ROME — The runners were charging to the tape in the 1,500- meter final, but I can’t tell you who was in front. I was watching the guy in last place, the tall, sandy-haired American whose steps were labored and whose face was strained. He was way behind, maybe 60 yards, but I kept waiting for him to charge, to kick, to win. It was stupid. I can’t help it.

His name is Steve Scott. He is the first athlete I ever interviewed.

That shouldn’t mean anything. I have interviewed hundreds since: baseball stars, basketball stars, Super Bowl winners, Hall of Famers. But back then, I didn’t know all that was coming. Back then, I was a free-lance writer, looking for work, and Scott was a big name in his field — the best American miler in history, and our top hope for an Olympic gold in the 1,500.

A small running magazine had commissioned me to write a feature story. Two hundred bucks. If Scott would agree. I called him on the phone. My voice cracked with nerves. He agreed anyhow.

“You want a Coke?” was the first thing he said, welcoming me into his home. We sat in his living room, he endured my amateur questions for hours. He even showed me around his neighborhood, because I thought it would
“strengthen” the piece.

I liked the guy. He was easygoing, he laughed a lot. He seemed crazy about his family — his wife and baby son. I mentioned that the 1984 Olympics would be a money-making opportunity, and that athletes such as Edwin Moses and Mary Decker already had big contracts. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging, “I guess I should do something like that.”

Because the magazine could not afford to send a photographer, Scott gave me a few pictures from his family photo album before I left. He trusted me to return them.

That, it would turn out, was a mistake. Big mistakes in big races

Time, since then, has been kinder to me than Scott. I was hired by a newspaper, then a bigger newspaper, then a bigger one. I have made some money. Seen much of the world. Things have gotten better and better.

Scott, meanwhile, finished second in the 1,500 at the 1983 world championships — outkicked by Britain’s Steve Cram. Then, determined to avoid the same fate, he tried a different tactic in the Olympics. He ran from the front. It was a mistake. He finished 10th.

He was still one of the best in the world, but the two “big” races didn’t work out. The endorsement money came and went, showered itself on Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton and other Olympic success stories. Scott remained fairly anonymous. He was 28, no longer young for track. What could he do? He kept running.

I would see him at least once a year, somewhere, even though his was now a
“minor” sport in my work. We talked at the ’84 Olympics, and the national championships in 1985, and last summer at the Goodwill Games in Moscow. He always remembered me, always smiled when he heard how well things were going. And he always asked about the pictures, laughing, and I always promised to return them, laughing.

“First thing when I get back!” I always said. He’s the designated veteran

I know this makes no sense. But somehow, I always figured as long as I was writing sports, Steve Scott would be a topflight runner. We’d sort of parallel each other. After all, in no small way, his kindness had affected my career choice; he made me want to try another sports article, and another, until it suddenly became my job.

I figured his big success was just a matter of time. But time passed. Once, the mile and 1,500 belonged to Scott, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Now others rule. New faces. Younger legs. Scott is a “seasoned veteran.” Which means: slower.

Sunday in this world championship 1,500 he was the slowest. Dead last. Afterward, reporters crowded the tunnel, where you must request an athlete for an interview.

“Scott, No. 1,080,” I said to the staffer. He disappeared, then returned minutes later.

“Mr. Scott has left. He said he is very tired and does not feel good. He is sorry.”

I understood. He was frustrated. Embarrassed. Last place. But that didn’t matter to me. I only wanted to say hello. I ran outside, looked for him by the exits. But he was gone.

And that, I suddenly realized, was that. Unless he makes the Olympic team next year, which is hardly for certain, I may not see him again. “I can’t believe it,” I half-mumbled to a colleague.

“Scott?” he said. “Hey. The guy’s washed up.”

There is a sports columnist in Chicago who loves to criticize the local athletes. I once asked whether he worried about facing his targets. “Nah,” he said, “I’ll be here longer than they will.”

I never understood what he meant. Until now. I have a flight home today, to a pennant race, a football season, a year even better than last. And Steve Scott, the athlete who, in many ways, got me started, is 31 and slipping. Growing older, I guess they call this. But it doesn’t seem fair.

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