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In 1972, at the University of California's Kennedy Games, Lee Evans suffered a defeat that, by rights, he might simply have shrugged off. The night before in Los Angeles, Evans had been narrowly outrun in his 440-yard specialty by UCLA's John Smith. Dejected by that loss, Evans chose to pass up the quarter mile at Cal for a token appearance in the 220, an event in which he had never done particularly well. So it was no real disgrace when Evans, running as if the cinders in Berkeley's Edwards Stadium were freshly poured concrete, finished sixth.
But he was embarrassed just the same. Evans is a native of northern California and his family had gathered in the stands to picnic on fried chicken and watch him fly. Afterward he listened with chagrin as his son Keith, then five, asked tearfully, "Daddy, why'd you let them beat you?" The question haunted Evans for weeks. "Let them?" he asked. "How do you tell a little boy you never let anybody beat you?"
The episode is of historic importance because it is probably the only time that Lee Evans has ever been called upon to defend his will to win. Eight years have elapsed since a teen-age Evans emerged as a world-beater and at least four since the first sportswriter called him "the grand old man of the quarter mile." Last year, as a professional, Evans became the leading money-winner of the International Track Association's first season. Sprinters, the ephemerids of track, generally stay on top a couple of years at most, which makes Evans seem a venerable, almost Biblical figure.
It is a shock, then, to realize that Evans will be a mere 27 on his birthday later this month. He is not only younger than one might imagine, but far gentler. Before a race Evans stalks, mutters and scowls with a frightful sullenness said to have driven a thoroughly psyched quarter-miler into early retirement a few years back. Out of earshot of the starter's pistol, by contrast, bonhomie radiates from Evans' broad, fleshy, heavy-chinned features and his words take on the softness of the cotton he picked as a boy in the San Joaquin Valley. The Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation impressed Mike O'Hara, the ITA's youthful president, when he was introduced to Evans following the 1972 Olympics. "Lee looks so fierce I was almost afraid to meet him," O'Hara recalls. "I couldn't believe how polite and shy he turned out to be."
Evans' mild nature is the more striking considering that he has suffered, besides the agonies of growing up poor and black, such misfortunes as divorce, the drowning of a brother and the lash of public controversy. He also, unapologetically, leads an almost nomadic existence, as if in the hope that further woe will not hit a moving target. His present residence, a rented house south of San Francisco in Redwood City, is his fifth in barely two years, and his jobs and pastimes change as often as his Zip Code. One moment Evans will be "checking out" witchcraft; the next he will be "into" vegetarianism; another moment his "thing" will be writing sentimental verse. The unlikeliest such undertaking occurred last year when Evans, moonlighting from pro track, became, briefly, the world's fastest antique dealer.
Although he talked of having found his life's work, the antique shop he started in San Francisco in February failed by October. The shop, a Secondhand Rose jumble of antiquities that Evans picked up at flea markets and estate sales, was located in the Mission District, an area of cheap cafeterias and bars. Across the street was Frenchy's, a pornography shop. While true antique fanciers continued to browse at the tony shops on Union Street, Evans' store attracted mostly winos and pensioners.
Evans still drives the panel truck he used for hauling bric-a-brac and he sleeps in a Victorian bed with a mirrored headboard, which was among his wares. But he doesn't mourn the shop's closing. "I've always liked beautiful old things," he shrugs. "But those lonely guys from the neighborhood depressed me. Besides, I lose interest in things. Frankly, I was relieved to get out of there."
Uncommitted though Evans may be otherwise, his devotion to track is necessarily single-minded. His flat-out speed is only middling and his blocky 5'11" build calls to mind the old oak furniture he sold in his shop. When he runs his shoulders roll, his arms flail and his head bobs like a marionette's. But he compensates with strength and conditioning. "I've always worked harder than other guys," he says. This pays off, in particular, when he comes out of the final curve, the moment in the quarter mile when the body numbs, the mind fogs.
"I've got more fluid speed but Lee's got desire and momentum," John Smith said at the height of their rivalry. "At the final curve, he's always there." Bert Nelson, publisher of Track & Field News, says, "Lee gets more out of his abilities than any athlete I've seen." And Jim Terrill, a former coach and now ITA operations director, calls Evans "the most competitive trackman in history. I used to think that about Glenn Davis but Lee's got him beat."
His taste for competition sets Evans apart from those of different appetite. After graduating from San Jose State in 1969, he returned to teach physical education and help coach track. As some of the younger trackmen dallied at workouts, Evans' gentleness deserted him. "If I'd had an Olympic champion willing to help me, I'd have worked my butt off," he said. He quit coaching, explaining, "I was afraid I was going to hit one of those spoiled brats."