“The detail with which he recounts his story and the emotion that spills onto the page — the elation of a breakthrough race, the disappointment of a poor one — make it an interesting read.”
“Coe does a stellar job of recreating the past, immersing the reader in the emerging counterculture….. Coe’s entertaining style and the endless supply of amusing anecdotes (make the book engaging)”
By Jonathan Gault
February 9, 2016
Despite hanging up his spikes over 40 years ago, Robert Coe still dreams of running. Sometimes, it might be a run around the campus of his alma mater, Stanford University. Other, more fantastic dreams have traversed the interior of Disneyland’s Matterhorn ride or the course of the New York City Marathon. It was these dreams that caused Coe, an accomplished writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Rolling Stone and Esquire, to compose a memoir centered around his days as an athlete at Stanford from 1968 to 1972. The result is JOCK: A Memoir of the Counterculture.
Coe’s idea is not original. I’m sure many runners-turned-writers have been inspired to write a book about their college days. It’s certainly crossed my mind from time to time. But the challenges presented by such a task are many. Unless the subject is a running legend — and Coe most definitely was not — there’s no inherent appeal in hearing the stories of one of the countless runners who never struck it big. And even if one were to write such a recollection, there need to be details, lots of them. I have a hard enough time remembering all my college stories, and I graduated less than three years ago. For someone to do so when they are over 40 years removed from the events in question would be difficult, to say the least.
Indeed, as Coe will readily admit, his own career was “no great shakes” (to borrow his father’s term), but spending his college years at a place like Stanford meant that Coe crossed paths with a litany of sporting legends. Consider: Coe’s teammates included Don Kardong, who would go on to place fourth in the 1976 Olympic marathon, Duncan McDonald, the first American to break 13:20 for 5,000 meters, and sprinter Charlie Francis, who became infamous for coaching Ben Johnson during the 1988 Olympics. Coe’s account of the inaugural Pac-8 Cross Country Championships (now Pac-12) in 1969, an epic duel between Gerry Lindgren and Steve Prefontaine, is a highlight (you can read an excerpt about that race here), as is the story of how Coe yelled splits for Ron Clarke when the Aussie set the world indoor three-mile record in 1969. Fortunately, Coe is more than up to the task. Thanks to 15 years of research drawing on training logs, letters and interviews with the principals, Coe does a stellar job of recreating the past, immersing the reader in the emerging counterculture. At 381 pages, the book is lengthy, but never for an instant is it boring, a credit to Coe’s entertaining style and the endless supply of amusing anecdotes that fill the book.
The famous names went well beyond track, however. Coe roomed with John Ferris, at that time already a two-time Olympic bronze medalist swimmer, and lived at the Beta fraternity house, where he crossed paths with all sorts of Olympians and NFL draft picks. He rolled joints for the football team’s defensive line, which, with Heisman winner Jim Plunkett at the helm, would win Stanford’s first Rose Bowl in 30 years (as you might expect from a work subtitled “A Memoir of the Counterculture,” Coe freely discusses sex and drug use, though it does not overwhelm the book). There are even appearances from a young Stevie Nicks, who played concerts on Beta’s front steps, and Sally Ride, whom Coe recalls seeing (or perhaps imagining) while tripping on mescaline.
These chance encounters add color, but what carries the book is Coe’s journey to find his place in a very confusing world. Coe struggles to reconcile his identity as a Stanford Jock, led by hyper-conservative coach Payton Jordan, and the counterculture erupting across the Stanford campus. Coe leans far more toward the anti-war, anti-establishment point of view (though Coe is highly critical of Jordan, an attaboy from the old coach still holds a certain appeal) but still faces a plethora of questions. Coe comes from a Stanford family, yet when he realizes that Stanford’s rise into a top-tier university is linked to the Stanford Research Institute’s work with the U.S. military during the Cold War, he is met with a conundrum:
“Stanford, Middle Earth of my family’s aspirations for me and my own image of myself, was built on the foundation of a war machine currently waging an illegal, immoral land war in Asia. Talk about being brought up ‘schizophrenic:’ the reality of my family’s university’s complicity in the War was something I could hardly begin to make sense of, but it hovered in the back of everything anyway.”
Coe ponders the same sort of existential questions when it comes to his running. His career has the makings of an underdog story, as he morphs from overlooked first-year to setting a freshman school record in the mile. But rather than serving as the first step in the path to the Olympics, his career unfolds in a more typical manner: occasional moments of brilliance separated by injuries and other issues. Coe doesn’t pass the blame, openly wondering what his career might have been like had he not gone to Europe at the end of his sophomore year (luckily for us, he did, producing the book’s most entertaining chapter) or whether his desire to double for team points at smaller meets cost him later in the season. Though there’s nothing particularly special about Coe’s running journey, in that it’s similar to that of many other collegiate runners, that similarity also creates a universal connection with the reader. The detail with which he recounts his story and the emotion that spills onto the page — the elation of a breakthrough race, the disappointment of a poor one — make it an interesting read.
One question that hangs over the book: what purpose does running serve in Coe’s life? Coe spends a lot of time puzzled by this question, but over 40 years removed, he’s in position to answer it.
“Every one of us has done something memorable in our physical lives. Why should we deprive ourselves of the pleasure of that PR in the J.V. Half-Mile against Dickinson, or that winning TD catch in Middle School in front of your Dad and Sally Parker, or that unexpected victory in a cross-country meet in Sacramento, or being called ‘Mister Five Thousand’ on the sidewalks of Africa? In moments like these, we mere mortals enter a God Realm where private experience blurs with mythic events, and we taste the best kind of immortality: the human kind…
“Being a runner is primal. I only run for buses and trains when it’s a sure thing these days, but we’re not just cardiovascular systems with legs. Running is the purest form of endeavor. All of us are wired that way. Caught in the human race.”
Overall, JOCK is very entertaining. My biggest complaint lies with the editing: there are plenty of typos, and though it didn’t affect my comprehension, they are an unwelcome distraction. Otherwise, any detraction is largely subjective. The book’s length may turn off some readers, and though Coe does an admirable job of making the running portions relatable for the non-runner (without insulting the diehard runner’s intelligence), a 381-page book about a collegiate runner (and not a famous one at that) could make it a tough sell to non-running audiences. But if you ran in college, I’d heartily recommend it; if you didn’t, I’d encourage you to at least give it a try.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
LRC readers review JOCK on the message board: Jock: A Memoir of the Counterculture, by Robert Coe – Book Review * Excerpt about legendary 1969 Pac-8 Cross Country Championships duel between Gerry Lindgren and Steve Prefontaine
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