Growing up 10 years apart in the small town of Alvin, Texas (pop. 16,515), Nolan Ryan and Jim Howard each spent long hours learning to deliver the high, hard one. Ryan threw baseballs, Howard threw his body. Ryan became history's most prolific strikeout pitcher. Howard, now 25, became a proficient, if unspectacular, high jumper, a guy good enough to flesh out the field at major meets but hardly a household name. At last Friday night's Wanamaker Millrose Games in New York, Tom Jennings, manager of the Pacific Coast Club, of which Howard is a member, said, "I received a list of entries for this meet, and Jim wasn't even included. It was just an oversight—but that's the story of his life."
It was past midnight, and all but a few hundred of the 18,328 Madison Square Garden spectators had headed for home when Howard lined up for his third and final try at the American indoor record height of 7'8". This was Howard's chance to unleash his big league speed (4.55 for 40 yards, excellent for a high jumper) and fire one past the existing U.S. indoor mark of 7'7¾" set by Jeff Woodard in 1981. Then, Howard figured, people might respect his talent.
The Garden was silent, save for the low hum of overhead ventilating fans. Howard, whose run-up is so long he had to stand two lanes up the Garden's banked plywood track, shook the kinks out of his 6'5½", 172-pound frame and stared, transfixed, at the crossbar. "It's all yours, Jimmy!" shouted a voice from the stands, breaking the calm. "C'mon, it's gettin' late!" howled another.
Howard and Olympic silver medalist Patrik Sjoberg of Sweden, both having cleared 7'7", were the only remaining competitors in the final event of what had been a marvelously unpredictable Millrose evening. Many of the 83 Olympians on hand from last summer's Los Angeles Games had been knocked off by little-known upstarts, while others had reversed their Olympic misfortunes. Howard, a 1980 Olympian who washed out at last year's U.S. trials at 7'1½", had been trying all evening to convince himself that he could pull off one final upset. "I've tried 7'8" so many times and failed," he would say later. "I figured this would be just another of my failures."
February 4, 1985
While Howard prepared to jump, Sjoberg, a cocksure 20-year-old with long flaxen hair, sat silently on the infield floor in his silver-gray astronaut warm-ups. He, too, figured Howard would fail. Howard, after all, is an anachronism, an Avery Brundage-style amateur who actually works 40 hours a week as a utilities and energy engineer for Anheuser-Busch in Houston. What's more, he has to take vacation days to attend meets. He had put in a couple of hours at the office on Friday before flying to New York, arriving only three hours before the meet. Sjoberg, underestimating his opponent, had decided to pass at 7'8", let Howard fail at that height and then try to beat the indoor record (7'9¾") set by Carlo Thranhardt of West Germany in 1984.
At last, Howard took a couple of skip-steps and began his approach. "I'd been getting uptight and running at the bar too fast on my two misses," he would say later. "I decided to slow it down." In other words, Howard was going to his change-up. He loped ahead, his body twisting sideward like a sail, and curved gently toward the bar from the right. He planted his right foot, launched his body and slipped cleanly over the bar. Howard had not only set the American indoor mark, but he had also matched Dwight Stones's U.S. outdoor record. The die-hard spectators whooped and howled at such a reward for their perseverance.
All the evening's other activities were, of course, long over. Carl Lewis had extended his unbeaten streak in the long jump to 39 meets over nearly four years with a 27'10¾" performance. Sammy Koskei of Kenya, who claims he was cut from his nation's Olympic team as punishment for having lived and trained in the U.S. for the previous five years, shattered Don Paige's world 11-lap-track indoor record for 1,000 meters with a clocking of 2:18.62. In the men's 60-yard hurdles, Greg Foster upended Olympic champion Roger Kingdom and afterward described his 1984 No. 2 world ranking behind Kingdom as "a hoax." Two days later, in Chicago, Foster backed up his words by running a disputed 6.30 in the 50-meter hurdles, which, if confirmed, would be a world indoor record.
Mary Decker. She came to New York shaken and emotionally drained, not from her famous Olympic controversy, but because she'd been assaulted six days earlier while training near her hometown of Eugene, Ore. According to Decker, a man in his late 20s or early 30s rode up behind her on his bike, asked if she'd seen a black and white dog, then jumped onto her back and tackled her. He allegedly asked her for money and claimed to have a knife. "He kept saying, 'I want money,' " says Decker. "I said, 'I don't have any.' He said, 'If you're lying, I'll kill you.' " Decker says she finally broke free and ran to a nearby road, where she flagged down a car and escaped. As she took to the track for the women's mile on Friday night, bystanders noticed a large bruise on her left thigh—an unwelcome souvenir of the incident.
Decker had originally felt confident that at this meet she would be able to lower her world indoor mile record of 4:20.5, set three years ago in San Diego. But it was not to be. Running alone for the last two-thirds of the race, she finished in 4:22.01. "I used up a lot of adrenaline I probably should have saved for the race," she said afterward, referring to her mugging. "It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life." Decker says she will never again be able "to just take off on a run whenever I want to." Her freedom, it seems, shrinks daily.
Decker was already back at her hotel when the high jump bar was set at world-record height for Howard and Sjoberg, and an injustice of more momentary significance came to light: Votes for the 78th annual Millrose Games' outstanding athlete award had already been turned in. To be fair, the winner, Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland, the world indoor record holder in the mile, had come back to win his sixth Wanamaker Mile (in 3:53.82) after almost a year of forced inactivity caused by multiple stress fractures. "I had the hometown edge," said Coghlan, who has lived in or near Rye, N.Y. since 1980. But Howard and Sjoberg hadn't had a chance to show their stuff by the time the votes had been cast. They did now, with the bar resting at the world-record height.
Howard jumped first. He scraped the bar lightly and brought it down. "C'mon Jimmy!" someone shouted. Sjoberg took his turn. Same result. Both jumpers tried again and failed—just barely.
On his 13th and last jump of what had been a very long day, Howard again missed by a hair. He rose from the pad, smiling, a fist raised. When Sjoberg, too, narrowly missed his last try, Howard was the winner, and he soon found himself surrounded by reporters, a rare experience indeed. Normally taciturn, he appeared caught up in the moment.
"I'm so glad I broke through the [7'8"] barrier!" he said grinning. His confidence seemed to grow with every question he answered. "I'm sure that the 12,000 people who left," said Howard, "will be sorry they did when they read the paper tomorrow morning." Then, 17 hours after he had begun the day in Houston, he went out into the midwinter chill of New York City, headed for his hotel and sleep.