As a gracefully aging distance running icon, Bill Rodgers is usually thought of in terms of his role as a spokesperson for the sport, and as a genuinely nice guy. Even when we look back at Bill's racing career, we pull up images of Bill cruising, almost effortlessly, while crushing lesser men, in races all around the world. But there were other races, races that did not come easily, races where victory was decided by a trip into the maniacal competitor gear, the gear that brings out the snarl. The snarl is a signpost to the land of psycho effort, a place where, as Bill once said, "you have to go a little bit berserk". Call it what you will, it was a level of effort that seemed to separate Bill from his competitors, in the late 70's and early 80's. It was a refusal to lose, that seemed to gain an inertia of its own, as time after time, Bill pushed back his top rivals.
The 1978 Diet Pepsi 10,000 meter National A.A.U. Road Racing Championship is a classic example of Bill's refusal to be denied victory in races that he had considered important. He had a string of 16 road race victories behind him coming into this race. It was a race in which most of the top road racers in the U.S. were present. Through four miles five different runners had held the lead. The defining moment in the race came on the hill at the four mile mark. The race had come down to Bill, Greater Boston Track Club teammates Randy Thomas and Bob Hodge, and Minnesota's Gary Bjorkland, who was in the process of being dropped. As the hill began, Thomas lowered his head, and began to drive, pulling away from Rodgers. Hodge came up on Rodgers, and Bill became aware that he could be the third man on the Greater Boston T.C. that day. This was the point in the race where Bill put it into that maniacal gear. Moving away from Hodge, Rodgers was still 40 meters behind Thomas, on the downhill, where Rodgers' beautiful technique showed itself, he aggressively sprinted, arms going side to side for balance, legs striding all out, and caught Thomas in 400 meters. With 300 meters to go, as Greater Boston T.C. coach Billy Squires watched what appeared to be a changing of the guard, not only onthe G.B.T.C., but on the national road racing circuit, Thomas madeone last move, but Rodgers responded immediately and scratched and clawed his way to a less than one second victory.
|This photo, taken from Sports Illustrated on Oct. 2, 1978, says it all. Rodgers mouth open, teeth bared, eyes slit-like, hands reaching out, fingers wide open, reaching, clawing for the finish line, powering to victory with that maniacal effort and urgency, that seemed to be his alone.|
On a larger scale, we ask ourselves, "what makes an athlete great?" All of the top athletes are talented. They all have drive and work hard at what they do. So, what is it? It is often reflected in the face.
Photographs of Michael Jordan's face during big games, in crucial situations, are amazing. The raging intensity, the blazing eyes, and yes, the snarl, are all there. These are signposts to what makes one top athlete stand out from the others. It is a level of competitive drive that seems to be total.
It's what made Larry Bird great. It is a level of intensity that is total, and all consuming. The race becomes life and death. No one will really die, but the level of intensity reaches the point that it would if your life was on the line. This is war. This is blood and guts. Losing is unacceptable. A fear of losing is part of the impetus to win. The commitment is total, the effort is monumental and the need to win overwhelming. Success begets success, and gains an inertia of its own. These guys, the Michael Jordans, the Larry Birds, and the Bill Rodgers, had the total package, plus! What set them apart from the other top athletes, was the emotional commitment to winning.
A great example of the snarl as a signpost to psycho effort, was the duel on First Ave. between Bill and Gary Bjorkland in the 1978 New York City Marathon. Having been privy to Bill's reactions to races, over the years, I have noticed that Bill liked to put a marathon away somewhere in the middle and cruise home and enjoy the victory. You had the feeling Bjorkland's persistent surges down First Ave. ("It was like a three mile race", said Rodgers) were making Bill angry. He was being forced into psycho gear, and although it it was his ultimate ace in the hole, it could be an ugly place. Bjorkland was forcing him to go there, so it was like, "OK Gary, you want to go there, then we'll go there!" Bill went on to win his third consecutive NYC Marathon.
|This process is captured beautifully in this photo, where Bill is looking over at Bjorkland, and showing him the angry snarl. An amazing photo showing you a side of Bill that you wouldn't have thought existed. Exist it did, and in certain sets of circumstances, in certain types of races, it was the thing that separated Bill from the rest. It was the thing that made him great.|