June 4, 2007
By BEN DOOLING
Maryland Media Relations
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - As the sun beats down on Ludwig Field at the University of Maryland on an unusually hot early summer day, two men jog side-by-side down the side of the soccer pitch. Campus is virtually empty; the rest of the students have gone home for summer vacation.
But Dominic Berger and Adam Durham still have work to do. The pair of hurdlers will take an important step towards restoring Maryland's track team to national prominence when they represent the Terps at the NCAA national championship this week in Sacramento, Calif.
The Maryland men's team dominated the competition in the 1960's and 70s, producing 55 All-Americans in the two decades and 25 consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference Championships from 1956 to 1980. Eight of those All-America honors went to Renaldo Nehemiah and Greg "Fly" Robertson, the last pair of star hurdlers to sport red and white together.
Now Berger and Durham will try to take the baton from that pair of Maryland Hall of Fame athletes and lead the Terps back into the national conversation. Berger started the process last year with All-America honors in the 60-hurdles and the 110-hurdles, becoming the first Maryland to earn an All-America nod since 1987.
This year Durham, his teammate and friend, will join him in what must be a proud moment for Head Coach Andrew Valmon. His four-year Maryland career has been a quest to return Maryland track and field to the high standard it enjoyed during its quarter-decade of dominance. "It's huge. We want the kids coming in to have the mind set that `I'm going to Maryland and I'm going to nationals,' " he said.
The two runners have taken very different paths to this moment. Berger, a junior, has been a competitor on the national scene for years, and placed second in the NCAA's in the 110-meter hurdles last season with a time of 13.63. Durham, who was seeded outside the top 20 at the East Region championship, shocked the field with a career-best time of 14.03, good enough for fifth place. Berger placed second in that event.
"I'm older but I still look up to him," Durham said of his teammate, whom he jokingly refers to as the Obi-Wan Kenobi to his Anakin Skywalker, a reference to the famous master and pupil in Star Wars. "We just learn from each other and feed off each other's energy," he said.
Durham had a simple explanation after shaving a tenth of a second off of his time in the biggest race of his career to date. "They put me way out in lane eight, so I was able to stay focused on my technique," he said. "I was just getting out and doing what I did as a kid - just running."
Valmon echoed his runner's sentiments. "He was in lane eight, and Berger was in lane eight when he finished second in nationals last year. It's been good for our kids. It keeps them on the outside, and focused on their own race and going in that direction," he said, as he pointed toward some imaginary finish line.
Berger has kept his focus on that line despite increased media attention and frequent comparisons to Nehemiah, perhaps the most accomplished Maryland athlete of all time. The former three-time NCAA hurdles champion set 13 world records in his career, and was the first athlete in history to be timed under 13 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles. He went on to have a successful career with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, with whom he won a Super Bowl in 1984.
Berger spoke about the Maryland legend with respect and admiration. "It is an honor and a privilege to be mentioned in the same sentence as him," he said. Recently The Baltimore Sun did much more than that, comparing the two Maryland greats in an article which appeared on the front page of the sports section. Nehemiah actually presented Berger with the gold medal after he won the 110-meter hurdles at the 2007 ACC Outdoor Championship in College Park.
In a few days, Berger and Durham will line up against the fastest, most explosive collegiate athletes in the country. When the gun sounds, all will surge over the succession of hurdles in a blurred line of arms, legs, and falling white barriers. For now, though, they are just a couple of friends jogging on the track, sharing a laugh in the hot afternoon sun. Durham grabs a football and mimics a seven-step drop back of a quarterback, while Berger stands near the water fountain dancing to a hip-hop beat that is blaring out of the boom box.
"As a staff, we try and take the pressure off and put it on our shoulders," Valmon said. "We try and create the atmosphere like it's just another meet. We keep the conditions as close to meet conditions as possible." As part of that approach, the coaches have Berger and Durham practice at the time of next week's trials and finals races in Maryland, so the runners will approach it like it's a home meet.
The pressure lifted from their minds, the two runners appear quite comfortable just relishing the moment. "I'm really excited," Durham admitted. "I'll try and take it as if it's just another meet, but I love good competition. The better people are, the faster I'll run."