Like he has for years, Darrell Robinson was hoping to stay hidden in the shadows.
But on Saturday, the former prep track sensation was back on center stage.
Meet officials don’t call the large-classification state high school championships Star Track anymore. It is just the Class 4A, 3A and 2A state meet at Mount Tahoma Stadium.
But back in 1982, at the height of sprinting stardom in Washington, it was dubbed Star Track for the first time. And Robinson, the boys’ 400-meter phenom from Wilson High School, was the biggest star in the freshly-promoted event held at Lincoln Bowl.
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In that meet, Robinson, a senior, ran the 400 finals in 45.82 seconds to win the Class 4A title. It’s a meet record that still stands.
A couple months later in Indianapolis, Robinson not only set the national high school 400 record, but also the world junior mark when he went 44.69 in the National Sports Festival finals. To this day, he is the only 18-and-under sprinter to ever break 45 seconds in the 400.
That was 35 long years ago. Much has happened since then. And many faces were lost to him – until Saturday.
“It’s been since Star Track I,” Robinson said about his return to Tacoma. “A lot of this is shocking. But to see my teammates, and all my coaches, and that everyone is doing well, that is the best part of me coming back. Everyone is doing well in their lives.”
Back in the 1980s, Robinson was one of the brightest young track stars for Team USA until a series of events led to his attempt to commit suicide in 1996.
After being named “Track and Field News” high school track and field athlete of the year in 1982, Robinson went off to the University of Houston, then to Washington and finally UCLA.
He missed out in his first opportunity to make the U.S. Olympics team in 1984, but over the next few years, was one of the top 400 runners in the world. He eventually went a personal-best 44.45 as the runner-up at the 1986 Pepsi Invitational.
Later that summer, Robinson was the 400 bronze medalist at the Goodwill Games. Everything seemed to be pointing up as he moved to Europe, and won race after race.
Then it all crashed.
Again, Robinson failed to make the U.S. squad for the 1988 Olympics.
A lot of this is shocking. But to see my teammates, and all my coaches, and that everyone is doing well, that is the best part of me coming back. Everyone is doing well in their lives.
Darrell Robinson, on his return to Tacoma
A year later, in a bombshell interview with a West German magazine, Robinson accused some of America’s brightest stars, notably Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith-Joyner, of using performance-enhancing drugs. He later reiterated those charges on the NBC’s “Today” – and has not backed down from those comments.
But the accusations essentially not only wrecked his career, but also deeply impacted his personal life.
Losing contact with family members, he shuttled between Los Angeles and Seattle. He battled bouts of depression.
In 1996, Robinson was discovered slumped in a friend’s car, unconscious. He had tried to kill himself by drinking anti-freeze.
He stayed in a coma for days at Harborview Medical Center, but survived.
Over the past 20 years, Robinson and his wife, Lisl Hager, a former U.S. skier, have largely avoided the public. Close friends would go years without hearing from him.
And then, over the past year, Robinson re-emerged, settling in Orange County, California, with his family. He has three children, none of which like or participate in track.
It was also around that time when former Wilson teammate Calvin Kennon Sr. found Robinson on Facebook. The two have maintained contact since.
It was Kennon who also urged Robinson to visit his hometown, and return to the meet that benefited greatly from his star-studded name.
And on Saturday, Robinson, 53, showed up, sitting in the home grandstands with friends.
Eventually, word got out that Robinson was in the stadium. When the meet public-address announcer called for him to come down to the infield, he appeared, but reluctantly.
But then, after being asked to hand out award medals to the athletes running his signature event – the 400 – Robinson’s spirit appeared rekindled. He smiled as he offered congratulations. And when athletes asked if he really ran a 44-second time many years ago, he graciously recounted the highlights of those races.
“He also saw our 3,200 kids warming up ... and asked, ‘Are you from Wilson?’” Rams coach Sam Ring said. “And he said, ‘I am Darrell Robinson,’ and our kids went crazy.
“That might have been the whole weekend for him: People remembering him as Darrell Robinson, the runner.”
Startled by some of the talent he had witnessed, especially on the girls side, Robinson did offer one regret over his return.
Why this venue?
“I liked Lincoln – the bowl and the pit,” he said.