Ben Brown was the new guy on the block on Yorba Linda Boulevard. He had just moved into an apartment across from the Cal State Fullerton campus, and while he was walking his dog, he noticed the school's track nearby. It was little more than a grubby quarter-mile circle of dirt, but it was a track, and for Brown at that point, that was just fine.
"I started working out there every day," he said. "It wasn't too long before I saw these college kids watching me run. I could see them talking quietly among themselves, and finally one of them came up to me and asked me if I'd like to be on their track team."
Brown couldn't hold back the laugh.
"I don't think so," Brown said. "I don't have any eligibility left." Never mind that about a half-dozen years before, he had won the NCAA 440-yard championship in 1975 for UCLA. Never mind that in 1976, he had stood on the victory stand at the Montreal Olympics along with the other three members of the U.S. 1,600-meter relay team with a gold medal around his neck. And never mind that he had threatened the world record in the quarter-mile.
He wouldn't mention any of that. That's not Brown's style. He is a man of the moment. He enjoys life, and at age 40, he has found his own lane in it.
He still is a regular at Fullerton's track, even though he now lives in Ontario with his wife and 4-year-old son. Where more than 10 years ago there was an old dirt track, there is now a sleek all-weather surface. Now, Brown doesn't just run there; he's an assistant track coach.
Cal State Fullerton and Coach John Elders couldn't ask for a better deal. It's the school's good fortune that Brown's daytime job is at nearby Hughes Aircraft. After a full workday there as a computer specialist, Brown is only a short drive from working with the Titan sprinters, hurdlers and jumpers.
He likes the blend.
At Hughes, he is a trouble-shooter for computer problems that develop at any of the company's area operations. "For me, the two jobs sort of go hand in hand," he said. "I'm a people person. I enjoy helping people. I feel I'm doing that in both jobs. Both my regular work and the school have been flexible about my situation and that's nice."
Obviously, he isn't coaching at Fullerton for the money. He's paid $2,500 per year.
"I cross my fingers every year that he'll be back with us," Elders said. "He's been a tremendous asset to us in the six years I've been head coach. We're very fortunate to have him."
Brown says he doesn't think about workload compared to dollars earned, although he smiles and says that his wife, Besela, gets on his case now and then about the time he spends coaching.
"I just tell her I want to do what I need to do for the program to be successful," Brown said. "The money's not the important thing. . . . I'm coaching because I want to. I'm the one who offered to help. I enjoy it and feel good about it. Coaching gives me a chance to transfer my experiences in track to the kids I coach. I know I can help them become better athletes. But the thing that I always tell them is that they have to believe in themselves."
They do, thanks to Brown. When he arrives for a practice, they quickly huddle around him, as they would a rock star.
"We know how fortunate we are to have him as our coach," said Jeri Young, who runs the 800 meters for the women's team. "If he sees something you're doing well, he lets you know you're the real stuff. In practice the other day, I had to do 20 100-meter sprints, and I was really dragging. . . . Ben jumped in and ran the last 11 of them with me. He does that kind of thing, just to push us. He knows we can use all the encouragement we can get."
Encouragement from Brown takes on special meaning.
"He always has confidence in you," said Zaylore Stout, who competes in the hurdles, the high jump and the triple jump. "He's got us all believing in ourselves. He told me that I had my foot in the door to eventually becoming a world-class athlete if I keep working at it. That was like having Edwin Moses come up to me and say I'm a really good hurdler."
Although Fullerton doesn't have a nationally prominent track program, Brown says he enjoys the improvement the team has made this season. "They're on the lower scale of it all right now, but things definitely are getting better," he said. "When we won our first meet this year, I could really tell a difference in the kids after that. They've been rooting for each other a lot more since then."
If Brown has regrets about his running career, one is that the money wasn't there for him the way it was for those in high-profile sports, such as football, basketball and baseball, after his college eligibility ended.
"The opportunity to make money in track was very limited," he said. "And what money that was being paid in international track at that time was being paid to the distance runners. They were the ones benefiting. There were a few sprinters getting a couple of hundred dollars in appearance money, but not many of them.
"Today is different. There's some big money to be made in track around the world now if you're one of the best. A few are getting thousands of dollars just to go to a meet. In the late 1970s, I was one of the best in the world at what I did at the time, and I couldn't make any money out of it. I had no choice but to go into the real world and try to make a living for myself."
Looking back, he feels he wasn't ready for that.
"UCLA didn't really prepare me," he said. "No one talked to the athletes then about what they should be doing academically the way they do in colleges now. In those days, UCLA was La-La Land . . . a Disneyland for athletes. There were always things being done for you. You were treated really well . . . spoiled almost. But once your eligibility was gone, it was different."
He left UCLA without completing his degree, and his first job was as a staff assistant at a downtown Los Angeles gym.
"The company that owned the gym was real big on computer fitness, and I kept getting more and more involved in computer-related things," he said. "I learned a lot about computers and kept advancing in that area. One of our clients was Hughes Aircraft, and so I moved there from the fitness company."
In 1982, he completed work toward his degree in physical education at Cal State Los Angeles after going back to school part-time for 2 1/2 years.
Brown has continued to train and run in masters events. He won the 800 in the 35-39 age group at the masters nationals in 1992 with a time of 1:56. He also has become involved in corporate track competition. "In those meets, we run mostly relays," Brown said. But nothing, of course, has come close to those days at UCLA when he had personal best times of 44.7 in the 400 meters and 45.0 in the 440 yards. "I regret that I never was able to break a world record," he said. "I thought I would have a good shot at it my senior year in the NCAA championships, but it just didn't happen." He also ran on NCAA champion mile-relay teams in 1972, 1973 and 1974.
Even today, Brown is not one to bask in past glory. "Some people I know don't have any idea that I have a gold medal," he said. "And I don't go around telling people about it. I want people to have their feelings about me as a person now, not for what I did as an athlete."
And the gold medal is stored at his mother's home in Modesto.
"It's hers," he said with a laugh. "I just borrow it now and then . . ."