How hit song changed life of one runner

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
3:30
PM ET
Delilah DiCrescenzoChristian Petersen"Hey There Delilah," a song about runner Delilah DiCrescenzo, turned into a Grammy-nominated hit.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 18 Music issue.

Ah, 2007. The Anaheim Ducks took the Stanley Cup, Justin Verlander threw his first no-hitter, Peyton Manning landed a ring, and the nation was obsessed with ... a steeplechase runner? Yes, it was the year of "Hey There Delilah," the chart-topping mega-hit from the Plain White T's -- and a long-distance love note to an athlete. After meeting Delilah DiCrescenzo in 2002, lead singer Tom Higgenson was smitten by the runner and promised a song in her honor. What they received in return was the No. 1 song in America, two Grammy nominations and worldwide recognition. In her own words, DiCrescenzo describes how the song changed her life and affected her career.

"I'M GOING TO write a song about you."

[+] EnlargeDelilah DiCrescenzo
Delilah DiCrescenzoDiCrescenzo and Higgenson at the 2008 Grammys in Los Angeles.
That's how Plain White T's Tom Higgenson put it to me in the fall of 2002, when I was a sophomore at Columbia. We'd met through a mutual friend that summer at the House of Blues in Chicago and kept in touch over AOL Instant Messaging -- just friendly conversation because I had a boyfriend. When the Plain White T's came to perform in New York City that fall, my boyfriend Will and I went to check them out. At that point, Tom's mind was made up. "I'm going to write a song about you." Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would happen. I tried to call his bluff, but those words ended up changing my life.

Like Tom, I'm from the Chicago area. I ran for a Catholic high school in Burbank, Ill., and I had a solid resume -- made it to the state championships all four years in track, and in cross country three of those years. But I didn't have a ton of success early on at Columbia. I struggled with juggling life, school and running. After graduating in 2005, I pursued professional running, and it took me a while to find my way.

The song found its way to my doorstep the previous Christmas, when I was home for break. Tom came by to drop off the CD. He said, "Don't listen to it until I leave." I flipped it over and noticed Track 13.

"Hey There Delilah."

I couldn't believe he followed through! My brother Nick and I listened to it together in the basement -- probably not the romantic image Tom envisioned for my first listen. But we were blown away. My first thought: "Oh no! Did I lead Tom on?" I became anxious. I was with Will. I'm still with Will to this day. Tom and I had a friendly relationship and I wondered if he misconstrued my actions. He put so much effort into the song. I felt guilty, like, "I'm such a wench!" When my dad heard the lyrics "Oh what you do to me," he said, "Delilah, exactly what did you do to this guy?"

It was flattering, though. The song is catchy, melodic. It's very romantic. It means something to everybody -- especially for anybody who ever yearned for someone. But it's so specific. It mentions New York City. It names me. It's named after me.

For a while, it was our secret. The song [released in 2006] didn't get good airplay until 2007. Then it took off, eventually reaching No. 1 on the Billboard charts that July. That's when the questions came: Is this a true story? Does Delilah actually exist? I didn't want the spotlight. I was nervous that I'd let Tom's fans down. They'd be disappointed to hear I have a boyfriend. Every girl would want a song written about her, and they'd think I was ungrateful and rude to deny Tom. I felt pressure to live up to those expectations. On top of that, I was lacking confidence in my running. I wasn't yet validated in my sport. I hadn't proven myself. During competition, I didn't want to feel scrutinized and have people root against me.

Then one day my friend, Laura Wozniak, volunteered me for a radio interview. I was like, "Laura, I'm going to kill you." But I went for it. I did the interview. And then the requests poured in: The Today Show, USA Today, People Magazine. When it was announced that the song had been nominated for a Grammy, there was another surge in requests.

To be honest, the publicity was distracting me from my running, but at least it was good PR. It brought attention to my sport and let me talk about my running career. And I know Will was relieved. He'd been defending himself to his friends. They were like, "Aren't you two together?" I understood -- it seemed like I was two-timing Will. It was a relief for him to see me on national TV and say, "I'm with Will."

And then came the Grammys. Tom invited me, and Will was fine with it. Feb 8, 2008, ended up being one of the greatest days in my life. It was so much fun, despite being so out of my element. I swapped my sports bra and running shoes for a glamorous dress and expensive jewelry that, unfortunately, I had to return. I walked the red carpet, celebrated the song, supported the band and met some amazing people. I was living it up.

The song gave my profile a boost, but my running had to speak for itself. That process began just after the Grammys when I was chosen to represent Team USA at a relay race in Japan. I really broke out that May, when I finally achieved the Olympic Trials -- the 3,000 meter steeplechase. That validated me as a runner. I could now back up my funny bio with substance. Later that month, Puma signed me. My first sponsorship put me over the edge.

I found my groove on the international level in 2009, when I competed in the World Cross Country Championships in Jordan. In 2010, I made another Team USA event in cross country, where I won the individual title. Then, in 2011, I finally made the World Championship team in the 3,000 meter steeplechase, but I had to withdraw because of a stress fracture in my hip. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been training to make our team again for the World Cross Country Championships in Poland. Today, I train in NYC with the New Jersey-New York Track Club and my coach, Frank Gagliano. In February, I made the USA XC team today and will head to World XC Championships in Poland in March.

I'm proud of my accomplishments since the song blew up, and I'm now in a place where I can fully enjoy the song. I'm a lucky girl. If it wasn't for me, I'm sure Tom would've been inspired by a different girl and written an amazing song about her. As far as I'm concerned, I was in the right place at the right time and met the right person -- just the luck of the draw.

As for Tom and I, we still keep in touch. He was in a really committed relationship. He has a son now and he's very happy. Maybe he didn't get the result he originally wanted, but he got a hit song, two Grammy nominations -- much more than he would have gotten out of a date with me, that's for sure.

And as for me and Will, we'll celebrate our 11th anniversary in April. I think marriage is where this is going. Don't get me wrong -- it's not like we're planning our wedding. But I'll tell you this: I suspect "Hey There Delilah" will not be on the wedding playlist. That would just be awkward.

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Sam Alipour is a Senior Writer at ESPN Magazine and contributor to ESPN and ESPN.com. Contact him at sam.alipour@gmail.com and on Twitter.

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