When El Paso's Dave Peck began to play racquetball seriously 5½ years ago, he didn't exactly put fear in the hearts of his rivals. Peck's game was fine, but his physique seemed ludicrous. At 5'10", 190 pounds, he had the wrong proportions for racquetball, in which quick reflexes and crablike changes of direction are so important. Opponents took one look at his Baby Huey body and choirboy face and found it difficult to keep from laughing.
"In one of my first tournaments, my opponent hit a shot that I had to cross the court to get," says Peck. "The guy thought, 'There's no way this fat kid's going to reach the ball,' and bent over to pick it up himself. I stepped by him and passed him down the other side. Another time I overheard a guy say, 'I play Peck in the first round, and then I play....' It so happens that I won the tournament."
It also so happens that he has gone right on winning. In 1978-79 Peck vaulted from 39th to sixth in the national rankings and was named Rookie of the Year. The last two seasons he has been rated in the top four, and in recent months he has been involved in some memorable finals, beating both national champ Marty Hogan and fourth-ranked Mike Yellen in 11-10 tiebreakers and losing 21-20, 21-20 to both Hogan and No. 3 Jerry Hilecher. No wonder the pro tour's been playing to full galleries. Currently ranked second, Peck is seeded behind only Hogan at this week's national championships in Tempe, Ariz.
"The way to judge a champion is how he does against his peer group," says Charlie Brumfield, author, wit, iconoclast and five-time national titlist. "That Peck's beaten everyone speaks for itself. It helps that he comes from Armpit, U.S.A. He beat everyone there, and he came on the tour thinking he could win. People from more civilized areas know they can lose.
"Another thing helping Peck is that he didn't start playing until he was 19. Other guys start at 12 and get played out when they should be peaking. Peck has both the maturity and the drive." And what drive! Peck is so intense in competition that he wears retainers to keep from grinding his teeth.
In discussing the 24-year-old Peck, his fellow players are more likely to stress his enthusiasm than his talent. This is misleading, because Peck's appearance notwithstanding, he has extraordinary natural athletic ability. In high school he finished second in the state wrestling meet in the 185-pound class and was a four-year starter at middle linebacker. After graduation he spent a summer at the Indiana University diving camp, learning forward 3½s and triple-twisting 1½s. And he's in much better condition than his physique suggests. A recent fitness test indicated that Peck's body is 12% fat. The figure people are told to aim for is 15%.
But Peck's peers have a point. Because most top racquetball players are virtually equal in ability, intangibles generally make the difference in competition. Peck's personality and history, not his strokes, are what set him apart.
He's as agreeable as can be. Speaking with someone he has just met, Peck cordially slaps the new acquaintance on the shoulder. It's dinnertime, so he shouts, "Let's pig out!" Peck arrives at the restaurant wearing slacks, a sport jacket and a T shirt featuring the words PIKE FEST, a reference to a raucous party weekend at Texas Tech. Following a victory on the court the next day, Peck raises clenched fists and screams, "Nothin' but tough!" Everyone, even his beaten opponent, is smiling.
Peck takes a relaxed view of pressure. While most other players are asleep by 10 p.m. the night before a match, Peck and kindred spirit Hogan may arrange a 3 a.m. Asteroids game. And, typically. Peck sees the best in every situation. Last year he pushed too hard to beat Hogan and became vulnerable to lesser foes; but after getting upset in the round of 32 at a tournament early this season, his play picked up quickly. "That loss was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "I dropped from second to fourth in the rankings and took a lot of pressure off myself. Now every time I go on the court, I think I'm going to win.
"I'll tell you a story, dude. The first time I played my coach, Dr. Bud Muehleisen, I was scared stiff. I mean, the guy won 54 national titles, a living legend. Well, he killed me the first game, killed me the second and was shutting me out in the third. I said, 'Dr. Bud, thanks for the game, but I've got to get outta here.' He sat me down and he said, 'Listen, Dave, you're taking this game too seriously. Go to the beach for a few days.'
"Dr. Bud taught me the C.R. effect—controlled rage. I used to scream and try to psych guys. Dr. Bud told me, 'That's bush league. You should be using the effort within yourself to control your emotions so you can reap the benefits.' " Now, although from time to time he'll swear or kick a wall to relieve tension, Muehleisen's pupil is no Peck's Bad Boy.
Muehleisen hasn't been Peck's only mentor. When Peck was three, his father, Reigh, moved the family from Detroit to El Paso and set rigorous standards for Dave and his six siblings. El Paso is across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juàrez, Mexico; 62.5% of El Paso's 425,000 inhabitants are of Spanish-speaking origin. Ergo, Reigh required his children to speak the language at home. When he's in town, Peck coaches a largely Chicano junior team that's one of the best in the country. Among its members are four national age-group champions, including Dave's brother, Gregg, 17, who has beaten Hogan.
"There's no greater pleasure than watching the people you've taught develop," says Peck, who teaches lefthanded to experience what less skilled players are going through. He also urges his charges to keep fresh by playing other sports.
Not content merely to raise his children bilingually, Reigh, a surgeon, introduced his son to another mind-expanding experience when Dave was 16. Dave went to work for his father as a scrub technician, a job that involves setting up equipment and preparing patients for surgery. This was his first encounter with intense pressure. "Say a guy comes in with a gunshot wound," says Peck. "Hit in an artery. Bleeding internally. You have to come running in and get the instruments ready fast. Surgery is nerve-wracking. That's why doctors tell dirty jokes—to relieve the tension."
At a tournament in Boston, Peck drew an analogy between medicine and racquetball in a discussion with Denny Lund, a resident in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"What happens if the doctor panics?" he asked Lund.
"The patient doesn't do so well," said Lund.
"Exactly. When the doctor panics, it affects everyone—the scrub tech, the nurse, the anesthesiologist, the patient. It's the same principle in racquetball. If you get hyper externally, it affects your opponent. Only it helps him. He gets confident. He can beat you more easily. You have to overcome the pressure and go for it."
Eventually Peck had to go for it alone. While he was a freshman in 1974-75 at the University of Texas-El Paso, which he was attending primarily to play football, his parents were divorced. Soon after, Peck, who was closer to his mother, lost his job as a scrub tech and grew weary of football. At the end of that year he dropped out of school.
"I was on my own," he says. "I had been sheltered to a degree—going to frat parties, playing football, having a good time. Then—voilà!—it was, hey, buddy boy, you've got to get your butt out into the real world. I don't want to sound maudlin but to make it, I had to come up with some pretty dramatic decisions. I turned to racquetball, which I had never played, as a means of escaping the situation at home. Other players were supported for a long while as they worked their way up in the rankings. My quick rise stems from my having to work my way up in a hurry."
While his home club, the Supreme Court Racquetball Club, was hosting a tour event a few weeks ago. Peck was constantly in motion—tending to four houseguests, seeing to his duties at the courts, giving interviews and, somehow, competing. Yet he was at his best on court, winning the tournament without dropping a game and whipping Hilecher 21-6, 21-6 in the finals. "There was an awful lot of pressure playing in my hometown," says Peck, "but I was trying harder in front of my family and friends. I had so much adrenaline I was floating."
The El Paso tournament was Peck's fourth in as many weeks, but he grew stronger with each match. "My extra weight is an advantage," he said the night before the finals, downing helping after helping of Chinese food at a Juarez restaurant, pausing only to proclaim himself "mellow and happy."
"I've never seen anyone who likes food as much as he does," said the slim Hilecher, who was loading up on carbohydrates across the table. "I have to get my sleep and watch my food, but he'll eat anything and he doesn't need sleep." Upon leaving the restaurant well after midnight, Peck headed for an ice cream parlor, where he downed several ice cream sandwiches.
In the next day's noon final Hilecher played well, but Peck ran through the racquetball dictionary: He won points with roll-outs, pinches, splats, passing shots, cross-courts, a rare drop shot and 10 service winners, including half a dozen aces. Afterward, Peck's fans weren't chanting "Nothin' but tough" as they had throughout the match. They were yelling "Awesome!"