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CARLOS RAN for one more year at San Jose State and made it count, leading the Spartans to their first NCAA track and field title, in 1969. Following a forgettable, injury-plagued three-year interlude in pro football, he fell off the radar.
Living in Southern California with Kim and their two young children, he made ends meet by taking "menial jobs, security jobs—whatever job I could do to survive. I'd get enough so I could go up to Vegas and roll dice to get a couple thousand dollars to feed my family."
Dire financial straits—the direct result, he believes, of his act of conscience in Mexico City—strained his marriage. In 1977, shortly after he and Kim had split up, "she took her own life," he says, his eyes misting. "The stigma they put on me," he says, meaning everyone who denied him work or ostracized him for that moment on the victory stand, "it took just as big a toll on her."
He remembers sitting at the window of his apartment shortly after Kim's death. "It was raining like hell. And I thought, Life is like a football game. In the first half, I got my ass beat. Thank God it's the second half. I'm coming out, I'm kicking ass and taking names." He remarried in 1983 and was hired by Palm Springs High the next year.
It was Dr. King who posited that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." With the passing of decades, Carlos and Smith have seen their images rehabilitated, but their story contains a lingering sad note: Yoked in history though they are, they don't get along.
Carlos talks far too much to suit the more introspective Smith, who devotes hundreds of words in his book to the alleged logorrhea of his former teammate. But Carlos's most unpardonable offense, by far, was to claim that he let Smith win that race. "That will break up a friendship right there," Smith writes.
For his part, following his 2003 induction into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Carlos was stunned to read this passage in Smith's book: "[W]hat did he do to get into the Hall of Fame? He didn't win a gold medal. He had the 100-meter world record for about a minute.... It's another thing he has because of being on that victory stand with me." It's difficult to reconcile the author of these breathtakingly petty sentiments with the man who perpetrated one of the great acts of moral courage in the history of sports.
"You'll never know how much it bothers me," says Carlos of his estrangement from Smith (who from 1978 through his retirement in 2005 served on the faculty and coached track at Santa Monica College). "After 40 years it's gotten to the point where I've said, 'God, it's yours. I can't deal with it no more.'"
"I'll tell you what's going on," says Edwards, now professor emeritus of sociology at Cal. "They're trying to figure out what happened 40 years ago. They had no idea that, 40 years after the fact, there'd be a statue of them on San Jose State's campus. But now people ask them for explanations, so they go back and try to figure it out. But at the end of the day, what you have is two old dudes sitting at the end of the bar, an hour before closing time, telling war stories. And every night the stories change. The only thing that really matters is that they became the iconic emblems of an era that changed how we look at, and how we deal with, developments at the intersection of race, sports and society.
"And it was overdue. Just as Muhammad Ali was not like Joe Louis, and Curt Flood was not like Jackie Robinson, Carlos and Smith were not like Jesse Owens. It was time for us to break with our fathers."