His most remarkable quality wasn't one that would catch the eye of a coach dropping by to take in an invitational or a state final. It was his capacity to focus, to establish a plan and relentlessly pursue it. Nobody worked as hard in practice. Nobody was as serious. "He can be happy, playing pool, jiving, and all of a sudden, without announcing it, he goes into a quiet zone," says a friend, hurdler McClinton Neal. "If you don't know him, you'd think he was angry, but he's just thinking about what he needs to do. He's planning, and he wants to be left alone. He can't be persuaded to be a certain way. He'll be himself from beginning to end."
In his first outdoor 200 at Baylor he lost to Floyd Heard, the fastest 200-meter sprinter in the world at the time, by .1 of a second. Hello. He would still get good grades, still hand in papers before they were due, but he began to see a different path to the fine things he wanted. During his sophomore year, at the 1988 Drake Relays, he blistered a 43.4 anchor leg in the 4x400, prompting then U.S. Olympic track coach Stan Huntsman to say that he would take that lap, right now, as his anchor lap a few months later in the Summer Games in Seoul.
Funny, though. Each year his father's warnings about life would re-prove themselves. He pulled a hamstring during his freshman year and missed the NCAA championships. As a sophomore, a few weeks after the Drake Relays, he was leading in the NCAA 200 final when his fibula broke, dooming his chances for Seoul. His junior year he strained a hamstring at the Southwestern Conference meet and missed the NCAAs.
He was a virtual unknown when he landed in Budapest to join the European track circuit the summer before his senior year of college. He watched all the agents and reporters and promoters flutter around the big names. "Next year," he vowed to a friend, "they'll know who I am." To his sister Regina he confided, "I am going to do things that have never been done."
His hunger, in the beginning, was not strictly metaphoric. His stash of candy bars depleted, Michael couldn't bring himself to enter a restaurant his first day and a half in Europe. Watch it! Watch it! Who knew how they handled the food in a faraway country? Who knew what microbes might have found their way into the meat?
But now three years on the circuit are behind him. It is a man of the world who is striding into El Candil, taking a seat at one of the wooden tables overlaid with red-and-white tablecloths. The owner, short and broad as a barrel of red wine from the cellar, beams when he sees that the great American sprinter has come a second night. ¿La mezcla, otra vez, señor? The mixture of grilled and smoked meats again? Excelente, señor. Nuestra especialidad.
It's a lovely meal. There is so much to feel fine about. Not one gold medal on the horizon but two, now that the attempt by American 400-meter runners to freeze Michael out of the U.S. 4x400 relay team in Barcelona has fizzled. All he had to do was stand up when the relay team met during a training camp in Switzerland a few weeks earlier, back when the other relay members were muttering about boycotting if Michael was included, because he hadn't run the 400 at the Olympic trials. Stand up and say, "I don't understand what this is all about. No one in this room has ever beaten me at 400 meters." Case closed. Now the world would see how swiftly he could run both the 200 and the 400. Now it might recognize that he had replaced Carl Lewis as The Man.
The sprinter and his agent leave El Candil full and happy, making plans to meet in the morning for the two-hour ride to the airport in Madrid. At 2 a.m. Brad lurches out of bed in a cold sweat. He spends the rest of the night reeling between the bed and the toilet. "Really?" says Michael in the morning. "I feel fine."
It hits him when they reach the airport. It had to have been the meal at El Candil, the two of them figure. But the proprietor there will always insist that it couldn't have been. The sickness comes in waves for nine long hours while Michael is in the air. His brother meets him at the airport. "Take me to Mom," Michael groans.