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The cooling breeze came around 7 p.m., bringing relief from the intense dry heat that had pressed down on Bakersfield, Calif. most of last Saturday. But the wind out of the north couldn't alleviate the tensions surrounding the 440-yard dash, the most ballyhooed event of this year's national AAU track and field championships. With still an hour to the starter's gun, Lee Evans, the Olympic champion, rested under a lamppost, alone with his thoughts. He had drawn lane 8, which meant that with the staggered start he would be running blind, the rest of the field behind him, and he was trying to convince himself that this was best. He knew it wasn't.
Seventy yards away Larry James, the silver-medal winner at Mexico City and the 1970 NCAA champion, sat on a rubbing table. People came by to wish him luck, but when he smiled and said nothing they left. James never wears a watch. Every few minutes he'd ask someone for the time, which was moving slowly. On a table next to him Curtis Mills, the world record holder, sat talking idly with an acquaintance. Mills and James did not talk to each other.
Wayne Collett, of UCLA, came by and stood next to James. The week before Collett had broken the world record in the 440 hurdles at the NCAA championships but had finished behind Ralph Mann, who had run four-tenths of a second faster. Now Collett was back in his specialty, the 440 dash, and there were those who said he could win the AAU title.
"I'm a little stiff," Collett muttered. James looked away and yawned. "I need a bed," he said. John Carlos, who had pulled up lame in the 100-yard dash the night before and had scratched in the 220, walked over and put an arm around Mills. "Hey, man," said Carlos, "I've already told the AAU not to send you to Europe if you finish second or third." Laughing, Mills got up and walked away. Carlos spotted John Smith, a sophomore who had run behind Collett at UCLA all year. Smith was running because they needed eight men to round out the field. He had failed to make the finals at the NCAAs the week before and was going into the race with the slowest time in the field. "No sweat, man," Carlos said to him. "Just lift your knees, pump your arms and don't worry about anyone else." Smith nodded. In less than an hour he would do exactly that, and would become the 440-yard champion, shocking everyone but himself. His was only one of many upsets: Tom Hill of Arkansas State won the 120 highs in 13.3, for example, Willie Davenport finishing third; Howell Michael of William & Mary took the mile in 4:01.8, Marty Liquori finishing third.
It had been a rough week for Smith. After his failure in the NCAAs, he had called home from Des Moines and his mother told him that his cousin and close friend, Andy Young, had died. "He was just two days older than me," said Smith, who is 19. "We had been close all our lives. It really hit me. Then at the funeral I broke down and cried." He decided not to run at Bakersfield.
"Son," said his mother, "what happens in life happens. You can't do a thing about it. And I want you to run in that race. You are as good as anybody there. Always believe that."
"Then she gave me her blessing," said Smith. "It was something very special, something very deep. I knew then I had to race."
For Lee Evans, the week before the race had been just a little less trying. Saturday morning he paced his hotel room, unable to rest, alternating between despair and hope. For nine days he had been taking sleeping pills. Even then sleep had come grudgingly.
"I have this great personal problem and it's driving me crazy," said Evans. "But I've got to get my mind off it. At this moment I have to have one purpose in life: to run around that track once faster than those other cats. That's all I'm supposed to think about. But because of what's bugging me I just don't have the same drive I had three weeks ago. But I've got to win. I've got to. I've got to. It will show me I'm on my way toward conquering this pressure from my problem."
Evans got down on his hands and knees and began working his feet into imaginary starting blocks. He came up in the start position, held it for a moment, then stood. "I want it bad, man, real bad. There's a lot behind this race. Oh, Lord, life is a weird trip."