To understand the story of the man, we have to take a step back and examine the story of his father, who was the first Matt Centrowitz to earn All-American honors at the University of Oregon, make two Olympic teams, and set the American record for 5K (OK, he's still the only Centrowitz to do that). The elder Centrowitz--who says that at home, he's "Matt" and his son is "Matthew"--recently published a book that every self-respecting track fan should read called "Like Father, Like Son: My Story on Running, Coaching and Parenting." (It's worth noting that the younger Centrowitz has the quote "Like father like son" tattooed across his chest.)
Watch Centrowitz set a new American record of 13:12.91 for 5K in 1982:
The memoir, co-written by Nathan Williams and Chris Kwiatkowski, who is Centro Jr.'s former teammate at Oregon and Centro Sr.'s assistant coach at American University, begins and ends with a personal account of watching Matthew race the Rio Olympic Games 1500m final. In between, it details his own atypical journey through life and running. And it was always meant to be that way; he says in an interview that you can watch below that this book is three years in the making and has been an idea in his head for the past 10 years. He just lucked out that his son's Olympic final gave him a nice conclusion.
So, who is the man that produced America's top middle distance talent?
Centrowitz was born and raised in the Bronx to an Irish mother and Jewish father in the tumultuous 1960s. His dad gambled. His parents split up, and a junior high-aged Centrowitz turned to the streets, where he spent his days drinking and smoking instead of sitting behind a desk in school. Eventually, his mother moved her kids out to Queens, where Centrowitz discovered the sport that would change his life.
He attended two different high schools, Andrew Jackson High and Power Memorial High, and gained two different mentors, coach Milt Blatt and Brother John Beilen. They helped Centrowitz not only find his gift but also tap into his desire to compete. He would set the still-standing New York state high school mile record of 4:02.7, matriculate at Manhattan College under the tutelage of Frank Gagliano and Fred Dwyer, and transfer to the University of Oregon, where he gained a lifelong friend and mentor in Bill Dellinger and encountered Steve Prefontaine, who had by then graduated from college but was still a rock star-like presence in Tracktown, USA.
The quick, breezy narrative is filled with fun cameos from stars such as Pre, Dellinger, Alberto Salazar, Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner, Frank Shorter, and, of course, Olympic gold medalist Centrowitz in his middle and high school days.
In one such story, it's the spring of 1975, Centrowitz's first competitive season for the Ducks. Coach Dellinger sits his pupil down and lectures him about his drinking habits with a final warning to limit himself to three beers, once per week. Centrowitz agrees, and two weeks later runs his first sub-four-minute mile at the California Relays.
Back in my hotel room after the race I get a knock on my door. In walks Bill Dellinger, holding a six-pack. He sits down on my bed and cracks open two beers. We toast to my first sub-four-minute mile and drink beer together. He's beaming. We didn't talk much--what was there to say? After about five minutes he says, "I'm proud of you. The other four are for you. See you later." And then he walks out.
I didn't even touch the beer that night (though I more than made up for it later). More than anything, I wanted to remember that feeling. It's a choice I'm glad I made.
Flash forward 30 or so years to young Matthew's sophomore year of high school, and Centrowitz gives us this gem.
One day his sophomore year I pick him up after cross-country practice on the day of his report card and ask the usual question, "Any Cs on there?"
"No", he said, "no Cs."
"Good," I said, putting the car into gear. I was glad he was applying himself.
"But…" he said, "I did get two Ds."
I laughed. Funny kid. Takes after his old man. And then I glanced over and see Matthew's not laughing. He looks nervous as hell. He actually got two Ds.
My face goes cold and I drive him home, not saying a word for the rest of the ride. He knows he's in for it. When we get home I tell him to go out and rake the yard. I'm so furious that as soon as he has a full bag of leaves I stomp out there and grab the bag, throwing it around and spreading leaves all over the yard again.
"There," I said, "Rake it up again. I want you to remember how this feels. Because if you get those grades again this is what you're going to be doing for the rest of your life."
Was it excessive? I'll admit it probably was. But I'll tell you one thing: he never got another D again. I would like to add that I don't see anything wrong with people that do yard work for a living, or for that matter, the work of a housemaid. In fact, I especially admire those people. People like my mother, that gave an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. My real point to Matthew that day was that I wanted him to realize that he was lucky to be able to go to a good school, have a good home situation and that it what important that he work hard. Life's not easy, but if you work hard, you'll make the most of your opportunities.
These lively, often humor-filled anecdotes are what make the book a must-read for any track fan.
Buried at the end of the whirlwind memoir that spans six decades in 208 pages is a side-by-side comparison of the father's and son's high school training logs over three weeks of the cross country, indoor, and outdoor seasons.
"It's a training log," he said of the memoir in a one-on-one interview after the 2017 NYRR Millrose Games press conference in February. "Me as an athlete, me as a coach, and me as a parent. I'm the New York state record-holder for the mile and 1500m, and that was 45 years ago. I don't think I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread. Things have to be done a little differently. With the population that New York City and New York state has, there should be somebody running better than me. [This book] is to inspire coaches and athletes and parents."
Skip ahead to 1:48 in the video to hear Centrowitz talk about his book at the 2017 NYRR Millrose Games press conference: