None of the running records set by Steve Prefontaine stand today, nor does the Hayward Field as it was when he set many of them. But his presence still stands tall in the running community and in Oregon. Although his name and likeness are scattered throughout Eugene, from trails to murals on buildings, filmmakers of a new documentary say not many have explored the role of Coos Bay in creating the legend of Pre.
A new documentary titled Pre’s People looks at the legacy Pre left behind with never-before-seen documents and photos that, as it turns out, offer a way of preserving the town’s history. Hollywood films have focused on the 24-year old’s James Dean-esque qualities, but two Coos Bay natives, Brad Jenkins and Travis Johnson, have aimed the cameras at those who grew up and coached Pre.
Both filmmakers grew up in Coos Bay and were active in athletics at Marshfield High School as Pre was — Jenkins in football and Johnson in cross country. In 1975, Jenkins’ father was the athletic director at Marshfield High, and around that time he says he remembers seeing Pre run for the first time, which ended up being the last record he ever set when he finished the 2,000 meters in 5:01:4.
“I thought Pre was this cool guy. He had these cool sweats and long hair,” Jenkins says. “Three weeks later he died, and they had a funeral at Marshfield at the track. I rode my bicycle over from the elementary school and went to the funeral.”
Jenkins kept the poster from that final meet, and it’s the origin of the documentary. Jenkins says he scanned the poster and handed copies out to people in Coos Bay. “They started telling me these funny Prefontaine stories,” he says.
Jenkins pitched the idea of making videos of people remembering Pre to his lifelong friend Johnson, a former TV news reporter who works on documentaries, and they got to work. “Let’s focus on what Pre was like growing up in our town,” Johnson recalls telling Jenkins when his friend first proposed the project.
The documentary features a lot of unreleased photos, video footage and Pre’s training documents. Jenkins says as the research went on for the documentary, people would offer them things like Super 8 mm footage at meets or negatives of Pre. Jenkins’ father was able to use his connections as an athletic director at the high school to put Jenkins in touch with former teammates and coaches.
Johnson says that growing up in Coos Bay, he knew of Pre as the tenacious runner who never held back on the track, but he didn’t know his background. “When we talked with his teammates, his coaches and competitors, you really got a feel of just how hardcore and intense and laser-focused he was when it came to running,” he says.
The filmmakers also traveled to Boise to interview Phil Pursian, who was the assistant coach at Marshfield High School when Pre ran there. “Pursian was the one who really dialed Pre in,” Johnson says, adding that Pursian was in charge of writing special workouts for Pre because he was performing at a different level than his teammates.
Johnson recalls arriving at Pursian’s house and discovering the former coach has a room dedicated to Pre. “A Prefontaine shrine, mini-museum,” he says. “He has not just memorabilia and signed autographs and photographs of him and Pre back in the day, but more importantly, he had three or four notebooks that were his coaching notebooks.” Those notebooks are filled with Pre’s high school workouts and goals, he says. “it was like the secret sauce, the nitty gritty of what made him so great.”
Jenkins says that no one has ever seen those logs before. “That’s what makes this project such a beauty,” he adds.
Filming for the documentary started in 2011 and started post-production work in 2015. After years of chipping away while juggling full time jobs, the filmmakers released it on Pre’s birthday, Jan. 25. Of course, COVID-19 has delayed any large premiere party, but they say they have plans to have an event at Coos Bay’s historic Egyptian Theater.
In the process of making the documentary, three of the subjects have died, including Walt McClure, Pre’s head coach at Marshfield High. “I’m glad we did it just to preserve that history,” Jenkins says. “Some of those stories would’ve been lost forever.”
For more information, visit PresPeopleMovie.com. The movie is available to rent and buy on Vimeo.