Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Al Feuerbach


April 30, 1973

The Magnificent Obsession

They said Al Feuerbach was too small to put the shot, but they neglected to measure his zeal

Obsessions being what they are, Al Feuerbach cannot say exactly when the need to throw the shot came upon him. He just knows it has been with him a long time. Perhaps significantly, it predates his habit of biting his nails.

On the other hand, his mother, Doris Kucera Feuerbach, can pinpoint the year, 1962, when her son first turned the lawn into something resembling an early photo of the moon and the neighbor ladies on DeGroat Street in Preston, Iowa complained about those "awful ugly holes." By his mother's reckoning then, Al Feuerbach has had the urge since he was 14, and to her mind he has indulged it long enough. In fact, this plain-spoken Iowa lady wishes that the second oldest of her five sons, three years out of college, would find a job, any job would do at this point, and get married. In short, she wants her son to give up shotputting.

"Why should I?" says Al Feuerbach, the world's only full-time amateur shotputter. "It is the one thing I like to do. It is the only thing I want to do."

Since he first ruined his parents' lawn, Allan Dean Feuerbach (pronounced fearbock) has followed the thudding ball from Preston (pop. 950) to Emporia ( Kansas) College (enrollment 600). He has crossed the U.S. and heaved his way through Europe. En route he has four times thrown over 70 feet—including a 70'2" effort earlier this month—one of five shotputters to have ever done so, and on four occasions set world indoor records.

In general he has amazed the experts and exceeded the best wishes of his friends and family, except for his father the veterinarian, who empathizes with grandiose dreams. Indeed, Dr. Orlyn Gene Feuerbach is willing to underwrite his son's assault on the world shotput record. So far Al Feuerbach has not taken him up. Instead he lives frugally in San Jose, Calif. in an apartment furnished largely with mattresses, and is in no wise discontented with his lot.

"All I want to do for the next 15 years is to throw the iron ball," he says, "throw it as far as science, technology and hard work will take it. That could be 75, 80 feet or more."

If Feuerbach's size had kept pace with his dream, his 15-year plan would be more practical. Unfortunately, from the beginning his obsession far outstripped his growth. In an event famous for its whales, 6'1", 250-pound Al Feuerbach is barely bait. By the laws of applied levers and comparative masses, he is disadvantaged. In a word, he is too small to be a world-class shotputter, which tends to make his accomplishments all the more dramatic in the comparative. However, Feuerbach can deal only in the ultimate. And such is the nature of his passion that he has total recall not only of every throw he has made in the past 11 years, but of every remark directed at him concerning his event.

At the drop of a shot, he will recall that in 1964 his older brother Gary told him, "You'll never throw that far again." The brotherly vote of no-confidence came on the occasion of Al's setting a new Preston High School record of 47'9�", which beat Gary's by half an inch. "At that time my body weight was 165," Al adds. A few years later the Emporia track coach told Feuerbach, "You'll be the smallest man, the only shotputter under 200 pounds, to break 60 feet."

"The coach thought that was important." says Feuerbach. "I believe it isn't even fly speck."

The prize slight of Feuerbach's collection is an offhand comment by Randy Matson. the 275-pound world-record holder (71'5�"), who is now a pro. After Feuerbach had thrown 62'8" to finish third at the 1970 Kansas Relays, winner Matson said, "For a feller your size, you're throwing good."

In their last 11 meetings Feuerbach beat Matson 10 times. Still his name raises Feuerbach's hackles. "Oh, yes, Al resents Matson," says Coach Tom Jennings of the Pacific Coast Track Club to which Feuerbach belongs. "I think he even hates him, and that's surprising."

The surprise, simply, is that Al Feuerbach is the gentlest set of muscles in the West. Outside the shot ring, he is devoid of passion and totally pacific. His close friend and teammate, pole vaulter Steve Smith, pounds on him—not with slaps but powerful belts. "I wish I could hit him back, but I can't," Feuerbach sighs.

For the past year and a half he has passed his outwardly mild existence in San Jose. At first he lived in an old house with shotputters Richard Marks and Lahsen Akka Samsam, a Berber who is the Moroccan champion, and weight lifter Bob Kemper. Since January, Feuerbach, who is called Rhino, and Samsam, better known as Big Simba, have rented a two-bedroom apartment at 555 North 4th Street. The move from house to apartment went unnoticed in the old neighborhood, since the neighbors were only vaguely aware of Feuerbach's existence to begin with. As much as anyone his size can be a shadow, Al Feuerbach is a shadow. He travels around San Jose in a grimy 1964 Buick Wildcat, barely making a dent on the city's consciousness. Despite his international track reputation, he could be just another long-haired student, crammed into a T shirt, corduroy pants and blocky shoes. His sole distinction is a hand-crafted leather pouch slung over his shoulder in which he carries the tool of his trade, a 16-pound shot.

Yet in the arena, Al Feuerbach is a different person. "Al is all showman," says Jennings. "He's turned on by the crowd."

The Feuerbach of the shot ring is a throwback to a turn-of-the-century strong man. The muscles bulge out of a sleeveless jersey, his mustachio curves to nearly meet his long sideburns. Although he does not preen, he will strut. Before each put. he warms up by tossing the shot from hand to hand overhead—without looking.

Most world-class shotputters depend on enormous strength to launch the iron ball. Feuerbach moves it with a fine coordination of power and finesse. Without this technique, he could not overcome the laws of physics. Samsam, who has a degree in agronomy and is getting a master's in phys ed, says there are five different movements involved in getting the shot under way: the crouch, the glide, the summation of forces in acceleration, the release or explosion and the reverse. No shotputter crouches lower or explodes more quickly across the ring than Al Feuerbach.

At the moment of release, Feuerbach resembles the radiator cap on some classic car: his long blond tresses swirling, his right arm thrust straight out, his 250 pounds careening forward, balancing delicately on the toes of his left foot. Stagey but effective.

If the throw is a good one and he can feel the power surging the length of his arm, as well as hear the gasp of the crowd, Feuerbach will thrust his arms in the air. It is a classic, dignified expression of triumph, in keeping with his event and his muscularity.

Despite his earnest efforts, it is all but impossible for people to comprehend Feuerbach's fascination with his sport. "To me it's comical the way a man could be so involved with an iron shot," says Jennings. "Al has to be crazy as a loon. Ah, but then this craziness has done so much for him; he's seen the world, been exposed to people and developed a personality."

"Shotputting for me is not only a way of life but a life-style," says Feuerbach. "I can't think of any job that will allow me three months in Europe, not even if I was president of a corporation."

In moments of weakness, however, he thinks of returning to Iowa and perhaps farming. But not even at his weakest will he consider it for at least another 15 years. For now there is no way to keep Feuerbach down on the farm. He has not only seen Paree, but Stockholm and Barcelona.

In Preston there was concern for Allan's life-style, and Doc Feuerbach still winces at his son's long hair. But the questions about hippie freaks and dropouts from life ended when Al put the shot 68'11" in San Francisco on Jan. 22, 1971 to set a world indoor mark. A month later he stopped off in Iowa on his way back from the AAU indoor championships in New York. "I should have known something strange was happening when the whole family arrived dressed up for the first time ever," Feuerbach recalls. But Al didn't catch on until his mother pointed out the unusual traffic at Goose Lake, seven miles outside Preston. The traffic jam by the side of a cornfield was half of Preston: a caravan of fire engines, buses, vans and trucks to escort the hero into town for Al Feuerbach Day. Streamers and banners announced: THANKS FOR PUTTING us ON THE MAP. Across U.S. 64, entering Preston, was the banner: WELCOME HOME, BIG AL.

The caravan rolled up to the high school. The town was shut down and 500 people crowded into the auditorium to watch Al Feuerbach being presented with the wooden key to Preston. Called upon to say a few words. Feuerbach thanked the townspeople, then allowed that he should have suspected something was up since Doc Orlyn Gene was wearing a pink tie and a purple shirt when he met his son at the airport. "You can say I was embarrassed," Al says. "No, it was painful. They even retired my track jersey, and then the school band played something appropriate like You've Come a Long Way, Baby."

Feuerbach spent that summer in Europe, putting his way from country to country but always going back to Stockholm to visit a beautiful Swedish girl. When he returned to San Jose, his weight was down, his hair was past his shoulders, his left ear was pierced by a pearl earring and he was determined to make up for lost time.

"That was one wasted Rhino," says Samsam. "I don't know what his problem was, maybe it was that Midwestern conscience, but he was impossible. The thing to remember about Al is that he just loves the shot. Then, of course, he's always put, put, putting. It's crazy, but that's Al. This was much worse. It was impossible. He was unbelievable!"

Samsam and Marks were not only witnesses, they, too, had to suffer for the Rhino's misspent summer. Marks eased off. He could not stand the unending program. Big Simba wanted to quit, but held on.

" 'Al, this Berber is tired. Skip a day,' " Samsam recalls pleading. "For months, no girls. If I suggested dates, Al had an excuse. 'What about a movie, tonight, Rhino?' No, nothing. All he wanted to do was brood about the shot."

When the pressure became unbearable, which it often did, Samsam, the Berber from the Atlas Mountains, would sneak off to Mount Hamilton, San Jose's friendly peak, get his head together and then come down and put some more.

There were advantages. In competition Samsam threw 67'1", a personal best by almost five feet. Meanwhile, the Rhino went temporarily wild. On Feb. 11, 1972 Feuerbach hit 69'�" to break his world indoor record. Indoors and out he exceeded 69 feet in nine meets and on three occasions surpassed 70, including a personal record of 70' 7�".

In the Olympics, Feuerbach's best throw was only 68'�", which got him fifth. Something, obviously, went wrong. That something, argues Samsam, was the murder of the Israelis, which destroyed Feuerbach's psych. But this is not the answer. Al Feuerbach has developed a technique for shutting out life, insulating his shotputting. Once a zealous Fundamentalist, Feuerbach now says, "I have no room in my life for Christ. He interferes with my shotputting. (I hope He doesn't read this.) When I was a found Christian, converting people, then I thought obsessions were a mortal sin, but that's wrong. Now I feel my obsession is the one right thing in my life. To be the best in the world at anything is an incredible accomplishment.

Feuerbach claims he has developed a passivity and refuses to get uptight about anything because it might interfere with his training. As a result, he will not read books and does not concern himself with wars or social ills. Serious affairs of the heart are out, too. So far Feuerbach has broken off with two women he probably loved. "For what I have to do, seeing too much of people is bad," he says. "It disturbs the concentration. It cools the fire, draws off the intensity."

With this attitude, the death of strangers, no matter how tragic, would not have prevented him from throwing well. The problem was he peaked too early.

The lost Olympic opportunity would seem to be torment enough for a driven man. And Feuerbach did have a brilliant winter, twice more breaking his indoor record. Nonetheless, Samsam insists, Rhino did not have his psych in place until after the 1973 indoor AAUs in New York.

Before he left for that meet, Feuerbach and Samsam were discussing the strange tribe of people who throw the shot. "The shot's so small and we're so big," says Feuerbach. "It gets to you." It also stays with you. Parry O'Brien was 34 when he attained his best mark. Olympic champion Vladyslav Komar is 33. George Woods of the U.S., who came in second at Munich, is 30. Vilmos Varju of Hungary finished eighth in the Olympics at 35.

Samsam is somewhere between 28 and 32. "We Berbers are not strong on birthdays," he says. "I asked my mother if she knew when I was born. 'Of course, my son,' she told me. 'You were born at the time of the wheat harvest.' 'But, mother,' I said, 'there are two harvests a year, and they've been going on for centuries.' 'Don't bother your mother with details,' she said."

At the 1973 AAUs Feuerbach lost his indoor record to Woods (whose mark has since been surpassed by Brian Old-field, who had a throw of 70'9�" at a pro meet), but gained what he calls his wild psych. " George Woods may have made a big mistake, throwing 69'9�"," Feuerbach said at the time. "I don't know why, but now I have an impatience, a zest to compete. I've got that wild psych. What brings it on, I don't know. Possibly it's the moon or the tide."

Whatever the reason, Feuerbach was on fire, and Chapter Two of Samsam's ordeal was about to begin. "I've decided to push for bulk," Rhino confided to Simba, as if it were some serious matter of state. His plan was to build himself up to 270 pounds. But Feuerbach's metabolism gets in the way, and his appetite is too small to support even his present weight. Inside of the rhino body is a 180-pounder.

To gain weight, Feuerbach takes protein pills, protein supplements, protein candy bars, a gallon of milk a day and maybe steroids, but he won't talk about that. However, he could not just eat his way to Randy Matson's world record. Without any misgivings, Feuerbach has begun a work program that takes dead aim at a put of 72 feet. "When you're pitting yourself against cold iron, it helps to be strong, to have the shot feel so light that you can manhandle it," he says.

It is an old practice in the putting trade to heat the iron ball on cool days to give it that light feeling, but such gimmicks do not interest Feuerbach anymore. He is at war with the shot.

"My idea is to develop a motor pathway to longer and longer distances," he says. To do this, he plans to use a 14-pound shot in practice. The theory is to first learn to throw the great distance to get the feel, to break the mental barrier, meanwhile working to add strength to throw that far with the regulation 16-pound implement. Besides constantly throwing, Feuerbach is on an integrated program of weight lifting. He does endless squats with a 500-pound weight on his shoulders, constant jerks with 400 pounds of weight. Recently his right knee buckled under the strain, but he refused to ease up even for a day. His hands are also a problem. They are too small, actually puny for his size, and inadequate for shotputting. "I never noticed they were small," he says. "Of course, I never recognize any physical deficiency when it concerns the shot."

It is impossible for someone else to ignore his hands, however. The average shotputter holds the iron ball on his fingers; Feuerbach is forced to palm it. Hundreds of thousands of throws have left the hand spavined. The tendons are chronically stretched, the knuckles twisted. When he shakes hands, Feuerbach offers limp bones.

Not long ago, he flew to Long Beach for a meet. At the time, he was eight pain-racked days into his wild psych. That night he went to a party, but first he had to find a weight room and do his squats.

The party should have been a diversion but it was far from a good time, thanks to old buddy Steve Smith.

"Don't bother to talk to the fat boy," said Smith, introducing Feuerbach to the surfer host. "He only says 'Oink.' " A few minutes later the pole vaulter shouted across the room in alarm, "Al, Al, what's happened to your hair?" "Nothing happened," Feuerbach replied apprehensively. "Why is it so short in the front?" Smith persisted. "It's falling out, that's why, you idiot," said Feuerbach. "I'm thinking of cutting it off, shaving my face and my head clean, getting rid of all the hair." "Al, you can't do that," replied Smith, his voice rich with concern. "You'll look like a basketball on top of a boulder."

Only when Smith was distracted did Feuerbach have a chance to relax. Then he chatted with another guest, Susie Atwood, the pretty 19-year-old Olympic swimmer. He learned that Susie was going back to college in the spring and giving up competitive swimming.

"You can't do that, you'll miss it, Susie," said Feuerbach, feeling pain for the swimmer.

"No, I won't," she replied. "I've been at it 11 years, six hours a day, and I've missed too much of life already. I've got to make it up in a hurry."

When the party was over Feuerbach and Smith went to a bar a few blocks from the vaulter's apartment.

"I don't understand Susie," Feuerbach said. "I could live without throwing, but I wouldn't want to. That's the kicks of life. If I thought the bomb was about to drop or if they told me I had cancer, I'd want to get out and throw, get one last shot at the big record."

Smith was unconcerned with death but he had a deadly fear of the time when he would no longer be able to vault competitively.

What about pro track? Both of them were interested, but money was not their primary concern. They claimed to be a new species—men who are moved by their art.

"I couldn't take a chance," Feuerbach said. "This pro track could fail and then where would I be? Besides, if I were a pro I couldn't represent the U.S. against the Eastern Europeans. That's real kicks." Ah, a patriot. Feuerbach was not as up to date as he thought.

A few minutes and drinks later he announced, "I'm going to break the world record."

"I'll break the vault record first, Rhino," said Smith.

A $50 bet was laid on who would be the first.

An hour later Feuerbach was asleep in Smith's apartment. Suddenly, Smith entered and pounded him awake.

"Al, I'm in love," he shouted. He then recounted a romance that had flourished in five cities the week before. He met her on a flight to Houston. She flew to see him in Los Angeles. He flew to see her in Miami. She met him in New York, then San Francisco. Tomorrow she was flying to Los Angeles.

"You'll meet Rosemary tomorrow, Al," Smith shouted.

"I can't, Steve," mumbled Feuerbach. "I have to go home and lift."

The next morning Feuerbach left to lift, while Smith went to meet Rosemary (whom he married three weeks later). That afternoon Feuerbach flew back to San Jose. Samsam was there to meet him. On the drive to their apartment, Feuerbach recounted the bet with Smith. "I'm going to wipe Matson out of the record book, Sam," he said.

"Al, I know you'll do it," said Samsam. "You've been ready for months. But, Rhino, please remember, this savage is tired. I mean weary!"

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think! or email me at 0a4w@virginia.edu

1 comment:

Julie said...

I was just a young girl when Al would practice his shot put at his parent's backyard. His family were (and his mother Doris still is) neighbors to my parents where I grew up in Preston, Iowa. I vaguely remember all the hype that encompassed Al and the Olympics at that time. His shot put circle was part of the basketball court in their back yard. I remember playing in the yard and seeing Al do the shots, over and over again. Almost inevitably they would end up in my mom's strawberry patch. The author is correct when he mentions the back yard was ruined. That is an understatement!

For me being only 6 years old at the time and not knowing much about what was happening, it sure is fun for me to read this story as an adult and know the people and places the author mentions. I can imagine in my mind what it was like for the town celebration, the people lining the roads in Goose Lake and the high school band playing too.

I'm glad I stumbled along this article!

Julie (Burken) McDonough
Underwood, Iowa