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Great Moments in Pre-History

"A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding."
--Steve Prefontaine

Steve Prefontaine
Steve Prefontaine
   There are plenty of historical figures with two biographical movies detailing their lives. But how many historical figures have two biographical movies detailing two different lives?
   Welcome to the strange story (stories?) of Steve Prefontaine.
   In 1975, "Pre" was the dominant track & field figure in the United States. He was the star of every meet he went to, won nearly every race he ran, and the crowds would stand up and chant his nickname: "Pre! Pre! Pre!", at the end of every race.
   At the time, Prefontaine owned every American track record between two miles and six miles. He also held eight collegiate records while at the University of Oregon (his three-mile and six-mile records still stand). During his career, he broke his own or other American records 14 different times.
   Then in May of '75, the brash young Prefontaine died in a tragic James Dean-like car accident. Despite having never won an Olympic medal, he instantly became a legend in the track world.
   To this day, he continues to inspire runners across the world. Friends, competitors, and track historians still regale us with tales of his physical endurance, intense partying, and his legendary will to win.

Steve James, Jerod Leto
Director Steve James and actor Jerod Leto on the set of "Prefontaine."
So it was natural that Hollywood would chronicle Pre's story...
   ... But it was somewhat unnatural that two different film studios decided to do it in the same year. First Disney released Prefontaine, created by two-thirds of the team responsible for the classic basketball documentary Hoop Dreams: co-writer/director Steve James and co-producer/cinematographer Peter Gilbert. Then Warner Brothers responded later in the year with Without Limits, a competing Tom Cruise-produced/Robert Towne-directed project.

Robert Towne, Billy Crudup
Actor Billy Crudup and director Robert Towne on the set of "Without Limits."
   They both feature a driven, "Pre," complete with scraggly hair and cheezy moustache and brillo-pad-like 70's sideburns, but there are distinct differences in the films, because each story's point of view comes from a different track coach and a different girlfriend, all of whom claim to be the biggest influence on Pre's life. Prefonataine was inspired from recollections of Oregon track coach Bill Dellinger and Pre's last girlfriend, Nancy Alleman. Without Limits, on the other hand, used as its consultants Oregon's other track coach, Bill Bowerman (who went on to create Nike shoes), and second-to-last girlfriend Mary Marckx.
   Which story is better? You decide. But we can show you how close each film is to the facts:

Prefontaine
"Prefontaine"

Released: 1998
Released by: Disney
Created by: Hoop Dreams director Steve James and co-producer Peter Gilbert.
Consultants: Coach Bill Dellinger; Nancy Alleman, last girlfriend

Without Limits
"Without Limits"

Released: 1998
Released by: Warner Brothers
Created by: Producer Tom Cruise and Personal Best director Robert Towne.
Consultants: Coach Bill Bowerman; Mary Marckx, second-to-last girlfriend

Prefontaine
Story: The life of famous 1970s distance runner Steve Prefontaine (Jared Leto) from his early days at Oregon University, through the tragic 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Without Limits
Story: The life of famous 1970s distance runner Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) from his early days at Oregon University, through the tragic 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Prefontaine
Coach: Prefontaine worked with the legendary track coach Bill Dellinger (Ed O'Neill) and his assistant, retired coach Bill Bowerman (R. Lee Ermey).

The Truth: Bill Dellinger was the technical, day-to-day coach of Prefontaine, but Pre looked to Bill Bowerman to be his mentor and "teacher of life," according to (second-to-last girlfriend) Mary Marckx.

Without Limits
Coach: Prefontaine worked with the legendary track coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) and supportive assistant Bill Dellinger (Dean Norris).

The Truth: Bill Bowerman was originally Pre's college coach, but retired in 1972. He remained active in the program, however.

Prefontaine
Girlfriend: Prefontaine has a troubled relationship with true love Nancy Alleman (Amy Locane).

The Truth: Nancy Alleman was on the Oregon track team and was indeed Pre's last girlfriend. She said that when she saw him for the last time (on the night of his death), she thought to herself that he would make a good husband and father one day.

Without Limits
Girlfriend: Prefontaine has a troubled relationship with true love Mary Marckx (Monica Potter).

The Truth: Pre began dating Mary Marckx during her freshman year. "I would always say that we were very good friends, and very bad lovers," Marckx told the Register-Guard newspaper. Pre was in fact dating Nancy Alleman, not Mary, at the time of his death, although he told Mary that he'd "never let her go."

Death: Pre leaves a party at Geoff Hollister's house at 12:15 A.M. and approaches the Birch Lane intersection, where there is a sharp curve. Pre swerves the MGB to avoid a mysterious car which has veered into his lane and he bounds over the curb. Pre's car hits the side of a natural rock wall and rolls back over on top of him. The MGB crushes him to death.

The truth: A drunken Prefontaine left the party at Geoff Hollister's house at 12:15 A.M. with Nancy Alleman and running mate Frank Shorter. Pre drove Nancy down to the University of Oregon, then took Frank to track star Kenny Moore's house. Heading home, Pre drove his '73 MGB toward the Birch Lane intersection, where the convertible hit the side of a natural rock wall and flipped, crushing Prefontaine to death. Pre's blood/alcohol content was twice the legal limit at the time of his death.

Death: Pre leaves a party at Geoff Hollister's house at 12:15 A.M. with running mate Frank Shorter. Before leaving, he tells his girlfriend, Mary Marckx, that he will come back to the party to talk with her after driving Shorter home. Pre drives Frank home to future Without Limits screenwriter Kenny Moore's house on the top of Skyline Boulevard. Pre drops Shorter off at the house, then approaches the Birch Lane intersection, where there is a sharp curve. Pre swerves the MGB to avoid a mysterious car which has veered into his lane and he bounds over the curb. Pre's car hits the side of a natural rock wall and rolls back over on top of him. The MGB crushes him to death.

The truth: Mary did not see Pre on the night that he died. The Eugene police questioned the driver of another MGB that had been seen at the crash site, but he passed a lie-detector test and charges were dismissed.

Prefontaine
Quote: Pre looks at coach Bill Bowerman's swoosh design for Nike shoes, tears it off, and says, "looks like needless air resistance to me."
Without Limits
Quote: Pre looks at Without Limits' creative consultant Bill Bowerman's swoosh design for Nike shoes and says, "I like it."

Visit the official Steve Prefontaine site here.

Jeff Hause lives in Los Angeles, California, and enjoys it about as much as the Raiders and Rams did. You can e-mail him at jeff@sportshollywood.com.

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