Eighty thousand spectators roared in Munich's Olympic stadium in 1972 as a diminutive, shaggy-haired American runner surged to the front in a pack of 13 competitors circling the track in the 5k race. The upstart was Steve Prefontaine, described this way to an international audience by a BBC announcer calling the race: "The American in front, almost a cult in the United States, he's a sort of athletic Beatle."
And a confident one. Before the race, "Pre" -- as he was known to his fans — had predicted he would run the last mile in four minutes, a blistering pace for a 3.1-mile race.
Back home, Jim Ferris watched as Pre took the lead. "I admired him for the gutsy move," recalls Ferris, who, shortly after the '72 Olympics, became one of Pre's teammates at the University of Oregon. "But I also remember thinking I wished he'd kept his mouth shut. He shouldn't have told everybody his game plan."
After dueling for two laps with the favorite, Finland's Lasse Viren, the 21-year-old American fell back. The top international runners had done what few Americans could: Stopped Pre. In a race that some feel is one of the most exciting in Olympic history, Pre was edged out of a medal and ended up a heartbreaking fourth.
As the Olympics unfurl again this week, long after Prefontaine's early death in a 1975 car accident, Ferris remains part of the Prefontaine story. Though he was outclassed as a runner by his world-ranking teammate and friend, Ferris' story is extraordinary in its own way, and his journey will take him back to Oregon in September, where he and his teammates will be honored.
Ferris thinks often about the iconic runner and that electrifying Olympic moment 40 years ago. He also thinks about his own journey from upstate New York to the Central Highlands of Vietnam to Eugene, Ore. -- the crucible of the modern running boom — and eventually, to Massapequa Park, where he lives today.
Now 65 and retired from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Ferris shares an adventure story in his catalog of iconic '60 and '70s experiences.
At the R.L. Thomas High School in upstate Webster, Ferris was an indifferent student but a standout distance runner. When he graduated in 1966 he knew what was facing him: Vietnam. "It was something that everybody in my generation had to deal with," he said. "Some guys got deferments, some guys got married to avoid it, some guys falsified physicals. There was no way around it."
Ferris chose the most direct route: He enlisted.
He joined the Army and arrived in Vietnam in March 1967. Ferris was assigned to the 155th Assault Helicopter Company, stationed at an air base outside of Ban Me Thuot, a city in the Central Highlands "We did everything from combat assault to emergency resupply," Ferris says. "There was a lot of crazy stuff that went down."
In his rush to help in getting one of his unit's choppers airborne to rescue a downed crew during the Tet Offensive of 1968, Ferris was accidentally knocked 10 feet to the ground by the aircraft's rotor. He fractured his heel, sprained both ankles and tore ligaments in his legs. He then crawled back on the chopper and went on the mission anyway. Eventually, his bravery during Tet and in several other engagements earned Ferris the Army's Bronze Star.
A few months later, he was rotated out of Vietnam to Germany. In August 1969, he was discharged. In the airport in Frankfurt, he bumped into a young American who needed help sorting out money. "I had marks, he had dollars," Ferris recalls, "so I helped him figure out how to pay for his lunch." The young man was Prefontaine, on his way back home from a track meet in Europe. Both had grown up in small, blue-collar towns, and they also had running in common. With hours to kill before their flights home, they sat and talked. Prefontaine was 18 and just out of high school. Ferris, at 22, was a battle-tested war veteran. "I was in my Army uniform with the sergeant stripes and two rows of ribbons," he said. "I think that made a big impression."
Ferris told Pre he was hoping to attend junior college on the G.I. Bill. "Steve said, 'When you're done, you should come to Oregon." For the next two years, while Ferris was at Monroe Community College in Rochester, they exchanged letters regularly. Ferris then applied and was accepted to the University of Oregon for the 1972 fall semester. He also made the track team as a walk-on. Led by Pre, that team was a national powerhouse. "I had no business being with these guys," Ferris says modestly. With lingering leg injuries from Vietnam, "I couldn't do nearly the amount of training they did."
Mark Feig, who ran the mile at Oregon, remembers the first day Ferris arrived. "I said: 'Who's this older guy?' When we found out he'd been in the service, it was really cool."
Pat Tyson, a star on that Oregon team and Prefontaine's roommate, says of Ferris, "There was nobody like him on our team of over 40 runners." Tyson and Feig acknowledge that Pre had a special relationship with the Vietnam vet.
"I think because he was a little older and had been in the service, Steve felt he could speak to Jim in a way he couldn't with a lot of the younger guys," says Feig.
Ferris had another brush with history during his time at Oregon: The head coach was Bill Bowerman — the man credited with inventing the modern running shoe (he famously made the now-common "waffle bottom" soles using his wife's waffle iron). Bowerman was constantly tinkering and one day gave Pre a new pair to try. Ferris remembers the star runner grumbling, "I'm tired of being his experiment." He handed the shoes to Ferris, saying, "Here, you try these." Bowerman and one of his former Oregon runners, Phil Knight, eventually adapted some of these models for a running shoe company they co-founded, now known as Nike. Ferris still has the "Pre" prototypes.
After graduating in 1974 with a degree in recreational therapy, Ferris hitchhiked 3,000 miles home. Pre continued to compete, ready to claim the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics that had eluded him in Munich. He never made it. On May 30, 1975, he was killed when his sports car swerved off the road while he was driving home from a party in Eugene. Ferris, back in upstate New York, was devastated by the news. "It still bothers me to this day," he says.
Pre's James Dean-like death at age 24 sealed his iconic status, one that would yield a documentary in 1995 called "Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story," and two movies about his life, "Prefontaine" (1997) and "Without Limits" (1998).
Ferris would remain single until he met a gal from Long Island while working at a sports camp in Connecticut in 1988. He and his wife, Kristine, who is 49 and grew up in South Hempstead, have been married for 21 years. They have two children, Erin, 16, and Sean, 12. Retired from the V.A. since 2004, Ferris remains active as a volunteer for local veteran's groups.
"Jim is a low-key guy who doesn't brag," says Joe Slattery of Plainview, president of the Long Island National Cemetery Memorial Organization, a volunteer group that assists the paid staff at the cemetery in Farmingdale. Ferris, Slattery says, "is my go-to guy."
Although Ferris bikes to stay in shape, he has not run consistently in years. There are no what-if's about his war injury, although he has mixed feelings about the war itself. "I'm proud of my service, but after Tet, I realized that we shouldn't be there," he says.
This September, members of the college's cross-country team of the early 1970s — four-time national champs — are being inducted into the University of Oregon's Athletics Hall of Fame. Ferris considers himself a marginal member of the team, so when got his invite, he wrote the athletic department to say that he wasn't worthy of being inducted with the likes of Pre and the other stars.
Feig, Tyson and other long-ago teammates helped convince him to attend. "Pre would have wanted him there," Tyson says. "He would have said, 'Jim you were part of this.'"