An old friend’s sobering achievements

By Joe Bush

Act One: The setting: Moscow, Idaho, the home of the University of Idaho, 1984-86. A party, a bar (drinking age was 19 at the time), a friend’s home, wherever.

I was a freshman then a sophomore, far from home, bright but confused—torn between doing the right thing and doing the night thing. Example? The reason I came back to Illinois was because while waiting (and partying) in line for Van Hagar tickets for a night and a day I missed an important class. I thought there was no way I could recover the missed assignment, so I dropped enough classes to make me ineligible for financial aid. Pretty spontaneous stuff.

While there I crossed paths (and eyes) with a guy named Dan O’Brien. O’Brien, from Klamath Falls, Ore. was the No.1 high school decathlete in the country the year before; I was a talented but slow wide receiver from a small high school walking on the Vandals football team. I could have used his speed, he could have used my smarts.

Dan and I got along fine but were never best buddies because he hung around people I didn’t. He also tipped and smoked a few more than I did. I was at least making an attempt at scholarship while he was wasting one.

Every time a bunch of us got together to squash brain cells, we shook our blurry heads and whispered what a shame it was that Dan was misusing the talent we wished we had. The idea that we encouraged such abuse was always mentioned but qualified with, “But that’s not the point.”

Our sophomore year, Dan lost his full ride because of his grades, couldn’t get financial aid and was booted out in the spring of 1987.

I came back to Illinois before the school discovered Dan was freeloading in their residence halls. I figured to never hear his name again.

Second Act: The setting: early June, 1990 at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif, site of The Athletic Congress’s (TAC) USA/Mobil Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Carl Lewis was among the competitors.

Two decathletes are locked in a struggle for first, the young one having broken the first-day U.S. record set by Bill Toomey in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the older one behind but with his best events in front of him. The elder decathlete wins, the younger settles for two records—the first day mark and the furthest legal long jump (26-4) in a decathlon. Ever. In the world.

Act Three: The setting: my apartment. I did a classic sitcom double-take when I read O’Brien’s (the younger) name in the TAC article in the June 25 Sports Illustrated. I read it, moved on, then darted back up the page to his name. I experienced the emotion called I’ll be damned. The article tied the two decathletes together as former wastrels who used athletics to turn their lives around.

I called Dan yesterday; he said it was good to hear from me and I had to agree (you know what I mean). He said it took a while before getting back in shape; he went through a stint in the real world of work in the summer and winter of ‘87, still got high every day and drank like, well, like I used to.

He was making OK money making cabinets, but after he paid the rent and rented some alcohol, it was spent. He lost the job in November and didn’t go home for Christmas. His voice told me that was the low point. He said he wasn’t getting fat but “my lungs were hurting, no doubt about it,” when he asked his former Idaho coach, Mike Keller, if he could compete in a few indoor meets. Luckily, Keller said yes.

Keller talked OB (what we used to call him) into regaining his NCAA eligibility at Spokane Community College in the spring of ’88. The big fish in the little pond did just that while helping his new mates win their conference. In the conference meet, OB won five of seven events and placed second in the other two. “I needed that,” he said. “I needed to build back up.”

Better yet, he escaped his old Moscow crowd and roomed with guys too young to drink legally. OB trained in Moscow that summer and qualified for the Olympic Trials, where he led the decathlon until the second event when he hurt a hamstring, an injury which still nags him. He stayed and watched and realized that “if I was healthy, I could beat half these guys. I started thinking, ‘I gotta get busy.'”

But Dan wasn’t healthy. He picked up a DUI that fall and wrecked a bad influence’s car. Back to the old crowd. Still, OB made his grades back at UI in the fall and was eligible for spring ‘89 track. He grooved again, winning Indoor Track Athlete of the Year in the Big Sky Conference, and was seeded No.1 for the decathlon in the upcoming NCAA finals. He reinjured the hamstring, though, and made it to neither the NCAAs nor last year’s TAC championships. In the fall, he worked again and helped Keller coach, and in a Toronto meet took second in the five-event pentathlon, 30 points shy of an American record and right behind France’s Christian Plaziat, who broke the world record.

Now, OB talks about agents (he’s looking for one), endorsements (he needs an agent) and going on a speaking and clinical tour of Northwest high schools (he’d like to). He has played in a celebrity golf tournament, has a 12 handicap, and, no, he hasn’t cut out the fast life altogether. He says in retrospect so many people for so many years told him he was great, he was convinced he didn’t need to try. You can watch him try these next two weeks at the Goodwill Games in Seattle and in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Me? I rearranged my stuff as well. I like hunting and pecking about life’s games and those who play them, mainly because there is little math involved.

So OB and I will both get what we want, he on his thoroughbred, me on my plowhorse.