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St. Mary's coach Volk writes book about ex-Oregon track star Mack

Joe Volk and David Mack share a few commonalities.

They both grew up in the Los Angeles area in the 1960s and ‘70s. They ran track in high school. They began their college careers at the mecca of the sport, the University of Oregon, but didn’t know each other until they arrived on campus and became friends through a chance meeting over pizza in the fall of 1979.

They share other traits: an inquisitive nature, a bent for teaching, compassion for others.

And four decades later, one, Volk, has written a book about the other, Mack, called “Stable Boy.” The title refers to work Mack did as a 10-year-old in exchange for an opportunity to ride horses, an escape from his hardscrabble, poverty-laced, inner-city upbringing in Compton, California.

Peas in a pod, these two? Not exactly.

Volk’s running career extended into college but not beyond. He became a high school theology teacher and decorated track and cross-country coach. He’s in his 34th year at St. Mary’s and has seven track and four cross-country team state championships to his credit and more than 50 individual titlists.

Within the school walls, he heads the religion department, teaching ninth and 11th grades “and a bunch of English classes,” he says.

Mack’s path was starkly different.

At Oregon, he was the NCAA champion in the 800 meters in 1982 and captured three straight Pac-12 titles before departing after his junior year.

Mack was America’s top half-miler in 1983, and two years later — after missing out on the ‘84 Olympics because of an injury — lowered his personal record to 1 minute, 43.35. That time came in the same race Johnny Gray set the U.S. record of 1:42.60, which stood until just two years ago, when Donavan Brazier turned in a 1:42.34.

Mack’s international running career ended in 1988, and soon after he joined the Los Angeles Police Department. He became a star there as well, earning the department medal for heroism and rising to the rank of senior lead officer.

But, he was immersed in the city’s seediest of elements and got caught up in the culture. His nine-year career ended when he was arrested for bank robbery and did more than 13 years in federal prison. He was linked to other high-profile scandals and crimes, most notably the murder of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a, The Notorious B.I.G., but Mack maintained his innocence and no evidence proved otherwise.

Mack was released in May 2010 and has since lived a redemptive, productive life, one that Volk sought to bring to light when the two reconnected through Facebook a half-dozen years ago.

In essence, their lives and lifestyles were worlds apart.

“I think the heart of the story is, this man never gave up,” says Volk, whose book came out a couple weeks ago and is available on amazon.com. “He suffered a lot of bad stuff, and he didn’t let it beat him down and basically came out eventually and learned some valuable lessons along the way. I think he’s got a pretty redemptive life right now.”

Volk left Oregon after his freshman year because his mother was ill. He attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he ran cross-country and track, and continued to follow Mack’s running exploits until his friend’s racing career ended.

He was disheartened to read media accounts of Mack’s troubles, convinced that wasn’t the person he knew.

“I think some of the stuff that emerged was not true,” says Volk, “and I think some of the stuff was to sell magazines.”

With the book, he doesn’t set out to clear Mack’s name. Mack acknowledges his role in the bank robbery, says Volk, and paid the penalty.

“I don’t think he was interested in that,” says Volk. “He felt that over the course of his time when he was down, people were ready to pile on. I think for me, I wanted people to know this is a person whose life has a lot of facets that people may not really understand. I think there is stuff in our lives, we make mistakes and hopefully we learn from those mistakes and move forward. I think too many people just see the negative and don’t see the positive.”

In the book, Volk cites Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the pitfalls of “the single story” trap.

He quotes Adichie: “All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Volk does not go into detail about Mack’s criminal activity, citing the Son of Sam law, which prevents individuals from profiting from their crime stories. The book was done to share Mack’s story, not to make money, says Volk, adding that he and Mack will split sales.

“That experience in prison really transformed him,” says Volk. “That was the piece, I think, that made him who he is now. You hate to say that it takes something that horrible to turn somebody’s life around, but for David, it really did turn his life around.”

Mack has a degree in electronics and has taught classes in photovoltaics. He works in the renewable energy field in Los Angeles and volunteers as a speaker for at-risk youth, sharing his story in the hope it can help them.

He remains active, riding competitively for a cycling club that supports youth programs.

How they met

It was a chance Sunday night encounter at Track Town Pizza that brought Volk and Mack together in their first term at Oregon. Volk recognized Mack from high school meets and introduced himself.

As two former Southern California prep runners away from home, they bonded immediately. Volk remembers Mack being very friendly and talkative as he described the transition from a Los Angeles city school to training under legendary Duck coach Bill Dellinger.

When Christmas break arrived, Volk, Mack and five others piled into Volk’s 1968 Dodge van and headed back to California, dropping passengers off at various points.

The gang continued through the night, Volk writes, talking and laughing and feeding off the energy of Parliament and Sugar Hill Gang’s recently released “Rapper’s Delight” pumping through the eight-track player.

The revelry didn’t last long for Mack. He wasn’t sure Eugene was for him, and when another top Los Angeles recruit in his class asked for, and received, his release from Oregon, Mack tried the same tactic. Dellinger refused.

The coach, Volk writes, recognized Mack could be something special in the middle-distance world. The runner decided Dellinger was a coach who could bring him to great things.

The first few chapters describe the harsh surroundings in which Mack was raised. Gangs were prevalent, money was not.

His biological mother was Hispanic, and when she chose to move back to Mexico, she left Mack, then about 2, and two other children behind. Mack was raised by neighbors, and he doesn’t know where the other siblings landed.

In the book, Mack describes his makeshift “mom” as illiterate, an alcoholic and a part-time prostitute who beat him often.

If he wanted something other than rag-tag clothes, he was told to steal them. Shoes, for instance.

“I can remember telling my wife when I signed my first Nike contract,” Mack recounts. “I had tears in my eyes because I used to steal shoes in Compton. I was banned from stores because I was always stealing their shoes. So in the irony of life, here’s someone paying me to wear their shoes. My life has a lot of twists and turns.”

At age 12, he was run over by a drunk driver while riding his bike, but escaped serious injury. In junior high, about the time he took up running, he was shot at by gang members. They were just a couple of the times he cheated death.

Before high school, Mack bolted to his godmother’s home, some 3 miles from Compton, that may well have saved him.

At Locke High, Mack won consecutive state 880-yard titles and was among the best in the nation. He was widely recruited, and Oregon won out.

Stardom came early with the Ducks, for 1980 was an Olympic year, and Dellinger redshirted standouts Alberto Salazar and Rudy Chapa in preparation for the Moscow Games, which the U.S. eventually boycotted.

Mack saw plenty of action as a freshman and endeared himself to the Hayward Field throng with a fearless running style, perhaps a byproduct of the requisite toughness demanded of those raised in the ghetto.

By the time he left Oregon to turn pro, he was second on the Ducks’ all-time 800 list at 1:45.55. Wade Bell ran 1:45.17 in 1967. Mack is now fifth.

Volk takes a thorough look at Mack in his post-Oregon days, competing for the famed Santa Monica Track Club and making his mark on the world stage. Upon turning pro in 1983, he wound up ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the 800 and No. 3 in the world.

In 1984, the Olympics would be in Los Angeles, a juicy carrot if ever there was one for a young man who had surfaced from ramshackle depths and made something of himself. But, slowed by compartment syndrome, Mack was a shell of himself and didn’t make it out of the Olympic Trials quarterfinal round.

Surgery to both shins repaired the problem and he returned in ‘85 to run his fastest career times, eclipsing 1:45 five times.

Mack’s performances gradually faded over the next couple years, and he was soon moving from world-class track and field.

From LAPD to prison

In college, Mack displayed interest in law enforcement, taking criminology classes and envisioning a career in the FBI or as a parole office. He went through the academy and joined the LAPD in 1988.

He was a patrol officer to begin with, working streets he frequented as a kid and hoping to help alleviate some of the crime.

Three years after he joined, Rodney King was beaten during an arrest, and a year later, the acquittal of the LAPD officers involved prompted violent riots that resulted in more than $1 billion in damage.

The King incident led to department investigations, which showed an all-to-common use of excessive force.

Racial divide in the community strained relations within the department.

“You would be sitting with guys, who were white officers that you thought were cool,” Mack says in the book, “spent time with, or hung out together with, but when it came to that [the racial tension at the time] they could not see that it was wrong. It shattered a lot of relationships and the illusion that we were all Blue Officers, and we were not.”

Mack became an undercover narcotics officer in the early ‘90s, but a half-dozen years into his LAPD tenure, his enthusiasm for the job dissipated. The force, Volk writes, “had become mired in controversy and scandal, and, at the same time, David sunk to the lowest point in his life.”

Mack was arrested Dec. 16, 1997, for his role in the bank robbery.

He became inmate No. 12866-112 in the federal prison system. As a former police officer, Mack deemed it best to keep a low profile, stay fit and study.

He bounced around to a number of institutions, received death threats, survived a vicious stabbing attack by six assailants in the Greenville, Illinois, facility and, eventually, became a jailhouse lawyer representing himself and teaching other inmates.

After he got out, Mack received a letter from a neo-Nazi inmate that read: “Before I met you, I didn’t like blacks. I didn’t respect them. All they do is come in here and watch television and play games. I’ve learned to respect you. I didn’t like you when you first came because you were ex-law enforcement, but you stayed to yourself; always in your books. Always disciplined.”

Mack took that diligence to the outside, and it’s helped him make a new life.

Writing the book

Over the years, Volk shared his relationship with Mack and Mack’s story of perseverance with his athletes. One of them, a film studies major in California, inquired in 2018 about doing a film on Mack. Volk checked with his friend, who said he’d be more interested in a book than a movie.

Volk ran it by his daughter, Emily, a recent Oregon graduate who might know someone to take it on.

“She said, ‘Dad, why don’t you do it? You know him,’” says Volk. “I said, ‘Oh, OK.’”

Volk has always enjoyed writing. He studied it in college, and when he needed a couple credits to finish off his English degree, he did so through an internship with the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL. Volk ran quotes to reporter’s on deadline and wrote player profiles for the team magazine.

Writing a book was another matter.

Mack was all for Volk telling his story, and the two met at Hayward Field during a track meet to set the process in motion.

A sense of nirvana evolved. Volk got to unleash his love for writing, and he got to talk track with iconic figures.

“I got to go up to Bill Dellinger’s house and sit amidst all this track and field memorabilia,” he says, “and just talk to him and listen to him. It was just like I was geeking out because here I am, this track coach, sitting in Bill Dellinger’s house. Those kinds of moments, they’re so special to me. I’m kind of a track nerd, and this was like track nerd heaven.”

Some of the stories seemed surreal. Mack having breakfast with the Black Panthers, or him dating Florence Griffith Joyner — the world’s fastest woman — in high school.

“This is almost like a Forrest Gump story,” says Volk, “all the different pieces of recent history he’s lived through.”

Volk shelved his writing late in 2019 after going nearly blind due to diabetic glaucoma. Surgery a few months later restored his vision.

When the book was completed, Volk reached out to about 30 publishers. Many had kind responses but no offers to print the book. He chose to self-publish through an Amazon program.

The books are printed on demand, and Volk has no idea how many will sell.

He has received at least one very heartwarming review. Mack wrote him an email:

“Congratulations, my friend, I’m truly grateful and honored by your diligence to this project. The journey is so special for me. I never told you this, but it was very painful for me to edit each version. I cried so much. It really opened up emotional wounds for me. Thank you for sharing my journey in this thing we call life.”

Their paths were far different, but they brought the two together again.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSt. Mary's track and cross-country coach Joe Volk holds the book he recently finished on former Oregon track star David Mack, who was among the best in the world, then worked for the Los Angeles Police Department, then went to prison for a federal crime.