I was a newspaper correspondent in the summer of 1979 and assigned to go to a dormitory across the American River from Sacramento State University and get a story about any of the athletes preparing to compete the next day in the Golden West Invitational track meet for high school all stars. A meet official directed me into the recreation room, and I approached a guy reclining on a couch. He said he was Tyke Peacock of Urbana, Illinois and had often high jumped seven-feet and held a best of seven-two. I was twenty-six at the time, playing basketball two hours a day, and, in addition to hitting long jumpers, could take a couple of steps and jump a foot or so above the rim. I considered that pretty good for a guy six-one.
“Being a high jumper, you probably play some basketball,” I said.
“Yeah, basketball’s my first love.”
“How high above the rim can you jump?”
“I can touch my head on the rim, no problem,” said Peacock, who was only modestly tall at six-two.
I didn’t reject what he said but thought he might be exaggerating a little. Motioning to the court outside, I said, “I’d love to see that. Can you show me?”
We stepped onto the concrete court, and I assumed, “He’ll need at least twenty minutes to get warm enough to do whatever he can.” I always needed that or more for my best jumps.
Tyke Peacock heated up much faster, and several times he casually approached the basket, elevated, and spun three-hundred-sixty degrees before slamming the basketball with two hands. He then nodded to indicate his muscles were loose, ran toward the backboard, leaped off his left leg and, with the top of his head, grazed the rim. To prove such a feat is commonplace, Peacock repeated the process, going progressively higher until he was touching the rim with the side of his head, along the temple. Soon he diversified his flight plan and began lifting off and touching points on the backboard about two feet above the rim.
I thanked Peacock for his efforts – perhaps I should say (almost) effortless demonstration – and resolved to follow his career. The next two years he became a world class high jumper at Modesto City College and also started on the basketball team. As a junior he moved to the University of Kansas, occasionally made news for deeds on the hardwood, and, more significantly, continued to rise as a high jumper but was kicked off the team in 1982 by coach Bob Timmons, who said, “He has jumped over seven-five on his talent alone – not on practice, training or determination. 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.”
Peacock returned to California and still continued to improve, won the silver medal in the 1983 World Championships, setting the American record of seven-seven and three-quarters. The 1984 Olympics offered lucrative opportunities for Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses and other likely gold medalists. Peacock was ranked first in the world and seemed ready to monetize his athletic inheritance. But he didn’t make the team, and that’s the last I heard.
It may have been difficult to learn much in the eighties and nineties, before the advent and growth of the internet, but I could’ve easily checked during the last fifteen years. I’d occasionally recalled those wonderful visions from a June Sacramento day in 1979. I just hadn’t been prompted until a couple of nights ago when I exchanged a few Facebook messages with A’Darius Pegues, an oft-injured six-ten center who circulated to a few colleges and in recent years has been playing professionally in Europe and Mexico. I asked Pegues how high above the rim he could jump, and he said he’d soon check it out and let me know. I told him about my experience with Tyke Peacock, and summoned Dr. Google.
The first photos that emerge show not the sleek high jumper but a man muscular and a little plump who looks like a former linebacker. What happened? Interviews and stories on SmilePolitely.com and The News-Gazette provide the story. Peacock had begun snorting cocaine while in Modesto, and at Kansas he started smoking it, going from conventional to nuclear, and loved the extremely addictive rush. His problem worsened – no one casually smokes coke – and during the 1984 Olympics Trials he knew if he made the team he’d be tested for drugs, so he said he faked an injury and failed to clear seven-four and a half, the height he’d soared over in his sweats during prelims the day before. He may have fooled track officials but not his body. He smoked until he couldn’t compete in sports, he smoked until he couldn’t pay his bills, he smoked until so desperate he stole things he could sell for more rock cocaine. The law closed in and twice sent him to Illinois prisons in the nineties.
In 2010 he was back jail, this time in Bakersfield, California, being held for warrants in Illinois. After extradition he was confronted by six to thirty years in prison. Since he couldn’t pay his bail of seventeen thousand dollars, he entered a safe house rehabilitation program. Judge Tom Difanis said go ahead and complete the program, it’ll help you, and then surrender to this court so I can sentence you. Four months later his attorney asked the judge to allow Peacock to withdraw his guilty plea for burglary and instead plead guilty to unlawful use of a credit card. Difanis sentenced Peacock to probation and told him, “You have wasted 30 years of your life and you owe us for what you could have accomplished, what you could have done. It’s time to get working on that.”
Tyke Peacock now has more than four years of sobriety and arises every morning, in the home of his mother and stepfather, for prayer and bible study. He often sends scriptures to friends and travels to give inspirational speeches. In his Facebook profile photo he’s wearing shades and smiling, a beautiful blue harbor in the background. Whether or not he owns a boat, Peacock frequently fishes. In one picture he proudly displays five big ones he caught that day. Right now each of those fish is more valuable than any medal he won while loaded.