Sports are for kids, spectators and officials, or perhaps for Nielsen ratings, but hardly ever exclusively for athletes anymore. Last week, on the side of a precipitous mountain looming high above San Jose, Calif., things were different. Howard Cosell, the Goodyear blimp and Robert Conrad were nowhere to be seen. Sitcom stars were not jiggling on the sidelines, and dour track officials in blazers were not flashing ribbons. In terms of human warmth as well as sheer bulk, Al Feuerbach and Mac Wilkins were proving that they are two very big guys by providing an arena in which to honor friends and legends, repay old debts and, most of all, to celebrate the prowess of their own kind.
Shotputters like Feuerbach and discus throwers like Wilkins often find themselves occupying the third ring of a three-ring circus, competing in the distant infield at track and field meets while milers and sprinters dazzle the crowd. Thus the Two Big Guys Mountain Games, the name Feuerbach and Wilkins bestowed on their gathering last Saturday. Attendance was by invitation only, and perhaps never has so much sinew and brawn been grouped together for such sheer fun and exuberance, to say nothing of so much food, drink and conviviality. "This is a great gathering of the male chauvinist pigs," chortled Parry O'Brien, the two-time Olympic gold medal shotputter, overlooking the fact that Wilkins and Feuerbach had provided discus and shot events for women as well.
Nevertheless, one could understand O'Brien's sentiment. In manners and deportment, throwers do have a reputation that tends toward the unrefined, Animal House behavior of John Belushi. But if anyone thought that this group was going to get out of control at the party that followed the competition and engage in such gross-out activities as food fights and body slams, they were totally mistaken. Well, almost totally. The day's activities proved that if shotputters and discus throwers are going to commit bodily harm upon someone, it is not going to be upon each other. Oh, true, that blithe spirit, Brian Oldfield, did almost skull a fellow competitor with a 16-pound shot, but that was an accident, and he did playfully hurl another shot at a photographer, but that was good fun, and a woman competitor did lose her warmup pants for a moment, but that was unplanned. Still, certain precautions had been made. Parking in the driveway of Feuerbach's and Wilkins' retreat was prohibited, a reasonable rule since five kegs of beer were ready to be tapped and the driveway has a 200-foot chasm on one side.
The competition began in more traditional surroundings, with the discus throw for men and women at Independence High School in San Jose. Then everybody got into cars and, following maps that pointed out such landmarks as "small store," reassembled for the shotput at their hosts' cabin up in the Santa Cruz mountains. After that came not one but two parties. The first was a decorous daytime affair for athletes and invited spectators, succeeded by an evening blast for the athletes only, where the amiable giants sat around drinking and seeing who could throw the truth the farthest, matching quips with old-timers like O'Brien, Bill Nieder, the gold medalist in the shot at the Rome Olympics, and Rink Babka, the first person ever to throw the discus 200 feet. At a buffet dinner, the current crop of throwers—especially Canadian Bishop Dolegiewicz, who at 6'6" and 290 pounds was the biggest Big Guy at the Mountain Games—could be identified by the way they challenged the strength of the paper plates, piling them high with spaghetti, enchiladas, garlic bread and other megacarbohydrates, while the older biggies complained about their figures. "I don't know how much longer I can hold this in," said Babka, patting his stomach.
May 6, 1979
It is not surprising that large athletes feel a need to flock together, since by size alone they exist outside the mainstream of life. Most people do not bother to hide their anxiety when the big fellows sit on their furniture. Actually, Feuerbach, at 6'1" and 240 pounds, is a bit small for his sport, while Wilkins is considered average size at 6'4" and 250 pounds. Larry Schreiber, who for five years was a running back for the 49ers, now owns a bar in San Mateo called the B Street Grill. Watching the discus competition Saturday, even Schreiber, a man who has seen his share of defensive linemen, was impressed with the abundance of bulk. "I can't believe how big they are," he said.
If the truth be known, however, the Big Guys Games also had a more serious purpose than an uninhibited grouping of sizable outcasts. They were a reaction to what many U.S. track and field athletes feel about a national training system that provides them with little more than "a uniform and a trip to Europe." The two hosts had been asked if they would appear on the recent Olympic telethon and had refused. "The more money the U.S. Olympic Committee gets, then the more it has to do things like fight lawsuits against our own athletes," muttered Feuerbach.
To make the Mountain Games a reality, the Nike athletic shoe company provided money for expenses and prizes. Each of the 20 Olympians present was given a special Olympics book signed by his compatriots. Meanwhile the two organizers had worked furiously to create an event up to their standards. Feuerbach had even reinforced such fragile items as railings and steps that would have to support numerous bulky bodies. The two former world-record holders also smoothed out the backyard landing area, dug a new throwing ring and spread truckloads of lava rock chips in the landing area. Feuerbach's wife Gudrun and discus throwers Julie Hansen and Lynn Winbigler had been put in charge of painting, and even in a rain on Thursday they had continued slapping away with their brushes. Both Feuerbach and Wilkins were kept up late Friday night working on final touches. Feuerbach saw the sun rise as he finished painting the shotput throwing circle.
Both Feuerbach and Wilkins are now ranked second in the world to East Germans. Last August, Wolfgang Schmidt threw the discus 233'5" to break Wilkins' world record by 11 inches. Earlier, Udo Beyer had moved the shotput mark up to 72'8" during a meet in Sweden. Feuerbach was at that meet, and after his throw, Beyer, his face flushed and his eyes almost glazed, walked over to the American and said, "If you train in my system, you could do this also!" Feuerbach found the remark curious. "It was almost an apology, almost as if he felt guilty," he recalls.
From incidents such as this grew the Mountain Games. If Feuerbach and Wilkins were exhibits in a museum that no one visits except during an Olympic year, perhaps they should display their talent before a group that could fully appreciate them. It would be like a philharmonic orchestra, fed up with hearing applause in the wrong places, or no applause at all, giving a concert for musicians only.
Wilkins and Feuerbach had shown that they were aware of the value of timing. Not only were the Penn and the Drake Relays taking place in Philadelphia and Des Moines last weekend, but right down the mountain the San Jose Invitational was under way. It was at this meet that both Feuerbach and Wilkins had first set world records, Al in 1973, Mac in 1976. Feuerbach said he was sorry about the conflict and confided he was truly disappointed that he could not throw at Des Moines. He usually gets a police escort to the airport there, a memorable occurrence for any thrower. He was not about to chance leaving his house unguarded, however. "I might get back to find the place demolished by the early arrivals," he said.
In a sense, the 33-year-old Oldfield epitomized the frustration of the throwers. The former Olympian joined the ill-fated pro track tour at the height of his career, but since the tour folded in 1976 he has tried vainly to regain his amateur standing. He recently sold his car for living expenses.
Because the meet was sanctioned by the AAU, Feuerbach and Wilkins were careful to point out that Oldfield was not competing in the shotput but was only on hand to give an "exhibition." This transparent subterfuge not only gave Oldfield a chance to get the feeling of competition again, but it was necessary to keep the other athletes from losing their amateur standing by competing against a "professional." Considering that there now is no formal track meet that will allow Oldfield to compete, that designation infuriates him. "I'm probably the only true amateur in the world," he said.
Meantime the legal amateurs were at work. Lorna Griffin, a 22-year-old Boeing Aircraft Company worker from Seattle, and the American women's record holder in the discus, won that event with a throw of 186'2", an effort only 26" short of her national mark. Helene Connell of Spring Lake, N.J. finished second at 173'3" and Leslie Deniz, a high school junior from the area around Chico, Calif., came in third with a throw of 164'1".
Mac Wilkins, still sleepy-eyed from his hectic week of sawing and digging, could do no better than 207'10" in the men's event and finished third behind Markku Tuokko of Finland and Knut Hjeltnes of Norway. Tuokko threw 220'6", and Wilkins could take a measure of gratification from the Finn's achievement. In 1975, during a low point in the American's career, he had lived and trained with Tuokko in Finland. "Now I feel I have paid him back," said Wilkins.
Up in the mountains, the audience was assembling for the shotput. Among the spectators was Angelo Turani, an Italian whom Feuerbach calls "one of the world's two or three shotput fanatics." Turani visited Feuerbach and Wilkins last week, and when he discovered that they were going to hold their own meet, he postponed his return to Italy. On Saturday he was showing Feuerbach photos taken of himself working out on a machine designed to improve a thrower's performance.
"Is very good, Al," said Turani. "The West Germans developed it."
"But the West Germans don't have any good throwers," said Feuerbach.
"They will, Al," maintained Turani. "Is very good."
Saturday did not turn out to be a very good day for Feuerbach the competitor. After Maren Seidler, the women's national shotput record holder at 62'3¼", won with a heave of 58'4¾", the men took their turn in the event. The crowd perched on the hillside behind the throwing area oohed and aahed, especially at Oldfield's practice throws that chased up against a fence about 70 feet away. O'Brien was leaning over a railing only a few feet from the throwing ring when Feuerbach opened the competition. "Technique, Al," O'Brien yelled. "Throw the hips." But the weary host could do no better than 64'6½" and finished third behind Bruno Pauletto (66'1¾") and the winner, Reijo Stahlberg, another Finn, who pushed the shot out to 68'5¼". When Feuerbach's turn came to pick up his prize at the awards ceremony, he was handed a tattered grocery bag instead of the flight bags the other competitors received.
As for Oldfield, he fouled his first three throws. Then followed two rather poor efforts. As he approached the ring for the final time, Oldfield dropped the shot at his feet with a thud and rubbed his hands together furiously, giving a determined grunt. Then he purposefully picked up the shot, dipped into his spin and gave out a resounding bellow as he let fly. "There it is," he yelled as the ball arced away. But Oldfield, perhaps a bit rusty in estimating distances after his two years in exile from competition, had overestimated his throw. It would not have won the event, but it did carry 68'2¼" and bounced off the railing at the end of the landing area with a satisfying thud. "It's kind of nice to be part of it again," Oldfield said later as the Big Guys party got into full swing.