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The best athlete you never heard of

Of the recipients of the top prizes at Sunday night's Oregon Sports Awards, Tom Pappas was among the most anonymous.

He shouldn't be. The native of Azalea, a burg of fewer than 500 people south of Roseburg, is the greatest decathlete in the world and the favorite to claim the gold medal at the Olympic Games this August in Greece.

Pappas, 27, is becoming more of a household name among sports fans, and for good reason. The former baseball player Ñ he didn't compete in high school track until his junior year Ñ won the world indoor heptathlon championship and the U.S. and world outdoor decathlon titles in 2003, earning the Harry Glickman Award as the top male professional athlete in the state.

'This is the first award I have won that included candidates from all sports, so I consider it a real honor,' Pappas says. 'And especially because it is coming in the state of Oregon. I have lived in Tennessee for seven years now but still regard Oregon as my home.'

While accepting his award before a statewide TV audience on KATU (2) and a large crowd at the Tiger Woods Center on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Pappas noted that the top three American decathletes of all time are from Oregon Ñ Pappas, Dan O'Brien (Klamath Falls) and Dave Johnson (Corvallis).

And now Pappas, who won the U.S. Olympic trials and finished fifth at the Olympic Games in 2000, would like to follow O'Brien to the Olympic victory stand.

'The world record would be nice, and I have the athletic ability to get it under the right conditions,' Pappas says. 'But the Olympic gold medal is definitely the biggest goal I could achieve in my sport.'

nAnother Oregon athlete, Glencoe quarterback Erik Ainge, is headed for Knoxville, Tenn. Ainge, a finalist for the Johnny Carpenter Prep Athlete award, had made a verbal commitment to play for the Tennessee Volunteers next year. Danny Ainge's nephew was won over on his recruiting visit by what father Doug terms as 'Southern hospitality and 107,000 in their stadium every Saturday.'

'I was there for the Vanderbilt game,' Erik Ainge says. 'You walk into the stadium, with 107,000 people packing the place Ñ there is nothing like it. And everybody knows who you are. I hadn't committed, but everybody was screaming and yelling, 'Erik Ainge, we love you. We want you to come to Tennessee.'

'You don't get that in the Pac-10. Pac-10 is good football, but the atmosphere is different. Football is almost religion back there.'

With senior QB Casey Clausen departing, Ainge has been told he will be in the battle for the starting job next fall. He will room with another QB candidate, Rick Clausen, younger brother of Casey.

nSandy pole vaulter Tommy Skipper won the Carpenter Award and dedicated it to his older brother, Art Skipper Jr. Both are national prep record-holders Ñ Tommy in the pole vault at 18-3, Art Jr. in the javelin. Art Jr. died in October 2001 in a small-plane crash.

Tommy has enrolled at his brother's alma mater, the University of Oregon, and will make his debut for the Ducks on Saturday at an indoor meet in Boise. During the outdoor season, Skipper hopes to break the world junior record of 19-1 set by Russia's Maksim Tarasov in 1970. Further down the road are the Olympic trials.

'My ultimate goal is to make the trials, reach the finals and, Lord willing, see what happens,' says Skipper, 19.

nAmong the most well-known of the greats who presented an award Sunday night was Terrell Brandon, the former Grant High and UO sensation who recently retired because of knee injuries after an 11-year NBA career. Brandon, 33, had what he hopes is his final knee surgery in November. 'I'm feeling better,' he says. 'I can walk now. It's not grabbing with every step like it was.'

Brandon has spoken with officials of the new American Basketball Association franchise Ñ the Portland Reign Ñ about the coaching job.

'I really don't know what will happen there,' Brandon says. 'It is the first time anyone has approached me about coaching. I am flattered they would consider me. It's awfully quick after my retirement. I'm not sure I am ready to jump right into it, but I am going to have to at least think about it.'

Brandon continues to be a leader in the North Portland business community. He has purchased an office building on North Denver Street that will become his primary business location and will include a recording studio. He will continue to operate Terrell Brandon's Barber Shop on Northeast Alberta Street.

nTwo other former Blazers are involved in operations with the Reign and were at Sunday's show. Michael Harper calls himself a minority owner and consultant while Antonio Harvey says he will be the team's general manager. Harvey, who makes his home in Tualatin, is also running a youth basketball academy there.

'We teach real basketball,' Harvey says. 'Not the crossover and all that stuff Ñ the real fundamentals.'

nAnother ex-Blazer, Steve Johnson, also is working with youths. The former NBA All-Star and All-American center at Oregon State is a volunteer assistant coach at Lake Oswego High, working with players like freshman prodigy Kevin Love. Johnson one day would like to develop a Big Man's Camp along the lines of Pete Newell's.

'Pete's camp has always been more geared toward small forwards and power forwards,' says Johnson, who announced UO coach Ernie Kent as the Slats Gill Award winner. 'It doesn't really deal with the centers. I would like to work with true post players who play with their backs to the basket. There just aren't coaches out there developing post players anymore.'

• Ex-Beaver All-American and NBA player Charlie Sitton has been managing partner of the successful Century Hotel and Hayden Lake Front Grill restaurant in Tualatin for a decade. Sitton, who presented the Ad Rutschman Small College Athlete of the Year awards, has devoted much of his time in recent years toward supporting Beaver sports and had a hand in organizing the first OSU football recruiting dinner Feb. 4, which has sold out all 500 seats.

nFor years, Mary Slaney was American women's distance running. The longtime Eugene native continues to train for what she hopes is her first marathon since age 12, and has a little help to accompany her on her runs on the trails in the city and in the Coburg hills Ñ a pair of Weimaraner dogs.

'I have been assaulted twice while on runs alone Ñ both pretty serious assaults,' says Slaney, who presented the Nike Steve Prefontaine Award to distance runner Galen Rupp of Central Catholic High School. 'I decided if I was going to run on the trails by myself, I needed to have a dog. Weimaraners are nice dogs, but if their person is threatened, they will protect you.'

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .