Brian Oldfield says he doesn't know too many weight men who would forgo the opportunity to break up a hotel. Indeed, he acknowledges some previous baying at the moon himself, a bit of "terrorist stuff" he once used out of a basic desire to become a "self-developed police force."
At one cozy Halloween party back in college at Murfreesboro, Tenn., Oldfield remembers being attacked from behind by an ex-marine who battered him about the head with a pistol, connecting on all surfaces—the back, the front, the temples—as blood spurted every which way. Since Oldfield retained consciousness throughout all of this belaboring, the fight seemed hardly fair.
"Now this guy was really a germ," says Oldfield. "Believe me, a mental midget. He wasn't like the Mindbenders cycle gang back home. Oh, no. But he was sort of a good prospect for the Mindbenders. He had stolen a bus in Chattanooga, I found out later, and shot his own buddy in the knee. But he made the same mistake everybody does: he thought I was a football player. He didn't like football players. So the guy tried to coldcock me with his gun several times. The thing is, I can take a punch.
"Going down, I stuck out my hand and got balance. I knew right then I was on my way to a knockout. I was up fast and smoking. I flashed a left jab on the man's face, and it was over. He went down like a cave-in. The next day, after I was bandaged up, I went over to his house. He had a shotgun ready this time. I said, 'Grady'—the cat's name was Grady—I said, 'Grady, you got to pay for these hospital bills. Hit you hard? I haven't even started yet.' "
August 31, 1975
Oldfield says this was the general atmosphere in his misspent late youth. "I sat around at college in my living quarters—this old converted smokehouse—guzzling beer, dipping snuff and smoking my lungs out," he says. "The whole place flooded over once. Bad pipes. I just lay there. At this time I was not in sight of direction. I was just boogeyin'."
Shortly thereafter Oldfield adopted some trappings of civilization. He says it took a while to adjust "from college back to humanity." He started lifting weights and working definition into his massive sirloin strip of a body.
He started training diligently (in his own way, of course) for that moment when he would become the best in the world at something, for his was—and is—the kind of ego that demanded nothing less. And he got energy as well as fun, happiness and goal-orientation from the vehicle he chose, the shotput.
In just two years, this Chicago dead-end kid, former tavern bouncer, reform-school instructor and self-confessed "lapsed degenerate" has positively revolutionized his sport. Within the 7-foot diameter of the shotput ring, he has forsworn all conventionality. What Oldfield does is wind up his 6'5" and 280 pounds into a torque of lightning and whirl into the spinning arc of a discus thrower through a full turn and a half (540 degrees) before releasing the 16-pound iron ball and watching it float out there into history. In reply, the legends of the shot—Rose, Fonville and Fuchs, O'Brien, Long and Matson—have been able to do nothing but turn over in their great circles in the sky or rush to rule books claiming meaningless illegalities or, yes, stand out there helplessly attempting to match him.
On April 4, 1975 at the San Francisco Cow Palace, Oldfield extended the indoor world record to 72'6½", ran down the track and kissed the spot where the shot landed. On May 10 in the Bowie High School stadium in El Paso, he unloaded three puts which broke the outdoor world record, first by more than four inches (71'11¾"), then by more than a foot (73'¼") and finally by more than a yard. His last throw was a preposterous 75 feet. Oldfield, himself rather stunned, said he had "eternalized" the shotput record. At least, he said, until that time when he would break it again.
Although it in no way detracts from Oldfield's achievement, it must be noted that he performs on the International Track Association circuit, the pro tour, so his marks are professional records. George Woods holds the amateur indoor world record of 72'2¾" Al Feuerbach the amateur outdoor record of 71'7".
Disregarding most drugs, pills, anabolic steroids and other chemical uppers, Oldfield goes through life getting a lift from so many natural sources that he has become almost senselessly hyperactive. "Taking energy" is what he calls this.
If he is not taking energy from the cool and elegance of ITA quarter-miler John Smith, Oldfield gets it from the jive and nonsense of ITA pole-vaulter Steve Smith. ("When I grow up, I want to be just like you," Smith says to Oldfield, "so strong, nobody cares how stupid you are.") If not from Krazy George, the manic cheerleader at the San Jose Earthquakes soccer games, then from old George Clark, a wizened Scot who lives in Aberdeenshire and calls Oldfield "my giant laddie." If not from granola bran muffins spread thickly with honey and apple butter, then from flying into the Los Angeles airport. Oldfield says of that particular experience, "I get so much energy flying in to L.A., sometimes I just want to fly out and then fly right back in again."
Oldfield's shocking size evokes stares and murmurs even in the sophisticated, freak-filled setting of Manhattan night spots. This makes for awkward moments as onlookers continue to gape and wait for...what? Fay Wray to come squealing out of his palm?
His hair, dirty blond and loopy and styled over his forehead, makes his face appear to be lacking eyes. They are tiny and close together anyway, and when he scrunches up his visage in one of his outrageous Crazy Guggenheim expressions, the eyes do all but disappear. One reporter, noting the "blond locks," likened him to Gorgeous George, the wrestler. But George had eyes.
Oldfield favors tight white jeans, open-to-the-abdomen shirts and a gargantuan puka-shell necklace for dress-up occasions. Such raiment is in character for a fellow who introduced bikini briefs and fishnet tank tops to track and field when he came out of nowhere to qualify at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. Shotputting has never been the same.
The fact is that Oldfield's body deserves to be a conversation piece, if only because it is a cross between the blocky hulk of a defensive tackle and the muscle delineation of a Mr. Marvelous Spa Universe contestant.
Though his weight hovers between 270 and 280, Oldfield's waist is only 37 inches, making him appear about 50 pounds lighter than he is. Most of this unobserved poundage is distributed evenly through the arms and shoulders, the legs and thighs. His carriage is bold and arrogant, he moves with startling quickness. Has there ever been another 280-pounder who could run the 100-yard dash in 10.3 seconds? With characteristic self-effacement, Oldfield notes that "when God invented man, He wanted him to look like me."
This is not to say that Oldfield flaunts his physique. On the Today show, when Gene Shalit asked him to remove his shirt so the audience "could see what a shotputter looks like," Oldfield refused. No Anita Ekberg, he.
Moreover, it is not sheer size that sets Oldfield apart as a visual phenomenon. It is his hyperactiveness, a mysterious sense of something about to happen. Call it, even, danger. Larger men may be found down at your local diner kicking in the jukebox. This man, this shotputter Oldfield, looks as if he were a bomb about to go off, or, more accurately, a water-filled balloon.
Timmy Secor, co-owner of the Tittle Tattle, an East Side jock-and stewardess-infested club which Oldfield makes his fun headquarters when in New York, says football players are just about flabbergasted at the sight of Oldfield. Sugar Bear Hamilton, an offensive guard for the New England Patriots, met Oldfield at a track meet and asked a journalist why the shotputter didn't play football.
"He doesn't like football," the journalist said.
"Thank God," said Sugar Bear.
Consciously or otherwise, Oldfield plays on this image of lurking catastrophe, especially when women are around. Women are around quite a lot. It is, again, not only his size that attracts the fair sex but his special aura of imminent peril.
Bob Steiner, ITA's director of public relations, describes it best. "I've never met anyone quite as big," says Steiner. "And I don't mean in the strict physical sense. Brian's ego is big, his personality is big. His appetites, individualism, capacity for life, his style. Everything is just very big. I know guys that are stronger, but none are as totally animalistic. And that's a compliment. My sociology teacher once told me mankind took a quick jump from savagery to barbarianism with just a short stop at civilization in between. I think Brian hit the stop for just a second. That must be what it takes to be the best shotputter in history."
Having experienced the symptoms back home in South Elgin, Ill. and at Middle Tennessee State University when he was still a growing boy, Oldfield is well aware of his tendency toward violence. He now goes to great lengths to avoid hostilities. On the other hand, Oldfield has never been averse to using his size and reputation for effect. Recently at Captain Cook's, a neighborhood dance spot in the San Jose bedroom community of Cupertino, Calif., where he now makes his home, Oldfield was stopped at the door for wearing improper attire—i.e., sandals. After 10 minutes of semi-tense repartee between Oldfield and the medium-sized doorman who kept saying "Now Brian, come on," two girls entered in sandals and were allowed down the stairs without a fuss.
"That does it," said Oldfield. "I'm in, and you're going to have to call the Italian army to get me out." The doorman looked quite relieved to be presented with this unlikely alternative.
Conversely, the very next day Oldfield was prohibited from working out on the track at nearby De Anza Junior College by a uniformed campus policeman, and the shot-putter succumbed with only a nasty whimper. "I guess I shouldn't argue with you," he told the guard. "We don't want any dead cops around here, do we?"
Having been with ITA since it came into existence three years ago, Oldfield stands as pro track's first homegrown star. "Our own monster creation," ITA President Mike O'Hara says.
Oldfield, too, recognizes himself as a test case. The moneymongers are hanging around now talking up deals. Deals for Oldfield to play for the Miami Dolphins, to fight Muhammad Ali, to get into books, records, condominiums and to do everything but ride Foolish Pleasure over the Snake River Canyon.
But he says, "Football is no challenge. I played in the spring game at college once. You just give me the ball and after that it's a fight. I win fights. Most of those pro linemen are just angry mobsters who can take a beating. No finesse or quickness. I'm bigger and faster than Larry Csonka and I'd dance all over their heads.
"As for boxing, I'd like to see Ali try and psych me the way he does those other chumps. Sure, I'd probably get beat, but I'd come out trying to kill the champ in the first two rounds. It'd be like the streets. I'd screw up Ali's mind, too. In the ring I'd be screamin', 'Give me strength, Zeus.'
"But," Oldfield goes on, "my shotputting has been the greatest experience of my life. I'm going to make this sport, make it so that little kids are throwing the shot someday to be like me. I'm 30 now. I'll be around for another 10 years at $50,000 per. O'Hara's got to pay me that. And I can make that much again in endorsements and such, and that's a million.
"They're going to let me lift weights at Superstars this time," Oldfield says, talking louder. "And I'm going to beat O.J. in the dash and win the whole thing. Then I'm going to outclass myself in the shot. I've already thrown three feet beyond incredible. I'll be throwing 80 feet, 85, maybe 90, and all those little glamour milers with their myth four-minute barrier will be like little puppies, trite little tykes, and the rest of the track and field world will be obsolete, and then people will notice shotputters—the real athletes, the real men."
He is getting excited now. "I won't be satisfied until the world knows me by only my first name," Oldfield shouts. "Just Brian. 'There goes Brian.' 'Did you see what Brian threw yesterday?' Only the greats go by one name, man. Ali. Pelé. Fabian. Here's Johnny! Haw, haw, haw."
Like most weight events, the shotput seems to have originated in Scotland and Ireland. It took on its present form in the mid-19th century, but it wasn't until the St. Louis Olympics of 1904 that the circular platform was officially introduced in international competition.
Since then only two major changes in technique have occurred: the first in the early 1950s when Parry O'Brien, the golden Trojan, turned his back to the landing area and made a quick 180-degree turn as he drove to the front of the circle to launch the shot; the second, Oldfield's radical discus-style whirl which went O'Brien 360 degrees better.
The dearth of revolutionary tactics can probably be accounted for by the fact that most shotputters in the early years fit the description that one chronicler gave the sport's first star, the 6'6", 235-pound Californian Ralph Rose, who was dubbed "the rotund husky." In 1909 Rose threw the shot 51'¾", a mark that was considered the ultimate until it fell 19 years later. Europeans held the record until 1934, when John Lyman threw 54'1" and another American, Jack Torrance, the "elephant baby" out of LSU, attained 57'1" at Oslo's Bislet Stadium. Torrance had a fine season, but he went flat after that, possibly because at 304 pounds he became weary dragging himself to the circle.
His successor in the record books was a surprise, not only because he was black but because he weighed just 195 pounds. Charles Fonville from Birmingham, Ala. and the University of Michigan set the pattern of the speedy, explosive shotputter, which was further improved by an Ivy Leaguer, Jim Fuchs of Yale. In two years Fuchs had nine puts of 58 feet or better, using a technique that began with an extreme backward lean. Fuchs had an 88-meet winning streak and he kept pursuing 60 feet, but he never got there. Defeat came the year before the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki when the 6'3", 245-pound O'Brien appeared on the scene.
O'Brien's style demanded speed, great quickness and coordination, and the Southern Cal athlete had them. He was one of the first shotputters to use weight training as a means of conditioning, and this aided him in compiling a record of consistency that is unmatched to this day: gold medals in Helsinki and Melbourne, the silver in Rome, eight AAU titles and 116 consecutive victories.
Americans Bill Nieder and Dallas Long used the O'Brien technique to win Olympic golds and set world records of their own, as did Randy Matson of Texas A&M, who was the first 70-foot man. Matson dominated the event from 1965 to 1970, won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, pushed the world record to 71'5½" and at one time had the 25 longest puts in history.
In 1964 both Matson and Oldfield were 19-year-old freshmen. The former threw an illustrious 66'3¼" and won the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics. The latter lobbed the shot 53'9" in between gang riots and all-night drunks.
As a sophomore, Matson improved by four feet to a world record 70'7". Oldfield improved by three feet. Then the plot thickened.
Matson has always regretted that after reaching 70 feet, he grew complacent, began throwing against the competition rather than for distance and was content to just keep from losing. While Matson extended his record by 10½ more inches, Oldfield was coming on strong. In 1966, he threw 59'2" at Middle Tennessee. Two years later, 61'2¼". In 1969, 64'6¾". In 1972, 68'9¾".
At the Olympic Trials in Oregon that summer, Al Feuerbach and George Woods beat them both; Matson and Oldfield battled for the third and last position on the team. Oldfield won and, though he finished a disappointing sixth at Munich, nobody has been able to keep up with him since.
Last May, after he completed his three astounding puts at El Paso, Oldfield screamed across the field to O'Hara, "That first one was for my mother. The 73'¼" was for you. And the last one, O'Hara, that one was for me. I better get some money for this."
Oldfield has added other wrinkles to the art beyond distance and monetary demands. His warmups are enlivened with underhand tosses, backward over-the-head jobs and several forms of sidearm delivery, not to mention an occasional handstand and/or backflip. He also seldom stays in the circle during practice, thus fouling on almost every throw.
"The circle inhibits me, sure," says Oldfield, "but I don't want to be inhibited in practice. I want to see how far I can throw with the whirl in the warmups. If I hit 73, 74 feet, I know I can go over 70 when the bell rings." His spectacular warmup throws hype the crowd. The people get on his side and wind up roaring for him to stay in the ring as well as go for new records.
On a practice put in New York last season Oldfield hit a hurdle on the fly 76 feet away. In El Paso a few days before his record-breaking effort, Oldfield fooled around with leaping out of the circle and was able to attain momentous distances. John Smith swears he personally walked off one put at 82 feet.
Chatter and blithe spirits are Oldfield's trademarks in the ring. Matson, still a regular on the ITA tour, welcomes them. The unwritten shotputters' code used to include no talking and a cutthroat attitude around the circle. "We didn't care if the other guy fell down or broke his arm or leg or anything," says Matson. "We weren't about to help anybody. But Brian is always talking it up, urging us on, getting everyone psyched up to throw well. His philosophy blows our minds. The guy will throw anything. He could go downtown, pick out a dime-store shot and use it. All the rest of us guard our shots with our life. Anybody touched mine, I'd have to kick him."
Matson believes Oldfield can run faster and jump higher than any man his size, ever. "He'll do a handstand or a backflip in a hotel lobby," Matson says. "He races the sprinters in the parking lot. He high-jumps over anything.
"Brian's crazy living takes away from the public's knowledge of his ability as an athlete. The first question they ask is whether his style is legal. But nothing's ever been wrong with it. He holds the ball high enough, he's not hitting the rim of the circle and he's sure not cheating on the weight of the thing. Nobody's going to slip in a light shot on me.
"Brian is never satisfied either," says Matson. "He competes against the tape measure; that's why he's going to put the thing out there where nobody can reach it. Before he threw 75 feet, I could discount about half of what he said about himself. Now that he's predicting 80, I'm not sure what the discount factor is."
No one has ever discounted Oldfield's penchant for psychological warfare. He is especially vocal in his disdain for fellow competitors. Matson is a good friend. But when Woods and Feuerbach, old neighbors from Midwestern colleges, contemporaries and Olympic teammates, were outdistancing Oldfield a few years ago, they scoffed at his efforts to match them as well as his desire to join their Pacific Coast Club. Still amateurs and members of the PCC, they are now regarded by Oldfield as "nonathletes, unworthy of discussion."
Oldfield refers to Woods and Feuerbach, respectively, as "Fat Boy" and "Squatty Body." Three months ago in Scotland, after he threw 73'1" at Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium, the second-longest put in history, Oldfield bellowed at unsuspecting local newspapermen, "Feuerbach would have finished a bad last here. Woods? He wouldn't even have reached the grass."
Legendary oldtimers are accorded similar disrespect. When he first met Parry O'Brien, after O'Brien had questioned the legality of the new style, Oldfield dealt the old master a wicked blow. During his interview on the Today show, Oldfield said, "I wonder how Parry feels finding out after all these years that while he thought he was eating filet mignon, all along it was hamburger."
His family has called Brian Oldfield "Butch" since he weighed in at 11 pounds, 9½ ounces in Elgin, a factory suburb of Chicago. In high school, classmates knew him as "Barney," a nickname that sooner or later inevitably becomes appended to most people named Oldfield since the days of the famed auto racer. His father Ray, an operating engineer (also called Barney), and mother Dorothy, a punch-press operator and chief union steward for the local Amalgamated Meat Cutters, Fur and Leather Workers, are divorced now. Two married sisters live around Elgin and a younger sister, Lori, is a student at Northern Illinois University.
Oldfield says he was a miserable kid, rejecting authority, creating mischief. His dad had an iron hand, and even his older sisters got their licks in before their brother grew big enough "to send them off to school with black eyes."
Oldfield's introduction to sports came when his mother took him to her plant Softball games. But Brian had a deep resentment toward team sports after some early failures in Little League baseball. Oldfield still refers to Little League as "an elitist society of frustrated fathers." He says, "I never liked to be told what to do. Even back then coaches were pushing you through pain barriers, through mental barriers. I always wanted to know why. Nobody told me.
"I hated coaches. They were always on my case. I just wanted to kick up my heels and enjoy life. I took the liberty to be Brian Oldfield."
One day in junior high a friend said he could beat Oldfield in something called the shotput. He couldn't. From the moment he picked up the thing, Oldfield was the best in the school. But he was taught to hold the ball on the tips of the fingers and to skip across the circle.
Oldfield grew five inches between his 14th and 15th birthdays to 6'4" and 190 pounds. He graduated from Elgin High 391st out of 400 and went off to wrestle a bear.
"I got $1,000 if I could beat the bear," Oldfield says. "The minute I got in the ring Little Smokey knew he was in trouble. He was looking over the crowd figuring this would be easy meat, and here I came. Well, the bear threw me a forearm to the neck, which made me mad right away. I picked him up and threw him through the ropes.
"Now the bear wanted no part of me, but I jumped on him and beat him backward. I was going to wishbone the SOB and break his sternum in half, but his handlers must have realized my adrenaline was flowing. They came in and took the bear away. Never paid me. We ran the dudes right out of town."
By the stretch of somebody's imagination, Oldfield qualified to enroll at Middle Tennessee State. The former track coach, Joe Black Hayes, remembers Oldfield boozing it up and climbing the water tower. Why the water tower? "It was there," Oldfield explains.
Oldfield was the scourge of the local police station. As a bouncer-for-hire and bartender, Oldfield says he "did stuff like take knives and guns away from skinny wimps."
Despite the extracurriculars, Oldfield was advancing toward world-class ranking in the shot. He had figured out how to lower the ball into the cradle of his fingers by now ("The thing was getting heavy up there on my nails," he says) and he had discovered weight lifting. He was straightening up his act.
Oldfield went on a couple of international track tours in college, but after finally graduating in 1969 he went back to Elgin, to gambling and to bouncing at a local bar, The Lottery.
"I never had a fight when I was in shape," says Oldfield. "Of course when I was in shape I wasn't bouncing. I broke a guy's upper and lower jaws with a single punch one time. It was a left, not even my shotput arm. Sometimes I wonder where I got the courage to do these sado numbers."
In order to escape the bars and find spare time for the shot, Oldfield took a job teaching wayward youths at the Illinois State Training School for Boys (now called Youth Center), a correctional institution in St. Charles. He likes to point out the post did not require his attendance at PTA meetings. Alfred Buscher, the superintendent, says Oldfield was one of the best teachers he had.
"Brian took kids who were academically retarded and taught them as much reading in two or three months as normally could be taught in 10 months," says Buscher. "Behind the comedian and tough guy front, he's really the softest guy in the world."
That information would have come as a surprise to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which stood in collective cardiac arrest while this loudmouth, cigarette-puffing, bikini-clad colossus won the right to represent his country at Munich.
On the pre-Olympic tour that summer, the anticipated problems became reality. Oldfield went AWOL in Sweden. He was involved in a hotel courtyard disturbance in Norway. Later, the hotel received a letter from a man who claimed Oldfield was seen in his underwear amorously pursuing a chambermaid.
"I was wearing my Speedo swim trunks and she was sitting on my lap," Oldfield says. "The chick's boyfriend got uptight."
For that episode, he was almost kicked off the team by Coach Bill Bowerman. "I had tears in my eyes," Oldfield says. "If they had sent me home, I was going to throw Bowerman out the window."
After America's bumbling performance in the Games (Woods finished second to Wally Komar of Poland, Oldfield and Feuerbach were out of the money), Oldfield came home, signed up for pro track and started breaking indoor records while throwing with the standard technique. He turned to the discus-type spin in 1974, but a torn knee cartilage held him back.
Having turned the corner past 30, given up smoking and cut down on beverages, Oldfield seems to have finally come as much to the outskirts of wisdom as to maturity. He has found a home, his first real team, as it were, on the pro tour. In unguarded moments, in fact, he refers to ITA as "our club."
By personality as well as by performance, Oldfield has reached a centrist position in this environment—no small feat considering the black majority on the tour. Moreover, Oldfield's rapport with this constituency has reached such a point that he can trade ethnic slurs in good humor, occasionally offering friendly exclamations such as "Get down, darkies" with no hint of racism intended or taken.
"Brian doesn't act like most white dudes who, trying to be cool and nice to us, end up silly," says Henry Hines, the long-jumper. "He's a brother—one of us."
John Smith says, "He takes the time to deal with us. He's always joining card games or coming over to chitchat. Ryun never comes over. Seagren never comes. This guy does. Plus, all the brothers automatically loved him back in '72 when he lit up the cigarettes on the field. We knew this was a white guy who was going to show the world what an athlete is really like."
Oldfield's tendency to be natural and totally out front, to wear his heart on his sleeve along with a few well-chosen epithets, sometimes has the officialdom of ITA, a struggling organization if there ever was one, on pins and needles. Oldfield is the personification of Hercules Unchained; he will say anything and do anything he pleases. If that means beginning a discussion with an important representative of the 3M Co., a major ITA sponsor, like this—"When are you guys going to fly me to Minneapolis and shoot those training films? Don't you understand I'm an athlete who's doing it big now? I can't wait for an upturn in the economy. I've got to get mine while I'm hot. What are you, dumb?"—then so be it. If it means describing his employers to a newspaper reporter as "those ITA jerks who are publicitying me to death," then that, too, must pass.
ITA's Steiner sighs and says, "Where does the 800-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere he wants to."
Back home in Cupertino, Oldfield lives with John Powell, the world-record holder in the discus, in a two-story apartment that is owned by Powell and situated hard by two California landmarks, a swimming pool and a freeway. Though nobody is home for very long, within the seven days in May that Powell threw his record discus 226'8" and Oldfield his record shot 75 feet, their address—10445 Mary Ave.—became an instant trivia footnote, not to mention a track groupie's paradise.
Ferns and pansies grow around the boundaries of the porch. Oldfield mixes pineapple daiquiris, grills barbecue steaks, sits by the pool and worries about housecleaning. He says he is into himself more now and "the romance of life. I enjoy music and poetry. I read other people's philosophies. I'm developing relationships and finding time for things that will last. I'm into self-cleansing. I'm cleaning up my life for the full-scale betterment of Brian Oldfield."
He is sitting by a small statue of a man wrestling a tiger. Oldfield is asked where it came from. "I ripped it off from a massage parlor," he says.
The 280-pound shotputter cleans up his life any way he wants to.