Dean Crouser lies on the inclined bench in the University of Oregon's weight room, an old sweat shirt tied around his neck like the bib worn at the dentist's. This is to keep the 260-pound barbell above him from bruising his chest when it strikes him at the low point of each lift. Crouser calls out, "Spot for me, will you, Ed?"
"Sure." A young man giving the impression of a furry sandstone boulder steps behind the bar and helps Crouser raise it into position. This is Crouser's younger brother, whose name is not Ed but Brian.
It would be helpful right now to point out that this story calls for remembering a lot of first names, because all the last ones are Crouser. Dean, 23, his rangy 6'5", 260-pound frame stretched out here on the bench, his elbows locked under the weight, his toes twitching in nervous anticipation, is the 1982 NCAA shotput and discus champion, the first man to win that double since Fred DeBernardi 10 years ago. He was ranked fourth in the world last year in the shot, with a best of 69'1½".
Brian, who at 20 is 6'1½" and 232 pounds, won the javelin in the same NCAA meet, the first freshman to do so. He subsequently set a freshman record of 282'11". The Crousers were the first brothers to win NCAA track and field events outright in the same year, and the first to do it in any combination of years since Mack Robinson of Oregon won the 220-yard dash in 1938 and his kid brother Jackie, who would go on to some success in baseball, became the broad jump champion in 1940.
May 29, 1983
But that's only two-thirds of the Crousers. Older brother, Mitch, 25, 6'3" and 255 pounds, who lives in Moscow, Idaho, put the shot 65'5" and threw the discus 208'9" last year, even though he quit competition in mid-May to take summer classes to complete his geological engineering degree at the University of Idaho. There seems no question, then, that these three brothers constitute the country's preeminent family at throwing things.
Dean lets the barbell drop to his chest. For a few seconds the heavy air of the room is electric with concentrated effort as he drives the weight up. After three repetitions, Brian helps him guide it back onto the supports, where it clanks to rest, the sound hard, mercilessly industrial. This seems to the observer a dismal sort of labor.
Dean agrees. "For years I worked on technique so I could stay out of here," he says. "I still hate lifting weights." His best in this lift, which approximates the angle that the shot is pushed away from the body in competition, is 350 pounds. World-record holder Udo Beyer of East Germany (72'8") reportedly bench-presses more than 600.
Yet Dean isn't in demented pursuit. "I know I have to get stronger, but I don't think I have to go from 350 to 600," he says. He is proud of being the weakest champion in a strong man's event. "The strength thing can take over. It becomes a game of its own." He cites discus thrower John Powell, the 1976 bronze medalist, as an example of how not to be distracted from the primary objective. "He's not big or strong. He's just effective."
But Dean carries the thought further than a simple debate over strength vs. technique. Quickly it becomes obsession vs. balance. "In the ancient Olympics you had to know how to throw the discus, sure," he says, "but the Greeks could also play a musical instrument or were knowledgeable in the law. Now we're getting away from that. I don't know if I've ever met a balanced person."
"Did you call him Ed?" asks a bystander.
"Yeah. I haven't called him Ed in a longtime."
"He never calls anyone by his right name if he can help it," says Brian.
The youngest Crouser has always been more at home among these weights. In high school in Gresham, a suburb of Portland, Dean's best bench press was 205. "A girl beat me," he says joyously. Brian's was 385.
In his junior year Brian won the state high school meet in all three throws, and he has also thrown the hammer 189 feet. Dean is the family hammer champ at 201'8". In high school he threw the javelin, reaching 230'6" in 1978. "One of the best high school throws in the nation that year," he says. "On the next one, I blew out my elbow."
To continue in track, he had to concentrate on the heavier implements, as had Mitch, who had thrown the spear 228 feet the summer he graduated from high school, only to tear elbow ligaments soon after. (Indeed, Oregon's most accomplished throwing alumnus, 1976 Olympic discus champion Mac Wilkins, was forced to abandon the javelin for the discus in precisely the same way.) This pattern is on all their minds just now because Brian has bone chips and scar tissue in his throwing elbow. He has since undergone surgery. He had hoped to postpone the operation until after this year's NCAA meet in Houston in early June to give himself a chance to be a four-time winner, but he decided that immediate surgery would allow him more time to recover for the Olympic year.
There's danger in throwing while even mildly injured. The chance of severe damage is always present. "And his form could go bad," says Oregon Throwing Coach Ray Burton. "In the javelin you channel the force through such a fine line of direction that any variation is crucial." How fine is the channel? That is best illustrated by Brian's ability to throw an arrow 230 feet. That's right, an arrow. "In the weights, when you're 24 or 25 you're pretty much stuck with the technique you have," Burton continues. "Brian is so close to what he wants that I'd hate to see him risk it by developing bad habits in response to this elbow."
He avoided any danger of doing that in one dual meet this spring by throwing lefthanded. He got a point for third with a toss of 124'11". "My God, Brian," said an official who wasn't watching closely, "what's gone wrong with you? A month ago you threw 280."
Dean settles himself to try inclines at 290. Burton spots this time. The rest of the throwers in the room, among them Kent Landerholm, who has improved by 23 feet in the hammer this year to 222'6", and Steve Davis, who is 6'8" and 290, and throws the discus 193'11", pause to watch. Dean has, over the months, called Davis "Sven," which he has slowly transmogrified to "Shvain," "Spain," and "Pain."
He gets the 290 pounds up twice, but the third time takes long, trembling seconds. "Stay with it!" shouts Burton. "Keep it coming!" Finally there's the clank of success, and everyone relaxes. Dean shoots a look at Davis. "Think I'd drop that one. Dale?"
Talk turns to Oregon football players they know who have recently signed pro contracts. "Dean's a better athlete than Jeff Stover was," says Burton. Stover put 68'4½" for Oregon in 1980 and now plays defensive line for the 49ers.
"I won't play unless I can be quarterback," says Dean in a petulant child's voice.
"Do you like to hit people?" asks a visitor.
"Just Brian. And my mom."
The Crousers are defined by this happy ability to alternate intense concentration with frolic. "I think they're so good at competition because those easygoing ways don't let things get to them," Burton says.
He believes this to be America's gift to its throwers. "We hold our own with Europe, where the track coaching systems are more organized and scientific, because we're fresher," he says. "The U.S.S.R. and G.D.R. guys never get away from their coaches. They can't talk to people. It gets to be like a job. Wolfgang Schmidt, the East German world-record holder in the discus, apparently made some envious remarks about Western throwers' freedoms, and after that was prohibited from competing outside Eastern Bloc countries. Think of the pressure you'd feel knowing that would happen if you didn't perform well or toe the line. No, I'm not sure if the talent is better here or there, but the freshness is here."
That's a strictly metaphorical kind of freshness. Its manifestation, in Dean's case, can be, uh, gross. "Our room freshman year," says Landerholm, "was so messy that we had to push down on the pile between the two beds to see each other."
"Pile of what?"
"Clothes, mostly, but at the end of the year they turned out to be composted with chicken bones and orange peels."
That was just preliminary messiness. "We peaked our third year," says Landerholm, "when we shared an apartment with Eric Hohn [who threw the hammer 190'5" in 1981]. Dean called him Eunice, which he hated. So Dean switched to Natasha. Anyway, that apartment generated its own heat from the garbage. Clothes flowed down tributaries from the bedrooms and bathroom into the hall and living room. Once I was reading on the couch, and I looked down by my elbow and saw these eyes, like a crocodile's, rising from the swamp. It was Dean. He had sneaked up on me by tunneling under the clothes."
Landerholm recounts the pranks that any imaginative college student pulls or is victimized by, but in the Crousers' case, they strike an idyllic tone, less manic or vindictive than pastoral. "There was our lighter-fluid phase," he says. "We did Bowling with Fire [flaming bowling balls sent rumbling down the residence corridors] or Names in Flames [Dean's favorites in fiery script on brick walls]. Once Landerholm loaded the hot-air hand dryer in the residence hall bathroom with yeast powder, knowing that Dean was in the habit of drying his hair with it. "Got some innocent guy instead. It worked fine. Blasted burned yeast all over his chest."
Landerholm tells these stories lovingly, with the perspective of age. He and Dean are fifth year seniors: "I remember our first week on campus, the fall of 78.1 had an old discus. We went to Hayward Field, in the twilight of an Indian summer day, and we threw. Neither of us weighed more than 200 pounds, and we were throwing about 140 feet. And we were talking about how great it was going to be to throw 200 feet and thinking about the meets we'd seen there.... God, that seems like a long time ago. That old, rotten disc, the stands there, the pink sky." The dreams.
"And now?" prompts his questioner.
"Well, now it's not as if it wasn't worth it," Landerholm continues. "It is great to throw 200. But I think we—throwers in general—are easily frustrated. It takes a special patience to gain the technique, yes, but there's a way in which you are never satisfied. It's like before the adrenaline gets going you feel normal. Then you get in the ring in competition, and you became a different person. Aggressive. Then you hit it, and you let out all this frustration.
"Dean and I have talked about it. At the end of a meet, you feel depressed. You've been erupting, and now you're down off that. And always, within an hour or two you feel you could do better. Even after Dean won the NCAAs he felt he could do better."
"That's the hook," says Dean. "But I have no fierce ambitions. I know I won't quit now, but I don't like the idea of it taking over my life. I asked Mac Wilkins once if he regretted putting all his effort into throwing for so many years—because it seems that to be the best you have to do that—and he said, 'You think that's bad?' And I said, 'Yes.' It's a tough question. Society says be the best if you can, but you can also say you're almost wasting the best years of your life on this narrow pursuit that doesn't mean that much. It's like a game that got out of hand...."
Dean is doing better in the sanitation department. He has paid his girl friend, Kathy Vallion, who is a nursing student, to clean his apartment so that he can have some guests in. He introduces her as Binky. Brian brings his friend, Lisa Bayer, who is majoring in sign language interpretation. Dean calls her Ms. Livingstone Hamster. Brian and Lisa met in high school. "I thought he was the ugliest guy on the football team," she says. "I guess I felt sorry for him. I knew if I didn't, nobody else would." Her abuse is softened by the way she keeps hugging him.
The room is dense with furniture, but nowhere is there a sign of the mushrooms once said to grow out of the carpet. Another storied inhabitant now lives with a teammate. He's Sick, the African cichlid. Dean tells the tale best:
"He's indestructible. He killed all the other fish in my aquarium. I only fed him pork chops. He lived in a bucket for a while, and then I fed him to some big bass and bluegills, but he killed them, too. Just pecked them to death. Last year in the apartment he lived in a cookie jar. We came home one night and found him on the floor, all dried and wrinkled. I could break off a piece of his tail. I was crushed, because I liked him by this time. I threw him in the aquarium and he sank, like a leaf. Then he started to expand and when he was back to full size he was alive!. I just know he's being saved for something special."
The room is dominated by Dean's fly-tying table, his materials arranged as they might be if a couple of chickens had just exploded. He has tied flies since junior high—all the brothers are accomplished fishermen. In fact, Dean was tying flies when the greatest practical joke in family history took place.
"Weekends Dean did yard work for an old lady," says Brian. "This was when he was about 15. He'd been all scared about nuclear stuff for some reason, and about Idi Amin in Uganda. So while he was at work, Mitch and I wrote this script and recorded a radio bulletin and wired the tape recorder to his radio switch in his room...."
"Dad drove me home," says Dean, "and on the way he made some reference to increasing tensions...."
"So he got home and went up to his room and turned on the radio and started tying flies," says Brian. "And all he heard for 10 minutes was music that we'd recorded...."
"Then," says Dean, "I heard, 'We interrupt this program for this urgent message. Idi Amin of Uganda has launched six warheads against key 'West Coast cities. We have retaliated but the missiles will reach the U.S. in 17 minutes.
"Mitch had held a cup beside his mouth when he read it," says Brian, "and I'd sat next to him typing to make it sound real...."
"And I came barreling out of my room," says Dean, "shouting that we had to clear out of there. We had to get to the shelter at city hall! We had to get canned food! Then I noticed Mitch with his head in the closet, shaking. And Mom wouldn't look up from the cake she was stirring. And I knew I'd been had. Had like no other time. It was wonderful. I was so mad."
The remarkable thing about this story, if you think about it, is that the Crouser parents took such an active part. In fact, the longer you know these young men, the more curious you become about their parents. A couple of weeks ago they sat in the rain watching Dean compete for Oregon in a dual meet against Oregon State.
Larry Crouser, age 48, at 6'5", 233 pounds, might simply be an older brother, although his sons get their fair coloring and open smile from their mother, Marie, 46, who was born in Sweden. He's vice-president of a title insurance company and threw the javelin 220 feet in the Army. His children saw pictures of him doing this and wanted to throw, too. "Naw, you wouldn't be serious," he told them. When they persisted, he set up a little weight program for them to follow to prove their sincerity. Ultimately he would build throwing circles in the backyard, and one day Marie came home to see a 20-foot high discus net—"an eyesore that stayed there four years" is how she describes it.
Dean wins the shotput with his first throw, 65'8½", and comes to sit with his folks. "Hi, Flammo," he says to Larry, "Hi, Ghidra," to Marie. His father pulls up Dean's sweat-shirt hood to keep off the rain. "How's your shoulder?" Dean asks.
"I'm starting over," says Larry. "Lifted 20 pounds yesterday."
Dean explains that his father lifts weights in the garage, but without spotting must limit himself to 225 pounds. "But when one of us is home, he goes for his PR. Over Easter with Mitch he went for 365 and tore his right pectoral and the attachments of the biceps and deltoid." He pulls the hood off his head.
Marie, asked if she regrets not having any daughters, says, after a thoughtful pause, "Brian was supposed to be my daughter." The doctors said so, and she'd painted a room lavender. "When I saw what he was, I quit."
Larry once more pulls Dean's hood up. Dean stands, takes it off again and goes to win the discus with 206'1".
As soon as he has thrown, as in the weight room, the competitive tension leaves him. He and his parents talk of old fishing trips when their boat propeller fell off, leaving them adrift, or when Mitch caught a 200-pound sturgeon, or when Misty, the dog, heard someone in a passing boat say, "You want a bite of this?" and swam off into the night.
In Dean's telling, his father never had the fun the sons did. In Larry's telling, he casts himself as a kind of bumbling co-conspirator. "Remember when we were doing the muskrat hide tanning," he says, "and the boiling tannic acid exploded all over and ate its way through the linoleum. We thought we were being careful, but it even ate Mitch's socks."
We have left Mitch too much out of this account. He's over there in Idaho, but he's a true Crouser, the strongest of them all with a bench press of 515. His girl friend, Lisa Klapwyk, a geologist and ballet dancer, is his sometime coach. Yet we will leave it to him to capture the essence of how Larry Crouser raised such cheerfully eager sons.
"He was a positive influence without our even suspecting it," he says. "Here's an example. When Brian and Dean and I were little, we were stubborn about not eating stuff we didn't like. Weird spinach casseroles or something. One day Dad came home from work with a wooden case. He opened it up and showed us that it had three good solid spoons in it. Then he closed it. These are special, high-speed spoons,' he said. 'They are only for eating contests.' We're begging to use 'em, but he puts them away.
"After that, whenever dinner was something we hated, he made a big ritual out of taking out the case and giving us each a spoon and starting the stopwatch. Of course we were all so competitive, we'd race. We'd eat whatever it was in 20 seconds flat. And then he'd take the spoons and wash 'em and dry 'em and put them away with ceremony.
"And you know we never knew what he was doing. It was too exciting. I mean we only got to race about once a month.
"I was home recently and I saw a couple of those spoons in the back of the drawer. And I had all these feelings of nostalgia and regard for my dad, for how he could always make things fun."