On the morning of October 2, 2010, an Oregon track and field athlete — who requested anonymity for this story — made his way over to the parking lot of the Casanova Center. He was carrying a homemade sign.@@http://www.goducks.com/SportSelect.dbml?SPSID=3377&SPID=233&DB_OEM_ID=500&Q_SEASON=2010@@
ESPN was set up to broadcast its College GameDay pregame show from the parking lot, with Autzen Stadium and Duckvision delicately framed in the background, behind the set. Thousands of Duck fans braved bitter cold to hoist signs and express partisan support for Oregon in its football game against Stanford, later that night.
As the broadcast began, one sign in particular stood out among the many extolling Chip Kelly, LaMichael James and others, and those bagging on Stanford as an elitist institution with an overrated football team.
To the left were the words, “A.J. has a nation,” in reference to the “Andre the Giant has a posse” shirt produced by Obey clothing company. To the right were the words, “6’2, 155 pounds,” senior distance runner A.J. Acosta’s height and weight. In the middle was an impressively drawn likeness of Acosta, wearing a headband, flashing a smile.@@http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andre_the_Giant_Has_a_Posse@@
Acosta did not immediately see the sign bearing his likeness on television — he and the Ducks cross country teams were preparing for the Bill Dellinger Invitational, hosted by Oregon and held at Springfield Country Club. Thousands of track fans around the country did see it, and were caught off guard. How often does anything related to college track get exposure on major national programming?
The denizens of the forums at LetsRun.com — the country’s premier track and field website, covering professionals and amateurs alike — took to their keyboards.
“A.J. Acosta is one of the biggest douches in all of running,” said one anonymous board member. “His fans are probably even worse though.”
“Runners get way too uptight about self-promotion,” said another. “If he doesn’t promote his efforts, who will? Nike might — but he can advertise himself all he wants to.”
“Clearly A.J. is taking the Nation by storm. At nearly 2.5 members per state he clearly is running things now and is worthy of being called a Nation,” a third anonymous contributor said. “I’m not sure what is worse, A.J.’s ego or the obnoxious fans that support him.”
The LetsRun.com founders, brothers Weldon and Robert Johnson (no known relationship to the Oregon associate head track coach), chimed in with an editorial stance of their own.
“Some people in the LRC community are up in arms about the fact that lots of people are talking about the sighting of the A.J. Nation. We think they are way off base,” the editorial read. “To us, it’s great to see that college kids can still have fun — even at powerhouse programs like Oregon where the pressure is intense and the head man Vin Lananna loves secrecy.@@http://www.letsrun.com/WhatsLetsRun.html@@
“Way to go, guys. Keep on having fun and running fast.”
Not unlike the United States amid presidential elections, A.J. Nation is about to undergo a transition period.
Acosta, a San Diego native, will receive degrees in Economics and Business Administration in June. He will likely be given a chance to run professionally.
What the Oregon track and field program loses in Acosta is one of its most colorful, energetic, and controversial personalities in recent years.
Reporters can attest that, at his most candid, Acosta is perhaps the most quotable individual in any Oregon sport. A sampling of his work:
To a Track Town Tuesdays crowd earlier this season: “Coming and running for U of O was one of those pick-your-own-ending-type books. I was on page 87, and Lananna was on page 67. Now it’s linear, and we’re both on page 77.”
On Lananna’s signature white beard, in a 2010 interview: “I’m pretty sure it can divide by zero.”
On hail, in a 2009 interview with the Emerald: “It hails every time it isn’t 70 degrees and sunny in San Diego, which is exactly never.”
Acosta has never been afraid to comment on any person, place, thing or circumstance that he has interacted with, or that has slighted him. Those less charitable would say his big mouth gets him in trouble. Both concepts are roughly the same.
In a May 2009 interview with the Emerald, Acosta — who redshirted the outdoor track and field season following a foot injury — admitted he had been suspended indefinitely following an incident with alcohol at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships on March 13-14, in College Station, Texas. Fellow distance runner Luke Puskedra had sustained a head injury after falling down during a night of drinking, and was sent to a local emergency room.@@http://www.aggieathletics.com/ncaa2009/track/@@
“They had to suspend somebody,” Acosta told the Emerald.
Lananna would not comment on the suspension at the time, and later told The Register-Guard that he was not suspended in the first place. Lananna, in his sixth year as head of Oregon’s track and field and cross country programs, has since refused to comment on the matter.
Lananna is an in-control coach to supporters and a micro-manager to his detractors. Acosta is a free spirit to his supporters — his Nation — and an uncoachable ne’er-do-well to his detractors. One is a talented and decorated coach, the other is a talented and decorated distance runner. And their relationship, at times, has been dicey.
“I think that A.J., without becoming so — I don’t want to be philosophical, but when you take a look at what college athletics is all about, it’s about learning. It’s about learning about yourself,” Lananna said. “I think college athletics are about putting yourself in a position to where you can work as an individual, where you can work as a team, where you can put your own self-interests aside. I think that A.J. has certainly done that.”
Acosta is well-heeled in trash talk. He once called Cal distance runner Michael Coe his “arch nemesis.” He has been known to rail on some of the most well-known distance runners in the college game — off the record, of course. He reads message boards, taking mental notes of what people say about him, what kind of person they believe he is, what they believe he can’t do.
Of course, trash talkers are most effective when the talk is backed up. Before the 2010 Pacific-10 Conference Championships, Acosta told reporters he would “put the team on my back” en route to a conference title despite having, to that point, an abysmal season. He wound up finishing second at 1,500 meters, third at 5,000 meters and fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase — an absurd triple by most standards. The Ducks won the meet.
“His best quality is definitely his mental toughness,” said senior Matthew Centrowitz, Acosta’s roommate. “He’s one of those guys where, even if he’s not having the best week of training, he toughens it up in races and really pulls things out of his … you know.”
He first made waves as a sophomore, running 3:58.52 in an indoor mile race to break a 35-year-old record held by Steve Prefontaine. As part of Oregon’s distance medley relay team, Acosta has won two national titles, though he has none individually.
Acosta holds a share of the 1,500m school record (3:36.48), the other share of which belongs to former Olympic gold medalist Joaquim Cruz. A seven-time All-American, he has a personal-best mile time of 3:53.76, set at last year’s Prefontaine Classic.
He lives with senior distance runners Centrowitz and Chris Kwiatkowski in an apartment affectionately dubbed the “Warplex” — the “track house,” according to Centrowitz, where sleeping, eating and studying take the occasional backseat to movies and tournaments of Halo, Madden and NBA Jam.
By all accounts, Acosta is popular and well-liked among his teammates. There is no official census data for A.J. Nation, but it is safe to assume the population is at an all-time high.
“Some people think it’s like an ego thing,” Acosta said, in reference to the College GameDay sign. “It’s just a joke. The A.J. Nation thing in high school, it was just a joke. It’s still a joke now. It’s just kind of a way to — I don’t know, poke fun of myself, I guess.”
As a high-schooler, Acosta won the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in 2005 and made the IAAF World Junior Championships at 1,500m. He was a rising star. He told a reporter in San Diego that he wanted “to be a legend.”
“I don’t want to call it like a grassroots following, because we didn’t have like a ton of people, but anyone that supported me was thrown into this A.J. Nation thing,” he said. “You’re not really like a card-carrying member of it. There’s no membership dues. It’s just people that support me. It was just a thing to kind of publicize me in high school. After Foot Locker my junior year (he finished ninth) I didn’t have the hype that some other guys did coming in.”
The “Hayward Tested, Track Town Approved” billboard off Coburg Road, entering downtown Eugene, demarcates the unofficial boundary line of A.J. Nation. The photo is of the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships 1,500m final, which Andrew Wheating won to complete his historic double. Acosta finished second, Centrowitz third.
There stands Acosta, crossing the line, face frozen in a silent scream, arms outstretched. The uninitiated would look at the photo and surmise that Acosta, not Wheating, had won the race.
With his racing or with his presence, he cannot seem to help but attract attention.