The other day, while trying to think of a topic for this month's story, I went to my old copies of T&FN. (I have every issue from about 1976 so there's a lot from which to choose.) The September, 1997 virtually leaped out at me. The cover was of MARION JONES.
I well recall picking up the phone and hearing the late Doug Speck telling me about a local phenom, "I'm telling you man, she's going to be great. Awesome." "She" was a very young Marion Jones. At the time I was the recruiter for both high school national championships, indoor and out. Based upon Speck's recommendation I recruited her to come to our indoor meet. Thus began a long and eminently successful association. Jones won many times at the NSSF-sponsored national competitions on her way to what can only be described as a TRIUMPHANT high school career.
When she was a mere high school student, Jones qualified as an alternate for the US Olympic team and was set to go with the team to its training camp in France. Just imagine how excited she must have been! But her Mother refused to permit her to go. So Marion stayed home. Imagine how disappointed she must have been. Over the course of the years I had several talks with Mrs. Jones and she was a powerful personality. There was little give and take. Basically, it was her way or…you know the rest.
Now I am no psychologist nor do I pretend to be. But I have been working with young athletes for over 60 years and do know something about their psyches, their dreams and their nightmares, their successes and their failures. Shattering a young person's dream and turning their successes into crushing disappointments can, and will, change a persons life. How much rebellion swelled within that young girl? How much did it affect her life? Both unanswerable questions but the changes I personally saw were vast and far reaching.
Marion Jones is a wonderful person. Her smile is worth a million dollars. She can be gracious to a fault, charming to the utmost and there is absolutely no limit to her athletic talent. If there was ever a "winner" it was Marion Jones. Today, her track and field career ended, she's hoping to make it as a WNBA player. The odds are against her. She was a member of the University of North Carolina's NCAA Championship team and feels she has a chance to make a WNBA team. Good luck!
Just as Ms. Jones crashed to earth so has a young man I observed early in his career, LaShawn Merritt. OK, just how did I find him? Simple, I went to a track meet.
It was at Virginia Tech. They hold a major high school indoor meet every year and I was there. The 300m event was being held and this big, rangy kid simply blew away a pretty good field. I forget his time, not really important anyway, all I had to do was see him run and I knew. Jim Spier, who was announcing the meet, agreed that he was the future at 200 and 400 meters.
At the time, there was a young man from New York who was better. Elzie Coleman went to the Simplot Games in Pocatello, Idaho and amazed everyone when he ran the 400m. The Games are run in the field house at Idaho State University. They have a board, baked 200m track and it is fast. No one knew just how fast until the youngster from Newburgh Academy raced to a 45.92 clocking, a national indoor record.
He was considered "The Man" to everyone but me. When I told people about Merritt they laughed. No one had ever heard of him. They would.
That spring the NSSF sponsored Merritt to several meets. At each one he set records. At each one he got better. His style got smoother, his racing skills gradually emerged. I drove him to New York to compete in the famed Loucks Games at White Plains HS, a major outdoor meet in the East. A match up between Merritt and Coleman would have been a great one. But Coleman wasn't in the meet. School troubles prevented him from competing and one wonders "…what might have been."
In high school, Merritt was best known for his prowess on the football field. "I was a linebacker and a wide receiver," he remembered. "But I didn't catch too many balls." "Why not", a questioner asked. "We didn't have anybody who could throw the ball far enough," he laughed. His coach, Dwayne Miller agreed, "By the time our quarterback got ready to throw the ball LaShawn was already 40 yards downfield and movin' fast," he laughs at the memory.
In his junior year in high school, Merritt went out for track. You know the rest. So much for the Trust, Triumph part of this piece. Now comes the Tragedy. Merritt, the Olympic and World 400m champion has been banned for two years for a drug violation. Admittedly the drug ingested was not taken to enhance his track performances. But the drug contained substances that have been banned. An athlete is responsible for whatever he/she ingests and even though Merritt had no idea he was taking a banned substance it was too late. The athlete is solely and totally responsible for what is in his/her body no matter what it is nor why it was taken. Because of that, Merritt, poised to become the greatest 400m runner in history, must stay out of the sport for two years. Who knows what will happen during his suspension? Can he stay in shape and remain focused on his goals? One can only hope;
So two of the greatest track athletes the world has ever known are out of the sport, one forever, the other for two years. Nothing can define the word "tragedy" better than that.
When I heard, I cried, again.