Tacked on the door of room 124 in Sheehan Hall at Villanova University is a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover, but the face, that of a blond-haired young fellow, and the legend, "LEGS PATRICK: 3:59.3," are unfamiliar. This is not surprising since, until a few weeks ago, not very many people who lived outside of Baltimore, Miler Dave Patrick's home town, had ever heard of him. The Villanova students had, of course, and the photograph of Patrick that they had superimposed on the cover picture of pole vault record holder Bob Seagren (SI, Feb. 20) was their way of telling the world, "Watch out, Jim Ryun."
If this seems like so much undergraduate hyperbole, it is. Or is it? For a year now middle-distance runners have been living with the terrible realization that as long as Jim Ryun cares to run middle distances they are going to be second best. Lest anybody miss the point, the Kansas sophomore underscored it in his quiet, self-effacing way last Saturday at the Big Eight championships in Kansas City with a 3:58.8 mile, .8 second faster than his record on a 12-lap track set one year before. He came back 75 minutes later to take the half mile in 1:52, and all that whispered talk that Ryun, who had had an indifferent winter season, might have really had it suddenly died.
The theory is that Dave Patrick should have died, too. But anybody who believes that does not know Dave Patrick, who is just audacious (or naive) enough to think that races are for winning, records are for breaking and great runners are for beating. He set about proving his point with the start of this indoor season, and if the frenzied enthusiasm of his schoolmates seems premature, it may be only slightly so. His 3:59.3, for instance, was definitely no mirage. Patrick ran it in Madison Square Garden last month and, while the time shattered nobody's stopwatch, it was the first, and at that date the only, sub-four-minute mile run indoors this winter. It brought the Garden track crowd out of its lethargy and to its feet. But as impressive as that race was, his half mile in Baltimore a week later—1:49.1, a record for an 11-lap track—was clearly threatening. The ho-hum of Ryun runaways was at least being challenged.
David Allen Patrick is 20, one year older than Ryun. He has been knocked flat, he has miscounted laps and he has ignored the tactical plans of his coach. But, with only slightly more than two years of supervised "quality training" to his credit, he has finally begun to develop brute speed. Despite all his previous shortcomings, he has been a winner. What is more, he has been a winner with faster and faster efforts.
And there is the rub, if you can imagine it. Jumbo Elliott, the man who has had the job of feeding and caring for track whizzes at Villanova for 20 years, is terrified that Patrick will go too fast too soon. Steady but gradual development is what he has in mind, with a peak somewhere out there when it counts most—like next summer, just before the Olympics in Mexico City. Elliott's idea is fraught with logic, and his prot�g� Patrick is dutifully attentive. "I know I can go harder in training this year," he says, "but I don't want to burn it all out of me."
Good lad. He means it, too, but, ah, youth. The mind is willing, all right, yet there is something about people yelling at the top of their lungs that can send even the most experienced runners bolting off at the three-quarter pole. At the Track and Field Federation meet last month in New York, for instance, Elliott was standing right there, giving the easy-does-it sign. "I just caught him out of the corner of my eye," explained Patrick, "and I didn't know exactly what he meant." Perhaps not. And then there was that crowd yelling, "go, go, go," and before the coach's expression could slip from calm satisfaction to open-mouthed horror Patrick went. In fact, he went at the last quarter in 55.4, which was good for a 4:00.6 mile. The race was heroic and promising and crowd-pleasing but definitely not what Elliott had in mind—not yet.
Basketball was what Dave Patrick had in mind as a ninth-grader at Stemmers Run Junior High School outside of Baltimore—not that he showed much promise at it. But the game seemed a likely outlet for an energetic 13-year-old (he was 5'6" and weighed 125). Patrick's older brother, Leonard, who was a half-miler of some note at the University of Maryland then, knew that Dave was never, never going to dribble his way into college and suggested he try track. Dave said, "Why not?" and entered a cross-country race. He won it, and that was the end of basketball and the start of an unrelenting obsession with running faster than anyone else.
Patrick not only took to racing off across the wilderness but he began to spend long hours in the library, reading about celebrated dream chasers. He pored over books on running and even old record ledgers made his blood run fast. "I used to sit there memorizing times, analyzing them, comparing them. I couldn't get enough of it," he said last week. Quite naturally, Patrick took in every big meet he could get to. He saw Jim Beatty and Tom O'Hara go under four minutes indoors and his blond hair stood straight up.
Before he was finished with high school, Patrick had a 4:12.4 mile to his credit and enough injuries to keep his mother, his coach and a doctor in a continual state of agitation. Discounting the normal pulls and strains, he managed to fracture a foot in a cross-country race and, one day, to clomp down solidly on a horseshoe stake, running it into his leg just below his knee. Twelve stitches closed up the almost crippling wound, but young Patrick fouled up his recovery by running in a most unnatural fashion. His hip, as a result, developed a distressing habit of hopping out of joint, usually in the middle of a race.
Still, a 4:12 mile is nothing to sneeze at, and Elliott was happy to welcome Patrick on a scholarship to Villanova. By nature a most unassuming young man who even now seems slightly embarrassed by all the wild things eastern newspapers write about him, Patrick was not the type to expect huzzahs merely for showing up. And a good thing, too, for Villanova is a particularly tough place for young milers, mostly because they have to follow the toughest kind of act—Ron Delany, the Irish runner who was unbeatable for four years.