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'I'm Houston McTear!'

By Tom Curran,
Posted Friday, June 27, 2008 11:57 AM ET

"I'm Houston McTear!"

Houston McTear (left), running in 1982.
Getty Images
Houston McTear (left), running in 1982.

I wasn't really. I was a little 9-year-old kid in suburban Massachusetts. More likely than not, I was wearing a pair of cutoff Toughskins, Jox sneakers and those kneecap-high tube socks with the thick double lines on them.

But when we lined up to race - to the big pine, to the shed, to home plate on our Wiffleball field - I was Houston McTear. And I would proudly announce that to my challengers, kids pretending to be Willie Wilson or O.J. Simpson, who would ask, "Who's Houston McTear?"

"World's fastest man," I'd answer.

And in my mind's eye, I looked exactly as he did when I burst from whatever starting line we decided upon. Exploding with the same headlong fury I saw captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March of 1978.

That cover, that poetically violent name and the yearning desire to be the fastest kid in my grade converged in my little mind and made Houston McTear a touchstone of my pre-teen days.

Hadn't thought much about Houston (or Jox sneakers) until May 31 of this year when Jamaica's Usain Bolt caused me to embark on one of those archaeological digs of the mind.

On that night, Bolt set the 100 meters record - 9.72 seconds. The accomplishment caught my eye - I've always been fascinated with the 100 - and so did the name. Bolt. Great name for a sprinter. Not as good as Houston McTear.

Whatever happened to Houston McTear, I wondered. Dead? Alive? Still racing? Was he really worthy of an SI cover or was it just a slow week down there?

I decided to find out what happened to McTear. In doing so, I shined light on the dark places around that SI cover image of him in my mind's eye. And I found a life story that's reads like a legend along the lines of Paul Bunyan or Daniel Boone.

"He's a mythical story but it's no myth," says Randy Vennewitz, a producer in L.A. for Fox Sports who's independently shopping a movie script on McTear's life. "A lot of people are interested in finding out whatever happened to the guy. He is one of the most searched names on most every track and field site. And now, people are wondering is it really true that he did what people said he did."

Nine flat

Anisa, age 9, holding Aailyah, age 1 1/2
Anisa, age 9, holding Aailyah, age 1 1/2

Everybody in Milligan, Florida knew Houston McTear was fast. He'd raced that train and won. And he'd beaten that horse at halftime of a Baker High School football game, coming out of the locker room at halftime in his uniform to race it across 100 yards of mud.

But how fast? This fast.

On May 9, 1975, Houston McTear tied the world record in the 100-yard dash by running it in 9.0 seconds. He was all of 18 and a junior running for Baker High in the Florida Class AA High School Track Meet.

A 1985 story in The Orlando Sentinel newspaper noted that, on the day McTear set the record, he was "living in Milligan, a backwoods, sawmill hamlet in the Florida Panhandle. Nearby Crestview was the big city. He was a study in no-frills living. His family existed in poverty. If he didn't reach the dinner table before his seven brothers and sisters, he didn't eat that day. Only the strong survived."

"Raw" doesn't begin to define what McTear was. He had no formal training, no nutritionist, no massage therapist or mind coach. He was, simply, the world's fastest human, living in virtual poverty not too far from the Alabama border.

According to the Sentinel story, of the three stopwatches timing the first-place finisher, one had 8.9 and the other two had 9.0.

"My first reaction was that they must have used the wrong starting line," Jim Vickers of Orlando, the head finish judge, said in 1985. "When I saw all three watches, we really didn't know what to do. I started hollering for the meet manager."

Stopwatches were impounded, the track was measured, the infield was surveyed and every skeptic had to be satisfied before McTear's record was validated months later. Two years later, the official switch to metric measure made a relic of McTear's 100-yard record. It also made the records he set in 1976 in the 50 yards (5.5) and 60 yards (5.8) obsolete.

Before that happened though, McTear's record run ended forever the simplicity with which he lived.

Blessing or curse

Aailyah McTear, age 1 1/2
Aailyah McTear, age 1 1/2

"I would say it was a bit of both, a curse and a blessing. I always thought I came along a little bit before my time. But then because of other things happening ... it never went the way we thought it would."

McTear is now 51 and living in Stockholm with his wife and ex-coach, Swedish sprint legend Linda Haglund.

Going from Milligan, Florida to Stockholm, Sweden takes some doing. McTear did.

Ferried from Florida to Santa Monica before he graduated high school, McTear fell prey to manipulative management. First with a plastics manufacturer who lost interest, then with Harold Rossfields Smith, who was in charge of the Muhammad Ali Track Club. It didn't take long for the vulnerable young McTear to get his priorities messed up. Running with a fast, drug-addled crowd trumped running fast on the track.

McTear qualified for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, but was unable to compete because of injury. In 1977, he ran the world's second fastest time in the 100-meters (10.13). From there the comet really started its downward descent. He went from being ranked first in the 100 meters in the U.S. in '77 to sixth in '78, third in '79, ninth in '80 (one spot ahead of Willie Gault) and then off the list for good.

When Rossfields Smith was busted for embezzlement and sent to jail in 1981, the money dried up and McTear was 2,500 miles from home, broke and without prospects. It got so bad that McTear was homeless for a time in Southern California in the early 80s, with a wife who he'd married in 1977 and a child living apart from him.

In 1985, at the age of 28, McTear told the Orlando Sentinel, "Right now, there's a huge void in my life. God made me to run, and I've abused the talent all these years. God gave out great bodies and great brains to different people. I got one of those bodies and someone else got the brains. That's why I never lived up to my potential. I didn't understand the picture."


Justice McTear, age 6
Justice McTear, age 6

The picture cleared some in the late eighties. McTear - who was perpetually talking about a comeback - was still in the Santa Monica area when he hooked up with Haglund.

"The first time I met him to train, he said to me, ‘Well, we'll see what a woman can do for me.' But he was very humble, very sweet about things. And when we started to work that day, I remember him saying, ‘I've been eating pasta. I'm not going to be very good today,' and being so apologetic."

Haglund, a world-class sprinter who ran for Sweden in the '72, '76 and '80 Olympics, was coaching at Santa Monica College when she began working with McTear.

"We have been very good for each other," she says. "We have been a good team in that sense. And just from looking at him - even though he wasn't in shape - I thought it would be fascinating to see what he could do with the right training because he brought all the raw material."

From Santa Monica, the two went to Sweden where McTear began competing in European events.

"He ran a 10.45 after three months of training in 1991," said Haglund. "That, to me, was amazing. To do that in three months after 10 years of struggles. To generate that speed? There's not too many people alive that could go through that and come up and just compete."

He won some races in Europe, opened some eyes again. But most importantly, he found his way. He married Haglund in 1993. He remains close to his kids, 30 and 23, and living in London and he has two grandchildren he brags on.

Could he have been the greatest ever?

"It was possible," he says with a trace of wistfulness. In spite of all the other problems I had, if my life hadn't occurred the way it did I could have really broke the clock. I felt like I was the world's fastest human."

And me, on those summer evenings three decades ago when I toed the starting line on my tree-lined street? I felt like I was Houston McTear.

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