This White Boy Could Jump

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Some time in 1963, Steve Keltner realized he could fly.

He was 16 years old that year. He was certainly not muscular or exceptionally coordinated. Years later, his friends would still kid him about his inability to catch a football. But on the track at Memphis University School or at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, he was a running and jumping fool. He leaped 20 feet that year in the long jump without much training or technique, just barreling down the runway, slamming that last step on the board and taking off, arms and legs windmilling through the air, flying over the sand pit and landing two or three feet farther than anyone else.

In his senior year he 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 go on to play varsity sports in college. Records are routinely broken as 18-year-olds train harder, lift longer, and specialize in one sport from the time they are eight or nine years old. Forty-four years later, Keltner still holds the school record in the long jump. His 23-6 in 1965 would have won the 2009 Tennessee State Division II championship by almost two feet.

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Keltner, 62 years old, still lives in Memphis. He has been in the real estate business for several years, including a partnership with John Elkington on Beale Street in the 1980s, long since dissolved. He is still fit, plays golf, and used to play tennis, 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. He competed with some legends including O. J. Simpson when the famous-to-infamous University of Southern California football star was still a sprinter on the track team.

Keltner's father was a golfer, and Steve wanted to be like him.

"I was a guy from Raleigh whose father threw him in with the bluebloods at MUS," he says.

When he was 13 he made a hole-in-one, which was to be the highlight of his golfing career for half a century. That was also the summer when he realized his natural gift was for jumping. First it was scissor-kicking over the high jump bar. Then he learned how to blast over the high and low hurdles. As he gained weight — "in a head wind I was dead" — and improved his speed and strength he developed his remarkable ability to launch himself higher and farther than anyone else in the state in the long jump.

Plagued by doping scandals, track has been supplanted by other sports 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, beating American Tyson Gay, who finished in a personal best 9.71. 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, a grueling, rarely run event. The two Memphis contemporaries both set world records in track within a year of each other in 1968 and 1969.

At Tennessee, Keltner joined a program that was not among the track elite but was on the rise, thanks to another star hurdler and football player from Alabama named Richmond Flowers. He found himself in fast company. A quarterback, pitcher, point guard, or tennis player can leverage natural ability with smarts and nerves. A sprint is basically a matter of horsepower. "World-class" beats "very good" as surely as a Corvette beats a Mustang. Keltner ran the 440-yard dash in 48 seconds, an excellent time for anything short of NCAA meets. "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."

He was still dabbllng with the long jump and had surpassed 24 feet when former Olympic champion Ralph Boston came to UT as an assistant. The physics of broad jumping can be brutal, as tremendous forces are transferred in a microsecond from a body traveling at sprinter speed to the bones, muscles, and ligaments of one foot. Working out in a tobacco barn on an off day, 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 the event became the most celebrated and talked-about one in the 1968 Olympics when Bob Beamon staggered the sports world by leaping 29 feet 2 inches in Mexico City, a record that would last 23 years.

The injury did not slow him down or prevent him from competing as a "utility man" on the UT team. To his dismay, his coach assigned him to the 440-yard hurdles, a punishing event that left elite athletes exhausted and overcome by "the bear" at the eighth hurdle with two more to come. He would train by pulling a bag of bricks called "the bread basket" tied to his waist. He took second place in the SEC meet, and later that year ran against Simpson in the Modesto Relays.

"I ran the third leg in the 400-meter relay. That's usually the slowest leg. O. J. ran the anchor leg for USC. Richmond Flowers was our anchor. I gave the baton to him as they were tied, but USC won."

It was in the 1967 Penn Relays that he set a world record. The shuttle high-hurdle relay is a frantic back-and-forth dash with runners taking off from a dead start and going in different directions like a sandlot relay. Each leg is 120 yards, which happened to be Keltner's sweet spot. At Franklin Field in Philadelphia in front of 35,000 people, he ran the first leg and Flowers the anchor as UT set a world record of 57.7 seconds. Maryland broke it later that year. The record is now slightly over 54 seconds.

Madcap event, rarely run race, short-lived record. Say what you will, it's a big world and and for a few months Keltner was on top of it. The UT Class of 1969 never lost an indoor or outdoor SEC track championship.

Keltner's swan song was an AAU meet in the fall of 1969. After that he hung up his spikes for good. In five years, he had set local and state prep records, SEC conference records, and a world record in multiple events.

"I didn't dwell on it after UT," he said over coffee at Otherlands 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 23-6 broad jump was the overall state record for 13 years. For its place and time, it was a Beamonesque leap.

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

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