Saturday, August 11, 1990 
Valley Edition 
Section: Sports 
Page: C-12 


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; 


By: 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.

After visiting Burbank during the Christmas break, Nelson returned to
Eugene in 1980 with a renewed spirit. But things did not improve.

Nelson had a major altercation with Salazar because he--a
freshman--had the audacity to outkick the senior at the end of a workout.

"That just wasn't done up there," Kemp chuckled. "The freshmen were
supposed to be cannon fodder for the stars up there, and that went
against everything Jeff knew. He felt that you always gave your best."

After running 8:41 for two miles in an indoor meet in Portland, Nelson
began to experience pain in his right ankle in the early part of the
outdoor season. The Oregon coaching staff told him not to worry about it.

"You weren't expected to get injured up there, and if you did, you
were expected to run through it," Nelson said. "Their attitude was, 'If
it hurts, just take more aspirin.' "

Eventually, Nelson had to stop running for several weeks. Although the
injury developed into a stress fracture, Oregon Coach Bill Dellinger
still expected him to run in the Pacific 10 championships in May.

"That was kind of the final straw," Nelson said. "I told them that I
was in no condition to race--I was barely starting to run again--but
their attitude was, 'Look, you're on a full ride here, and we're going to
get our money's worth out of you. . . .'

"I decided right then that I didn't need that kind of pressure.
Running wasn't fun up there."

Nelson transfered to Glendale College in the fall and led the Vaqueros
to the state junior college cross-country title with a dominating victory
at Griffith Park.

He started the 1981 track season in fine form--running a 4:04 anchor
mile as Glendale set a national JC record in the distance medley
relay--but sciatic nerve problems sidelined him for the rest of the
season.

Having used up his junior college cross-country eligibility, Nelson
trained for the 1982 track season after recovering from the injury. But
when tendinitis in his left Achilles' tendon forced him to stop running
again, he'd had enough.

"I still wonder how far he would have gone if not for a couple of
untimely injuries," said Whatcott, who ran in the 1984 Olympic Trials
marathon and has a personal best of 2:14:09. "The guy was just a superior
runner. He just seems to have this mechanism that turns on and you wonder
if the guy is feeling any pain."

Kemp echoed Whatcott's sentiments.

"It's too bad his career ended the way it did," he said. "Jeff is
unlimited in what he's able to do in distance running. The only
limitation is himself. . . . If he wanted to, if he really put his mind
to it, I still think he could be the single greatest distance runner we
have in America."

But before attributing Kemp's comments to an overzealous coach
glorifying one of his past athletes, consider the source.

Kemp was the one who predicted, in 1977, that Nelson would break
Virgin's national record for two miles. Kemp was the one who told Nelson
he would run 8:35 in the Pepsi meet in 1979, and Kemp was the one who ran
100 miles a week with Nelson during the summer before his senior year.

"(Jeff) believed fully in me and I believed completely in him," Kemp
said. "And when that happens between a talented athlete and a coach, good
things are bound to happen."

After running 9:28 in the two-mile to win the Southern Section 3-A
Division sophomore title, Nelson won the 1978 state title in 8:59.28,
upsetting Rod Berry of Larkspur High in Redwood City.

"That was a real breakthrough race for me," Nelson said. "I still
consider that the real highlight of my career. That was the first time I
had broken nine minutes and it was my first state title. Plus, Berry had
said some pretty cocky things in the paper about how he was going to run
away with it."

Nelson outkicked him in a thrilling stretch battle.

Nelson's victory was doubly impressive because, due to a stress
fracture, he had not run a track race until the Foothill League finals.

The forced layoff didn't seem to bother him, however. He ran 9:18 in
the 3-A prelims, 9:13 to win the 3-A finals, and 9:06 to tie for first in
the Masters meet a week before the state championships.

"There was never any doubt in my mind that he could win state," Kemp
said. "Without the stress fracture, he might have broken the national
record as a junior."

After running 100 miles a week--including a high of 142--during the
summer, Nelson entered the cross-country season in phenomenal shape. In
the Mt. SAC Invitational, he ran 14:32 to smash the course record of
14:56.

A month later, he capped his fall season with a victory in the 3-A
championship meet.

Nelson's domination continued into the spring. He lowered his personal
best to 8:55.1 to win the high school two-mile at the Sunkist meet in
January, then ran 8:42.7 to finish seventh in the open race of the Jack
in the Box Invitational in San Diego.

In between, Nelson finished fourth in the U. S. trials for the World
Junior cross-country championships.

In March, he placed fourth--and was the top American--in the World
Junior meet in Limerick, Ireland.

On the track, he made sub nine-minute two-miles a common occurence,
running 8:55.0 in the Burbank Invitational, 8:36.3 in the Pepsi, 8:51.3
in the 3-A finals, 8:49.1 in the Masters meet and 8:47.35 in the state
meet in Sacramento.

To understand the significance of those clockings, consider that 10
years later, in 1988, Ernie Shepard of South Carolina was the only prep
runner in the nation to better nine minutes--and he did it just once.

But it was Nelson's victory in the state meet that left an indelible
mark in Kemp's mind.

"That was one of the greatest things I ever saw," Kemp said. "The
place was packed and on the entire last lap of the two-mile, the crowd
gave Jeff a standing ovation."

There is no doubt that superb natural talent contributed to Nelson's
success, but supreme confidence and a relaxed racing attitude were
equally important.

"(Jeff) was that rare person that never looked at anything and worried
about the consequences," Linam, the cross-country coach, said. "I mean, I
don't think the guy ever felt pressure."

A case in point was the 1978 Mt. SAC Invitational in cross-country.

As the teams milled about the starting line before the race, Nelson
realized that he had to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, there was not
enough time to use the restroom, so Nelson was contemplating using a
nearby ditch--shielded from view by some Burbank supporters--when the
starter called the field to its marks.

"It didn't even faze him," Linam chuckled. "He just got up to the line
and said, 'Oh, well, I can wait.'

"Then he went out there and just blew everyone away."

Nelson has experienced a lot since his glory days. For one thing, he
married--then divorced. He has a 5-year-old daughter who will start
kindergarten next month.

But he still gets the itch to start training seriously again.

"I was in pretty good shape in December of '88," Nelson said. "But
then I broke some bones in my foot in a freak accident trying to
kick-start my motorcycle. . . . Everything was just cut so short (after
high school).

"At the time I think I did the right thing, but I've still been
tempted in the past to come back and get in really good shape for an
indoor two-mile. That's still very tempting."






PHOTO: When injuries placed Jeff Nelson's running career at a
crossroads, the former Burbank High star chose an early retirement.
PHOTO: Nelson's unparalleled success in high school earned him a
national record, a scholarship to Oregon and a full-page tribute in the
Burbank yearbook.
PHOTOGRAPHER: DAVID BUTOW / for The Times
PHOTO: Jeff Nelson 
Type of Material: Profile