If his sport was football, you would know his name as well as you knew Reggie Bush’s his senior season in 2002 at Helix High. The then-future Heisman Trophy winner carried a national profile as San Diego’s best known high school athlete.
If his sport was basketball, you would have seen his image on local television as often as you saw La Costa Canyon High senior Chase Budinger. The Arizona-bound Budinger earned McDonald’s high school All-American honors.
But A.J. Acosta’s sport is running. And even though the El Camino High senior is one of the rare American high school athletes to threaten a time-honored magic barrier in sports – the four-minute mile – most meat-and-potato sports fans in San Diego aren’t aware of his national profile in track and field and cross country.
One of ironies of sports on television is when the industry was born in the 1950s, the expectation was that minor sports would benefit. More people would have the opportunity to watch and learn other sports.
In reality, the opposite has happened. No one foresaw the power dictated by television ratings on sports. Instead of television enlightening viewers, ratings points and advertising dollars have dumbed down the American sports fans. Football, basketball and baseball are the beasts that must be fed for ratings points.
But if you take the time to thumb through newspapers to the back pages or read the agate type – instead of educating readers, newspaper sports editors follow television’s lead – you would know that Acosta’s career has been as dominant in his sports as Bush was in football and Budinger was in basketball.
In December, the Oregon-bound Acosta won the Footlocker National Cross Country title at Balboa Park’s Morley Field.
A month ago, he competed at Oregon’s famed Hayward Field in the 1,500 meters against a field of world-class runners. His time of 3 minutes, 45.73 seconds converts to a 4:03.79 mile.
Only four American high school athletes have broken the four-minute barrier, with Chula Vista High’s Tim Danielson the second in 1966 at 3:59.9. Patrick Henry High’s Thom Hunt came close in 1976, holding the American high school mile indoor record for 25 years with a 4:02.7.
“It’s what every kid wants to do,” Acosta said of breaking four minutes. “I’d be one of only five and I could etch my name in immortality. But my goals this year are the state meet, the (U.S. junior) national title and making the world (junior) team.”
This weekend Acosta’s sights are set on the bold goal of a rare sweep of CIF State titles in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters in the grueling two-day state meet Friday and Saturday at Cerritos College. Most high school distance runners focus on the 1,600 or the 3,200 as their goal.
But anyone who has seen Acosta compete knows he likes to run with flair. El Camino’s cross country dual meets had the flavor of a football crowd with Acosta’s vocal fans and detractors at the start and finish lines.
On Saturday in the CIF San Diego Section track and field finals at Mt. Carmel High, Acosta advanced to the state meet by sweeping the 1,600 and 3,200. It was his third straight 1,600 title and second straight 3,200 (he swept the 1,600 and 800 as a sophomore). But not surprisingly, his 1,600 title came with a bit of controversy.
He competed in black hip-huggers, and it’s a high school rule athletes must wear school-issued uniforms. Acosta was disqualified until his coaches appealed and he was reinstated because the clerk of the course told him his black shorts were permitted.
“That’s A.J. – always pushing the limits,” said one of his El Camino coaches, Tom Sprink, shaking his head.
With Acosta having accepted a scholarship to run for Oregon, there are track and field people daring to say Acosta has the magnetic personality of Steve Prefontaine – the legendary Oregon distance runner who tragically died young.
“People are saying that,” Acosta nods with respect and humility for Prefontaine’s place in his sport. “But I know Steve Prefontaine had awesome shoes to fill. Hayward Field is an electric to place to run. I’m excited about Oregon.”
Acosta, like Bush when he won the Heisman, needs luck to remain healthy and circumstances to fulfill the prodigious talent he has shown in high school. But he has the knack for tripping an electronic media wire that could set off lights and sirens and attract Americans sports fans from their meat-and-potatoes diet.
“I love getting the fans riled up,” Acosta said. “My personality is brash and some people don’t like that. But we need more people like Steve Prefontaine in our sport. They draw interest to the sport and that’s what I want to do.”
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.