Prefontaine's values invaluable, no matter the price

March 24, 2005|by ANDY MASON

I made my first purchase on eBay, the Internet auction site, a few days ago.

With my bid of $52, I won a June 15, 1970 edition of Sports Illustrated. I plan to frame the magazine and hang it on a wall in my den.

Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Joe Namath, Dick Butkus and Bobby Orr are some of the all-time great pro athletes who appeared on Sports Illustrated covers in 1970. But on June 15, the cover belonged to University of Oregon freshman runner Steve Prefontaine, titled "America's Distance Prodigy."

Prefontaine lived up to the billing. Over the next five years, he dominated his sport like no American runner ever has, setting national records 14 times at distances from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.


He was brash, fiery and flamboyant - a rebel with a cause. Much like James Dean, Prefontaine's status changed from superstar to mystical legend when he died in a car accident at age 24.

I was only 3 years old when Prefontaine died, so obviously I only know of his legend, which has inspired the making of two major motion pictures - "Without Limits" and "Prefontaine" - and the documentary "Fire on the Track." I've seen all three, a few times each, and even have read his biography.

While Prefontaine never set a world record or won an Olympic gold medal, he seemingly was destined to do both. But destiny is a hard thing to figure. Maybe he just was destined to be what he is today - a sideburned and shaggy-haired symbol of where hard work, passion and a relentless drive can take you.

When Prefontaine said, "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift," he couldn't possibly have imagined that quote appearing on the back of countless kids' T-shirts at track meets across the U.S., as it does today.

It's hard to find a national sports story these days that doesn't mention either millions of dollars or performance-enhancing drugs, with one usually being the result of the other.

While Prefontaine's story isn't new, it's still refreshing. He was a champion of the free spirit, a maverick in track spikes. Due to the hypocritical rules of amateurism in his day, he lived in a trailer and needed food stamps to eat after he got out of college.

He measured himself by his stopwatch and his quest for Olympic gold.

Spending $52 for a magazine might seem a bit much, but I view it as a bargain. A constant reminder of how precious this life is and of what can be achieved in the short amount of time before the finish line might be a priceless possession.

Andy Mason is assistant sports editor of The Morning Herald. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2334, or by e-mail at

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