In 1978, "Grease" and "Animal House" were top draws at the box office. "Mork & Mindy" and "Laverne & Shirley" were two of the top shows on television. Gas cost 65 cents a gallon.
He won an incredible 27 of the 30 races he ran that year.
"It was probably my best year," Rodgers said. "I won a lot of the first races of the running boom. I won Gasparilla [in Tampa]. I won Gate River [in Jacksonville]. I won Fifth Third River Bank [in Michigan]. Those are three big races today."
He won the Falmouth 7-mile road race, in its sixth year of running. And a few weeks later, on Labor Day, he was invited to the inaugural New Haven 20K Road Race.
"We went everywhere," Rodgers said. "We had running shoes, will travel. We would go in, there would be a clinic, there would be all these very serious runners running 100 miles a week. Everyone ran 100 miles a week. I'm serious. You had to run 100 miles a week. Otherwise you'd be way, way back. Even then, that was not enough. I was doing 130, 140. Frank [Shorter] was doing that. [Alberto] Salazar. Tom Fleming, Kenny Moore.
"The first running boom, we were like Kenya. We had depth. We had 30 people in the U.S. guys, and the women were coming up.
"There was no money. We were fighting for table scraps in the beginning. I don't even know what I got for New Haven. Maybe $500 or $1,000 in '78. It was all under the table. We all wanted to change that. We wanted to be treated like any other person in America, get paid for what you're good at."
Eventually that did change. In 1978, there were 1,200 runners for the inaugural 20K. Monday, for the 40th running, there will be more than 6,000 competing in the Faxon Law New Haven 20K, half-marathon and 5K races. The national 20K championship will be on the line with a total of $38,550 in prize money for the men and women. Olympic bronze and silver medalist Galen Rupp will run, as will last year's champion Leonard Korir and two-time runner-up Sam Chelanga. Jordan Hasay, who ran an American record debut at the Boston Marathon, and last year's winner Aliphine Tuliamuk will vie for the women's title.
Rodgers, a Newington native who will be 70 in December and now lives in Boxboro, Mass., will not be in New Haven Monday. But he cemented his place in the race's history by winning the first race in 1:02:44, a slow time for him. He finished second in 1981 to Greg Meyer, who ran 59:08 to win it. In 1982, he ran his fastest 20K time there, 58:42, but finished second to Meyer again, with Meyer setting the American record that year (58:26).
"We had a wicked duel there," Rodgers remembered.
In the first race, Rodgers dueled with Ron Wayne of Alameda, Calif. and according to the New Haven Register, the two ran the first eight miles together. When Wayne looked for water at Mile 8, Rodgers pulled away and took a 50-yard lead and ran the last four miles at 4:44 pace.
"I had no trouble with the course," Rodgers told the Register that day. "It was nice and wide most of the way. There was a guy next to me on a bike who was keeping all the other cyclists clear of us. I enjoyed it. The course was fairly flat, but it was pretty nice near those cliffs at the end [East Rock Road] where it went downhill for a while."
Rodgers remembered hanging out with his Wesleyan roommate and fellow Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot on the New Haven Green after the race.
"There was a good feel, a good vibe," Rodgers said. "It was not a big race, 1,200 runners, but that was a big race for those days. It was in Connecticut, near my hometown. I think my parents went down to it [from Newington] to watch at some point."
Carolyn Bravakis of Windsor Locks was one of 143 women signed up for the first race. She had started running in 1975 at age 31. Many times, she was one of the few women in the field at road races. She was excited to run at New Haven.
"It was a big thing," said Bravakis, now 73. "It was 'The Race.' '78 was my year. I had won a lot of races that year."
She won that one, too, and would go on to run a marathon personal best in Newport, finishing in 2:46. She was the 12th-ranked marathoner in the world that year.
"It was crowded and it was hot," Bravakis said of the first New Haven race. "My time [1:17:43] was not good. I had run a better time in Rhode Island for a half-marathon a few weeks earlier [1:17]."
In the race program that year, an advertisement for a concert featuring Bruce Springsteen at the Springfield Civic Center had tickets on sale for $8.50. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band with special guests, The Cars, were playing at the New Haven Coliseum Sept. 16 (tickets were also $8.50). There was a Harry Chapin concert tied in with the race that night at Woolsey Hall. The Yale Co-op ran an advertisement touting its big name running shoes for sale, "Nike Waffle Trainers" and "Puma Easy Riders."
Since then, world records have been set at New Haven. Many Olympians have run the race, including Meb Keflezighi, who won in 2003. The race was the masters national championship, then the national championship. Last year, organizers added a half-marathon. And thousands of people run there and gather on the Green afterward to listen to the band, drink beer and talk about the race.
"The race certainly has blossomed since then," Bravakis said.