One of my favorite events each year is the Nike Prefontaine Classic. For one Friday night and one Saturday early afternoon, many of the top athletes are at Hayward Field, running, jumping and throwing on global television.
That the sports colossus, Nike can gather most of the top athletes wearing the swoosh should not be a surprise. For Nike running, this is one of the three the weekends when Nike shows its employees that running is really in the brand's DNA (I believe I stole that line from Nike CEO, Mark Parker).
When the late Steve Prefontaine ran for Nike, there were only a couple of athletes sponsored by the brand. Steve gave up a $200k payday to run pro track in 1974-75 to race Montreal. He wanted to duel with 1972 Olympic gold medalist Lasse Viren over 5,000 meters, or perhaps 10,000 meters. Tragically, Steve Prefontaine died the year before Montreal. I could not watch the 10,000m final, I went fishing instead, watching it on a video later. After Prefontaine had died, it was hard to watch races where he should have been.
The cover of Sports Illustrated that I posted on top of this piece was the first time I had seen a picture of Steve Prefontaine. I had started running in 1972, and by 1974, was immersed in the sport. I had become a geek. That issue was in the art room at De Smet, where I went to my first two years of high school. Mr. Burns was football coach, field coach and art teacher. He was a fine art teacher, and a good field coach. He tried to teach me how to high jump, pole vault and throw the shot. Needless to say, those events, while I respect them, were not ones where I had any natural talent. ( Sorry, I have digressed. I tend to do that alot.)
Once in awhile, we would see Steve Prefontaine on TV, after a race, and he was a bit brash, quite colorful and a great sense of humor. Newspapers would have a small piece about the big track meets and races.
When Pre died in 1975, I remember how sad I was. I understood, in a teen age way, that death was final. I understood that Pre was taken before his time. I thought that was terribly sad.
It is only in my current years, which number fifty-eight years on this small planet, that I realize how much a person plays in all of our lives. I recall friends that I had lost much too early in their lives, and wonder, how life would have changed if they had lived.
I like to imagine that ghost of Steve Prefontaine, in Oregon hoody, and jeans, with a veggie burrito in one hand and a beverage in a paper bag, sitting up in the stands, watching a track meet. I also think that Steve hides behind the trees on the Glendoveer Golf course, home of the Nike Cross Nationals, and whispers to the runners, "Are you giving it your best?"
When asked to describe Steve Prefontaine, Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic gold and 1976 Olympic silver medalist told writer and 4th place 1972 Olympic marathoner Kenny Moore, to consider a satyr. Mutual friends tell me that Steve Prefontaine was a typical young adult, liking fast cars, some time with friends and a few beers. Where he was not typical is how he affected people. He volunteered in a prison, he spoke to kids, and he loved his fans in Oregon.
In 1995, Frank Shorter spoke to the fans at Hayward Field about what Steve Prefontaine meant to him. Shorter told us that Pre's death changed him.
Last year, at the Rio Olympics, I remember watching Evan Jager and Ezekial Kemboi, after the final. Jager and Kemboi were smiling and enjoying each other's company, as great athletes who have shared an Olympic final should. It reminded me of a picture of Prefontaine with a fellow athlete after an NCAA 3 mile. I remember telling myself, in the stands of Engenhao, that I had witnessed a 'Pre moment'. Thanks Evan and Ezekiel.
So, this year, once again, I will go to the top of the stands, in media row, and observe one of my favorite meets. If I squint a bit, I will see our friend, the late James Dunaway, hard at work on his antiquated computer, writing a piece on the meet. And if I look up in the corner of the stands, real hard, I will see a guy, in a green hoody, with a droopy mustache, all gray now, smiling, eating his burritto, and quaffing his beverage, cheering on a competitor who needs encouragement.
"Are you giving it your very best?"