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Clinton Davis: the Loneliness of One Short-Distance Runner

January 21, 1985|CURT HOLBREICH | The Pittsburgh Press

PITTSBURGH — Clinton Davis takes that last stride across the finish line. It is Madison Square Garden, the 1983 Millrose Games, and a 17-year-old high school senior has just upset the world's greatest quarter-milers in the most spectacular debut by a prep sprinter since Houston McTear.

A big, boyish grin breaks out just under his wisp of a mustache as the finish tape goes slack around his waist.

Today that tape would stretch a little tighter.

Davis is 20 pounds overweight, out of college and out of shape. His favorite pastime is sitting at home in front of the television, watching one football game after another.

He is 19, but his promising track career may be over. It may have ended in tears at the U.S. Olympic trials last June. There is no shortage of explanations why.

Some say he was pushed too fast and burned out. Others blame it on greed. Davis took all the money he could from shoe companies and meet promoters and spent it on an expensive foreign car. But most of the criticism concerns his decision to remain near Pittsburgh and train independently with Coach Elbert Kennedy of the New Image Track Club.

Emotions run deep.

"Clinton should get the hell out of here because they don't know what they have," said Steve Dunmire, his former track coach at Steel Valley High School. "He should go to school, get a national coach, somebody who has trained super guys.

"He ran faster times as a 10th grader than last year. He's got to snap out of it soon. If the kid would really bear down and start serious training, in 1988 he would be the premier--not the second or third, but the best--quarter-miler in the world."

Davis has not budged. He appears resigned to sit out the indoor season, if not abandon track completely. He hasn't run a race since the trials or gone near a practice track with the idea of doing much more than jogging.

The result is 20 extra pounds, most of it around his waistline. His once-lean 6-foot frame carries 185 pounds. He spends his time hanging wallpaper and hanging out.

He does the wallpapering with his father to earn some money. He does the hanging out to indulge his passion for playground football and to feed his daydreams of earning a college football scholarship.

"Everyone is teasing him about getting fat," said Kennedy, who started coaching Davis when he was 14. "He just didn't take proper care of himself."

Davis' decision two years ago to forgo a college track scholarship and enroll on his own at Pitt likewise has gone astray. He dropped his classes last October and is not sure he will return for the winter term.

Confident and cocky was the sprinter. Confused and confounded is Davis now.

"I really don't know what my move is going to be," he said. "I've had some family problems and some problems of my own. In the past, people told me to do things; I didn't really think for myself. Now I have to do what my mind tells me to do. I have to be an independent person. I don't want any advice from anybody. I have to do it my way."

Lionell Dudley, another of Davis' former coaches at Steel Valley, said Davis listened to the wrong advice. He said he urged Davis to accept a scholarship to UCLA and train under its respected coach, Jim Bush, now retired.

"He should have gone to UCLA," Dudley said. "That was where it was all happening in '84. The Coliseum, the Olympics, it was all there. If you ask me 100 times, 100 times my decision would have been for him to attend UCLA. Instead he was 17 years old and running against professionals in Madison Square Garden.

"It's just a shame. It's hard for me to believe that Clinton Davis is out of condition and not attending class. Clinton got burned out on the circuit before the Olympics. He was running professional when he should have been running college. I hope he can rebound if he has fallen. And if he has fallen, he was pushed."

Davis and those closest to him are sensitive to criticism that he ran too hard, too soon and instead should have eased into world-class competition.

"A lot of people said we pushed him. But we didn't," Kennedy said. "We just let him go. You can't hold him back if he does something well naturally. How can you hold him back without hurting him?"

It happened so fast. One day Davis was a 17-year-old senior at Steel Valley, pulling away from teammates in practice, the next he was taking on the world in Madison Square Garden. His Millrose Games victory was the first by a schoolboy since McTear had won the 60-yard dash in 1976.

Remember what happened to McTear? He dropped out of college, then dropped out of sight. When last heard from, he was living in Southern California, working as a delivery man for a catering firm and talking about a comeback.

Davis had no intention of following McTear into obscurity. He talked of chasing world records, of taking out the pace and paying the price. Four weeks later, he was back in New York.

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