How A Rivalry Sparked PA's Long Jump Golden Era

It had all the makings of a championship fight, and it was.

After all, Dion Bentley and Ron Dickerson were and still are the top-ranked heavyweights of the long jump in Pennsylvania and two of the best preps the event has ever seen.

While their meeting in the Penn State Invitational on February 18, 1989, wasn't the first between the friendly rivals, it was the stuff of legend.

A still-standing national record, a pair of indoor PRs for the HS stars and a combined seven jumps at 24 feet, 7.5 inches or longer, a mark that only a handful in state history have accomplished just once before graduating.

It was a meet and night to remember.

"The competition was awesome that day," Dickerson recalled of the meet at Penn State's former indoor track facility, Rec Hall. "The environment I remember that one particularly because all of the Penn State football players were there and all of the track team.

"When they would say 'Up in the long jump, we have Dion Bentley' and the whole track meet would stop. 'Up to jump, Ron Dickerson,' and the whole track meet would stop. It was a phenomenal thing. it was almost an embracement from everybody at the track meet."

The Long Jump's "Golden Era" In PA

Early on in 1987, Penn Hills' Bentley was just finding his legs, so to speak, in the long jump. It wouldn't be long, however, until he started to reach sections of sand that had gone basically unused in jump pits throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

"An indoor meet at Pitt, I jumped 21 low (but) I didn't have an understanding of how good that was until my veteran teammates told me how awesome that was," Bentley said of the first inkling he had his sophomore year that he had found his event. "Coach (Chuck) Hemphill and Coach (Tim) Timko said, 'Kid, you can jump.' From that point on, my coaches just pushed me really hard.

"I loved the sport. We did some workouts that were just unbelievable. Coach Timko was my strength/jumping coach, and Coach Hemphill was my running coach who showed me how to hurdle and got me extremely fit for that. We just ran and lifted and ran these crazy hill workouts."

Meanwhile at State College Area, Dickerson was starting to stretch the limits of some pits as the two headed for their first meeting with a state title on the line.

"Coach (Bob) Baumbach said, 'Hey, Ron, run down there as fast as you can and hit the board and take off and keep running through the air,' " Dickerson said of his introduction to flying. "That's when Carl Lewis was out there, and Eric Metcalf was coming out of high school going through college. It was a privilege of watching those guys and saying, 'Hey, I'm a big strong guy' and I can just run down this runway and see how far I can go with my speed.

"The one difference between Dion and I, and not saying that he wasn't fast, but Dion used a lot more of his vertical aspect in his jump game where I used a lot more of my speed and power in mine. If you ever watched us, one would go really high and out and one of us would just go really straight forward and out."

In May 1987, the duo were upstarts as only 10th-graders in one of the closest long jump competitions in PIAA history. Rob Graf, a senior from Ridley, walked off with the Class AAA gold medal with his 23-8 leap, while Bentley was second at 23-7.5, Dickerson third at 23-5.75 and Quakertown Community senior Steve Youtzy fourth at 23-5.

"I was just a track guy," Bentley said of his focus on the winter and spring seasons. "Of course, my coaches wanted me to play football, but I jumped very well so early that I knew there was a good chance I could get a full scholarship (in track). At that point in time, you just wanted to get a full scholarship somewhere."

Bentley and Dickerson, who also was a standout for State College on the football field, certainly had their share of admirers as they transitioned to upperclassmen and took command of the long jump amongst Pennsylvania preps. However, both had loftier goals in the event at a time when 27-foot jumps were becoming commonplace from the world's elite, which was full of American athletes.

"Because our senior or veteran long jumpers were jumping so far, I didn't really appreciate at the time what we were doing because you are always aiming for the top in the world, aiming for the top in the field," Bentley said of the likes of Mike Powell, Larry Myricks, Mike Conley, Joe Greene and Lewis. "And the fact that I was never guaranteed to win my own state meet ... I just thought that's just the way it was. I didn't really truly at that time appreciate what we were doing. I can sit back and look at it and say, 'Wow, that was the golden age.' I didn't understand it then."

Shippensburg, 1988

By the time they returned to Shippensburg a year later, they owned an event in which they were previously supporting players. A blanket finish with just 3 inches separating the top four suddenly became Bentley and Dickerson lapping the field, leading their 12th-grade challengers by at least a foot and a half.

On his road to the 1988 state meet, Bentley put together four meets at 24-6 or longer before hitting his season-best and yearly US#3 25-7 to win the WPIAL title. Dickerson had strong performances at the Track Classic at Villanova and the Colonial Relays at William & Mary but saved his best for Seth Grove Stadium and his friend and rival.

"First and foremost, we were great friends," Dickerson said of the future Florida Gator. "That's what made the competitions so competitive. If I looked at the meet and Dion wasn't going, I was kind of disappointed. And if Dion looked at the meet and I wasn't going ...

"At that point in time, every time we'd jump, let's try to best what we've done before. And the best man wins. We knew that we were going to push the best out of each other. Whoever came out on the winning end, we were excited for them because we knew the other one had to also have a personal best and it was a great competition. Not only for us but it also brought the other guys that were jumping with us the excitement of trying to get PRs and stuff like that."

The almost decade-old PIAA meet record for AAA wouldn't make it out of the 1988 prelims as Dickerson took advantage of an opening-round foul by his rival to grab the lead. His 24-3.5 leap in round 2 was worth a very short-lived record and a 2.5-inch gap over Bentley heading into the final three jumps.

The Penn Hills star moved in front in round 4 with a 24-11.75 bound as Dickerson was unable to improve. The stage was set for final round fireworks that left the eventual winner saying he might not have owned the biggest jump of the day.

Bentley's best of 25-5.25 in the next-to-last round was the day's longest legal jump, with Dickerson almost pulling out a win in round 6 with a leap of 25-4.25, which was US#4 in '88. According to high school stat guru Jack Shepard, each had a 26-plus foul in the final two rounds, with the winner recalling whose was the longer leap.

"I know his (foul jump) was further than mine," Bentley said of his junior year PIAA battle with Dickerson. "That was always there. As a jumper in that time, nothing was ever easy. I've always been humbled by my success just because I never had a chance to truly revel in it until it was over. It was like relief, I guess you could say."

Historic Night in Happy Valley

"The first thing I remember is we had a road trip and the coach's car I came up in ... the heater broke," Bentley recalled of heading to State College in the winter of 1989. "Me and several other athletes were wearing our full jackets and pants and everything because it was cold. The trip up there was fun, to say the least.

"Once we got there, we were excited because it was our first big indoor meet. We went to Slippery Rock (University) and Pitt's indoor facilities, but this indoor facility was absolutely amazing. All I could remember was wow, so many really great athletes there, so of course we're just getting excited. And then I saw Ron, and oh man, it's on. You really have to go into another mode because you know what kind of athlete he is and what kind of competition it's going to be."

With Dickerson being a member of the home-standing Little Lions and his father, Ron Sr., a member of the Penn State football coaching staff, word of the first 1989 meeting between Pennsylvania's best jumpers surely traveled fast through State College and the Penn State campus. The long jump competition did not disappoint as the reigning PIAA champ knew early that the six rounds would be special indeed.

"We're doing pop ups way out into the pit," Bentley said of warm-ups with Dickerson. "Did I have any clue (I) was going to jump over 26 feet? No, I did not have that clue at all, but I knew that when competing with Ron, whatever my best jump was, I knew that he was always there and could surpass it.

"He was the single biggest reason I had achieved so many really positive things in high school. I attribute that to Ron Dickerson. Period."

Bentley and Dickerson each opened with what Dickerson remembers as record-worthy fouls that set the stage for what was to follow. Dickerson got a leg up in the next round, spanning 24-8.25 to Bentley's 23-4.25.

"I was really upset because I got off a great jump (but fouled) and the guy measured it at the 26-6 or 27 feet mark, and I think Dion scratched and had a great jump like that also," the future Arkansas Razorback recalled. "He came back and had the 26-6 jump, and I never was able to get back up to that 26 mark from when I had scratched."

The rest of the evening and history belonged to the Penn Hills star as he closed the prelims with a 25-7 leap before bookending his still-standing national indoor record of 26-6.5 with a pair of 25-8.25 jumps. Bentley's longest that evening supplanted the 26-2 leap by Californian Jerry Proctor from 1967 as the now 31-year-old prep standard.

"I definitely appreciated it, I don't think I understood it so much then only because even though I had a lot of success, I always jumped scared," said Bentley, who is a captain in the DeKalb County Fire Rescue Department just east of Atlanta. "I always jumped like someone was going to beat me.

"It probably was a good thing. When I broke national records, won national titles, I was extremely grateful. It wasn't like I knew that it was a shoo-in. There was never a big meet in my high school career where I just walked up (and) I knew that I would win."

Dickerson closed the gap on his rival with a 5th-rounder of 25-3.25, moving then to No. 6 all-time nationally and No. 2 in PA history to this day. He would push Bentley to another 26-footer at Eastern States in New Jersey and a trio of 25-footers in the national indoor championships in Annapolis, finishing second at each meet.

"Those were some of the greatest times in my life," said Dickerson, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs before following his dad into the collegiate coaching ranks. "I respected (Dion). A lot of people can't say they were able to go against the best and be able to push the best.

"I don't know if Dion Bentley would have been able to have those great jumps if he wouldn't have gone against Ron Dickerson. I'm going to say no. He may say something different, but I know that competition brought the best out of Dion Bentley, and Dion Bentley brought the best out of Ron Dickerson."

One Last Record In Argentina

With Bentley prepping for a track career in Gainesville and Dickerson bulking up for the gridiron in Fayetteville, the 1989 PIAA AAA long jump was all about the Penn Hills standout as both athletes scored big points elsewhere that weekend. Although he had a 26-0 win at WPIALs and two 25-foot triumphs at Butler and Arcadia, Calif., Bentley was unable to reset his state meet record, going just 24-11.75 to defend his title as Dickerson finished fifth.  

Bentley saved what he considers his best high school long jumping for last, putting his name into the national record book again at the Pan Am Junior championships on June 23 in Santa Fe, Argentina.

Still 17 at the time, Bentley recorded a trio of 26-foot jumps along with a huge foul of "over 27 feet" to dominate the international field. His 26-9.25 on his next-to-last jump replaced a 26-8.25 leap from Lewis in 1979 at the top and remained the outdoor prep record until Marquise Goodwin jumped 26-10 in 2009.

According to World Athletics, Bentley's former outdoor high school record put the then teen at No. 15 in the world and the No. 9 American in 1989. His winning jump was the No. 47 performance that year, with the top Americans having the 20 biggest jumps of 1989.

"That was the day, down in Argentina, it was clicking," remembered Bentley, who would finish his HS career with outdoor performances Nos. 1, 3 and 9 on the all-time list. "That was just an amazing day from my high school career. The crowd was amazing, the amount of energy that I got from them.

"That meet I got to enjoy. I got a good jump my first jump, and I knew I'd won and then I just could enjoy. Let loose and go for it. That foul was big. It was monstrous. The crowd was amped up, and I was amped up, too. It was like the whole stadium was watching. I wish I could have got that mark off. Just a toe scratch."

With his indoor national record still intact in a new decade, Bentley noted that it could be a few more years before others join Upper Dublin's Jaden Price-Whitehead in the ranks of Pennsylvania's 25-foot long jumpers or challenge his 26-6.5 at the top of the list. 

"I thought that somebody would have by now, but looking at the record when I broke it, it was 22 years old," the seven-time collegiate All-American and Track and Field News' HS Athlete of the Year for '89 said of the potential for record-breakers. "I'm surprised about (the lack of 25-foot jumpers). I'm glad to see it happen. Once the mindset of some of your really good athletes, whether it be football or basketball, really started to focus on one sport only, I knew it might stay around a long time."