Tim Montgomery was seeking a shortcut even at age 15.
Fellow ninth-grade classmate Shannon Holmes was proudly walking the Bernard Junior High hallways with his chest sticking out behind a Gaffney High letterman’s jacket. Montgomery wanted one, too, if for no other reason than to attract the attention of girls.
“How do you get a letter jacket in junior high?” Montgomery recalls asking Holmes.
“The track team,” Holmes responded.
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“Well, you can’t be the only one over here with a jacket like that.”
So, Montgomery approached Clint McClary, the Gaffney High track coach in 1990, and said he wanted to join his team.
“Can you run?” Montgomery recalls McClary asking.
“I’ve been racing guys in the neighborhood, and I played football pretty fast,” Montgomery responded.
McClary instructed Montgomery to line up for a 100-meter sprint against Gaffney’s seniors, fully expecting the snot-nosed kid to get embarrassed and give up the sport. Except that Montgomery won the race.
“Do I get my letter jacket now?” Montgomery asked, perhaps not realizing that there was much more to winning the coveted prize than one non-sanctioned race. In fact, it would take young Montgomery a season on the track squad to earn the letter.
Nevertheless, that has been the way for Montgomery, whose meteoric rise to the top of track and field as the world’s fastest man and his free-fall descent to being a federal prison inmate has been characterized mostly by attempts to gain fame and fortune through a series of ill-conceived, if not illegal, shortcuts.
“I was the textbook example of an athlete that went wrong,” Montgomery said as he stood recently on the infield of the Santa Fe Community College track here, where he led a group of clients in stretching exercises as part of his NUMA Speed personal training service.
“Now I want to be the textbook example of an athlete that went wrong and can go right,” he said, the perpetual smile that normally accents his face missing in a moment of serious thought. “I’ve learned that if you do right, you get the right results. If you do anything wrong, there is a possibility you’ll get the wrong result.”
You want to believe Montgomery. You want to believe that he has paid for his crimes and learned from his mistakes. He said he understands if you have doubts, given his history.
Like any sprinter knows, getting out of the blocks is the most important part of the race. The same can be said for Montgomery’s story and his upbringing. He does not look far to recognize where he inherited his speed and, perhaps more importantly, where his burning desire to succeed was founded.
Eddie and Marjorie Montgomery raised a family of three on West Buford Street in Gaffney, a mile from the Big Peach landmark alongside I-85. The two are retired today, Eddie after 43 years mostly as an inspection department manager for Milliken & Co. in Greenville, and Marjorie after 31 years as a lab technician at Milliken.
Friends and neighbors often referred to the Montgomerys as “The Partridge Family” because of their stable, church-based lifestyle. Weekly Bible studies were conducted in the family’s basement, and all members faithfully attended nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Montgomery’s father was the better athlete of the two parents, but the son learned at an early age that his mother was so fast — the tale goes — that she once chased a rabbit so long and so hard that the poor animal’s heart burst from a seizure.
Dad earned a Purple Heart when he was wounded in Vietnam. When he returned to Gaffney at age 21, he married his 16-year-old sweetheart and knew an education was necessary to best raise a family. Using the G.I. Bill, Eddie graduated from Limestone College and entered the workforce.
Dad wanted badly for his son to play football, but young Tim was undersized and not much interested in the violence of the game. Just for fun, Dad staged races down the front driveway between his son and his oldest daughter, Tina. By the time Tim was 6, he was faster than his 11-year-old sister.
Montgomery first gained recognition as a ninth-grade sprinter, then broke the state high school record in the 200 meters as a junior, the same year he lost a now-legendary showdown in the 100 meters to Spartanburg’s future NFL running back Stephen Davis. Montgomery claimed both championships as a junior.
Clemson recruited Montgomery as a sprinter, but Montgomery did not have the necessary SAT score to gain admission. So the Clemson coach at the time, Mark Block, called a friend, Steve Silver, then the track coach at what is now Blinn College in Texas.
Silver’s first glimpse of the 5-foot-9, 128-pound Montgomery on campus made him believe he had inherited a long-distance runner, or, at best, a 400-meter or 800-meter athlete. Montgomery never ran on a track at Gaffney High, so he had no idea how to manage curves on the longer runs.
In desperation, Montgomery telephoned his father and said he was returning to Gaffney. Dad would have none of that talk and telephoned Silver with a request to at least try his son as a sprinter. In his first race at Blinn, Montgomery covered 100 meters in 10.2 seconds — the fastest time in the NCAA that year — and was a sprinter thereafter.
That following summer of 1994, Montgomery was timed in a world junior-record of 9.96 seconds in the 100. (The record later was vacated because the track was measured 3 centimeters short of regulation). Immediately after the performance, Montgomery was contacted by nearly every major shoe company with endorsement offers of up to $60,000 at a time when his dad was earning an annual salary of $50,000.
Though enticing, Montgomery’s father convinced his son to remain an amateur and pursue a degree at Norfolk State in Virginia. Admittedly more interested in the 10:1 female-to-male ratio than academics, Montgomery took his father’s advice.
RACE TO THE TOP
Montgomery’s ascent to the top of the track and field world was as quick as the 45 strides he took to cover 100 meters in his prime. The summer after leaving Norfolk State, Montgomery stood on the winner’s stand at the Atlanta Olympics to accept a silver medal as a member of the United States 400 relay team. Four years later in the Sydney Olympics, he won gold in the same event.
Then, at age 27 on Sept. 12, 2002, Montgomery ran the race of his life and laid claim to being the world’s fastest man before 7,000 fans at Stade Charlety in Paris. Moments after the IAAF Grand Prix Final, after Montgomery had shed his shirt, he crouched next to an electronic sign that read “New WR 9.78” and smiled broadly for photographers.
“I knew something special was in me,” Montgomery said after the race. “I can say I’m the fastest man to ever run the 100 meters.”
Montgomery was presented a check for $100,000, and Marion Jones, then considered the world’s fastest woman, planted a kiss on his lips. Jones had run the day’s previous race out of the same blocks in the track’s same fifth lane as her boyfriend.
Montgomery and Jones were in the beginning stages of a relationship that would last until 2005 and would make them one of the most talented and wealthiest couples in track and field history. The two were living in a tony Chatham County, N.C., neighborhood backed up to Jordan Lake where NBA basketball star Grant Hill also lived. The $2.8 million, 8,500-square foot home Montgomery and Jones owned carried a $15,000 monthly mortgage payment.
Among the eight cars the couple parked in their garages was a Mercedes Benz CL600 that Montgomery paid for with $130,000 in cash. He also wore an $18,000 Breitling watch. His annual earnings had reached the $1.2 million range.
Still, the bulk of the couple’s earnings came through Jones, who was making race appearance fees of between $30,000 and $40,000, and another $125,000 for every race she won. She had a $2.1 million annual deal with Nike, which was paying Montgomery $750,000 annually including bonuses.
“My mind was based on, if I use this money up, I just call for a track meet and make it back,” Montgomery says. “I never thought the money would stop, never thought it would stop.”
Life could not have been better, despite the warnings of Montgomery’s father.
“Where there is good, evil is lurking,” Eddie Montgomery told his son on occasion.
A mere five years later everything was gone for Montgomery, the fall from grace was almost as quick as his climb to the top. At every turn during that downward spiral, Montgomery attempted to cut a corner and was caught in the act, whether in his athletic performance or in his personal finances.
The beginning of the end came when Montgomery first hooked up with BALCO founder Victor Conte to form “Project World Record,” a training program aimed at making Montgomery the fastest man on earth.
Montgomery believed the use of performance enhancing drugs would level the playing field, and he later admitted to taking human growth hormone and testosterone from February of 2000 to June of 2001.
“I definitely thought I needed something just to run (for the record),” Montgomery said. “You got to think about it. To be a politician or to be anything high in life, there’s lines that have to be crossed. You know what I’m saying?
“To be a great reporter, you might have to go to Afghanistan and put your life on the line. Is the story that important? ... It’s the pressure you put on yourself. It’s your desire to be what you want to be in life. Mine was to be the best. I would die for this. For me to be the best, that’s what I lived for.”
While Montgomery admits to taking performance enhancing drugs over a 17-month period, he claims to have been clean when he set the world record. He uses the same “I never failed a drug test” defense used by Lance Armstrong in cycling and Barry Bonds in baseball.
Track officials dismissed that defense. In May 2004, Montgomery was charged with using performance enhancing drugs by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. In December 2005 the Court of Arbitration for Sport imposed a two-year ban from track on Montgomery and stripped him of all results from 2001 on, including the world record.
Montgomery admits to wrongdoing, but he shifts at least some of the blame to his misplaced trust in coaches along the way.
“As a coach, the athlete depends on you to better their life,” he said. “They will do anything for you, anything, I mean, like anything. I felt like, even though I could make decisions, my process was overruled by ‘Why would he give me bad information?’ ”
His troubles were only beginning with the ban from track. His source of income had run dry, and he figured to need $300,000 in legal fees to fight his case against the international track federation in Switzerland. To cover those fees and pay $1,600 monthly in child support, Montgomery sold most of his assets.
Then he and Steve Riddick, his former coach, hooked up in 2007 on a $1.7 million check fraud scheme. Montgomery said he only received a $20,000 finder’s fee in the scam, but he was charged in Virginia with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and two counts of bank fraud. Both were later convicted.
While that case was pending, Montgomery said he needed fast cash and first attempted to sell cocaine, then switched to peddling heroin because there was greater profit there.
“A guy taught me that with heroin you can’t lose,” Montgomery said. “The guy who taught me that was an informant. ... I sold it to him once. We had agreed not to talk on the phone, but he was talking on the phone. A light bulb should have gone off, but I was into something I didn’t know.
“If I’m in the 100 meters and something is wrong, I know what it is. But I had never been taught the streets.”
Montgomery was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison for the check fraud scheme, and another five years for the heroin trafficking. The latter sentencing in October 2008 brought a stark realization to Montgomery that he could no longer run, either in competitive track or from the hand of the law.
“When you make a choice to do wrong, that is just greedy,” Montgomery said. “Not only that, you have four kids by four different baby mothers, you’re just reckless. When the judge was saying those things to me, I was upset. When he was saying those things in the courtroom, I was like, who are you to judge my life. But he was absolutely right.”
Montgomery had let down more than himself. He said the greatest hurt was administered to his family in Gaffney, particularly that on his parents.
“When you’ve got a son, that’s your seed,” Eddie Montgomery said. “His dream becomes your dream. When he does good, that’s you doing good. We all fail. You just hope when we fall, it’s not life or death. We were there for the good, so we have to be there for the bad, too.”
A SECOND LIFE
All Limestone College athletes were required to attend the guest lecture of Montgomery in early October at Fullerton Auditorium. From the get-go, Montgomery had the attention of what amounted to a hometown audience in Gaffney.
Montgomery can turn on the charm, both in personal conversations and in front of an audience. Just as he shows off his two Olympic medals to all new clients when training them in Florida, he draped them around his neck to speak. He opened the talk by repeating a similar question he presented a couple of times a few weeks earlier in Gainesville, Fla.
“I’m going to give you $86,400 at midnight Monday,” the story went. “Tuesday at midnight, I’m going to give you $86,400 more. Then the same on Wednesday, Thursday. ... What are you going to do with that money?”
Montgomery then tells of how he contemplated that very scenario many times during the four years and six months he spent in federal prison, except that he substituted money for seconds.
“I sat there and planned what I was going to do when they opened those gates,” Montgomery told the athletes. “I said, ‘When I hit the streets I’m going to use my 86,400 seconds each day to better myself.
“I want 86,400 seconds to push goodness to the limit. I have no reason to wake up in the morning to do anything wrong again.”
Montgomery began planning for his second life out of prison by training fellow inmates. Without asking, he will call up a photo on his cell phone of an inmate nicknamed “Obama,” who shed weight and got in top physical shape under Montgomery’s tutelage.
Dashes of 40 yards and 100 yards were staged among prisoners on the 4th of July, Labor Day and Memorial Day with Montgomery training the contestants and earning a cut of the winnings, say, a case of soda. All the while he was planting the seeds to a second career.
While in prison, Montgomery said it took a stunning happenstance to jolt him to the realities of life and how his priorities needed to be adjusted once he was a free man.
One day Montgomery telephoned his parents’ home in Gaffney when his 6-year-old son, Tim (Monty) Montgomery Jr., answered.
“Monty, let me speak to my mom,” Montgomery recalled saying.
“Uncle Tim is on the line,” he recalled his son shouting.
“I just totally froze up on the phone,” he said. “That just totally dropped me to my knees to hear my son call me his uncle. Right then, I said I’m going to make a change. When you hit rock bottom, you can stay rock bottom or you can move on.
“It hit me that I’m not doing this to be remembered by the world. I’m doing this to be remembered by my own kids. Their father is not that person people write about or that person who did some of those things. Their father is way bigger than that.”
More than anything else, Montgomery said he now is committed to being a father to all of his children. With his wife, Jamalee, Montgomery is rearing four children, including their 12-year-old daughter Tymiah Montgomery and recently adopted 12-year-old Danae Montgomery, along with 15-year-old Jamison Wray and 14-year-old Tahjere Lewis from Montgomery’s previous relationships.
Jamalee is a secretary for a Gainesville orthodontist. After Montgomery was released to a Gainesville halfway house in May 2012 and then served six weeks of home confinement, he and his wife formed NUMA (Never Underestimate My Ability) Speed.
His fledgling business has counted as many as 120 clients at $50 an hour. When Montgomery spoke recently about making an honest living for his family, a gigantic United States flag adjacent to the Sante Fe College track waved as a backdrop.
“This country gives us an opportunity and it’s what we do with the opportunity,” Montgomery said. “This is my opportunity.”
You want to believe him.