American mile great being treated at the Scripps Proton Therapy Center in San Diego.
In the United States, when the conversation is track and field, specifically the mile, one name stands out.
On July 7, 1982, Scott ran a 3:47.69 mile in Oslo, Norway. It took 25 years before an American ran faster. He also earned a silver medal in the 1,500-meter run at the inaugural IAAF World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, in 1983 and set world-best 5K times on the roads at the Carlsbad 5000 in 1986 and 1988.
But here’s the stat that is absolutely astonishing about Scott.
No one —not Jim Ryun, John Walker, Sebastian Coe—no one ran more sub-4-minute miles than Steve Scott. How many? An eye-popping 137.
Given that the mile has become a near endangered species into today’s metric world, Ryan Lamppa, founder of Bring Back the Mile, compared Scott’s 137 sub-4s to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
“I think it’s untouchable,” Lamppa says.
But as fast as Scott covered the mile, in life after sport, Scott has been unable to outrun cancer. Twenty years ago he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The disease was caught in its early stages and Scott, with that ever-present smile and love-of-life attitude went on to become a successful cross country and track and field coach at Cal State San Marcos.
Scott broke the news to his runners this morning at the Cougar Challenge cross country meet.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say anything negative about him,” says Tracy Sundlun, senior vice president of events at the Competitor Group.
Last summer, cancer paid a return visit to the 58-year-old Scott. When Scott’s prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels registered at an elevated level, his primary-care physician said he should see a urologist.
Scott underwent a second biopsy which revealed the location of the cancer was near a bundle of nerves that, if damaged, would impact sexual function and his urinary tract.
“If I went the surgery (or radiation) route, I wouldn’t be able to get an erection without a shot in my penis,” he says. “And I’d have to wear diapers most of the time. Needless to say, I was pretty distraught.”
“The month of July he was super depressed,” says JoAnn Scott, Steve’s wife. “It was almost like it was a surreal experience. He told me, ‘I won’t be the same man you married.’ He wasn’t a joking Steve Scott.”
But while vacationing in Wisconsin last summer, Scott learned about another procedure to fight prostate cancer: proton radiation. Unlike traditional radiation, the proton treatment is able to more accurately focus on specific spots, thereby not causing as much damage to surrounding areas.
Translated, if the process were successful, Scott could lead a normal sex life and not have to wear Depends.
Upon returning to San Diego, Scott researched and discovered Dr. Carl Rossi, medical director of the Scripps Proton Therapy Center.
Rossi, 51, ran track and cross country in high school and collegiately at Claremont McKenna College and, in fact, met Scott when he was in high school.
“It was August 1978 at a 10K in Fullerton,” Rossi says. “Steve’s well into his pro career by now. Myself and some high school teammates saw him running by with a couple of people and we asked each other, ‘Do you think he’ll talk to us?’
“So we ask him, ‘Would you sign a few autographs.’ He was so friendly. He asked us, ‘Where do you guys go to school? What events do you run?’”
While Rossi lives in the Tierrasanta community of San Diego, he flies a plane, serves as an assistant coach at Claremont McKenna and had talked occasionally to Scott in the past few years.
“I met him for 90 minutes on our first consultation and all but about five minutes we’re talking running,” recalls Scott.
“My nurse was banging on the door, reminding me I had more to do,” Rossi jokes.
Scott’s treatment calls for him to undergo five proton radiations a week, Monday through Friday, for eight weeks. He begins his sixth week on Monday.
“I feel like I’m at mile 20 of the marathon,” Scott says.
There are no side effects to the treatment and Scott has continued coaching at Cal State San Marcos. According to published reports, prostate cancer is the second most common form cancer worldwide and the fifth-leading cause of cancer-related death in men. But Rossi said “tens of thousands” of patients have undergone proton radiation for prostate cancer and that the success rate, on a percentage basis “is from the mid-80s to low-90s.”
“I’m very confident in the treatment and very confident everything is going to turn out great,” Scott says. (My) athletes, they feel my confidence. They’re doing fine.”
Rossi, meanwhile, is humbled that he’s helping an idol.
“I’m very glad I am in a position and Scripps is in a position to apply these treatments,” he says. “How many kids get to help out one of their heroes later in life? And that’s what Steve was.”
As for Scott, America’s greatest miler ever, he hopes his story inspires men to get an annual physical so that prostate cancer might be caught in its early stages.
“It’s something that affects men at one time or another,” he says. “If I wouldn’t have caught it early, if my primary-care physician hadn’t been persistent (about Scott seeing a urologist), if she’d have said, ‘Oh, wait until next year,’ my story could have been very different.”