Credits: YouTube video from AdarqTV; photo from Mark Anders.
It was the second weekend in March of 1999 and the nation’s best prep track and field athletes had to make a choice. The NSAF (then the “NSSF”) was launching its first Nike Indoor Classic in Columbus, Ohio, while the National Scholastic championship meet was taking place in Boston. NSAF founders Jim Spier and the late Michael Byrnes had much at stake. For several weeks during the winter, the two meets had been vying to register the nation’s elite prep athletes and teams in all events.
Casey Combest, a 129-pound zephyr from Kentucky was one of the sensational stories of the indoor season – making headlines and with his eyes on a second national title in the 60m dash. Coached by his Owensboro HS mentor Bob O’Brien as well as his own father, Combest had captured the 60 at the 1998 NSIC in Boston. Which meet would he enter now?
“I chose Columbus because of Mike Byrnes,” says Combest now, from his home in Owensboro. “He really did a lot to help me out my junior and senior years.”
Combest had run 6.74 for 60m the previous winter. In ’99 to date, he had a resume of fine performances, including marks of 9.71 and 10.55 for rarely contested 100 yard and 100 meter indoor events, plus a near-record 6.19 55m just the week before.
That 6.19 had followed a less-than-hoped-for performance at USA Indoors earlier and Combest came into Columbus very confident: “After running against the pros, I knew I was going to win there.” He wanted to beat Deworski Odom’s 6.62 HSR from 1995, but even more, he wanted to surpass the legacy of the legendary Houston McTear from the ‘70s. “I had his photo up on my wall.”
In his Sunday morning prelim, Combest ran 6.62, tying the HSR. “I had eased up just a little bit,” he says. “I told everyone I could run 6.57 in the final. They told me later that it was like Babe Ruth calling his shot.”
Indeed. In the final, Combest exploded out of the blocks with a near-perfect start and was strong in his drive phase – leading to a final 30-40 meters that scorched the track and sent him rocketing away from a fine field led by previous national leader (6.67) Mike Newell. When Combest crossed the line, the clocked showed 6.59 at first, but then when the official marks came up on the scoreboard, he was given a 6.57 – taking a remarkable .05 off of Odom’s record.
The crowd roared and Combest celebrated, bounding up and down the track, pumping his fist in the air. A pixelated video (see above) has preserved the performance, including a ridiculous standing leap just before the start that shows his prodigious athletic talent.
“Mike Byrnes said I ran a time that was 25 years in the future,” recalls Combest. He could be right; in 18 years since, no one has come closer than 6.61.
NSAF Executive Director Jim Spier remembers the performance well. “It was a pleasant surprise – he had been running well; but not THAT well. He did not fit the mold of a national caliber sprinter – from a relatively small town. He obviously had maximized the gifts he was given.”
And, obviously, the electric, record-shattering performance was a huge boon to the meet in its “competition” for top marks that weekend. “It was very important,” says Spier. “We were up against the NSIC and their banked track. I remember Geoff Hollister (Nike) being there and perusing the results. We had to convince him that we had the superior athletes in most events even though the times, compared to those run on the banked Armory track, did not necessarily match up. I think he understood.”
Of course, the presence or absence of a banked surface didn’t matter in the 60. And Combest’s record was perhaps the biggest highlight of an NIC meet that more than held its own that year. Now in 2017-18, the NIC has evolved into the NSAF’s New Balance Nationals Indoor – the sole high school national indoor championship since 2010.
For Combest, that record-busting triumph was the highlight of a career. His outdoor season that year began strong, including a spectacular 100m triumph in the Mobile Challenge of Champions at 10.34. But a hamstring injury curtailed his state and national meet hopes.
Unable to academically qualify for a scholarship offer at U. of Kentucky, Combest went to Wallace State Community College in Alabama and won a JUCO 60m title, but the academic life wasn’t for him. In 2000, he would be arrested for selling marijuana and he had a variety of things to overcome in the years that followed. He was actually “pardoned” in 2015 by then-outgoing Governor Steve Beshear.
He made multiple comeback attempts, including one in 2007-08 – aimed for the Beijing Olympic team – which captured the attention of ESPN. They followed him that spring for a documentary released a few years later on ESPN Classic entitled “Lay It On The Line.” Another hamstring injury halted that comeback, however.
Now in his mid-30s, Combest is focused most on his family and lawn care business. He is still trying to work his way back into the sport as a coach and entertains all offers for doing so. He says a full-length movie script has been written about his life, with a working title of “White Lightning,” and still has hopes and dreams around the sport.
Perhaps the strongest of those are focused on “King,” Combest’s son who is now 10 years old. “He’s run a 4.89 for 40 yards,” says the father. “He’s definitely faster than I was at that age. I’m bringing him along slowly, but he could be better than me.”
Regarding the ’99 NIC 60, Combest says it was the greatest moment of his life in sports.
“It was overwhelming, to be able to set out to do something and then do it like that. It was as perfect a start as I ever had,” he says. “I hope what people will remember about me is that I never used steroids and how hard I worked.”