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Gerald Haslam

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Leon Patterson

The Olympics are only a month away, and for me so is the memory of a local athlete denied the opportunity to represent his country. I became aware of Taft High School's Leon Patterson in 1951 when he was a state champion in three events. The next year he was engaged in an epic shot-put battle with Bill Nieder of Lawrence (Kan.) High School to become the first prep to break the 60-foot barrier in competition.

On April 9 of that year, the diminutive, dynamic Patterson -- only 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds -- burst across the dirt ring at Griffith Stadium and sent the 12-pound metal ball 60 feet and one-quarter inch. On May 16, though, future Olympic titlist Nieder exceeded the Californian's record when he thrust the shot 60 feet and 91⁄4 inches at Kansas' State Championship meet.

The Taft Wildcat responded on May 24 when he put the sphere 60 feet and 91⁄2 inches at the California State Championships. By season's end, Leon also led the nation in the discus throw with a 177-foot, 5-inch heave, an astounding 10 feet ahead of the runner-up.

What fans didn't know, but Patterson did, is that he was terminally ill when he accomplished those things. The prior summer, he'd had a physical examination for a vacation job in the oil fields, and was discovered to have the then-incurable kidney disorder, Bright's disease.

A handsome blond who appeared to be the apotheosis of the California dream, Leon was actually the product of a California reality: poverty, toil, grit. His family had migrated west from Arkansas as had other "Okies, Arkies, and Texies," searching for opportunities during the late 1930s and early 1940s. As a result, Leon Patterson "had never had a steak, a lobster or a salad in his life," he told his high-school sweetheart and future wife, Dixie Kenney. "I don't know if he'd ever had Christmas gifts, and he'd never had a Christmas tree," she added.

Leon and his older brothers had been doing men's work since they were little boys. Born with only one kidney, the youngster had suffered strep throat when he was 12, and his parents couldn't afford a physician. He survived, but only six years later he was diagnosed with Bright's disease, almost certainly as a result of the earlier strep.

He was then about to enter his senior year in high school when diagnosed, a football star and the defending state champion in three throwing events. On doctors' orders, Leon dropped football but his track coaches at Taft, Tom O'Brien and Monty Reedy, were determined to help him become the best his body would allow.

Patterson by then was already being recognized as one of the great athletes in the post-World War II era of athletic excellence in the San Joaquin Valley. Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, Johnny Callison, Leamon King, Frank Gifford, Tommie Smith, Sim Innes, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Ralston, among many others, emerged during the late 1940s and 1950s. More than a few of them were originally from the Dust Bowl region.

Like most of them, Patterson seemed poised to ride his athletic excellence a long, long way. Although aware of Leon's health, Jess Mortenson, track coach at USC, offered him an athletic scholarship. The next year, while he struggled to adjust to USC's demands, Patterson was the nation's best freshman discus thrower, the event on which he concentrated in college.

In 1954, as toxicity swelled his feet and made tying his shoes impossible, he still finished third in the discus throw at the National Collegiate Championships with a toss that would have earned him an Olympic bronze medal in 1956 had he lived that long.

But he didn't. Leon died in 1954, after attending a USC-Texas Christian football game he couldn't see because toxicity had blinded him.

To those of us in his generation, he was a hero and a puzzle. How could someone so seemingly invincible suffer such a fate, we asked ourselves. And if he could, so could we. Our innocence peeled away like a sweaty jersey.

Athletics can epitomize larger social issues. The saga of Leon Patterson -- like that of Mathias and Johnson, Gifford and Innes, and all the rest -- symbolizes the escape from old, closed social assumptions and the birth of a more open society that has grown since World War II. Equality of opportunity, whether on the sports pitch or in a classroom, really is the American way. And so is the pursuit of excellence, as Leon Patterson reminded us.

Novelist-historian Gerald Haslam, a Sonoma State professor emeritus, is a native of Oildale. His books include "Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California" (1999) and, his latest, "In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa," written with wife Janice Haslam.