Sunday, April 11, 2021

Water Weights, Billard Barbell, and Tim’s Basement: Memories of My Start in Weight Training

Since I yammer on so much about weight training, I thought I’d share a story about how I got started and why I've persisted for so long.

Every meathead has one of these stories. If you're a fellow meathead, I hope my story brings back memories of your own. If you're not, you still might enjoy reading about how I ended up such an oddball.

My first memory of lifting weights dates back to fourth grade. You’d think a guy who started that early would be really big and strong by now, but let’s just say I’m a slow learner.

I was playing pee-wee football by then. In my community, you could play that level for a couple of years before you graduated to Pop Warner. I wasn’t a bad player, but I was really small, so small in fact that in a school arm-wrestling contest one year the teacher made me go through the girls’ bracket before he’d let me into the boys’ bracket. I was a scrappy little kid, and I distinctly remember thinking I wouldn’t mind having a go at that teacher. Instead, I won the girls’ bracket to get into the boys’ and then did pretty well there too, but I’d had it with being a runt.

This would have been about 1978, and I was already watching a bit of football on television in addition to playing. The first time I laid eyes on Earl Campbell I was fixated on the raw power those tree trunk legs of his could generate. I think maybe the announcer commented that Earl must have been spending a lot of time in the weight room to build legs like that. My ears perked up, and I set out on a quest to build some legs like Earl’s.

Hang on for the ride. I never quite built legs like those, but I tried hard.

I asked my mom for weights for Christmas. She got me a water-filled set from Sears.

The beginning, way back in 1978

Unlike other kids, I lifted my weights. Maybe I wasn’t as dedicated as a mature athlete, but they didn’t just collect dust either. I don't know why I got hooked—I'm sure a psychiatrist would point to my small size and lack of a father figure—but regardless of the exact reason, the pull was strong right from the beginning. It wasn’t long before I’d done enough to outgrow them, so I went back to mom and asked for a real set.

My mom has always sacrificed for her kids. Raising me and my sister alone after our father died when we were young, she’s told me she felt like she had to be both father and mother to us.

One time in college I mentioned over the phone that I liked asparagus. The next thing I knew, a case of canned asparagus showed up on my doorstep. I guess she figured if her son would eat a vegetable to offset some of that beer he was probably swilling, she was going to make sure he had plenty of that vegetable on hand.

The lady in the middle bought us asparagus and anything else we needed.

So when she saw me take a genuine interest in lifting weights and stick with it as a child, she had no qualms about buying me a proper set. Back she went to Sears, and this time she returned with a bench and a real set of weights. The bench was one of those flimsy models that were pretty standard in the 1970s—barely ten inches wide with a scant covering of vinyl and padding over plywood and narrow uprights that looked more like Olive Oil's spindly legs than anything capable of supporting substantial weight.

Why am I whining? Pat Casey did just fine on a bench no better than mine.

The weights, however, were a top-notch home set for the time—cast iron and made by Billard Barbell. I started training more regularly and keeping a training journal. I was proud of my weight set and invited friends over to train with me sometimes, though they never stuck with it like me.

“Whatever,” I thought. Training was my secret anyway.

Lacking squat stands or knowledge of lower body training, my earliest workouts were typical upper-body-focused bro splits. Though Earl was my inspiration, anything resembling his 34" thighs would not come for a few years. I did at least get some leg development from spending time outdoors every day playing neighborhood kickball games and riding my bike up and down the many hills in my West Virginia neighborhood.

I used my Billard set for a good three or four years into middle school, developing a love for home gym training that persists to this day. Though I remained small for my age, I also quietly became one of the stronger kids in my school even if I lacked some of their other athletic gifts.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it. I guess maybe mom sold it when I went to college, but I wish I still had it. I don’t recall ever taking a picture either—remember when we weren’t all tethered to our stupid phones—and I’m afraid the best I can do is this photo I found online.

I’ll tell you who else wishes I had it, or at least the manual—my good friend, Jim Steel, does. That manual, you see, showcases none other than Jim’s boyhood idol, Randy White, demonstrating some of the lifts.

It featured three exercise models. There was a beginner model whose name I’ve forgotten. The intermediate model was Randy. Now if eight-time All-Pro Randy White was only intermediate, then who the heck was the advanced model? That distinction belonged to professional bodybuilder, Bill Grant. I was shocked in writing this article to learn that Bill is still alive and has a website with some cool photos. You can visit it here: Bill Grant Home.

In middle school—it was junior high in those days in my town, encompassing grades seven through nine—my training path went in a new, somewhat more serious, direction. I was a fairly nondescript kid to this point, not particularly noteworthy for much of anything.

I had, however, gained a bit of noticeable chest and tricep development from my regular workouts. Like the simpleton I am, I also liked wearing my t-shirts a little too tight and walking with my arms flared as if I was too big to put them down.

There was a small group of fellow meatheads who would crowd around our school's Universal weight set every day at lunch to get in a few quick sets of benches, dips, pulldowns, curls, and leg presses. The Universal sales rep must have been doing well back then, as I’ve talked to many other people around my age who also recall one of these sets in their school’s gym. Being one of the stronger kids in the small, lunchtime weight training cult may have furthered my burgeoning notoriety.

Does anybody in the over-fifty crowd remember this contraption?

Whatever the reason for my being “discovered,” a thick kid I didn't know well named Tim approached me one day after Algebra class and asked—more like told—me I should get a note from home to begin riding his bus a few days a week to lift with him. His nickname, derived from his stocky appearance, was "Stump" so naturally, I felt I'd found a friend who knew my secret too, or he'd found me.

Just like that, Tim’s arrival signaled the end to my regular workouts with my Billard set. Looking back, the change was broader than just ending those workouts. In the blink of an eye, I’d become a teenager, and a natural breaking away toward adulthood had begun.

Ready or not, I was now branching out beyond my safety net, even if many of these new friendships were based on my familiar interest in weights. Soon, the broader world would occupy a much larger chunk of my time.

In subtle ways, the small and loving family I’d grown up in began to take a backseat. As I became more immersed in my new adopted family’s routines, I frequently stayed at their home for dinner after training, gorging on Janet’s (Tim’s mom’s) delicious Italian fare.

It’s funny to me how these transitions in our lives often take place seamlessly, without our ever really being consciously aware. I certainly don’t remember the exact moment when my Billard weights began to collect dust in a corner, and I didn’t mourn their passing at the time. It just happened naturally, and I only look back now, wistful both for their demise and for the fleeting nature of time. Perhaps our lack of awareness is a blessing, as we might resist the natural order of things if we could see it coming.

Tim’s father, Gene, known affectionately as Gino, was an Assistant Basketball Coach at our high school. A few years after we graduated, he became the Head Coach and won our school’s second state championship in that sport in 2001.

Gene spent entire family meals sketching plays on napkins, never even glancing at his plate as he ate and mumbling half-hearted responses to questions we eventually stopped asking. A conversationalist he was not. The man was consumed by basketball and knew the sport inside out. I guess maybe he thought he didn’t know so much about short, wide kids who wanted to lift heavy weights to become even wider and run into each other at full speed.

Coach Randolph, another important figure who contributed to our success.

Instead of trying to coach Tim in football or weight training, he simply went out and bought him the finest home gym I’d ever seen and probably ever will see. I descended those basement stairs for the first time and my mouth dropped agape as I was greeted by a real power rack, an Olympic bench, an incline bench with a curved back that was more comfortable than any I’ve used in all my years since, a decline bench, a pec dec, a plywood deadlift platform, a chinning bar bolted into the rafters, a preacher curl bench, Olympic bars, an EZ curl bar, and probably 1,000 or more pounds of Olympic plates.

When COVID closed his commercial gym, Tim, still training today, built this primitive set-up.

Are you one of those people who thinks West Virginians live in shacks and don’t wear shoes? Not only did we live just like most other people, but we also had York Barbell Club, or the next best thing to it, right there in my new best friend’s basement.

Tim and I were pretty evenly matched. Overall, he was a bit stronger than me, but I kept up well. We were both competitive and pushed each other to improve, but above the friendly rivalry, we were genuinely supportive of each other.

Completely absent from my memories is any adult instruction whatsoever. Perhaps Tim or Gene knew someone they never had a chance to introduce me to, but I don’t recall a single role model in my youth who trained or could tell me anything about how to do it—not even a coach—so I figured it out on my own.

I do remember Gene driving us up to Morgantown one cold Saturday during the winter of 1985 to attend a strength and conditioning clinic for high school coaches and players held at Mountaineer Field. There again, I guess he figured if he couldn’t provide what we needed himself he’d go and find it for us.

Winfield High, from several hours away in the mysterious Southern part of the state, stood head and shoulders above the rest. Their Coach was a legend named Leon McCoy who built the Generals into a football power with one of the state’s earliest strength and conditioning programs.

Coach McCoy (undated)

Our animated Coach, mostly by way of lack of animation, was an even bigger legend named Wayne Jamison. Coach Jamison had so many things right about life and football that he deserves a separate article, but in contrast with Coach McCoy’s visionary approach to weight training, Jamison retained the prevailing opinion from an earlier era that too much would make players bulky and slow. He didn't discourage us from training on our own, but he also didn't promote it through any formal program.

At a time when most schools lacked the funds for good training facilities, Winfield boasted a stellar weight room. We had a running joke, part of which undoubtedly stemmed from the truth, that the entire student body chipped in to build their equipment, with woodshop hammering nails into benches, auto repair casting weight plates, math class painting numbers on dumbbells, physics students figuring out the optimal bar path for lifting, and on and on.

Even in his mid-fifties, Coach McCoy struck an imposing figure forged from his grueling training as he spoke to us that day, and we hung on his words about toughness and commitment. As if his booming voice wasn’t enough motivation, I glanced out the window as the snow began falling and spotted Mountaineer fullback, Ron Wolfley, running the stadium steps alone. Wolfley would go on to a seven-year NFL career with the Cardinals.

Like pouring gas on a fire, we took that clinic as a sign that we needed even more work, never mind the fact we were already training nearly every day. Three-hour marathon sessions became the norm, as did tendonitis, trouble walking right, and trembling hands when we tried to write or answer the phone most days. In retrospect, wrapping Tim up like a mummy so he could walk 500 out and quarter squat it at 15 probably wasn’t the best idea either, but we loved training, and train we did.

A couple of years later when we knocked Winfield from the playoffs in a 10-8 nailbiter on our frozen home field, I wondered if Coach McCoy’s inspiring speech might have contributed just a bit to his team’s downfall in that game. Regardless, when I recognized him at a WVIAC basketball tournament game in Charleston some twenty years later, I practically ran to his seat to shake his hand.

One summer, Tim even told his family he wasn’t accompanying them to the beach—Myrtle Beach I’m sure since everyone knows that’s where all West Virginians vacation—because he wasn’t missing a week of training. I even thought that was a little crazy, but at least I wasn’t in the awkward position of having to sheepishly ask for a key to their house!

Was this passion in my very nature or did my life experiences shape me? I think it’s a little of both.

You can probably teach just about anyone the “why” and the “how-to” of weight training and even help them develop the self-discipline to train with a degree of focus and stick with it long enough to see results. But this consuming love like I’ve had for nearly as long as I can remember? Maybe, like a game fighter, you're just born with that attribute or you're not.

With formative years like this, is it any wonder I’m still enamored with training in my fifties? It’s been such a part of my life I couldn’t possibly part with it. Even as I age and can only do a fraction of what I used to do, I’ll surely press on with a love for the process and the aura of the gym environment.

After four years or so in Tim’s basement that at the same time feel as close as yesterday and as far away as a lifetime ago now, I went off to college, got into powerlifting, and met other quietly determined training partners with stories worth telling as well. Those experiences were all special too, but the genesis for me was that great little football town of Bridgeport, West Virginia, where my water weights, Billard Barbell, Tim’s basement, and most of all, my childhood, all still live in my memories.