon fodder for the stars up there, and that went against everything Jeff knew. He felt that you always gave your best."

After running 8:41 for two miles in an indoor meet in Portland, Nelson began to experience pain in his right ankle in the early part of the outdoor season. The Oregon coaching staff told him not to worry about it.

"You weren't expected to get injured up there, and if you did, you were expected to run through it," Nelson said. "Their attitude was, 'If it hurts, just take more aspirin.' "

Eventually, Nelson had to stop running for several weeks. Although the injury developed into a stress fracture, Oregon Coach Bill Dellinger still expected him to run in the Pacific 10 championships in May.

"That was kind of the final straw," Nelson said. "I told them that I was in no condition to race--I was barely starting to run again--but their attitude was, 'Look, you're on a full ride here, and we're going to get our money's worth out of you. . . .'

"I decided right then that I didn't need that kind of pressure. Running wasn't fun up there."

Nelson transfered to Glendale College in the fall and led the Vaqueros to the state junior college cross-country title with a dominating victory at Griffith Park.

He started the 1981 track season in fine form--running a 4:04 anchor mile as Glendale set a national JC record in the distance medley relay--but sciatic nerve problems sidelined him for the rest of the season.

Having used up his junior college cross-country eligibility, Nelson trained for the 1982 track season after recovering from the injury. But when tendinitis in his left Achilles' tendon forced him to stop running again, he'd had enough.

"I still wonder how far he would have gone if not for a couple of untimely injuries," said Whatcott, who ran in the 1984 Olympic Trials marathon and has a personal best of 2:14:09. "The guy was just a superior runner. He just seems to have this mechanism that turns on and you wonder if the guy is feeling any pain."

Kemp echoed Whatcott's sentiments.

"It's too bad his career ended the way it did," he said. "Jeff is unlimited in what he's able to do in distance running. The only limitation is himself. . . . If he wanted to, if he really put his mind to it, I still think he could be the single greatest distance runner we have in America."

But before attributing Kemp's comments to an overzealous coach glorifying one of his past athletes, consider the source.

Kemp was the one who predicted, in 1977, that Nelson would break Virgin's national record for two miles. Kemp was the one who told Nelson he would run 8:35 in the Pepsi meet in 1979, and Kemp was the one who ran 100 miles a week with Nelson during the summer before his senior year.

"(Jeff) believed fully in me and I believed completely in him," Kemp said. "And when that happens between a talented athlete and a coach, good things are bound to happen."

After running 9:28 in the two-mile to win the Southern Section 3-A Division sophomore title, Nelson won the 1978 state title in 8:59.28, upsetting Rod Berry of Larkspur High in Redwood City.

"That was a real breakthrough race for me," Nelson said. "I still consider that the real highlight of my career. That was the first time I had broken nine minutes and it was my first state title. Plus, Berry had said some pretty cocky things in the paper about how he was going to run away with it."

Nelson outkicked him in a thrilling stretch battle.

Nelson's victory was doubly impressive because, due to a stress fracture, he had not run a track race until the Foothill League finals.

The forced layoff didn't seem to bother him, however. He ran 9:18 in the 3-A prelims, 9:13 to win the 3-A finals, and 9:06 to tie for first in the Masters meet a week before the state championships.

"There was never any doubt in my mind that he could win state," Kemp said. "Without the stress fracture, he might have broken the national record as a junior."

After running 100 miles a week--including a high of 142--during the summer, Nelson entered the cross-country season in phenomenal shape. In the Mt. SAC Invitational, he ran 14:32 to smash the course record of 14:56.

A month later, he capped his fall season with a victory in the 3-A championship meet.

Nelson's domination continued into the spring. He lowered his personal best to 8:55.1 to win the high school two-mile at the Sunkist meet in January, then ran 8:42.7 to finish seventh in the open race of the Jack in the Box Invitational in San Diego.

In between, Nelson finished fourth in the U. S. trials for the World Junior cross-country championships.

In March, he placed fourth--and was the top American--in the World Junior meet in Limerick, Ireland.

On the track, he made sub nine-minute two-miles a common occurence, running 8:55.0 in the Burbank Invitational, 8:36.3 in the Pepsi, 8:51.3 in the 3-A finals, 8:49.1 in the Masters meet and 8:47.35 in the state meet in Sacramento.

To understand the significance of those clockings, consider that 10 years later, in 1988, Ernie Shepard of South Carolina was the only prep runner in the nation to better nine minutes--and he did it just once.

But it was Nelson's victory in the state meet that left an indelible mark in Kemp's mind.

"That was one of the greatest things I ever saw," Kemp said. "The place was packed and on the entire last lap of the two-mile, the crowd gave Jeff a standing ovation."

There is no doubt that superb natural talent contributed to Nelson's success, but supreme confidence and a relaxed racing attitude were equally important.

"(Jeff) was that rare person that never looked at anything and worried about the consequences," Linam, the cross-country coach, said. "I mean, I don't think the guy ever felt pressure."

A case in point was the 1978 Mt. SAC Invitational in cross-country.

As the teams milled about the starting line before the race, Nelson realized that he had to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to use the restroom, so Nelson was contemplating using a nearby ditch--shielded from view by some Burbank supporters--when the starter called the field to its marks.

"It didn't even faze him," Linam chuckled. "He just got up to the line and said, 'Oh, well, I can wait.'

"Then he went out there and just blew everyone away."

Nelson has experienced a lot since his glory days. For one thing, he married--then divorced. He has a 5-year-old daughter who will start kindergarten next month.

But he still gets the itch to start training seriously again.

"I was in pretty good shape in December of '88," Nelson said. "But then I broke some bones in my foot in a freak accident trying to kick-start my motorcycle. . . . Everything was just cut so short (after high school).

"At the time I think I did the right thing, but I've still been tempted in the past to come back and get in really good shape for an indoor two-mile. That's still very tempting."

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