SI Vault
Pat Putnam
May 17, 1971
Whether he's long-jumping or scoring a touchdown, UCLA freshman James McAlister is sensational. In fact, he could become the first to win both an Olympic gold medal and the Heisman Trophy
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May 17, 1971

He Takes Off, He Takes It In

Whether he's long-jumping or scoring a touchdown, UCLA freshman James McAlister is sensational. In fact, he could become the first to win both an Olympic gold medal and the Heisman Trophy

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One recent day during the fury of a UCLA spring football practice, Coach Pepper Rodgers placed the ball seven yards from the goal, turned to his white-shirted offense and said, "O.K., take it in." Mike Flores, who was the quarterback of the moment, responded by calling a play new to the UCLA repertoire. It's named panzer division straight ahead and, instead of the usual hut-hut-hut, the quarterback sets it in motion by yelling ready-aim-fire. That's after he asks the defenders if they would like a last cigarette and a blindfold. Quite simply, Flores tucks the ball into the hard flat stomach of James McAlister (see cover), a 19-year-old freshman, who then hurls his 200 pounds through the enemy ranks with equal amounts of extraordinary speed and power. This time, as he covered the required seven yards, he left seven defenders strewn on the ground behind him. Surveying the casualties, Rodgers shook his head. "He just may become the greatest football player ever," he said. "One man alone can't even slow him down, much less stop him."

A short time later the bullhorn blared, signaling the end of practice. McAlister sped to the locker room, where he quickly exchanged his football uniform for the lighter costume of a track and field athlete. "Hey, Clark Kent," a teammate yelled. "Instead of a locker, they should give you a telephone booth." Within a few minutes, McAlister was on the track, trying to work the football out of the huge, muscular legs that make him a world-class long jumper. Until last weekend's dual meet against USC, McAlister had made the longest jump in the world this year, 26'6�". In a previous meet, against Stanford, he jumped 27'10" only to be red-flagged on a foul of less than two inches.

"He has got to be the best athlete I've ever seen," says Jim Bush, the UCLA track coach, who is torn between being grateful to football for bringing McAlister to UCLA and being unhappy when he thinks of all the 250-pound linemen who will be taking shots at his prized athlete. "There's no doubt that he has to be the finest long-jump prospect ever. He has the most powerful leg muscles I've ever seen. I haven't the slightest doubt that James would be in the 28-foot range right now if it wasn't for spring football. His legs are really beat up. And he's still over 25 feet consistently. It's amazing."

But then, McAlister has been amazing people ever since he jumped 22 feet in junior high school. "I really wanted to be a runner," he says, "but I just wasn't fast enough to beat the other kids. So I went to the other events, starting with the high jump. But when I went 22 feet in the long jump and the coach said that was pretty good, that became my game. I really liked the feeling of flying in the air. The day I did 26-6, I felt I was so high up in the air I'd never come down."

At Blair High in Pasadena, McAlister found another game: football. As a senior, he gained 2,168 yards, averaged 9.27 yards per carry and scored 31 touchdowns. In the Shrine High School All-Star Game, he capped his prep career by running for 132 yards and one touchdown, catching two passes, running for an extra point—and kicking a 20-yard field goal.

McAlister enjoyed football, but track remained his first love. A 25'7" long jump he made last year equaled the national prep record set by Jerry Proctor of Pasadena in 1967. (His 26'6�" bettered Proctor's international age-19 mark by four inches.) Just to keep busy, McAlister also high-jumped, ran the low hurdles and anchored the 440 relay team. He was a high school All-America in both football and track.

"In basketball I was all-disaster," he says. "Just for the heck of it, I went out for the team my junior year. I made it but I never got to play more than a few seconds a game. Then one game I got in the last 10 minutes. I was almost as tall as I am now [6'1"] and I could jump, so I'd rebound and pass off. But I could never bring myself to shoot. Finally, as a joke, a guy on the other team fouled me. I went to the line and just stood there bouncing the ball and staring at the basket. I kept saying, 'You can do it, you can do it.' Finally the referee said, 'Do it.' I pushed the ball up and it fell five feet short of the rim. You should have heard the crowd roar with laughter. I said, 'That's it, I quit.' "

His baseball career was equally short. As an 11-year-old catcher, he was the slugging sensation of a kids' minor league in Pasadena. After hitting five home runs in eight games, he was asked to join a major league team. "My cousin Jimmy, who lived next door to me, was in the majors," McAlister says. "He was two years older. He kept kidding me about how tough the league was and how I wouldn't do so good. I bet him I'd hit a home run my first time up. And I hit the first pitch out of the park. But it went foul. Jimmy was watching the game and he went running after the ball. He had a history of heart trouble. He dropped dead before he got to the ball. I set that bat down and said I'd never play that game again. And I never have."

When McAlister graduated from high school, the recruiters lined up three deep. He had three close friends at Blair: Kermit Johnson, another running back; Eugene Jones, a 6'3", 230-pound tight end; and Billy Williams, a 6'1", 190-pound defensive back. UCLA, Oregon and Arizona offered the four a package scholarship deal. USC said it would take McAlister and look at the other three after a year of junior college. Everybody else wanted McAlister period.

"We talked about it and decided a package deal would be bad," McAlister says. "That three of us might be happy but the fourth might be unhappy. We decided everybody should make up his own mind and not tell the others. I began to look around, I went to Notre Dame and the coach said he'd make me the first black running back All-America at Notre Dame. I knew I didn't want that. I just wanted a school where I'd be happy. If you aren't happy at school, then you won't be happy playing football. I finally narrowed it to UCLA and California at Berkeley. Then my high school coach told me to make out a list of anything I could think of, like environment, the coaches, the people, the smog, the hills. I love green hills and green trees. Then I took the list and checked off each school with a plus or minus. I had 25 items. Berkeley had a lot of pluses. The coaching staff was out of sight and I loved that little street that runs through the campus. It's like a little ant farm with all kinds of people going their own way. But when I added it all up, UCLA won by two points. Most schools guaranteed I'd play. UCLA said it wanted me but I had to earn it. I liked that."

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