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The Strange Genesis Of Tom Pappas

Feb. 16, 2004
Feb. 16, 2004

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Feb. 16, 2004

College Basketball
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Photo Credits: Peter Gregoire

The Strange Genesis Of Tom Pappas

I.

You're Greek. You're up on your feet in the middle of the mighty stadium because so much that's been taken from you is being returned today. The Olympics, finally, are back where they began. The decathlon, inspired by your ancestors and, like everything else, taken over by the Americans, will begin in just moments, and the favorite to win the gold, no matter what the Yanks think, is Greek too. Your soil. Your spectacle. Your event. Your boy. Oh, happy day!

This is an article from the Feb. 16, 2004 issue Original Layout

You're Greek, and you're ready to do what a Greek does when any long-lost relative shows up—hoist an ouzo, cook a lamb, smash a plate, shout, laugh, hug, dance—especially if the relative is the best athlete in the world. Oh, blessed day!

You're Greek, and you roar as his name is announced—Tom Pappas of the United States!—because 146 pages of the Athens phone book are filled with his surname or names that begin with the root Papa, so you know where he's really from. Oh, glorious day!

Only ... wait a minute.

The man on the runway down there, the one loading himself into the starting blocks up on the big screen, he's not anything that you are. He's tall, blond, pale, expressionless—a Viking, for heaven's sake. A hoax! That can't be your boy!

You're Greek, and I'm sorry, but you need to sit back down, with the whole bottle of ouzo, and do the hardest thing: just listen. Because the piece of Tom Pappas that's yours is critical, but it's distant and smoky. A cinder that caught flame here a hundred years ago, blew across an ocean and became a blaze, veering so sharply you'd never imagine how it could end up back here, looking like this: Fire's not supposed to mutate or move in a circle. You're Greek, and you can't possibly know about body-slamming the Mummy or talking in tongues in a commune full of a hippies or flipping 35 times at 300 mph. Or about the little boy named Athanasios...

...standing on a runway. At the age of nine, maybe 10. It might've been 1901. It would all seem so fuzzy decades afterward, when Athanasios Pantazis would be asked what drove his his sister to take him from his bedroom in Athens to a wharf in nearby Piraeus and place him on that plank—alone.

Behind him lay everything he knew. Friends. School. Twelve sisters. Two half-brothers. Mother. Motherland.

Before him lay a ship. A ship full of strangers leaving for a land full of aliens.

The Turks were coming. That's what he had been told. The Turks were always coming, when you were Greek a century ago.

Athanasios had never known his father, who died when the boy was three months old. But one of his sisters had risen in society and was a seamstress for Princess Sophie, who would become the queen of Greece, and it was she who took the boy to the wharf. Don't worry, she told her little brother. It's all arranged. A Greek family in America would take him in once he reached New York City.

He believed her. He crossed the runway, crossed the ocean. When he arrived in America 33 days later, the Greek family was nowhere to be found. Five thousand miles from home, in a land where he couldn't read the alphabet or speak a word, Athanasios was an orphan.

He ran away from two families, was taken away by authorities from a third one that didn't send him to school, bounced from a Catholic orphanage into a fourth family from which he also ran away, and finally met a milkman who delivered him to a family of Greek florists in Manhattan. He stopped running and made a life.

He topped out at five and a half feet, grew thick and strong, with curly black hair. He loved sweets. He'd lost touch with his mother. At 17 he married a candy-shop owner twice his age.

He longed to prove his strength and speed. As a teenager he entered bicycle races, even earned a new bike by winning a race on a wooden track in Atlantic City. But the world went into a seizure, convulsed with war, then nearly suffocated when the financial markets choked. There was no more time for racing or games. By the late 1920s Athanasios had a job in Atlantic City as a mechanic working on Packards. The only test of speed and wits he could permit himself was tuning the local police fleet of Super 8s to precision and then taking them out on a test track to make sure they flew so fast that no jailbird in Jersey could outrun them.

He did four things in his new country that were unthinkable in his old one: He changed his name. He divorced the candy-shop owner. He married a German, with whom he had two sons. And then, in 1940, he moved across the continent and started all over again. You could do that in America. Meet Tom Pappas of Hollywood, Calif., a new inspector for Douglas Aircraft.

But not for long. Wanting to be his own boss in the land of the free, he ended up running a hot-dog joint in L.A.—a generous man with a chili dog for any down-and-outer who drifted in. But one thing never changed, no matter where the lost Greek boy went or who he became in America: his explosions. When a customer complained about the pie he'd ordered, the pie ended up in his face. A patron who challenged Athanasios exited through the plate glass. He'd knock your lights out if you knocked America. And don't—not in James Deansville—call him an old man. You'd end up, like four fellows who made that mistake, with a mouthful of fist.

None of the customers knew Athanasios's life story. None knew where all that anger came from. But, of course, he didn't call it anger. He called it honor, a Greek tradition, the most important one of all to pass on to the American son who'd find him one day in '56, his last day, lying on his bedroom floor and babbling in Greek.

II.

You're Sebrle. The warrior. Everyone can see the majesty of your carriage as you enter the Olympic Stadium, even pulling your red wagon full of gear. You're Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic, the only decathlete in history to surpass 9,000 points, and still Tom Pappas beat you in both of the big ones last year, the world indoor championships' heptathlon and the world outdoor championships' decathlon. You're Sebrle, and you're eyeing Pappas moments before the first event, the 100-meter dash, wondering how to break this easygoing man. You're Sebrle, and you care so fiercely that you scream and punch the air when you compete, and you gave so much of yourself to break the world record three years ago that you collapsed at the end and couldn't get up for 20 minutes. Why is it that you never feel that heat or smell that fire from Pappas? Why don't you ever see a fissure or a flinch?

But then, you're like everyone else, even all of Knoxville, where your archrival has lived, unrecognized, for eight years. You know nothing about Pappas because you don't know about the lost Greek boy Athanasios or, most important of all, about his son, Wild Bill Pappas...

... standing on a runway. At age 16. In 1950. Before him lay 10 hurdles, which he'd just flown over in the oddest way, not by leaping them but by doing flips over them. "Looked like you could do a double flip over them, Bill," said a schoolmate at Hollywood High.

It sounded like a challenge. Bill had grown up hearing his father speak of honor, the Greek ideal, a fragile quality that would be challenged again and again in a man's life, but through which he could find his identity. He'd watched in awe as his dad sent his fist into the jaws of men who cut him off in traffic, watched in tears when the inferno turned on Mom, locked inside the bathroom to escape him, cringing when the door flew off its hinges. Bill had known what to do on his first day in first grade when the boys had mocked the velvet knickers, collared shirt and necktie that the Greek immigrant's son wore. He'd decked the nearest one. Like a man would.

A double flip over the hurdles? Why not? He'd set school records in his junior high phys-ed decathlon, a combination of sprints, jumps, throws and rope-climbing. He took off down the cinder track, tucked his head into his chest, launched his heels skyward—one flip, perfect—stayed tucked and whirled again ... wham! He broke his neck, three vertebrae crushed.

The doctor told him his days as an athlete were done. Something else snapped inside Bill. He dropped out of school when he was forbidden to play football at Hollywood High, played fullback and linebacker for a semipro club that didn't know about his injury and punched out anyone who challenged him or his teammates. He began wrestling at night with a pro named Irish Pat Fraley and a group of ex-cons from San Quentin, learning all their stunts as well as the honest ways to make a man whimper. He began gulping three quarts of raw milk a day, packing 220 pounds on his 5'8" frame, turning himself into a pro wrestler and adding powder to the powder keg.

He punched out an officer in the Naval Reserve, got stabbed in the back during a brawl, swiped a Mexican fire engine on a weekend leave. He built a dragster and took it around a corner so fast that his father was flung out of it. Bill drove right over Athanasios's chest with the rear wheels, then sledgehammered the car to pieces in remorse.

A flame was being passed from one Pappas male to the next. It was nothing like the torch that's carefully relayed around the world and ends up, every four years, at the Olympics. No, this flame jumped like wildfire, seemed to have no path or goal; no one could've guessed that it too was an Olympic flame, moving toward a stadium in Athens, Greece. No one could've guessed, two decades before Bill became the dominant figure in the life of a grandson named Tom, what might be done with the fire that raged inside Athanasios and consumed Bill, that sent him into rings to battle the Mummy, Professor Tanaka, Chief Little Wolf and Judo Gene LeBell, and even bears, mountain lions and alligators for no less than $35 a pop. That sent him into bars seeking the biggest, toughest guy in the joint to take apart. That sent him through a church fence while drag racing in the middle of the night, and head-on into a car in a later crash that broke his hand and filled an eye with shattered glass.

His ears cauliflowered from all the bashing. He wedged a piece of two-by-four behind them and smashed them with soda bottles so they'd bloom even more.

He was a quiet man. "But when he walked down the street," Judo Gene LeBell would say, "you could hear his balls click."

He'd married by then—didn't every fellow have to settle down? He'd taken Joan Anderson swimming, as he did all his first dates, gotten her into a bathing suit right off the bat to size up her calves and shoulders and breasts. Excellent. He believed in bloodlines—in appraising a prospective mate as he would the 2–1 favorite in the feature at Santa Anita, where he'd learned about breeding from his father. Maybe that broken neck and all those wild nights had forced him to settle for a choreographed athletic career, pinning his opponents with a wink and a nod. But if he sowed his seed wisely, he'd reap richly, and so might his sons and his sons' sons.

His Greek father had married a German, cool water to contain the fire. Bill's choice, Joan, was a 17-year-old of Swedish-Norwegian ancestry. "From Viking stock," Bill would tell people, "and the Vikings could row across the ocean, kick your ass and row back." Beautiful bloodlines. They married quickly, in '53, and quickly had a son.

Bill asked his proud father to bestow a name upon his new grandson. Nicholas, decreed the Greek. It came from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and for 18 months, every time Bill inspected the baby's calves and bone structure, he knew the name was right.

Then the doctor told him that Victory had polio.

III.

You're Brophy. Tom Pappas's conditioning coach. You're Brophy, and you can't tell, looking at your man just before the starting gun fires in Athens, whether he's getting ready to go to war... or go to bed. You're Brian Brophy, hired by the World's Greatest Athlete Decathlon Club to make the world's greatest athlete bigger, stronger, faster—but, jeez, Louise, how about more emotional? You've watched the Estonian, Erki Nool, jumping and pumping his fists at his cow-bell-jangling followers, and seen the Ukrainian, Aleksandr Yurkov, yelping and jerking and slapping himself so often that his fellow decathletes have kept tallies—That's three twitches, five smacks, six screams—and those guys you understand, because when you competed, you'd get so intense sometimes that you'd have to walk away from the other decathletes and scream. Sipowicz, your brother used to call you, after the hothead in NYPD Blue, and you can't help wondering what Tom might become if he opened up just a crack and let out a smidgen of Sipowicz. So you're in the coaches' section of the Olympic stadium, howling, "Light it up, Tom, light it up!" and standing next to Bill Webb, the University of Tennessee coach who groomed Tom, a fireball like you who's screaming, "C'mon, Pap, c'mon!" and Jim Reardon, the sports psychologist, who's shouting and clapping his hands over his head, anything to raise Tom's "arousal level," as he calls it, above that of a sloth.

You're Brophy, and no matter how many hands of Texas Hold 'Em you play with Tom to kill the waiting hours before decathlons, you can't understand what's behind that poker face, because you don't know about the lost Greek boy, Athanasios, or his balls-clicking son, Bill, or Bill's son Nick ...

...standing on a runway. On his hands. At age nine. In 1962. Before him lay 440 yards of cinder, a junior high track. He couldn't run on it, not with a right leg 3 1/2 inches shorter than the left one. He'd only fall and reopen the scabs on his knees and cry again, the way he had when he'd tried to run for his father. But now he'd been challenged by a boy from another school to see who could walk the farthest on his hands. It was time to show who he was.

The challenger went a hundred feet down the track and then gave out. Nick placed his hands on the cinders and flung his bad leg overhead. Polio had nearly killed him before the age of two, paralyzing all his limbs but for one fluttering finger. Somehow, when hope was nearly gone, the disease retreated, letting go of all but Nick's right leg, devouring its muscles and tendons. He hobbled about in casts, braces and orthopedic shoes, submitted to the scalding towels and painful stretching exercises that Bill administered at night, but none of it could induce his right heel, when he tried to walk, to touch the ground.

At home in West Covina, just outside L.A., boys called him a cripple. He grew sensitive, quiet ... and deadly with a rock. How, wondered Bill, could the bloodlines have failed?

Well, then—what about the boy's arms and upper body? Bill installed a chin-up bar in the backyard, was told that the world record was 88 chin-ups and urged Nick to ignore the calluses and the bleeding on his hands, to focus on nothing except the fingers on Bill's hands that were counting the chin-ups. By age seven Nick could do 103.

So what made this kid think his arms could walk farther than Nick's? Nick took off down the cinder track on his hands, flew right past the place where his challenger had quit and kept going, circling the entire track for the sheer honor of it.

But then he was back on his feet, a cripple again. One day when Nick was 11 and scheduled for surgery that would leave him in a body cast for a year, his father got a phone call from a pro wrestling pal, the Great John L. You've got to take your kid to see this faith healer, insisted the Great John L. This cat, Leroy Jenkins, had just made the hernia plaguing a bodybuilding buddy of theirs disappear!

Out of desperation, not belief, Bill took his son to the faith healer's revival in Santa Barbara on Feb. 4, 1965. Nick's heart thumped as he was summoned to the stage. He took a seat, and the healer pressed his palms against Nick's heels. "It's your faith that will make this happen," he told the boy. Nick prayed feverishly. Bill broke into a sweat at his side, fearing that the man was about to yank the shorter leg from its socket. Instead Jenkins bowed his head and said, "In the name of Jesus," and Nick felt hot and strange inside.

All at once, Bill and Nick swear, Nick's right leg began to lengthen before their eyes, to grow until it was just as long as his left one—a hair longer, according to the bewildered orthopedic surgeon who would measure it a few days later.

Nick rose, at the healer's urging, almost trotted down the steps and took a seat, muscles quivering in his leg where none had been.

He would always have a slight limp, would never become the athlete he longed to be to make his father proud. But an even bigger change occurred the day of the faith healing. Wild Bill glimpsed what he'd been on the lookout for in all those bars and all those rings—a being mightier than he. He still couldn't quite believe, the question of faith burning him like a fever, and so he began inviting ministers from different religions to his house, two at a time, and pitting them against each other, holding Reverend Run-offs: Competition was the only way Bill knew to bare the truth. The winner was a charismatic missionary who began holding spiritual meetings at the Pappas house, at one of which a man spoke in tongues and delivered a prophecy: Bill Pappas would buy 100 acres in Oregon and start a children's home. Nick's father decided to find out, once and for all, if all this healing and tongue-babbling and God business were true. To bet the house on it.

Bill sold his house, sold or gave away almost everything he owned, even gave his roadster to the faith healer. Nick climbed into a 2 1/2-ton flatbed truck one summer day in '65, along with his father, mother, younger brother, Tom, and sister, Linda, and they headed north toward the 75 acres in a valley in southern Oregon that Bill had just purchased, on first sight, for 27 grand. A barn came with it, a miner's shack and the Big House, a three-story shell without doors, windows, electricity, heat or running water. Perfect. Bill christened the property Living Springs.

For nearly a decade the Pappases lived without telephone, newspapers, radio or television, but they had what the prophecy had promised: God, a vast swath of land and children, dozens of children—suicidal children and incorrigible children, filling up bedrooms as fast as Bill could plaster and paint them. Best of all, the Pappases had a fresh start, new identities. They were born again.

Two years after they moved to Oregon, everything changed again. Nick's father wandered off in a truck one day in 1967, prodded by a revelation that someone nearby desperately needed firewood. Bill stumbled upon Sunny Valley—a hippie commune where winter, drugs and lethargy had taken a grip on the tribe—and he wowed the longhairs with his chain saw, Bible buzz and scalding honesty. As Sunny Valley disintegrated, its refugees began pouring into Living Springs and inviting their pals: Christians, Krishnas, Buddhists, nudists, drunks, meditators, I-Chingers, third-eyeniks, flying-saucer people, backup guitarists for Peter, Paul and Mary and the Grateful Dead, plus Twig, Morning Dove, Evening Star, Ratface, Lakotika and Sergeant Sunshine—a San Francisco cop who'd gained fame by lighting up a joint on the steps of the Hall of Justice—with Speed Freak Larry walking round and round them in never-ending circles. Waves of seekers who'd altered their names, appearance and consciousness now turning to Bill and to God for one more beginning.

In no time 120 of them were sardined into the three houses and four trailers that now stood in Bill's valley, the spillover quartered in tents on the pasture or in lean-tos along the creek. Who'd have dreamed that they'd all end up holding hands, talking in tongues and living in a commune: the Flower Children and Wild Bill?

Reverend Pappas—ordained through a correspondence course—would offer them jobs logging or plastering with him, an exercise regimen, nightly Bible discussions, the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the creek, and group grub in the Big House.

But no matter how many verses on cheek-turning they shared with the peaceniks, the Pappas males never lost their burning urge to conquer. Nick and his brother, Tom, four years younger but even more fearless, hit the West Coast motorcycle-racing circuit as teenagers and collected more than 300 trophies. Nick went flying right out of the sport in 1974, when another cycle hit his and hurled him 40 feet. Tom would make an even scarier exit 10 years later, coming within a whisper of death in a crash that left him with a severe brain contusion.

More metal, more speed. Maybe that was the ticket. Nick's marriage of 14 years to Debbie Ell—a pretty young brunette of English and Russian descent who'd come to Living Springs hankering for a more spiritual life—was failing in 1987. He knew his father's wrath would come down on him if he divorced her. Blinking back tears, Nick left Debbie and their two sons, driving away from Living Springs pulling a dragster he'd built to make a run at the world speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He was sure he'd die and that death was the only honorable way out.

At 308 mph the dragster's steering link broke and the car spun, lifted, flipped, snapped in half and flipped 34 more times. When Nick got out of the hospital and returned to Living Springs two weeks later, his internal bleeding finally stanched, his son Tom entered his bedroom. From the beginning of his life, the skinny 11-year-old's emotions had perplexed his parents. No cooing or contortion of his mother's face could coax a reaction from him.

Tom stared at the long strips of purple flesh across his father's body. His face didn't flicker. He might've blinked.

IV.

You're Costas. At 9 a.m. in Athens on Aug. 23. You're Bob Costas, and it's time to introduce Tom Pappas and the decathlon, an event that every four years can launch an American out of the weeds and onto the front of a Wheaties box. An event that catapulted Bob Mathias into movies, books and Congress; Glenn Morris into the starring role in Tarzan's Revenge; Bruce Jenner into broadcasting, motivational speaking and an infomercial empire that has sold tens of millions' worth of fitness equipment; Dan O'Brien into a series of Reebok ads that made him a household name; Rafer Johnson into the inner circle of Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign and damn near into the path of the bullet that took RFK's life; and Jim Thorpe into higher orbit still, somewhere up there twinkling with the Babe and Ali.

You're Costas, with a producer's voice in your ear giving you 30 seconds to tell America who this Pappas guy is, this stranger who in 48 hours could become larger than life, when you know that it's really Tom's family that's larger than life and that you couldn't possibly squeeze a century and four generations of Pappases onto any Wheaties box or into any sound bite. You're Costas, and no matter how good you are—Five seconds, Bob, wrap it up—you can't tell them all they need to know about the lost Greek boy, Athanasios, or his balls-clicking son, Bill, or Bill's end-over-end-flipping son Nick, or Nick's expressionless son Tom ...

...standing on a runway. At age 18. On a junior college track near Eugene, Ore., in 1995, telling Del Hessel, the coach of Lane Community College, that he'd like to try the decathlon. Hessel blinked. This bag o' bones? How could this silent scarecrow have what it takes in the explosion events, the discus, the shot put, the pole vault and the 100-meter dash? How could he have the fire and grit it took for one of the most grueling competitions in all of sports?

Hessel hadn't a clue what lay behind that impassive face. Knew virtually nothing of a child born with coppery blond hair—thanks to all those fair, cool-headed women of northern European descent that the Pappas men kept hitching up with—or of a childhood, on a commune full of siblings, cousins and pals, that seemed to have been designed by God to incubate a decathlete.

The hippies were long gone, cleared out when Grandpa Bill lost patience with them in the late '70s. The commune now consisted of Bill and his wife, Bill's three adult children and their spouses, four other spiritually committed couples ... and their children, sprouting everywhere, along with a handful of troubled youths that Grandpa took in to rehabilitate. Three dozen children taking turns milking cows, chopping and distributing firewood, cutting weeds and bagging thistles, then gathering at 10 a.m. at the Big House, splitting into age groups, and ... let the games begin!

Young Tom, part of a pack of eight bare-chested, barefoot boys nicknamed the Road Runners, would gaze across the valley. What would be first today? The Olympic-length indoor swimming pool with diving boards that Grandpa and Uncle Tom had built? How about football or foot races in the pasture? How about the gym, with weights and a balance beam and parallel bars and a speed bag and a wrestling ring? Or the Ping-Pong table, pool table, snooker table, shuffleboard, monkey bars, trampoline, tumbling mats, skateboard bowl, creek, ponds, horses, motorbikes? Heck, if the Road Runners couldn't come to a consensus, why not just invent another game? Like, Who Can Heave a Hay Bale the Farthest? Or, Who Can Shimmy-Shake the Longest on the Trampoline Without Being Hit by One of 16 Bouncing Sneakers? The PappasGames, the children called them. Funny thing about Living Springs, the commune where everything—the men's income, the meals and even the vacations in the commune's own bus—was shared: The children loved to beat each other's brains out at whatever game they played.

Out in the fields and the trees and the creek, playing the Pappas Games, a kid never had to see or think about the trouble indoors. Nick moved out, filed for divorce and became an outcast. Tom, a teenager by now, stared at the mirror and tried to figure out who that toothpick was with the thick glasses perched on his nose. It wasn't easy, listening to schoolmates hoot that his kneecaps were wider than his thighs, not when his standard for manhood, the patriarch of the commune, had an oak-barrel torso festooned with tattoos and a look in his eye that made weakness slither under the rug.

Tom took to wearing sweatpants on sweltering summer days to hide his legs and making milkshakes whir in the blender every night. He wanted so dearly to prove his honor that after he broke his hand in 10th grade, he spurned a cast and wrestled in the Oregon Classic wearing only a thin wrap Grandpa had devised—screaming as his opponent bent and squeezed the hand—and hung on to win and lead Glendale High to the team title.

All of that sports equipment, all of the training under Grandpa and all of the bloodlines paid off as the children of Living Springs became three-sport stars in high school. Nine of them, males and females, anchored Glendale's football, wrestling, track, volleyball and basketball teams from the late '80s to the mid-'90s, producing a slew of state titles, school records ... and gossip. They belonged to a cult, some people whispered, a cult brainwashed by a grandpa guru, or ... some sort of athletic ranch, opposing coaches murmured, that recruited and trained athletes for Glendale High.

Tom placed third in the state wrestling tournament at 98 pounds during his freshman year, but Grandpa grew disgusted when he kept dropping to his knees, as if to remove those long bony pegs as takedown targets, as if to become squatter like Grandpa. He slithered off the mats after his sophomore season and never returned.

Tom took up basketball instead, along with football and baseball. Baseball? Grandpa scorned. Catch and throw a ball, big deal. Something about Grandpa, the way he could turn on his heel when anyone let him down, made everyone yearn to please him. Tom hurled a one-hit shutout as a sophomore, quit baseball that same day to focus on the sport at which his older brother, Paul, excelled: track and field.

He turned into a nice high jumper and long jumper but took the field sick on the day of the state championships his senior year, ending up as the only one of the threePappas boys not to win a state title and going unnoticed by major colleges. So that's where his story ended, with a ho-hum half scholarship to jump at a junior college 110 miles from home.

Or would've ended. If Tom hadn't kept growing, from 6'3" when he graduated from high school to 6'4", then 6'5". And if he hadn't insisted on doing what Paul was doing at Oregon and what his younger brother, Billy, would soon take up there too. If he hadn't carried a seed of memory, a point of pride passed from Athanasios to Bill to Nick to his sons: that the decathlon, of Greek vintage, stood above all other athletic endeavors, for a man could be fast or a man could be strong, but only one competition anointed the man who was both, and only the Olympic decathlon proved who was fastest and strongest of all. Never mind that what the Greeks actually invented was the pentathlon, and it was the damn Vikings, the Swedes, who put on the first decathlon, in 1912.

Del Hessel swallowed his doubts and watched Tom try his hand at a couple of the decathlon's disciplines at the Lane track. Tom was far too frail and weak, but he had natural form at virtually everything, thanks to all those contests at Living Springs. And Lord, how hard he worked, in the cold, in the rain, in the dark, an hour after everyone else had gone home, as if he had a glimmer in his mind's eye. Yes, imagine that he could become an adult without leaving behind the happiest part of his childhood, that he could keep playing games all day on a field. Imagine that his legs could take him where his afflicted father couldn't dream of going and where even his rock-hard grandpa never went. Imagine that he could use his body to prove who he was, to uphold honor, not in the way the men of his bloodline had but in a place where everything was controlled, where he could flip without breaking, explode without burning up. Wouldn't that be perfect?

Tom won the U.S. Junior National Championships decathlon by one hair-raising point in 1995, and a coach from Texas approached him, almost pleading. "You just won the national championship," he said. "You're the best goddam athlete at your age. You ought to smile."

Tom left behind Lane and Living Springs for Tennessee and its decathlon guru, track coach Bill Webb, and toiled in the Volunteers' weight room adding muscle to the sorry 178 pounds he showed up with. And one spring day in Tucson in 1999, he broke through. He smashed the NCAA decathlon record with 8,463 points, a whopping 786-point jump over his previous best—and the sixth-highest decathlon score in U.S. history. A week later, grazing the Internet to see how his score would've stacked up in previous Olympics, it hit him: 8,463 would've won the gold medal in every Olympic decathlon through 1968 and the silver in five of the next seven.

Tom stared at the wall of the one-bedroom apartment he shared that year with another decathlete, athletic gear and the eight pairs of specialty shoes each man needed strewn all over the floor. He loved everyone back home—no decathlete received as much family support at meets as Tom did—but home was as jumbled as that bedroom floor, with his dad starting a new life with another woman, his parents wanting nothing to do with each other and Grandpa's break with Nick forcing almost everyone to choose sides and tiptoe around land mines. This 8,463 was Tom's, though, and no one could touch it. It meant he was a world-class decathlete, would soon begin receiving income from sneaker companies and USA Track and Field, could continue to train at Tennessee and do what he loved for a living even after he graduated nine months later. It meant that he'd finally grown into his long bones, 2,000 miles from Living Springs, and become a man.

He stunned Sebrle at the 2003 world indoor championships in Birmingham, England, and again at the outdoor championships on the outskirts of Paris. Just before the medal ceremony in France, an odd thing occurred. His eyes almost misted. "You know, Tom," said Webb with a grin, "it's O.K. to cry. It plays well on TV."

His coaches and sports psychologist want to see it happen, see the wall break. They're just beginning to understand what's burning inside Tom, and he's just starting to let a few embers show—to stomp in the shot put ring to jack himself up, to beckon the audience to clap before his long jumps—bit by bit, with the confidence he gains from each success. His coaches believe that he can surpass Sebrle's world-record mark, 9,026, that his emotions may be the key ... that there's more heat inside Tom just waiting to be freed.

Careful, though. When Tom's asked about his unique past, about how it felt to live on a commune or talk in tongues or watch his parents divorce or grow up with men like his dad and his grandfather, he speaks of it all as if it had happened to a character on the other side of a wall. "Oh, I don't know ... all right, I guess ... nothing special, really.... I can't really remember much." He has come this far because of that fire wall, because of his ability to contain and control a blaze that has blown metal and glass, blood and prayers to high heaven for a century of Pappases. A blaze that Tom's coaches at Tennessee finally got a whiff of one day when a driver nearly hit Volunteers decathlete Jeremy Racey's car in the parking lot outside the track, then exchanged snarls with Racey. Suddenly the driver found himself above Racey's 6'5" passenger, then crashing on his head from a pile drive that would've made Grandpa Bill's heart sing, and then whimpering as Tom's fists tore into him, "Please stop ... please stop," which Tom finally did, but not before his left hand was broken.

Maybe Greece. Maybe that's where it'll be safe to let the emotions flow. Maybe with his family up there in the stands, bursting with pride, and his girlfriend, Kim Schiemenz, America's second-ranked heptathlete, chasing a medal of her own—my God, talk about bloodlines.

It's all building toward that. There's the Jesse Owens Award that Tom won two months ago as America's top male track and field athlete of 2003. There are all the Greeks who are peppering Tom with e-mails wondering why he doesn't just defect at age 27 and come win gold for them, and Greek journalists who keep asking Tom if he feels Greek—to which Tom, whose Greek tradition amounted to splashing ouzo on a few toothaches as a kid, always answers, Yes, I do. I'm proud of my Greek heritage even though I'm blond and tall—and, of course, Greek relatives, generations of them, waiting to be tracked down by Tom's family during the Olympics, to raise glasses of ouzo with them and make toasts of "Eeyeeah mahs!"

What a shame that Wild Bill won't come to Athens to see all his will and fighting spirit flowing through his grandson. What a pity that he'll remain in the valley where it's so silent now, just him and Joan and Tom's mother, along with a family friend. No way he'll go, he says, not at 69, not since the two strokes and the lingering effects he felt as he watched Tom in that decathlon in Austria last year. Every time it was his grandson's turn to perform, all these feelings that Grandpa Bill had never known were inside him, a hundred years of them, came hurtling to his throat and eyes, and he'd have to throw his hands over his face and bury his head in his lap so no one would see.

A curious pursuit, the decathlon—it's like trying to put out 10 brushfires, Coach Webb always says. Most men, even the world's most wondrous athletes, wouldn't dream of trying it.

You're Tom Pappas, son of Nick, grandson of Bill, great-grandson of Athanasios. Maybe 10 brushfires are simpler than one inferno.