PREP FOCUS: Mitchell's Jeff Masterson has a hard time focusing after the death of his father.
By JAMAL THALJI
Published November 25, 2003
HUDSON - All Jeff Masterson wanted was 15 minutes.
The 17-year-old has a lifetime to mourn. All he wanted was a window to race at the state cross-country meet without the pain, the loss, the grief.
That was all the time Masterson wanted: 15 minutes to focus on taking care of business, fulfilling a dream, and winning a state title.
He only got 12 minutes.
He led at the 21/4-mile mark Nov. 8 when it hit him again. The weight loss. The diagnosis. The coping, the denial, the family's halting acceptance.
The last months, weeks, then days spent passing wisdom from the end of one life to the prime of another.
How could the Mitchell junior ever truly forget?
George Masterson - training partner, confidant, father - would not be waiting for him at the finish.
He died of cancer on Oct. 1 at 48.
When the memory comes back, the lead is gone.
Jeff Masterson finished third at state last year. This year at the state meet at Ed Radice Park in Tampa, the former contender fell to 10th with a time of 15 minutes, 52 seconds - 28 seconds off the winning time, 25 off his best.
He gave it his best. But without his dad, the two-time Pasco County champion's best is not what it used to be.
"As much as I try to put it behind me, it just won't go," Masterson said. "It's like I have to set aside my life to run. Sometimes I set it aside for 15 minutes. Sometimes I set it aside for 10.
"At the state meet, I set it aside for 12, and after 12 I couldn't hold on anymore.
"From there, it just slipped back in."
* * *
Jeff Masterson is no ordinary runner.
The Mastersons are no ordinary family.
Jeff is one of the state's elite high school runners. Since his freshman season he has piled up victories and record times. He has talent and a work ethic to match. This season he was a preseason contender for the Class 3A title.
Ask Masterson why he is so good, and he'll give you three reasons: Daniel, David and Aaron.
Three of the five Masterson brothers have Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Daniel, 22, and David, 13, are in wheelchairs. Aaron, 7, is heading for one, doctors have told the family. Gradually the disease weakens the voluntary and skeletal muscles, in the arms, legs and trunk. It can affect their heart and respiratory muscles. Few live past age 30.
When Tim, 21, and Jeff run their brothers are never far from their thoughts.
"The boys are doing wonderfully," said their mother, Kathy. "It's been tough, and now the holidays are coming up. I just thank God for them."
His family helped make Jeff Masterson such a tough runner. Cross country is about the mental overcoming the physical.
"I tell my guys all the time, cross country is 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical," Mitchell coach Bill Napolitano said. "As much as they work, it's all about the mental barriers that have to be broken in order to be a part of that elite group.
"When that psyche is pushed in a different direction, then you've got problems. When you're an elite runner, running in the 15s, and your mind is distracted you just lose too much out there on the course.
"You can't just get it back."
Masterson has overcome all sorts of obstacles and barriers in his running.
But this is a wall he hasn't faced before.
* * *
The Mastersons know how to persevere.
"Definitely, God has carried us," Kathy said. "There's no other way to say it. It's very difficult. But if we didn't have the Lord and the faith that we've had in the past, I don't know how we would have done it, or how we would do it even now. It's hard, it's very hard.
"We have suffered a great loss."
It started with back pain. But George Masterson didn't make the connection until January, that it flared up every time he ate. Enter the doctors.
Then came weight loss. It was gradual, until June. "It was just falling off," Kathy said. George, a sales representative at Kraft Foods, stopped working July 11.
Seven days later, a tumor was found in his esophagus. The diagnosis: esophageal cancer.
"We never asked how much time he had," the mother said.
The family was defiant.
"We had really hoped that he would get better," the mother said. "We just weren't accepting it. We're Christians. We know that God can heal. We really stood by God's word and just believed for the best.
"So I don't know if we were really accepting of it from the very beginning."
* * *
Father was just one of George Masterson's roles. He was also Jeff's personal coach. He was his son's motivator, trainer, chauffeur, strategic adviser, race analyst, cheerleader and critic. He was a fixture for the Mitchell cross-country and track programs, always at practices and meets, at home and on the road, the ultimate parent volunteer.
"He just loved it," Kathy Masterson said. "He had coached himself, boys and girls cross country and basketball. He loved doing that."
George Masterson was a runner himself at Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, N.Y., (Class of '73) and later at Buffalo State College. But Jeff played soccer in middle school and the father never pushed him into running.
But he was the first to hear of Jeff's switch to running, when the eighth-grader won the 800 meters at a middle school race, shaving six seconds off his best time.
"I called him, I was ecstatic," Masterson said. "I think from then on I pretty much knew I liked running, that I liked that feeling of being able to knock down seconds like that."
As Masterson's talent became more apparent, as his running became more honed, as his exploits became better known, his father was with him every step. When Jeff ran on the golf course or in the neighborhood, his father was right there on his bike or in the car. They were nearly inseparable.
Even in George Masterson's last days, that never stopped. Father and son talked, and talked and talked, right up until the end.
"Most of the conversations were about how I should handle these races coming up or how I should handle the losses I was handed," Jeff Masterson said. "I think we mainly talked about life, though. He was really concerned, really worried, about what kind of person I would be if I didn't have my running.
"When you can't compete anymore, when you're not at the level you're used to being at, who are you going to be? And that is something I had to confront. I know now when I can't run those 15-minute 5 (kilometer races) anymore, when I have to run in the 21s and 22s, I'll still be a good person, I'll still have the values he instilled in me because that was a big priority for him."
George Masterson weighed 211 in January. He was 140 pounds when he died. More than 350 attended his funeral, an uplifting ceremony held Oct. 6 at Calvary Chapel Worship Center in New Port Richey. His ashes are buried in a memory garden at the family's Hudson home.
"(George) used to talk about not attaching who (Jeff) is to the running," the mother said. "It's hard not to, but you just try to keep it in balance.
"But this year, I guess we've done that."
* * *
The Mastersons were so well-known at races that after his father's death, well-wishers sought out Jeff wherever and whenever he ran.
Which has been part of the problem.
"It's a shame that every time we went to a race, 10 people would come up to him and say, "Sorry, blah, blah, blah' and boom, he's taken right out of his race," Napolitano said. "They never gave this kid a break. Even at state, while they're announcing his race, all they're talking about is how his dad just passed away.
"I mean, give him a break."
Two days after George Masterson died, his son placed sixth at the flrunners.com Invitational at Ed Radice Park. Despite missing two weeks of practice, Jeff placed sixth in 15:41.79 and dedicated the race to his father.
"I think the adrenaline was flowing," Kathy said, "but a couple of races after that got tougher."
At the Oct. 17 Sunshine Athletic Conference meet at Zephyrhills, Masterson faltered in his third try at the Pasco County crown, finishing third in 16:46, 42 seconds out of first.
Masterson thought he had a handle on his emotions for the postseason. At the 3A-District 5 race at Largo's Taylor Park, he ran 15:31, winning by seven seconds. At the Region 3 meet at Fort Myers' Lee County Sport Complex, he won the title in 16:07.95, overcoming a difficult course and strong winds.
Then came state.
"With our family, there's always been a way provided for us," Jeff Masterson said. "I thought, when Nov. 8 rolls around, my dad was going to be at the starting line and the finish line.
"I guess I kept telling myself that."
Sometimes the memory of his father inspires him, other times the grief holds him back.
"It's hard to pinpoint when it will happen," Masterson said. "If I run a course where I had good memories with my dad, it's just hard to run there again. As much as I try to put it behind me, it just won't go."
But a runner never stops running. On Thanksgiving Day Masterson will run the fun mile at the 25th anniversary Times Turkey Trot. Later that day the family will release balloons in George Masterson's memory at Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson. Saturday, Jeff Masterson will be at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, a prestigious national meet in North Carolina. And track season starts in the spring.
"Some days in practice I want to run real hard and I do," Masterson said, "and some days in practice I don't want to run at all. There are some days grieving when I cry a lot, and there are some days when I don't feel the need to cry anymore.