By Matt Gleason
Mental Health Association in Tulsa
In 1984 Earl Jones won the bronze medal in the 800-meter-run at the Los Angeles Olympics. He was 19, and had at least three more Olympics to win gold. But then a car accident in 1986 destroyed Earl’s right knee, and, ultimately, left him divorced, homeless and battling addiction just three years later.
Since then, Earl has won his own personal Olympiad of overcoming homelessness and addiction. Now the 49-year-old is living in our housing, and working with us to ready apartments for our new tenants in their own race to a new life.
The other day, speckles of white paint dotted Earl’s face as the former Olympic runner grinned and looked around one of our empty apartments. At that moment, the carpet was stripped from the cold, barren floor, but the walls gleamed from his fresh coat of paint.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” Earl said, already envisioning the apartment as a finished home for someone who once lived on the streets … just like he did.
“I love my job,” Earl said, “and I know I’m here for a reason. I pray for, and with, people who live in our apartments, because I’ve been right where they were. God has given me a gift to help others, and for that I give thanks.”
Whatever Happened to Earl?
“Does anyone remember Earl Jones?” someone once asked on this message board thread titled “The Man Who Could Have Run a 1:39 800m. “It was too bad he got in a car accident and hurt his knee. I remember seeing him at the state championships in Michigan. I believe he had the potential to break 1:40.”
Earl was born in Chicago in 1964, and grew up in Eastern Michigan. Running came naturally to him as his legs sped him through a scholarship at Eastern Michigan University, and then onto the global stage as a pro runner.
Earl traveled Europe and South America, and would sometimes even run in front of 30,000 people on a Wednesday night. Among his friends and teammates was the great Carl Lewis.
Not long before the 1984 summer olympics, Earl won the 800 at the U.S. Olympics Trials, and set an American record that had stood for 20 years.
By the time the Olympics began, Earl and his coach knew he could nab a medal. They were right. You can watch the race narrated by Al Michaels online by clicking here.
“It was amazing,” Earl said. “I was the youngest member on the team, but me and my coach knew I had it in me, even though I was running against the greatest runners of the time.”
Gold awaited Earl in the coming Olympics, but then the same year he joined the sub 4:00 mile club in 1986, a car accident in Florida spun his life into disarray.
“The car skidded and tumbled,” Earl said. “I thought I was alright, but the dashboard caught my knee and just smashed it. It took me a year to rehab. That’s when life went downhill, it really did, and I ended up on the streets from 1989 to 1992.”
Earl eventually got off the streets, and arrived in Tulsa to attend and graduate Tulsa Welding School in 1995. About six months ago, Earl got a job in our Property Maintenance Department, and an apartment, where he lives with his wife of 17 years.
“I love helping people who were homeless finally have a great place to live,” Earl said of his job. “I know how good that feels to go from the streets to an apartment. Nothing like that.”
If Earl could go to an Olympian in Sochi right now, and explain how homelessness can happen to anyone, even an Olympian, he would say:
“Have faith and be humble. It can be taken from you in a second. Trust me, I know.”