When I was in college, all of the football players lived together in one large athletic dorm called McGee Hall, on the old Furman University campus. As strange as it may seem there were no coaches or any other adults living in the dormitory with the athletes, so we had a free run of the old dilapidated building and often there would be folks afoot into the wee hours. Mischief abounded. You might, for instance, wake up in the morning to find your door had been nailed shut as you slept, or find a horse had been led into your room, or you’d come into your room tired and fall into bed before you noticed there was a ten-pound catfish under the covers. Even so, or perhaps because of, many close friendships developed in old McGee Hall.
I had several real close friends on the freshman football team and one in particular, an outstanding linebacker from West Virginia, was very close to me. His name was Bob Snead.
Bob explained to me that weightlifting was his hobby, and that he did this exercising in the off-season to prepare himself for football. This seemed quite strange to me because through the years I had been warned that weightlifting would make you muscle-bound and ruin your athletic ability. Bob explained to me that this wasn’t true and that he had done it for years and attributed a lot of his football success to lifting weights.
His argument made sense to me, so I helped him set up his weights in a corner of the athletic building. He not only had assorted barbell plates but racks and benches. The next day Bob asked me if I would like to work out with him. Remembering with pleasure the times during my high school years when I had lifted various objects to test my strength, I was happy to take part in a workout, although I still had fears of becoming muscle-bound. I feared that there might be some truth in the stories I had been told by my coaches and other interested individuals. I joined Bob in the gym and proceeded to follow him through a workout. The first lift that he was going to do was the deep knee bend, or squat.
This was Bob’s favorite ex, so I helped him set up his weights in a corner of the athletic building. He not only had assorted barbell plates but racks and benches. The next day Bob asked me if I would like to work out with him. Remembering with pleasure the times during my high school years when I had lifted various objects to test my strength, I was happy to take part in a workout, although I still had fears of becoming muscle-bound. I feared that there might be some truth in the stories I had been told by my coaches and other interested individuals. I joined Bob in the gym and proceeded to follow him through a workout. The first lift that he was going to do was the deep knee bend, or squat.
This was Bob’s favorite exercise and he was quite good at it. He put a poundage on the bar (about 300 pounds) and did a couple of squats, then placed the bar back on the rack. He asked me with a smile if I would like to try, and to his amazement I did ten reps very easily. It was very evident that I could handle much more. Bob was very encouraging, saying that I had more leg and back strength than anyone he had ever seen.
I was fired up by his words and by the workout itself and made plans to join him lifting from that moment forward. Not only was I thrilled over the fact that I had natural strength, but it seemed that the weights satisfied a deep need in my nature. I got enormous satisfaction out of working out with the barbells. Until that point in my life nothing had given me such peace of mind and satisfaction.
Bob and I hadn’t been working out for more than three or four days when the head football coach surprised us one day with a visit. He came there not to observe, but really to condemn. Naturally with all the clanging of the barbells our workouts were no secret. The coach explained that weightlifting was not for good for us and would keep us from running fast or making any quick movements.
He said we were to stop or he would have to take our scholarships away. In his defense I should add that the position he was taking was not unique, but was a position most all athletic coaches took just those few years ago. He was sincere in his concern and really had our best interests at heart, wrongheaded though he was.
Naturally I was discouraged by our coach’s words and really felt that he knew more about athletics than my friend Bob. But Bob proceeded to convince me once again that the coach was wrong and explained that lifting simply got more done in less time. To be honest, Bob convinced me of something that I wanted to believe in, so his task was none to hard.
I gained strength so rapidly that it seemed unbelievable to me. From one workout to the next my strength would noticeably increase. We were quite handicapped in training now and had been forced to gather up some old wrestling mats, and even some old mattresses to cushion and quiet our weights so as not to alert the coaching staff downstairs.
During that time my schoolwork was really suffering, mainly because of lack of interest. I wasn’t really happy at Furman and I couldn’t seem to put my academic work into the right perspective. The feeling was not dissatisfaction with my particular college, but rather a desire to be doing something else. I felt this in a very real sense almost every day. I felt that my calling was elsewhere. Even my desire to play college football and eventually professional football was overcome by this overpowering desire to follow my interest in lifting. However, when I would think of a career in weightlifting, I realized that to become really successful I would have to give up college and football because of my coach’s attitude. The problem was that when this thought took charge of my mind I would feel rather foolish. How could I ever explain to anyone, especially my parents, that I wanted to quit school to lift weights? That I wanted to give up a full athletic scholarship and become a strongman? For about eight weeks a daily battle raged between my common sense and my heart’s desire. In my room at night my better judgment and common sense would overrule my desire, but every other day when Bob and I would take our workouts the desire would return and the battle would begin once more. No matter what my better judgment or common sense had to say, it still seemed right for me to become a competing weightlifter. I knew this could never be at Furman for I needed much equipment and more space to perform the overhead competitive lifts. Also, Bob and I were barely getting away with out workouts and we felt that out weights might be confiscated at any moment, along with out scholarships.
I remember so well the day that I made the final decision to leave school and devote my life to competition lifting. Not one minute had elapsed after I had made this decision before I felt extremely guilt-ridden. I would be letting so many people down – my high school coach, who had great confidence in me; my parents, who had sacrificed to allow me to pursue a higher education; and of course the coaching staff and my teammates. I realized that if I went to talk with my coaches about this decision they would either talk me out of it or cancel my scholarship on the grounds that I was mentally deranged.
So, late one night I packed all of my bags and left school before daylight the next morning. Perhaps this was not the most manly way to handle the situation, but I felt at the time that it was the best thing for me to do.
I hitchhiked from Greenville, South Carolina, to Toccoa, Georgia, and as I look back, I remember hoping that I wouldn’t get a quick ride home. I’m sure this feeling resulted from the fact that I was still feeling guilty about leaving school and I really hated to face my parents with the news that I was giving up my scholarship. My hopes went for naught, however, because one of the first cars that came by gave me a ride all the way to Toccoa.
I remember so well walking in the house and being greeted with real alarm by my mother, who feared that only sickness could have brought me home. When I told my parents that I had decided to give up college temporarily, they naturally wanted to know what I had in mind. The real shocker came when I told them that I wanted to be a weightlifter. Naturally they knew of no one who made a good living lifting weights, since there was no one in America who did, and they reacted just as most all parents would have. They felt that I was giving up a tremendous opportunity, choosing instead to pursue something which had no future whatsoever even if I did become successful in it.
Finally, however, they allowed me to follow through on my plans, with my solemn promise that I would enter college again next fall. Their understanding and assistance during this stage of my life meant more to me then and means more to me now than I am able to put into words.
My first problem up in Elizabethtown, Tennessee (where my father was then employed) was solved when I decided to use the garage for a gym. It was not being used for car storage but contained everything that one could imagine. After relocating lawnmowers, various washing machines and other appliances I found that I had enough room to place the equipment that I felt I needed. The real problem came up now: where would I get the weights? I investigated all the places where standard weights would possibly be available, and not only did they not have the heavy equipment that I would need but the price for such equipment was too staggering for me to even consider. Naturally I could not approach my parents on the venture, as I was determined to do it on my own. They kept me fed, clothed and housed and this in itself seemed more than generous to me then. It still does, in fact.
I began to visit all the junk and salvage yards in the area and the prospects for my gymnasium started looking a little better. I found that weights could be made out of old auto parts and other pieces of discarded machinery. I found that flywheels from automobile engines usually weighed around 35 pounds and could be used for lifts that did not take extreme precision and accuracy. Automobile drive shafts and truck axles made good bars. To supplement the weights that I could pick up from these salvage yards I poured many out of concrete. I would secure a bucket, barrel, box or anything that would serve as a mold, and then by putting a pipe through it and pouring it full of concrete I would have a large weight that I could slip on one of the drive shafts or axles. This surprisingly enough served my purpose, and after several weeks of raking and scraping through the scrap yards I had a well-equipped, though somewhat crude, gym.
I started training as soon as I got everything set that I actually needed to work out with. On launching this training program I put all my heart into the exercises. I trained every day from nine o’clock until four. I worked my upper body one day and my lower body the next. After a few weeks I not only felt more strength coming into my body, but I found that I was getting a great deal larger. I weighed about 250 pounds when I began my home training and immediately my bodyweight shot up to about 265 pounds. I felt a few inadequacies in my training program, for at this time I was only doing the basic lifts that I had learned from Bob Snead in college. So I started thinking up new ways to lift, new ways to develop my strength by lifting at different angles. I did this by rigging up a series of pulleys, thus enabling me to do exercises that I could not do with a free barbell or dumbell movement. This began to pay off because I found that in the powerlifts I quickly became able to handle far more weight.
To learn something about the weightlifting world, and to keep up with what was going on, I started to buy the standard muscle magazines found on the newsstand. Since most of these dealt mainly with bodybuilding, I could find out very little about strength records. One thing that I did find out was that in the deep knee bend I was approaching the world record. Much to my surprise it was about 600 pounds at that time, and I had done almost that much in training. At that time the squat was not a lift that was performed in competition, as it is today, even though throughout the years records had been kept.
One day during a heavy training session a fellow came up to my garage and introduced himself. His name was Bob Taylor and he lived in the adjoining Tennessee town of Johnson City. Bob was a dyed-down-in-the-wool weightlifting enthusiast. He was extremely interested in all phases of the strength world and had done a great deal of lifting himself. He watched while I trained and seemed especially interested in my lifting in the squat. He could not really believe that the weights I had on my makeshift barbell were quite as heavy as I told him. After testing some of them to authenticate the poundages he was quite impressed, since some of them were heavier than I gave them credit for being. He told me about another gentleman, Bob Peoples, also from Johnson City, who held the world record in the deadlift with 725 pounds. Bob Taylor told me that he was sure that Mr. Peoples would like to meet me, and naturally I was enthusiastic about meeting him. I was generally enthusiastic about making contact with people who were interested in weightlifting and with whom I could exchange ideas.
A few days later Bob Taylor called to ask if I would be interested in going to Bob Peoples’ home on the coming Saturday to do some lifting. I told him that I would be delighted, and on the Saturday morning he came to pick me up. We drove about 10 miles to Mr. Peoples’ farm. I soon met the owner of both the farm and the world record. He was a very powerful looking man with long arms and rounded shoulders. He looked as if he weighed about 200, extremely wiry and muscular, and seemed to be in his early or mid 40’s. Even though he was balding somewhat he gave as overall impression of vibrant, youthful strength. He was also very amiable, and quiet by nature. He took me down to his gym, which I later began referring to as “the dungeon.” It was a hand-excavated basement, holding a huge conglomeration of barbells and dumbells. He had also made some weights similar to those I had built.
After a guided tour, Mr. Peoples asked if I would care to do some of the deep knee bends that he had heard so much about. I replied that I would. When he asked what I’d like to warm up with I told him that I did very little warming up and asked to put about 600 on the bar. He seemed amazed but he politely proceeded to help Bob Taylor load up the big bar. I then put the bar across my shoulders, stepped back, went into a full deep knee bend and came back up. Being young and sort of frisky, I did a second repetition and then replaced the barbell back on the rack. Mr. Peoples was mighty surprised.