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"He has the makings to be the best quarter-miler we've ever seen," says Villanova track coach Charlie Jenkins, the 1956 Olympic 400-meter gold medalist. "He has strength, speed and a great competitive spirit. At this point his development is comparable to that of Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses or Jesse Owens."
Lest these assessments seem premature, consider that Reed has set national records in every age group he has competed in since he was seven. At 15 he posted the best-ever schoolboy times in the 300 yards (30.15) and 400 meters (46.84), and the second-fastest 500 meters (1:03.03). Barely 16, he ran the 100 meters in 10 flat to tie Houston McTear's national hand-timed high school mark, set in 1975. At the World Junior Championships in Athens last July, Reed anchored the 4 x 400-meter relay team in 44.52, the fastest high school split ever. His 33.19 in the 300 meters is the fifth-best American indoor time ever and eighth on the alltime world list.
A 6-foot, 175-pounder with thick thighs and thin ankles, Reed may be Central's most otherworldly alumnus since Larry Fine (Class of '19) of the Three Stooges buzzed Venus in Have Rocket, Will Travel. Academically rigorous, Central is the second-oldest public high school in the country. "It's been around for 150 years," says Arnie Shiffrin, Central's indoor track coach, who graduated in 1956, "and I've been here for about 100 of them."
In addition to teaching social studies and doubling as Central's outdoor track assistant, Shiffrin tutors Reed in history, geography and English. "We spent so many weeks on Ivanhoe, I know the book by heart," Shiffrin says. "I'm the world's resident expert on feudalism." A fancier of California wines, Shiffrin spends his summers bumming around the vineyards in the Napa Valley and waxing cars in Manhattan Beach. He calls his one-man operation Arnie's Waxworks. His motto: We Wax Eloquent. "That's Arnie," says Jim Weinrott, a Philadelphia wine distributor. "What would you expect from a guy who invites 20 people over to bob for shot-put shots in a barrel of Riesling?"
Shiffrin tends to see life through a ros�-colored glass. But he takes his metaphor from French viticulture to describe his prot�g�. Shiffrin compares Reed to a Latour, one of the most majestic Bordeaux. "William is big, robust and powerful," Shiffrin says, swishing the thought around in his mind. "Yet he also has a great complexity. He gets even better with age. A good Latour can keep 50 years, though I don't expect William to last that long. Now, if you're talking Burgundys...."
Reed has fermented into a calm, courteous, rather handsome young man who speaks with an air of mild tentativeness and calls his competitors "gentlemen." "William's a cool guy, a shy guy, an in-with-the-crowd guy," says teammate Kenya Pittman. "He doesn't let fame go to his head."
Reed first raced as a four-year-old at a family reunion. He beat the field, which prompted distant cousins to ask Pop, "What are they feeding that kid?"
"Well, you know," Dad replied mischievously, "I hear his father could really run."
William Sr., a field inspector for the Philadelphia water department, is a wide, cheerful man. As a senior at Germantown (Pa.) High he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.9. His sweetheart and future wife, Anita Deas, was the fastest girl on Pomona Street. The union produced two other offspring: 13-year-old Terence, an aspiring half-miler, and Ivy, 5, who, Dad thinks, "may have more natural talent than William."
Anita used to send her oldest boy out to Page's Corner Store for a loaf of bread. He would return so quickly that she thought he was riding his bike. William Jr. wanted to join a track team, but William Sr. was skeptical. "You can't beat those runners," he said. "They train every day."