The names Payton and Jordan go together like Sweetness and Air, which happen to be the nicknames of Chicago sports legends Walter Payton and Michael Jordan. But long before they made headlines, a lad named Payton Jordan from Pasadena was one of the fastest human beings you never heard of. He came into his prime in 1940, when the world was too preoccupied with invasions and air raids to bother with the Olympic Games.
Payton Jordan’s commitment to the athletic life grew stronger during those times. After graduating from USC, where he was captain of the track team and a member of the 1939 Rose Bowl football team, he continued competing as a sprinter and was a Service All-America football player during World War II. Then he began a storied career as a coach at Occidental College and Stanford University. He reached the pinnacle of his profession when he was appointed head coach of the U.S. track and field team that achieved a record haul of gold medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
In the next decade, he discovered Masters competition. He still had the ability to accelerate down the track, lifting his knees high. With his blond hair turning shiny, Jordan became known as the Silver Streak. He set numerous world sprinting records for men from age 55 on up.
That phase of his life was winding down nine years ago when Jordan and his wife, Marge, moved to Santa Barbara. They were familiar with the city from visiting former Stanford football coach “Cactus” Jack Curtice, who ended his career at UCSB. They joined the retirement community at Vista Del Monte. Payton hung out at the City College track, dispensing advice and encouragement to any athlete who sought his counsel.
He could rhapsodize about sports. “For all its warts, it’s one of the wonderful ways to bring vitality into the world,” Jordan said. “Young people striving to be the best : men and women expressing themselves to the fullest. You put on those running shorts and toe the line. You look down the track, alone in your lane. There’s nobody that can substitute for you, no one to give you more courage. There’s just the tape and the stopwatch. No excuses. No second chances.”
He set his last world record in the 100-meter dash at the Penn Relays in 1998.
“I hadn’t been there at Franklin Field since 1941 when I won the national championship (in 10.3 seconds),” he said. “There was the same crowd, the same brick wall, the same hair-raising noise. When I went to the line I had the same crazy emotional feelings: ‘This is the time. I’ve got to perform. This is life. Wow! I’m enjoying this.'”
The 81-year-old Silver Streak bolted down the track and hit the finish line in 14.52 seconds. Somebody computed that it was equivalent to 9.83 (then the fastest ever recorded) by a sprinter in his prime.
Vista Del Monte opened its Fitness and Aquatic Center for seniors in 2000. Jordan was an avatar in their midst. He was Sweetness, ever ready to smile, and Air, encouraging his peers to engage in activities that will pump oxygen into their lungs.
“His life is so inspirational,” said Laurie Yttri, executive director at Vista Del Monte. “He takes his health and activity level seriously, but there’s no barrier to beginners because of his spirit and interpersonal skills. He’s been a great friend. We’ll miss him.”
Payton Jordan is moving this week to Laguna Beach, closer to his two daughters and their families. He’s leaving with good memories but sad ones too. Marge died last November.
“We were very happy here,” he said. “I’m leaving lots of great friends, but emotionally this change will do me good. At 90, I’m reflective on how lucky I’ve been and how good my life has been because of the people around me.”
They were lucky too.