Wearing a ski cap, T-shirt and sweats, Justin Fargas of Notre Dame High walked onto the Cerritos College track on a dreary, overcast day knowing it might be the last 100-meter race of his life.
He wanted to win so badly Saturday that he had been ignoring a hamstring injury for five weeks to keep running. With his head shaved and tattoos on both shoulders, Fargas lined up gingerly in the starting blocks. Spectators paid close attention. This was a final glimpse at the defending state sprint champion before he heads for Michigan to play football.
What a historic moment it could have been. But deep inside, Fargas already knew his pursuit of a second consecutive state title was in trouble.
"Today wasn't my day," he said. "Truthfully, I didn't feel it in warmups. I didn't feel I had that bounce in my legs."
The gun went off, and Fargas fell behind Miguel Fletcher of Alemany and Darrell Rideaux of Long Beach Poly. His legs kept churning, but he couldn't catch up. Rideaux, a junior, won in 10.43 seconds. Fletcher, Fargas' relentless rival for two years, took second in 10.50. Fargas finished third in 10.58.
"It's tough," Fargas said. "I tried my best. I'm proud I made it this far with the injury I had."
Afterward, Fargas embraced Fletcher. Then he went to shake hands with Rideaux, who was lying on the track in pain from a hamstring injury.
"I give a lot of credit to Rideaux," Fargas said. "And Fletcher ran good. I'm happy for him."
It was the 15th time Fletcher and Fargas faced each other in the 100. Fletcher finished ahead eight times, Fargas seven. Their rivalry helped reinvigorate track in the Valley.
"I told him it's been fun all the races we've gone head to head," Fargas said.
To see the class Fargas displayed in defeat only reinforces my belief that this is no ordinary 18-year-old.
Earlier this week, I watched one of the greatest athletes in Valley history, John Elway, return to Granada Hills High to have a stadium named after him. He was eloquent, gracious, humble and inspiring. At 37, he has accomplished so much on and off the field.
Fargas comes out of the same mode as Elway. He has enjoyed an extraordinary four years of high school athletic success. He came to Notre Dame from Rhode Island as a soccer player, tried football and became an All-American tailback. He went out for baseball, was exposed to track and became a champion.
If an X-ray were taken of Fargas' heart, it would reveal a machine that pumps blood so vigorously nothing can slow it down short of three linebackers blocking Fargas' way. And then he'd still lower his head and go for broke.
"I think the thing that sets Justin apart is his passion for competition," Michigan football Coach Lloyd Carr told me earlier this week. "I think that's what has enabled him to become what he is. It's one of the reasons I'm so excited he's coming to Michigan. Justin is making a statement he's not afraid of competition."
Fargas could have dropped out a month ago when he injured his hamstring. Most athletes with such a bright football future wouldn't have risked further injury for the sake of a track victory.
"I just didn't want to give up," Fargas said. "I just didn't want an injury to beat me."
Kevin Rooney, Notre Dame's athletic director, still wonders how Fargas ran in the Mission League finals last month.
"It really is amazing," Rooney said. "I was so surprised he showed up the day of the league finals when it was decided by everybody but him he wasn't going to run. He's just so competitive."
People who saw Fargas' photo in the newspaper and commented about the bulging upper-body muscles he developed always ask me, "How does he do it?"
"It doesn't just happen," Fargas said. "You feel you don't even want to move again after a track workout. Then you go work out another two hours."
I said goodbye to Fargas, for he'll be off to Michigan in a couple of weeks to start learning the Wolverines' playbook, then return briefly to play in the Shrine All-Star Classic on July 25 at Cerritos College.
"It's the end of one chapter and the beginning of another," Notre Dame track Coach Joe McNab said.
The next time I see Fargas, it will be on ABC or ESPN scoring touchdowns for Michigan. He'll have lots of people back here in the Valley rooting him on, because he really is more than just a special athlete. He's a good guy.
Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.