IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT LEO RANDOLPH HAS STEERED CLEAR OF FAME SINCE HIS 1976 OLYMPIC VICTORY

December 09, 1996

Leo Randolph sits behind the wheel of a Pierce Transit bus on a
busy highway in the Pacific Northwest. His 40-foot coach moves
through traffic the way its driver used to move past opposing
boxers' fists: purposefully, swiftly, efficiently. Randolph is a
friendly man, suited to helping move people, but an Olympic gold
medalist? He is cresting a hill on I-5 between Tacoma and
Seattle. The Olympics are way behind him. "Twenty years," he
says courteously.

The night of July 31, 1976, was the most glorious in U.S.
Olympic boxing history. Randolph and five other Americans
stepped into the ring at Montreal's Forum for the gold medal
round, and all but one walked out an Olympic champion. Say what
you will about the Americans who won nine golds at the '84 Los
Angeles Games (from which Cuba and the U.S.S.R. were absent),
but the U.S. class of '76 was the Dream Team of Olympic boxing.

Some of the American fighters were already emerging stars when
they arrived in Montreal. Those who won gold medals included
lightweight Howard Davis Jr., light welterweight Sugar Ray
Leonard and the rambunctious Spinks brothers, middleweight
Michael and light heavyweight Leon. The youngest, smallest and
least-known gold medalist was the 18-year-old Randolph, a
flyweight out of Wilson High School in Tacoma; his local Boys
Club had raised the money for his mother, Mattie, to make the
trip to Montreal and sit at ringside during her son's
championship bout.

"I had been away from home six weeks, training," Randolph
remembers. "At the final bout, I heard my mom. That gave me an
extra boost." His opponent was a gritty Cuban named Ramon
Duvalon, the 1975 Pan Am Games champion. Before a capacity
crowd, Randolph won a split decision and started the U.S. gold
medal cascade.

"The feeling was superlative," says Randolph. "All the trouble
to get there, the hard work: Once you make it to the top, all
that stuff becomes obsolete. I learned that you could achieve
things in life by putting your whole heart and mind to it."

While promises of wealth rained down on his Olympic teammates
almost as soon as the sound of The Star-Spangled Banner had
faded, Randolph returned to high school. He had taken off after
his junior year to train for the Olympics, and he didn't waste
any time getting back home. Keeping his promise ("Tomorrow I'll
be home for church"), Randolph didn't even stick around Montreal
for the closing ceremonies.

To be sure, he too had gotten some offers to cash in. One came
from Leonard's people, who wanted Randolph to join their camp.
Another came from a manager in New York who arranged for
Randolph to audition for television commercials and then
demanded a piece of the action when Randolph won his WBA title.
A guy in Philadelphia offered a diamond ring and a limo if
Randolph would use the man's business logos on his boxing attire.

"I didn't understand the significance of [the gold medal],"
Randolph says. "I was a junior in high school, boxing for the
love of the game. After winning the gold, going as high as you
could go, I had no desire to turn pro." He looked at his more
celebrated teammates and decided that what they had wasn't for
him. "They had so much publicity and fame," he says. "Outside, I
wasn't getting the things they were getting, but I was happy
inside. I was satisfied with winning the gold medal." Besides,
he had homework.

Yet home and school weren't the same as before. His life had
changed. The city of Tacoma feted him, which made him feel proud
but embarrassed by the attention. His school put his name on a
billboard in front of the building, and that embarrassed him
too. School officials held a day in his honor. ("I had a lot of
days," he says.) But weirdest of all was the lavish attention of
his peers. "People stole my library card, bus passes, anything
with my name on it," he says. "All that recognition, I didn't
want that in my life."

Randolph earned his diploma in June '77, and over the next year
he worked at a number of unfulfilling jobs. One was at Boeing,
making molds for airplane parts. Looking back he realizes he
simply wasn't trained properly for the job. "I could get in the
door at a lot of companies because of my gold medal," he says,
explaining that he probably was hired because he was an Olympic
celebrity. "But I didn't have the education to move up. I guess
having a gold medalist made the executives look good."

Disappointed with his experience in the workplace and encouraged
by trainer Joe Clough, the coach who had guided him to the
Olympic team, Randolph gradually found his way back to the
boxing ring. "I set another goal: to be champion," he says. "It
was like starting over again."

Though he had not entered a gym since the Olympics, Randolph, by
then 20, started serious workouts. He debuted on June 20, 1978,
with a second-round knockout of Alfonso Delgadillo. In two years
Randolph won 15 more fights (eight knockouts) and lost once. On
May 4, 1980, he got a shot at the WBA junior featherweight title
held by Colombia's Ricardo Cardona, who had a 20-4-1 record and
had been champion as long as Randolph had been a pro. The fight,
promoted by Muhammad Ali Pro Sports, was held at Seattle's
Center Arena. Leo's mother, of course, was at ringside. And the
kid--at 5'5", three inches shorter than the champ--turned in a
stirring performance and scored a 15th-round knockout.

Standing with the WBA's ornate belt around his waist, surrounded
by handlers and a small entourage, Randolph was no longer the
fresh-faced kid he had been in Montreal. "My lifestyle became
the Rocky syndrome," he says of those triumphant and confusing
days. "It was jet-paced. I didn't have enough time to train for
the next fight. I was naive."

As champion he was flying across the country for interviews and
appearances. He was a member of Ali's stable at the heavyweight
champ's Pennsylvania training camp in the Poconos. But Randolph
remained the reluctant star he had been after the Olympics. On
the eve of his first title defense, against Argentina's Sergio
Palma at the Spokane Coliseum, Randolph tried to call the whole
thing off, but the promoters threatened to sue him. He was three
pounds over his division's weight limit of 122 pounds, "and I
was already skin and bones," he says. "I didn't
train--everything was going too fast. My mind wasn't focused on
the fight."

In five rounds Palma handed Randolph his only defeat by
knockout. So at 22, with a 17-2 professional record, Randolph
once again did something beyond his years: He claimed his
$72,000 purse, the richest of his life, and retired. "My heart
wasn't in boxing anymore," he says.

With that, Randolph again went back to school. He wanted to
learn how to drive a truck, which as a child he had said was all
he wanted to do when he grew up. He has been working steadily
ever since, for the past eight years as a driver for Pierce
Transit. Only rarely does he follow boxing.

These days Randolph's concerns are simple and personal: his two
children, Leo Jr., 15, and Moriah, 3 (he has been married and
divorced twice); the Church of Christ, in Tacoma, where he
worships regularly; and transporting his passengers safely
around Tacoma. He still considers Mattie, who lives nearby in a
house he helped her buy after he won the WBA title, his "best
buddy."

In his spare time Randolph makes motivational speeches around
his community, often wearing his old Olympic uniform and his
gold medal. At 38 Randolph has been studying criminal law with
the hope of becoming a paralegal. There are always new peaks to
climb.

His thoughts turn to boxing, to the generation of Olympians who
followed and to the boxers who competed in Atlanta and are now
dealing with career decisions in the aftermath of the Games.
"Even though things have changed so much, I get very patriotic
when the Olympics come on," Randolph says. "I can empathize with
the winners. I know what they're feeling inside."

COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN Randolph prefers being in the bus to being in the ring. [Leo Randolph sitting in bus] COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER Randolph (here in a preliminary Olympic bout) won the first of the five U.S. boxing golds in Montreal. [Leo Randolph boxing]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)