Originally published May 13, 1971
Jim Ryun said that people tend to think of him as a "white hat." Jim Ryun said that people tend to think of Marty Liquori as something else. Then Jim Ryun vanished into the piney thickets around Eugene, Oregon. He emerges Sunday for Super Mile againt Liquori.
You hear colorful statements from Ryun about as often as you catch the mating call of the whooping crane. For a while, it looked as though he had lost his voice about the same time he lost his desire to compete. But he is back now, fresh and fit. And who knows, maybe marriage and maturity have added some flesh-and-blood tones to go with the gaunt quotes that come from that gaunt face under the imaginary white hat?
The black hat business puzzles Liquori. The Villanova senior doesn't really mind, because controversy breeds interest in track. But the people closest to him — his dad, his fiancee, his coach and his teammates — wonder who conjured up such imagry?
"I don't know where it got started," pleads Jumbo Elliott, the Villanova coach. "Marty is good copy, quick with his answers. Maybe that's what starts it? Sure, he tends to look around when he's running, but that's a European trait, seeing where the opposition is. Maybe people think it's egotistical?"
People whisper about Liquori's "dedication" because he managed to enjoy his trip to Europe last summer. Elliott thinks that is so much nonsense. "Marty is one of the most dedicated runners I've ever had," he said. "He has what Ron Delaney lacked, the desire to be really great. Someone is going under 3:50 one of these days and I believe he can do it. I think he can be the greatest 5000 meter runner of all if he stays with it.
"The thing about Sunday's race, is that it has been over-emphasized. It's just another weekend. They'll meet at least three or four more times. I'm not worried about how Marty will react if he loses. If he wins, he'll be elated. If he loses, he's not gonna go off the deep-eight or the deep-six."
He will not go off the deep-anything, if past performances are any indication. He is engaged to Carol Jones, who cannot recall any dramatic displays of emotion involving races. "I remember the first time I ever went out with him," she said. "It was a Saturday night, and he had set a national record in a high school meet that afternoon. He didn't tell me. I had to ask him how he did before he told me.
"He doesn't talk much about track when we're together. As far as the stories go, when they quote him, they're truthful, but some of the magazine writers pick out an angle and add a little bit to make it read better.
"I don't really know how Sunday's race will come out. I don't know enough about sports. But I do know that on any given day anyone can win. I think Marty's very strong. I don't think a loss would crush him. If he ran his best race, he'd be satisfied."
"I think it started in Madison Square Garden," Marty Liquori Sr. said. "He leaped over seats and bowled over some to get to watch the videotape of the race against the Polish guy. Maybe people felt that was wrong?
"People call him cocky, but he isn't that way. It's his way of running. If he were looking for records, he'd go on and take off. But he tries to run only as far and as fast as he has to.
"He put in long hours in high school, from seven in the morning 'til seven at night. I bought him a car, so he could get back and forth. His coach was afraid he'd be sticking his head under the hood all the time. But I had a service station and there was no reason for him to look at the car. I told him I wanted him to do two things, study and run.
"I feel confident Sunday's race will be a good race. Win or lose, it's not a case of the world coming to an end. Life will still go on. Win or lose, Marty is the same guy. No problems, no bitterness."
Teammate Ron Stanko is as baffled as anyone by the "black hat" reputation. "Things get out of hand," he suggested. "He said he took an occasional beer and by the time the story got back to his mother it made him sound like a booze-hound.
"He's a very tactical runner, a seasoned runner. People think if you don't step aside and let someone pass you're a bad guy. Well, Marty does what he has to do, but he'd be the last guy to do something dirty.
"Ryun and Marty are two different runners in one way. Ryun runs for good times. Marty runs to win, expending the least amount of energy as possible. The other way takes too much out of you. It's what probably burned Ryun out.
"A lot of those stories make Marty sound like a cold, calculating guy. Well, he plays the guitar, likes folk songs, is concerned about a lot of things. And some stories make him sound liberal when he's really conservative."
Perhaps no one has really captured the true personality of Liquori. If so, it is not because Marty has been grumpily aloof. He seems to thrive in the spotlight. Perhaps trainer Jake Nevin summed it up best? What kind of guy is Liquori, Nevin was asked.
"Italian," Jake answered and stalked away, having said it all.