Last Friday night, in front of 15,673 spectators at Madison Square Garden, Martin McGrady, the chairman of the boards, set his third world record in the 600 (1:07.6) in two weeks; Marty Liquori won a shoving match and a mile (4:00.9) from Henryk Szordykowski; and George Frenn, who had to bum a ticket to get in, felt unloved. That afternoon, before 21 spectators in a great nylon bubble at Columbia's Baker Field, Frenn had won the 35-pound weight throw to make him the first national AAU indoor track and field champion of 1970 and, at least in his mind, the equal of McGrady and Liquori. "A gold medal is a gold medal is a gold medal," said Frenn, "and just because nobody sees you win it, it doesn't turn the thing into brass."
Frenn was imprecise. Some very imposing cats were on hand. For one, there was 38-year-old Harold Connolly, who has represented the U.S. in the hammer at four Olympics, looking benign in silver-rimmed glasses while trying to cook up some evil scheme to psych Frenn out. Like he did two weeks ago in an outdoor meet at Long Beach, Calif, for instance. "All week Harold put the freeze on me with dialogue," recalled Frenn. "Then the day before the meet he walks up and tells me he's going to break my world record. And, he says, he's going to use my weight to do it with. My record was 68'7½". On his first throw, Harold does 72'2¾". I fouled four out of my six throws. He knows just what buttons to push to make me screw up."
And there was Tom Gage, the outdoor hammer champion, and Al Hall, who won the AAU weight throw last year. The only one missing was Ed Burke, who, it is said, Frenn needled into an early retirement. In the world of throwing weights, you need a tough psyche. "I don't like George's mouth," Burke said before quitting. "I don't like his harassment. I used to handle him but no more. He's just too strong. But you've got to give him credit. Everybody else in world class has more speed and more quickness and more coordination. But George makes up for that with his strength. And his mouth."
Aw, says George, grinning, I never said nothing to him. Of course, there was Frenn's dog, a German shepherd puppy that he named, ah, Burke. And there was this meet that Frenn decided to sit out. Burke was competing. Frenn showed up with his dog. "Hey, Burke, I want you to meet my dog," he said. "His name is Burke. I named him after you."
March 9, 1970
"What?" said Burke.
"Yeah," said Frenn. "That's his name."
For the rest of the afternoon, every time Burke picked up his weight, there was Frenn yelling, "Hey, Burke, come over here and sit down. Burke, cut that out. Burke, quit licking my face." Burke, the human, didn't do very well in that meet.
"Gosh, I don't think that bothered him," Frenn said last week, somehow managing to look like a 5'11", 240-pound imp. "Ed kept calling me a son of a bitch, which made me know he liked me. Everybody knows any act of aggression is really an act of love. Besides, I was very good to that dog."
But if Burke was no longer on the scene, there were still very much Connolly and Gage and Hall, who in 1969 beat Frenn out of the championship on his last attempt. And, too, there was George Frenn, who was hoping his psyche would hold together just long enough for him to get off one good throw.
In last year's AAU championships Frenn fouled on four of six. The problem, he says, is psychological. A psychotherapist told him that, subconsciously, he fouled on purpose. "He told me that I have a self-destruction wish," said Frenn. "That inside I don't feel that anything good should happen to me, that I feel that I don't deserve to win anything. And so I foul. My father died when I was very young and I spent most of my time in military schools without parental guidance or love. Then I spent a year at a seminary studying for the priesthood, and that really fouled me up. Now these feelings of self-destruction keep popping up and I don't recognize them. But Harold does. Then he starts pushing those buttons."
Talk to any hammer and weight thrower and it's 5 to 1 he can't go more than a minute without mentioning Harold Connolly's name at least three times. Connolly is a father image, and a very powerful one. Frenn used to drive Burke crazy by whispering, "Father's here," or "Father's coming," or "Father's going to beat you." They all want to beat him; yet, after beating him, it's just as important that he come up, pat them on the head and say well done. Which he seldom does. Of course, sometimes he doesn't have a chance. In 1966, after a certain hammer thrower beat Connolly for the first time, he raced over and screamed, "I finally beat you, you old man." Then he spat in Connolly's face. Connolly considered patting him on the head with a 16-pound hammer, but didn't.
"I was there when the guy did it," said Frenn. "I was stunned. Right then I decided that when I beat Harold I would never act like that. God, it was terrible."
Last Friday morning Connolly spotted Frenn in their New York hotel lobby. As Connolly walked past Frenn he patted him on the back and offered a pleasant good morning. Frenn stared back. "I got Harold," he said when Connolly had left. "If he was ready, really feeling vicious for this meet, he would have just glared at me. He's not feeling ornery enough to win."
Connolly drew the first throw. He works quickly, taking about 30 seconds from the time he enters the ring until he releases the weight. His first attempt was 65'4". Not very good. Out in the area just beyond where the weights fall, Frenn was pacing rapidly back and forth. He was the third to throw. He works very slowly, taking a full two minutes.
Even in practice, during the lonely hours at Cal State in Long Beach, the 28-year-old junior high physical education teacher follows the same routine. "My therapist told me to do that," Frenn says. "Most athletes keep changing. Then they do a 17-foot vault or a 27-foot long jump and they don't know how they did it. I break a world record, I know exactly how I did it."
First he bounces the weight off the ground, knocking away any dirt. Then he walks into the ring, setting the weight in the rear. Always at the same spot. He leaves the ring, removing his sweat shirt. After a quick spray of his glove with Firm Grip, he takes off his sweat pants. Then, knocking the dirt from his shoes, he re-enters the ring for a brief exercise before checking the throwing area. Friday it was dark inside the bubble at Baker Field so he asked an official to stand on the 70-foot line. "I need a target," he said. No one asked the official how he felt being the target for a 35-pound ball of lead. Finally Frenn picks up the weight, swinging it twice between his legs and once around his head. Three spins and away it goes. His first throw was 66'9".
"I want to start slowly," he said. "I don't want to foul. When I start off badly I go all the way. It's like falling off a cliff."
By the time Frenn was ready for his third throw, Connolly was leading with 67'7¼". Frenn went through his routine, then bent over to pick up the weight. "And right there, when you pick up that weight, your life expands," he said later. "Your whole life passes before you. When I picked it up that time I was thinking about Burke and how he once psyched me out. I had an extra piece of leather on my throwing glove. It was perfectly legal, but Burke complained and some fool official made me take it off. Well, now I use it all the time, and I was thinking, well, now I can throw like I want for the first time in the nationals." Frenn turned the weight loose, let go with a low Tarzanian yell and watched it sail 69'10¼". Then he stalked back to his post in center field and watched the others shoot for that mark and fail. To make sure, on his fourth throw Frenn hit 70'5½".
Connolly came over and shook his hand. "You did well," said Father. Then, grinning, he added, "But we both should have done better."
"Harold, I beat you and I don't want you to think I am apologizing for doing it," said Frenn. "But I want to say that to me you're still a champion. And I want to thank you for all the help you gave me in the past. But remember, I'm not apologizing."
Now that he had won the 35-pound title after 11 years of trying, Frenn set his sights on another goal: to get President Nixon to give a little less attention to football, a little more to track and field. Frenn was the spokesman when U.S. athletes staged a minor revolt in Europe last year. He sent a $91 cable to the President. Nothing happened. He began writing letters to the White House. So far he has got back three replies from a minor official who said nothing, offered less.
"I want everybody to look at the meet program," said Frenn, with anger. "You'll find a letter there from the governor. And you'll find a letter from the mayor. But you won't find a letter from the President. He just doesn't care about track. It's ridiculous. It just shows the tremendous football monopoly in the White House. Granted this is an oddball event, but it's a national championship, isn't it? At least the President could show he is interested in something other than going to Arkansas to pick a national football champion, couldn't he? And you've got to admit, that was really ridiculous. The AAU and the State Department are all the same. They are glad to have you compete for the country, but everything is supposed to work like magic. You're supposed to appear, compete and disappear. We work like dogs in training and they won't do one thing to help us. No financial support, no national training base, nothing. And if they don't help, and it's probably way too late already, we are going to get wiped out in the 1972 Olympics."
That off his great chest, Frenn went back to his hotel. A man was waiting for him. Frenn competes for the Pacific Coast Track Club. The man was from another athletic club. "George," said the man, "if you drop out of your club and compete unattached for four months, we'll pay all your expenses. And it will be first class all the way. After four months, you join our club and we'll pay you $200 for every meet. Now how's that?"
"For one thing, it's unethical," said Frenn. "Now, I know a lot of the top athletes are getting $500 a meet and I'm sore as hell about it. I've complained about it. I figure if one guy gets $500, everybody should get $500. Or no one should get anything. And if you're going to give me $200, then give every athlete $200. But you won't. Besides, the people in the Pacific Coast Club have stuck by me through thick and thin. And I won't turn my back on them. So, thank you, but no."
George Frenn knows how and when to throw his weight around.