This White Boy Could Jump

Steve Keltner's long-jump record has endured for 44 years.

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Steve Keltner
  • Steve Keltner

In 1982, the City of Memphis, under the highly unusual circumstances of an interim mayoral administration, signed a Beale Street deal within a deal with Elkington & Keltner.

John Elkington and Steve Keltner were bright, young thirty-somethings who had attended law school at Vanderbilt and Memphis, respectively. Their real estate partnership name had a nice polysyllabic ring to it, but it didn't last. The city and a bunch of lawyers are still fighting over Beale Street. (See related story on page 10.) Elkington became the dominant personality, but Keltner has a remarkable story as well.

Sometime between 1963 and 1965, Keltner realized he could fly. In his senior year of high school at MUS, he broad-jumped 23 feet, 6 inches, which was a local and state record. MUS is a wealthy private school with some of the best coaches and facilities in Memphis. It attracts more than its share of athletes who train harder, lift longer, and specialize in one sport from the time they are 8 or 9 years old. But 44 years later, Keltner still holds the school record in the long jump. His 1965 leap would have won the 2009 Tennessee State Division II championship by almost two feet.

Keltner, 62, still lives in Memphis and works in real estate. He is still fit but has Parkinson's Disease and has not run in a race or jumped a hurdle in 40 years, when he ran track at the University of Tennessee and helped set a short-lived world record.

Plagued by doping scandals, track has fallen in the amateur and professional pantheon. It enjoyed a brief resurgence last weekend when Usain Bolt of Jamaica set a new world record of 9.58 seconds in the 100 meters. In the 1960s, however, track meets drew big crowds in Memphis at the fairgrounds and at high schools like Manassas, where Keltner's rival, Bill Hurd, now a Memphis eye doctor and jazz musician, was the fastest man in town. In the low hurdles in the 1965 state meet, Hurd took first and Keltner third. Hurd went to Notre Dame and set a world record in the 300-meter indoor dash. The two Memphis contemporaries both set world records in track within a year of each other.

At Tennessee, Keltner found himself in fast company. "World-class" beats "very good" as surely as a Corvette beats a Mustang.

"One second equals nine yards, and that's a hell of a lot of difference," says Keltner. "I could see my competitors' times. I knew my limits."

The physics of broad-jumping can be brutal. Working out in a tobacco barn, Keltner felt his Achilles tendon explode in his push-off leg. That was the end of his career as a long-jumper, two years before Bob Beamon staggered the sports world by leaping 29 feet 2 inches in Mexico City, a record that would stand 23 years.

But Keltner had his moments. In the Modesto Relays, he ran against O.J. Simpson. In the 1967 Penn Relays, he helped set a world record in the shuttle high-hurdle relay at Franklin Field in Philadelphia in front of 35,000 people. Maryland broke it later that year. Madcap event, rarely run race, short-lived record. Say what you will, it's a big world, and for a few months Keltner was on top of it.

"I didn't dwell on it after UT," he said last weekend. "After college I never ran more than a mile. I liked playing basketball at home more than going to track meets or practice. I think I trained to my limit in high school. More strength training in college would have helped me."

His 23-foot, 6-inch broad jump was the overall state record for 13 years. For its place and time, it was a Beamonesque leap and a Bolt-like bolt from out of the blue.

"I am the farthest thing from a racist that you can be," he says with a laugh, "but I may still have the state record for white boys."

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