Saturday, July 2, 2016

Destination Eugene

40 years ago I had an idea.  Pull together as many Kansas radio stations as I possibly could, get credentials from the powers running the 1976 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and make enough money to pay for a trip to Eugene, Oregon.  For 5 dollars a day the stations would get the lowdown on how all the athletes from the various universities in the state of Kansas did in this top flight competition.  Today it dawned on me all this happened more than 40 years ago.

It's hard to imagine that the University of Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State had some two dozen athletes competing at the Trials.  K.U. had a sensational number of great athletes at that meet.  In fact, three Jayhawks ended up making the team.

Somehow my 20-year-old self managed to pull together a hand full of stations and got credentials for myself and a friend to the meet.  I also figured out I could save a ton of dough by staying in one of the dormitories on the University of Oregon campus.  So on or about June 15th a 15-year-old who I loved dearly, Jon Blubaugh and I piled into my mothers Ford Galaxie 500 and started an amazing cross country drive to Eugene.

As bad it is driving across Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado nothing compares to the horrors of Eastern Oregon.  Of course, we hit that section of the trip as night fell so we couldn't really admire the desolate isolation.  Then there were the bugs.  So thick that we had to stop twice to wipe down the windshield and headlights so we could find our way in the night.

Landing in Eugene was like landing in track and field heaven.  Jon and I were in awe, seeing athletic stars from across the sporting spectrum like Wilt Chamberlain and O.J. Simpson.  But the meet itself was simply amazing.  Bruce Jenner joking and smiling his way to the decathlon title.  Edwin Moses introducing himself to the world in the 400 meter hurdles.  Heptathlete Jane Fredickson was as beautiful as she was talented.

Jon and I had to keep pinching ourselves.  We had press credentials that put us in the thick of the action.  I stood less than 20 feet away as the great Marty Liquori stepped off the track, injured and crushed that he wouldn't be going to the Olympics.  He stood crying in the arms of his wife. 

I watched an arrogant Dave Roberts break the world record in the pole vault on a pole that he had borrowed from the great Earl Bell.  Roberts had the nerve to bitch to me in a post record interview that Earl's pole was too soft.  What a jerk.  I watched as a chiropractor put K.U.'s Sam Colson's injured back, back together so he could get off one magnificent throw to win the javelin and make the team.

I interviewed the late great Houston McTear.  He was a raw, rural kid from Florida, he spoke his mind and warned the world that the rest of the competitors would have to settle for second in Montreal at the Olympic Games.  And then there was the flowing hair of 1500 meter runner Tom Byers, storming away from the field from the gun, trying to steal the race, a run which went to the great Tom Wohlhuter.

We hustled Kansas 400 meter runner Kent Benson into buying us beer which we snuck back into our dorm room.  As Jon and I enjoyed our suds two high school coaches barged into our room and we somehow managed to stash the illegal brews without them spotting it.  Unfortunately Jon's beer somehow tipped over soaking his mattress.

There were other K.U. athletes we met and hung with.  Sprinter Mark Lutz, who made the team, introduced his to his then wife and fellow Olympian, Francie Larrieu.  I watched in agony as my old training partner Kent McDonald, plagued by injuries, suffered through the 3000 steeplechase heats, just one year after having finished 2nd in the nation.  I was heartbroken for him, but happy to see another Jayhawk, Bill Lundgren, make it into the finals were he ran a respectable race. 

I had two favorite moments from the meet.  It's hard to choose between the two.  I loved Gerry
Bjorklund's brave run in the 10000 meters, much of the last half of it in only one shoe.  He was more than 50 meters down with 800 to go but somehow managed to reel in the great Bill Rodgers to gain the third spot on the team.

The other moment that stands out was meeting high school phenom Bill McChesney, who would later break the American record at 5000 meters.  Jon and I chatted Bill up.  He invited to run a 4 mile race held on the Trials off day which climbed a steep butte near downtown Eugene.  Jon ran great.  I ran like a college junior who liked beer too much.

It was ten days of track and field pleasure.  We rubbed shoulders with America's track and field royalty.  I fell in love with Eugene and have returned more than a half dozen times since.  It is truly a running paradise and is rightfully Track Town U.S.A. 

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