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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: JEFF NELSON : Distance Dandy Walked When It Hurt to Run : Untimely Injuries Ended Promising Career That Produced U. S. Record and 2 State Titles

August 11, 1990|JOHN ORTEGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His former coach calls him the greatest distance-running talent in the United States, yet he has not raced seriously in eight years.

A former teammate called him the heir-apparent to Olympian Steve Prefontaine.

Yet to Jeff Nelson, such talk is a little unsettling.

Sure, Nelson set the national high school record of 8 minutes 36.3 seconds in the two-mile as a Burbank High senior in 1979. And yes, he stills holds the three-mile course record (14:32 in 1978) on the vaunted Mt. San Antonio College cross-country layout. But that's history.

While he grudgingly admits that he had some success in high school, Nelson does not dwell on it.

"Back then, those times never really seemed that impressive," he said. "I never really thought my marks were that good. But here it is, 11 years later, and they're still standing. . . . It does make you feel pretty good."

Dave Kemp, 51, Nelson's high-school coach, trained a slew of elite runners during his 16 years at Burbank. But he said none were comparable to Nelson.

"The guy was from another planet," Kemp said. "He was a one-in-a-million kid. The first time I saw Jeff run, I couldn't believe someone could come out of the woodwork with that kind of talent.

"There was something about him that was so unique. I remember telling (Burbank Athletic Director) Frank Callum, 'This kid is going to be unbelievable.' Jeff just had that kind of natural talent."

So why didn't he become the next Prefontaine? Part of the answer lies with Nelson, who still lives in Burbank, less than a mile from his parents, and who has spent the past seven years working as a pressman at Librascope, a defense contractor in Glendale.

Unlike some elite runners, Nelson was never obsessed with his exploits. Nor did he derive a lot of ego gratification from his achievements.

Instead, Nelson was a big rock 'n' roll fan. He once ran in the high school 1,500 meters in the Muhammad Ali Invitational wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt with the patented Sticky Fingers lolling-tongue logo.

Nelson ran for the fun of running, pure and simple.

But after a series of injuries during his first three collegiate seasons--the first at Oregon, the next two at Glendale College--he gave up serious competition in 1982. And he was able to walk away without looking back.

"I think what I did was right at the time," said Nelson, who won the two-mile run in the 1978 and 1979 state high-school championships. "I don't regret my decision. (1982) was the third season in a row that I'd been injured and running just wasn't worth it to me any more."

Cal Linam, a teammate of Nelson's at Burbank who recently was named as cross-country coach at the school, said that running had never been "life and death" for Nelson, despite all his success.

"I honestly think it was just something fun for Jeff to do," Linam said. "He and Lin Whatcott were buddies in junior high and Lin's brothers had run at Burbank, so when they got to high school, running just seemed like the natural thing to do."

Nelson said that Burbank's rich distance-running tradition influenced his decision to compete there, although he had never run competitively before.

"In junior high, we had heard about guys like (Mark) Covert, (John) Musich and (Kevin) Burkin," Nelson said. "And we wanted to be a part of that."

Covert went on to win the NCAA Division II cross-country title for Cal State Fullerton in 1970. Musich won the 880-yard run (1:51.0) in the 1974 state meet and Burkin set a then-Burbank record of 9:02.8 in the two-mile in 1976.

Burkin's record would stand for only two years, however, as Nelson lowered it four times during his career at Burbank.

The fourth occasion took place in the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA in May, 1979. Competing against a field of Olympic-caliber runners, Nelson finished third in 8:36.3.

That mark destroyed Craig Virgin's national outdoor record of 8:40.9 and was also faster than Gerry Lindgren's indoor mark of 8:40.0 set in 1964.

So when Nelson enrolled at Oregon, the comparisons to Prefontaine--a former Oregon runner who broke every U. S. record from 2,000 through 10,000 meters--were inevitable.

Alberto Salazar--who would set U. S. records in the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon--and Rudy Chapa--who set a national record in the 3,000--were seniors at Oregon when Nelson arrived, and he was expected to follow in their footsteps.

But Nelson soon discovered the camaraderie that had existed among his teammates at Burbank was nowhere to be found at Oregon.

"Every workout was a race," said Nelson, who at 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds is 13 pounds heavier than he was as a senior at Burbank. "Every run was incredibly intense and, being a freshman, I wasn't used to it. I felt like I was being thrown to the lions. . . . Your teammates weren't really teammates. Everyone was out for blood, all the time."

Despite his uneasiness with the Oregon way of doing things, Nelson was the No. 5-man on a cross-country team that finished second in the NCAA championships.

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