The press pit at Memorial Stadium on the UW-La Crosse campus has always been located on the final stretch right in front of the finish line, so we decidedly-unathletic athletic scribes could claim dibs on the best viewing angles of the hottest WIAA state track races without having to strain ourselves too much.
Our photographers were always grateful for such vantage points too.
But things happen very fast on finals Saturday requiring some small degree of (ahem) dexterity on the part of the press crew. Multiple groups of medal winners are ushered in quickly while officials are setting up and running one final after another.
Toss in the field events and it seems a little like a circus without the elephants.
And if you’re not careful and you’re too engaged in the interview process, you might miss something very, very cool and very, very rare, such as what could loosely be described as the collective sound of disbelief from the 8,000 or so track nuts jammed into the stands when they witness something truly special.
And it happened more than once at the rare, nice weather 1997 state meet.
I almost missed one such occurence when I was interviewing some medal winners on that sunny (yes sunny) Saturday finals in 1997, when the boys D1 1,600 was run. The great Gabe Jennings of Madison East was gunning for a third straight state title in the event and had hopes of taking down the existing state record.
Turns out he was aiming at something quite a bit more, such as breaking the great historical barrier, four minutes for the mile (or the 1,600 in this instance).
The sound hit me as I was finishing up my interview and I snapped my head to the side just in time to see Jennings hit the 800 mark at around 1:58, 1:59. Suicidal for most good high school milers, and merely absurd for even elite runners such as Jennings.
But Jennings, a free spirit who eventually would win the Olympic Trials race in the 1,500, would bike from California to Brazil just for the hell of it and who took up the traditional Australian instrument the didgeridoo just for fun, felt it was a risk worth taking.
The noise turned deafening as everyone in the facility ignored everything except Jennings’ brave head-long surge at the milestone four-minute barrier that the late track god Sir Roger Bannister had first broken back in 1954.
He came up a bit short, as he won his seventh and final state track title in a brilliant career with a record shattering 4:04.97 time. The effort was so impressive that the greatest distance runner in Wisconsin prep history, Chris Solinsky of Stevens Point, could not exceed it six years later at his peak.
And 4:04.97 is still the time Wisconsin prep milers aim at, and view with awe.
The crowd showered Jennings with a roar of applause so sustained that it echoed back loudly off of Grandad’s Bluff in the distance, and me, a jaded ink-stained wretch of 38 years old at the time, was left slack-jawed.
The curious thing was that it was not the first time that something like that had happened that weekend.
I had had similar “once in a lifetime” experiences at prior state meets going back to the 1980s with distance queens Suzy Favor and Lori Wolter on the old Mansfield Stadium track in Madison, but only a handful in the first six, seven years of the state meet in La Crosse.
One I spoke about earlier, Nicolet’s Bryan Jones and his pre-thunderstorm 400, who struck lightning in a bottle with his still ridiculous 47.12 time in 1990 and another was Milwaukee Juneau’s Jason Smith in 1992.
There again I was lucky as I turned my head just in time to see Smith become the first Wisconsin prep athlete to clear 7-0 in the high jump at the state meet (future NFL star, and arguably one of Wisconsin’s greatest all-around athletes, David Greenwood of Park Falls, cleared 7-1 3/4 at an indoor meet in 1979).
The next closest things that come to mind would be Chad Call of Port Washington busting the pole vault record at 15-6 in 1991 and Scott Synold of Tosa West upping that by an inch in 1994, but those excellent sky-breaking efforts did not generate quite the response that Jennings (and one other) would create that weekend in 1997.
As I said, the 1997 boys meet was special. All told, 11 boys state records would be set that year, an impressive six in D3. Along with Jennings’ D1 1,600 mark, Jeremy Weir of Princeton’s D3 110 high hurdle (14.5) and Kurt Malnar of Cambridge’s D3 shot put records (59-9 1/4), all stubbornly remain unbroken from that particular state test.
And sprinter Michael Bennett of Milwaukee Bradley Tech would just add to the flavor and fun that year, because he was in full flight. It was his junior season and former Milwaukee Marshall star and Olympian Floyd Heard still owned the state 100 and 200 dash records.
Bennett had won the 200 as a freshman in 1995, but by 1997 he had filled out, gotten considerably stronger and become a powerful, blindingly fast running back who would go on to have a solid career at Wisconsin and have a short but impactful career in the NFL that included one Pro Bowl berth.
Everyone felt that something special could happen in Friday’s trials as Bennett hinted at some great things with a terrific outdoor season. He did not let anyone down. He took a full .1 of a second off Heard’s record in the 100 with a 10.38 mark and then became the first Wisconsin prep to record a fully electronic time of under 21 seconds in the 200 with a 20.86 effort.
Memorial Stadium erupted twice, as Bennett moved down the track with the speed of a thermometer stored in a freezer for a week that had suddenly been placed in a 120 degree desert.
Simply that quick, simply that astonishing.
He couldn’t quite replicate those times in the finals, but still cruised to easy state titles in both races as well as leading off Tech’s championship 4 x 100 relay.
The next year in 1998, Bennett rewrote his own records in the prelims and sucked all the air out of Memorial Stadium with sonic bomb-like efforts of 10.33 in the 100 and 20.68 in the 200. The former time still stands as the overall state record for the event 22 years later, while the latter lasted until the great Kenny Bednarek of Rice Lake essentially destroyed all D2 sprint records for all time in 2018 including his remarkable 20.43 thunderclap in the 200.
But Bennett could not repeat as state champion in 1998 as he pulled up with a hamstring issue midway through the 100 finals. It would have been fun to see him finish that race primarily because he was getting some serious competition and may have been pushed to still another record.
Further, the injury likely cost the Trojans the 1998 state team title, as without him, they still finished sixth, just nine points behind winner Racine Park.
B.J. Tucker of Nicolet, who made it to Glendale, Wisconsin via Sierra Leone in Africa and Seattle, wound up winning that 100 in a swift 10.52 in 1998. He would also win the 200 and anchor the Knights winning 4 x 100 relay. He would repeat all three feats in 1999. Like Bennett, he would spend time in the NFL, Tucker at defensive back.
But here’s where this story of greatness achieved falls to tatters on the altar of human fallibility.
With all his talent, it was monumentally depressing that Bennett couldn’t transfer all the fame and glory he earned in sports into something tangible outside of it. All Wisconsin track lovers, including me, just shook our heads two years ago in dismay, disbelief, disgust or a combination of all three, when Bennett was sentenced to five years in prison for burglary and identity theft.
A stunning and sad fall from grace.
Here’s hoping that when he gets out, Bennett finds a way back to a meaningful life, maybe not earning collective gasps of disbelief anymore, but maybe just a couple of honest pats on the back and a few solid handshakes on his way back to respectability and trust.
Let’s hope he can do that quickly as he ran.
UP NEXT: More from the late 90s. DC Everest and Racine Park dominate boys team action, two more four-time girls event champions, Arcadia boys reach a title peak behind the 4 x 400, Whitewater rises in the D2 girls team competition and still more girls 400 and 800 meter dynasties are created.