Tyke Peacock: Long road back

Tyke Peacock: Long road back

URBANA — Tyke Peacock’s high jumping ability took him to world-famous stadiums across the globe — from Belgium to Berlin, Italy to England.

He was on top of his sport: owner of the all-time American record, holder of the world’s No. 1 ranking, well on his way to earning the same local legend status in Urbana that Bonnie Blair had carved out for herself in Champaign. 

But there was also a dark side.

Peacock’s criminal activity, spurred by a drug dependency, sent him to prison cells in Lincoln, in 1994, then Robinson four years later.

Every time he was released, he vowed not to return. Then did.

“When I was out, I thought I could do controlled using (of cocaine) and it kicked right back in, like it had never missed a beat,” he said. “The second time out, I was clean almost a year. I fooled myself into thinking since beer wasn’t my problem, I could drink beer. That was the biggest lie I told myself.”

In a freefall more than a decade in the making, Peacock remembers hitting bottom. It was 2010, and he was back behind bars, locked up in the Bakersfield, Calif., jail over outstanding warrants in Champaign County.

He was tired of the life he’d been living, tired of having to remember to leave his ID at home any time he went out, tired of giving aliases every time police stopped his vehicle, tired of looking over his shoulder all the time.

“I got on my knees in the cell and the first thing I asked God was to take the craving for those drugs away from me,” Peacock said.

That moment signaled the official start of his long road to recovery.


‘The choices we make’

Peacock is 53 now, clean and sober for four years next month, he says.

Five operations on his right knee and another on his left have sapped him of his athletic prowess — “I could probably jump over a slice of bread,” he jokes — and caused him to go on disability.

He’s back home in Urbana, living in the house he grew up in with his mother and stepfather, LaCulia and Burnest Hennings, a few steps from King Park. 

He cleared one probation last fall and is trying to use his dark days in positive ways. His message on the motivational speech circuit settings is a hopeful one: 

“You can come through anything,” he said. “That’s why I go to these speaking engagements. I talk about the choices we make and the consequences behind them. I may be able to say something to turn a person 180 degrees.”


Making the jump

Tracy Parsons was a childhood buddy of the Peacock boys, Tyke and older brother Turk. Through it all, he has remained a lifelong friend.

“In those days, we had a neighborhood full of kids,” Parsons said. “Tyke was an incredible athlete as a young kid. In eighth grade, he could touch the rim when none of us could do that.

“His gifts and talents athletically far exceeded other kids in the neighborhood.”

In August 1983, barely four years out of Urbana High School, Peacock leaped into the record books during a meet in Germany. He set the American high jump record at 7 feet, 73/4 inches.

“I used to brag about my best friend I grew up as with one of elite athletes in the world,” said Parsons, who played football at Northwestern.

But with the adulation and attention came temptations, then trouble.

“You start to believe — buy into — what society says. ‘You’ve made it,’ ” Peacock said. “When you’re that young and impressionable, you start believing you’re this great guy. It almost gives you a sense of invincibility.”

For Peacock, getting high didn’t just mean clearing a bar that rested more than 19 inches about his 6-foot frame. The same year he etched his name in the track and field record books, Peacock had escalated from celebrating with beer and marijuana to cocaine.

“When I first started, the drug didn’t affect me right away,” Peacock said. “When you use illegal drugs and perform at a high level, you think why wouldn’t you use those drugs?”

Long before the 1984 Olympic Trials in Los Angeles, Peacock could see the path he was on. But changing his course required far more than recognizing he had a problem.

“You realize you’ve made a horrible decision, but unless something awesome happens, the addiction takes over,” he said. “You know your life is screwed up, but the addiction keeps you out there.”

He knew better. Looking back now, that’s the worst part.

“My mom and dad raised us right,” Peacock said. But “I know a lot of people who I associated with (doing drugs) who came from good homes. We thought we knew better than our parents did.”


The truth hurts

For more than a quarter century, Peacock kept secret the reason for his failure to earn a spot alongside Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses on the 1984 U.S. Olympic track and field team.

In 2010, he finally confessed.

“It was too heavy of a burden,” he said. “I was scared people would judge me harshly for all that I let go because of that substance. In reality, it was the opposite. People embraced it and thanked me for telling the story.”

Physically, Peacock was in peak form for the ’84 Trials. He had entered four outdoor meets that year, winning all of them.

During the qualifying round, he cleared the required 7-4 1/2 without even taking off his sweats, as had become his custom. 

Nationally, the biggest story from the trials that year was Dwight Stones jumping 7-8 to reclaim the American record from Peacock.

As for Peacock, then 23, he was unable to clear the height he had a day earlier. Newspapers quoted him as saying he’d injured his left hip, a badly timed break that kept him out of the first Summer Olympics in five decades to be held on American soil.

“I faked the injury,” Peacock admits now. “I knew I would not pass a drug test. I held that dirty secret for so many years. That’s what kept me high, to hold that to myself. Until I was able to speak the words to someone else, I didn’t feel true freedom.”


No going back

After being extradited from California in 2010, Peacock pled guilty in Champaign County to residential burglary. Because of his previous convictions, the man for whom Gov. James Thompson once declared Tyke Peacock Day across Illinois was now facing a mandatory six- to 30-year prison sentence.

Unable to come up with the $17,000 needed for bond while awaiting trial, he voluntarily entered a safe house run by the Canaan Baptist Church, in Urbana. On the day set aside for sentencing, Judge Tom Difanis was sympathetic about the former high school state champion’s efforts at rehabilitation.

The judge’s words are etched in Peacock’s memory: “Difanis said: ‘I have no problem giving you the bottom end of the sentence but I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to allow you to remain at the safe house the next four months and then you will surrender. I think you get it this time.’”

From Difanis’ point of view, it was just a temporary delay of starting to serve the jail sentence.

“It would at least strengthen him to finish his prison sentence and get him back on the right track,” the judge said. “I honestly didn’t expect to have any other result than to spend another four months at the safe house, which is a fantastic facility.”


‘You have wasted 30 years’

Three days before Peacock’s surrender date, on March 8, 2011, public defender Jamie Propps called her client with an unprecedented plan.

“She says, ‘Don’t get your hopes up, but I’m going to try something that has never been done before,’” Peacock said. “When we got to court on the surrender date, she said, ‘I’d like the court to allow me to withdraw the guilty plea (for burglary) and plead guilty to a lesser charge,’ of unlawful use of a credit card.

“The judge and prosecuting attorney agreed. All I could so was sit there and cry.”

Peacock was placed on probation, but not before Difanis issued a stern warning.

“What I told him, when I finally sentenced him was: You have wasted 30 years of your life and you owe us for what you could have accomplished, what you could have done,” Difanis said. “It’s time to get working on that.

“He was charismatic, intelligent and had everything going for him. You don’t know what he could have provided to society.”

Peacock’s message, the judge believes, will be a powerful one.

“He was there. He was at the top and he can say, ‘This is what happened to me,’” Difanis said. “We have very few happy endings in this business. Hopefully, this is one of them.”


What might have been

Peacock’s fun-loving manner endeared him with friends and associates, who hold fond memories decades later.

“The whole Peacock family is blessed with looks, brains and athletic prowess, but they always made me and my family feel like we made their day when they happened to see us out and about town,” said Bridget Buchanan Broihahn, a former Urbana cheerleader during Peacock’s prep career. “Tyke has been my friend for most of my life.”

Robert Rose and Peacock were basketball teammates for a year at California’s Modesto Junior College, where Peacock transferred following a year at the University of Kansas.

“Tyke was a world-class athlete but he acted like a normal guy,” Rose recalled. “I was 17 and Tyke took me under his wing.

“If he was a friend, he was a friend for life. When you get to the bottom of the person, Tyke is genuine. There are no pretensions.”

Even as he reached heights never achieved by other jumpers, Peacock’s first love was basketball. His dream was to play in the NBA.

At least one other person believes he could have, too.

“There are guys in the NBA who are not as good as him,” Modesto basketball coach Al Hobby told The News-Gazette in 1988. “You’ve got guys who can dunk the ball now and I just laugh because it’s nothing like what Tyke used to do.”

David Woods is a former News-Gazette sportswriter who tracked Peacock throughout much of his competitive career.

“Sometimes Tyke Peacock reminds me of my boyhood hero, Mickey Mantle,” said Woods, now a sports writer with the Indianapolis Star. “Both had great achievements, but could have done so much more. Peacock was a meteor who burned brightly, but briefly.”


‘God’s sentence’

Peacock felt blessed at avoiding a third prison stint.

“I am grateful that Difanis had a soft spot in his heart,” Peacock said. “I believe my sentence was God’s sentence. Every morning, I give thanks for me still being here. There’s no reason I’m still here and have a sound mind after all the stuff I put in my body for almost 30 years.

“I read the Bible for an hour and a half and send scripture to 60 friends. I do Facebook posts every day. For me, being on that side of the coin is what it’s all about.

“I understand people being skeptical. ‘Did he get it this time?’ I don’t excuse my past, but that is exactly what it is. My past.”

Peacock was discharged from probation in Champaign County on Nov. 25, 2013.

To celebrate, he traveled to Arizona to turn himself in on four felony forgery charges he faced in that state dating back to 2006. He didn’t expect authorities to track him down all the way in Urbana, but he felt compelled to come clean so he could start anew.

In February of this year, he was placed on three years’ probation by Arizona courts. As part of the deal, his probation was transferred back to Illinois.

“What carried weight with the court is that I did turn myself in,” Peacock said. “One statement the judge made is that by you coming here on your own, it shows you’re ready to get it behind you.”


Having a ball

At Urbana High School, Peacock didn’t complete either his freshman or sophomore seasons in track. He was removed from the team, Woods recalled, “because he skipped practice and, of course, played pickup basketball.”

Never a serious weight-lifter, his track workouts frequently evolved into finding a basketball and a hoop.

Unorthodox, for certain, but his jumps coach at the University of Kansas wasn’t one to criticize.

“Basketball,” Steve Kueffer said, “is a very good training method for the high jump. I think it is underestimated. In basketball, you’re jumping all the time. There are serious benefits.”

The ritual became so ingrained in Peacock that he was reluctant to change in spite of his international fame.

“I believed, for myself, what I had been doing was working and I was scared to change it,” Peacock said. “I was afraid it might have a negative effect. Playing basketball and going to the track twice a week had me ranked No. 1 in the world.”

In a 1982 interview with The News-Gazette, Kansas track head coach Bob Timmons didn’t mince words after kicking Peacock off the team.

“He has jumped over 7-5 on his talent alone — not on practice, training or determination,” Timmons said. ”There finally comes a time when it’s damaging to the team to have one set of rules for them and another set for Tyke.

“Maybe his great talent has lulled him into thinking that practice isn’t important.”


‘I see success’

To Peacock, the cost of all those lost years is not the purchase price for the drugs he used.

It’s the price he paid for the lifestyle he lived.

“I don’t know if someone may want to say it sounds cocky,” he said, “but I know what my talents were. The fact is, I was one of the best high jumpers in the world. There is absolutely no question in my mind I could have been an Olympic champion.”

Through it all, he remains proud of the person he has become.

“If things were any better, I think I’d be in a dream,” Peacock said. “Where I am is in a good place, moving forward.

“What it took was following the rules, following direction, not calling my own shots and living life on life’s terms. I am now not actively addicted. I have a choice to pick it up or not. As long as I don’t, I never have to deal with those consequences.

“I see people every day that are still addicted. I say thanks to God that it’s not me and I pray for them. In my future, I see success.”

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Stephen44 wrote on October 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm
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  I remember Tyke back in the late 70's and we payed basketball to no end. It's good to see him back on track. Maybe he a go to school and coach a team, but keep his speeches up. It's never too late.  

keep_n_it_real wrote on October 20, 2014 at 9:10 am

And the moral to this story kids... Don't be a Tyke Peacock.