Doug Robinson: The unraveling of a rare talent

Published: Saturday, April 13 2013 8:45 p.m. MDT

Tim Danielson is one of the greatest high school athletes ever signed by BYU, although you've probably never heard of him.

In 1966, he became only the second high school miler ever to run a sub four-minute mile, just two years after Jim Ryun became the first to do it. Danielson clocked 3:59.4, the exact time that Roger Bannister achieved in 1954 to become the first man to break four minutes — a feat considered tantamount to landing on the moon. Decades later, Danielson remains one of only five prep milers who have managed to break four minutes — the others: Marty Liquori in 1967, Alan Webb in 2001 and Luke Verzbicas in 2011, 45 years to the day after Danielson's run.

Virtually every university in the country pursued Danielson. A non-Mormon, he chose BYU, where he could train with coach Sherald James at high altitude, which is advantageous for endurance athletes. This was when miling and track enjoyed a certain popularity, and Danielson's feats created a buzz.

But the story pretty much ended there.

Danielson left BYU following his freshman season and, after a few stops and restarts, faded from the scene. It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if he had remained at BYU. Perhaps he would have fulfilled his potential under the gentle and experienced guidance of James, who trained other runners to prominence. Perhaps — and this might be a stretch — if he had experienced such fulfillment, he wouldn't have struggled with alcohol and marriage, and maybe the rest of his life would've been much different.

Who knows, maybe he wouldn't be sitting in a California jail, accused of murder.

In June 2011, Danielson was charged with murdering his third wife, whom he had divorced. He pleaded not guilty and is waiting for his trial in June.

Danielson's sad story was recently chronicled by the New York Times. As Times reporter Jere Longman wrote, "By all accounts, Danielson had been gentle, humble, quiet, even-tempered, law abiding … But his life had grown complicated, according to court records and interviews with his lawyer, friends, co-workers, neighbors and relatives. They described Danielson, now 65, as professionally dutiful and socially awkward, a steady and reliable engineer, but also a shy man who struggled with alcohol and relationships, married three times and had a long-term companionship and a son with a woman who had been his pen pal when she was in prison."

On the track, Danielson was a rare talent, blessed with the gifts of speed endurance and a fanatical drive to succeed. James will tell you that drive was part of his undoing.

In 1965, Danielson, a student at Chula Vista High in San Diego, won the California state mile title in 4:08.0. A year later he won the title again, in 4:07.0 (a race you can watch on YouTube). According to the Times, Danielson clocked 4:06.2 in a sectional race to set a personal record. He was winning races against high school competition by almost a full straightaway of the track. To produce faster times, he needed to race against world-class competition. A month after graduating from high school, he joined a race of world-class runners in San Diego. Jim Grelle, a 1,500-meter finalist in the1960 Olympic Games, led the way, and Danielson, in fourth place, hit the tape in 3:59.4.

By then, the recruiting war was underway. Willard Hirschi, an assistant coach at BYU, was dispatched to California to woo Danielson. He was at the track when Danielson won his second California state championship.

"USC had him all sewed up," says Hirschi. "When the meet was over, Danielson left the field with the USC coach, Ken Matsuda. I thought, 'We don't have a chance.' "

If that were the case, Danielson changed his mind after flying to Provo for an official campus visit.

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