His Oregon connection began in Coos Bay, along the Oregon coast. His father had built a home there for his mother, his two sisters and his son, Steve Prefontaine.
During his tenure at Marshfield High School, Prefontaine was anything but spectacular. A regular freshman, without any sort of record in track. He ran the cross country at a personal best of 5:01.
Walt McClure, Jr. coached Prefontaine during his years at Marshfield. It was in 1965 when McClure first met Steve Prefontaine and because of Steve’s average run times, neither had a clue as to what would happen in years to come.
McClure’s father ran under the tutelage of Bill Hayward, of the University of Oregon and McClure himself ran under Bill Bowerman’s coaching expertise, as well.
McClure advised Steve to train rigorously over the summer months. During Steve’s second year, he had placed 53rd in a state championship and McClure knew this Coos Bay kid had something, yet it was undetermined at this point what that something was.
Steve failed to qualify for the state meet in his event, which was the two-mile. His coach recalls how he saw the potential in Steve during his sophomore year. Steve had the drive, the heart and the athleticism.
After working hard through the summer months, Steve ran cross-country undefeated in his junior year and he won the state title. He set a national record at the Corvallis Invitational with a time of 8:41.5. He procured two more state titles during his junior year, one in the mile and the second in the two-mile event.
People around the country began to notice the young man known as Steve Prefontaine. Thirty to forty colleges from across the nation attempted to recruit him. McClure wanted to see Prefontaine attend the University of Oregon, although he had not heard anything yet from Bill Bowerman. Bowerman states he wanted Steve but didn’t recruit him any differently than anyone else.
Prefontaine finally received a letter from Bowerman and chose the University of Oregon as his college.
During his college years, Prefontaine ran under Bill Bowerman. Bowerman, in 1964, founded Blue Ribbon Sports, which would be known later as Nike.
Steve made a name for himself during his time at Oregon. He won the NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championship three out of his four years. He passed on training for the fourth year, to go after bigger goals. Steve began to train for the Olympics in Munich.
Prefontaine was known for going full throttle and keeping it that way during his races. Steve used to say:
No one will ever win a 5,000-meter by running an easy two miles. Not against me. I am going to work so that it’s a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I’m the only one that can win it.
Each race at Oregon’s Hayward Field would capture the excitement of the fans for the runner. Screams of “Pre! Pre! Pre!” could be heard all around the track. Fans began donning t-shirts that read “Legend.” Fans for other teams would wear shirts that boasted a stop sign, covered with the words, “Stop Pre.” Prefontaine’s name was gaining national attention at this point. He was featured on the cover of Sport’s Illustrated at a young age of 19.
Prefontaine was ready for the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich. During the finals, he had the lead in the last mile. He slowed to third place with only 200 meters to go. Steve had run out of strength with only 30 meters to run and Ian Stewart came up from behind to procure the third place spot, taking the Olympic medal out of Pre’s grasp.
During his senior year at the U of O, he ended his college career with three losses, all in the mile event. Pre began to fight with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which demanded the athletes who wanted to remain in the amateur category for the Olympics not be paid for their appearances during track meets. Many found the statement an unfair outlook, due to the large crowds they drew to the meets. The crowds generated millions of dollars and athletes who generated the money for them were left to pay their own expenses. The AAU was taking the amateur status from those who were endorsed in any form and Pre was getting his clothing and footwear from Nike. His amateur status was removed.
Pre finished his college education at Oregon. He began to train for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. He was setting records in every race he entered, including the 2000 to 10000 meter events.
During his training, Steve took a night off to be with friends. He attended a party on May 30, 1975. He had a few drinks and took a friend, Frank Shorter, home. Heading through the Hendrick’s Park area on Skyline Boulevard, Steve’s 1973 MGB convertible swerved, smashing into a rock formation on the side of the road. The car flipped over, leaving Steve under the wreckage.
A resident of the area ran out to help free Steve from under the car but to no avail. The resident found Steve laying flat on his back, with the weight of the car pushing down on his chest. When the resident found he couldn’t lift the car, he ran to get help from others in the area. As they returned, they found the athlete dead.
Later, the reports came out that Steve had a blood alcohol level of .16. His family buried him at Sunset Memorial Park in Coos Bay. Nobody knows what made the car swerve that night. The roads curve around the hillside and are approximately one car width across. The idea of another car coming around the bend has been discussed or the possibility of the high alcohol content in Pre’s body may have been the sole reason. There is also the possibility that Pre fells asleep at the wheel. Whatever the case may be, Prefontaine's life came to an early end that night.
Pre is still celebrated in Eugene. The Prefontaine Classic is a well-known track event that draws athletes from across the nation. Over Steve’s career, he held the title for winning 120 out of 153 races he ran. He never failed to win a collegiate NCAA race as a University of Oregon runner.
A memorial now rests along the rock wall where Pre died. People from around the world stop and visit, leaving memorabilia behind to show their respect. A simple plaque with Pre’s picture and a few words encapsulate the feelings of all at the loss of such a gifted young man:
For your dedication and loyalty
To your principles and beliefs…
For your love, warmth and friendship
For your family and friends…
You are missed by so many
And you will never be forgotten…