Feeling weak and mediocre as a teen, I was drawn to a classmate who was strong and exceptional. He introduced me to weight training and helped change the direction of my life.
“The worst thing I can be is the same as everybody else. I hate that.”
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
Drawn to Iron -- Overview
For the next three articles, I’m writing about the one constant in my life since I was 15 years old: lifting weights. The iron and steel, the hardcore gyms, and the maniacs along the way… I can’t wait to share this with you!
Can you remember that "thing" you’ve been drawn to do from an early age, that thing that makes you feel special, valued, and powerful? That thing you love to do, even when no one is watching? And maybe, that thing that helped change the direction of your life – awakening the Barbarian in You and gaining you Vigor, Wonder, and/or Fellowship along the way?
This week, I’ll dive into my thing (lifting weights) and the mentor who helped me discover it with Vigor. Next week, I’ll explore the Wonder of hardcore gyms. The week after, I’ll discuss the Fellowship weightlifting offers. If weightlifting isn’t your “thing,” read these articles with your "thing” in mind because the lessons are all the same: To flourish, we need a creative or vigorous activity we’re drawn to do.
Alright barbarians, back in the time machine we go. This time, it’s back to 1989.
Barely 13, standing 5-foot-3, and weighing 115 pounds, the Virginia sun baked against my blond hair and thin shoulders. Waiting… my heart raced… my mesh shorts swayed… my spindly legs twitched. “You think you’ll make the team?” a colossal 8th grader nicknamed, “Twinkie,” asked me. “I don’t think so,” I said, staring down at the grass and shaking my head.
Tryouts for kids are like job interviews for adults, except more desperate. Making the football team meant upward mobility at Independence Junior High, a middle class suburban public school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. If the coach calls my name, I’ll be a “jock.” I’ll wear my jersey to class on game day. I’ll eat lunch with guys on the team. I might even get a girlfriend. Above all, I’ll no longer be a nobody.
When Coach Doreland waddled towards us, holding his clipboard low and his chin high, the small talk dwindled to a murmur. I took a deep breath.
With short gray hair and flushed cheeks from a lifetime of drinking, Coach Doreland wore canvas “coaching shorts” pulled up high over his belly with a white polo shirt tucked in. Stepping before a gaggle of a hundred boys, he began barking last names.
“Anderson, Armstrong…,” and on he went until he reached, “…Winstead.” Sixty names called. I was not among them. I said nothing, and no one said anything to me. I just jogged alone to my BMX bike laying on the grass and pulled away. With my butt off the seat, I peddled as hard as I could.
Riding through a lonesome blur of neighborhoods, where every house, car, lawn, and person looked more or less the same, I anticipated another year as a nobody at a school I hated. Arriving home, I parked my bike in the garage and entered the house. Calling from atop the stairs, my mom asked, “Did you make the team?”
By the 9th grade, I’d moved to Rhode Island and began attending a school I liked -- more working class and way fewer assholes than Virginia Beach. Fortunately, I made the freshman football team because everyone did (there were no tryouts). Unfortunately, however, I didn’t play a single down in our first game. At 14, I stood 5-foot-7 and weighed 135 pounds.
Eventually, I did play on the freshman football team, but only after the best players, some hard-luck kids from the housing projects, were kicked out of school for who knows what. As football season soon turned to basketball and baseball season, I continued to ride the bench. And these were “freshman” teams, which means I wasn’t even competing against upperclassmen yet. As for my grades… I was a C student. I was completely and utterly average, and I was too immature to understand why.
Okay. I realize there are worst things in the world than this. I wasn’t an orphan in Afghanistan or asking for spare change in Mumbai, but life is relative, and I wasn’t doing too good. I still felt like a nobody.
A couple years before all this, my dad -- a Vietnam vet and old school disciple of pushups, sit-ups, and long-ass runs -- bought my older brother a home barbell weight set. Except for the times my brother worked out, the weights lay dormant in the basement. That is, until a new kid moved to town.
The summer before my sophomore year, I met John Wright. He too was from Virginia, albeit a more rural region of the state. He even had a southern accent which I pathetically tried to emulate for a while – anything to be different. Though in my grade, John was a year older and likely held back a year for academics. He also had a glass eye. A few years before, some kid in Virginia shot his eye out with a bb gun.
Despite his poor grades and disability, John had one true asset: He was built like a brick shithouse. At 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, John could already bench press 250 pounds, which was far more impressive to me than straight-As. John was also born to play football. From the day he stepped on the field at Rogers High School, wearing a plastic eye shield over his facemask to protect his good eye, John played middle linebacker like a rabid dog with an iron skull. If you weren’t watching John on a play, you could always hear him because it was “pop, crack, pop” on every play. John didn’t tackle you, he crashed through you like a wrecking ball, snapping your head back, and chipping the paint off your helmet.
In short, John was different. He hit like a truck, trained like a beast, and drove his Lincoln Town Car like a lunatic. He was the first guy I knew (there would be more in the future) who truly lived hard and fast. If you don’t want to be like everyone else, John’s example taught me, then don’t act like everyone else. John didn’t. He was a true original. As a result, he soon became one of the most popular kids in our class – and one of my best friends.
The first time I visited the apartment where John lived, he handed me a stack of magazines. Expecting them to be porn, I was a bit surprised to see oiled up muscular dudes on the covers. After a few seconds, I realized they were bodybuilding magazines. When I got home, I flipped through the pages and became drawn to these shirtless goliaths, all who seemed to live in Venice, California and train at Gold’s Gym or Muscle Beach. The fire in their eyes on a final rep, their peaking biceps and freaky quads – I wanted all of it. These men were muscular misfits, and anything but ordinary. They were special, and I wanted that.
Within a few days, John and I began weight training together in my basement. He taught me the basics: sets, reps, and technique. He also taught me focus and intensity -- to explode through my presses with red-faced fury; to pull the weight like my life depended on it; to pace around the weights like a mad-man, visualizing my next set, and then attacking it like a barbarian.
I can still picture John on the bench, as I’m spotting him… with his glass eye blank and his good eye focused on the bar, he’d blast 225 pounds up and down from his barrel chest. Lifting with John was primal, simple, and intense. I loved every minute of it. In those first days of lifting, the iron bug bit me. I’ve been infected ever since.
After a few sessions with John, I began training each night, sometimes with John and other times alone. Stepping down the concrete steps to my basement “gym,” I’d turn right at the furnace and pass the crumbling drum set and dusty skateboard, and see my weight set. It became my altar, where I gave effort to the iron gods and received their power and confidence in return.
Finding iron plates sprawled across the floor, each night I'd get to work. Now 15, standing 5-feet-9 and weighing 150 pounds, my purpose in life became clear: Load the weights… lift the weights… repeat. Snarling like a dog and grunting like a bull, I’d just lose myself in the effort – screaming, sweating, panting, and loving every savage minute of it. With ACDC blasting on cassette, I exorcised the mediocrity from my mind, body, and soul. In that basement, it was me versus the iron. Every night, I became a hero slaying the dragon. It was a glorious time.
One day at lunch in the school cafeteria, I told John, “I just can’t gain weight.” He replied with a smile, “oh yes you can. You’re just not taking in enough calories.” The next day, he returned with a mysterious list of ingredients: wheat germ oil, brewer’s yeast, soy lecithin, etc. “Where the hell did you get this?” I asked. “I met the Barbarian Brothers [B-Movie muscleman actors] at a gym promotion in Providence,” he smirked. “I asked them the same question you asked me, and they gave me this weight-gain recipe. It tastes like shit, but drink it anyway.”
Just before bed the next night, I drank all 2000 calories of the Barbarian Brothers’ chalky, blended sludge. Ten minutes later, my stomach throbbed. I’d never felt so full in my life. As much as I wanted to puke, I held it in. The next day, I drank another shake… and then another the day after… until it all felt routine. As I gained strength, I also began to gain weight. Over the next two years, classmates and teachers noticed me. Then coaches noticed me. Eventually, college football recruiters noticed me.
I was no longer a nobody. I had “my thing,” and I was on my way.
A few years after high school, I stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 270 pounds as a Naval Academy football player. One summer, I ran into John at a restaurant where he was parking cars. We hadn’t talked much since high school, and he seemed to be bouncing around from job to job. Like so many young adults, he was trying to find his way in the world. We talked for about ten minutes, mostly about lifting weights. He also asked me about college football and the Naval Academy. When I answered, he kept responding, “that’s good, man… that’s good.” As always, John was warm, gracious, and encouraging. The mentor and the student had reunited once more.
That was the last time I saw John Wright. A few years later, he died from a drug overdose.
For a moment in time, John was my best friend in the world. I still miss those days when we were young barbarians in the basement with the world ahead of us -- living our lives one set at a time.
RIP Old Friend.
Click here to read Part-2 of the Drawn to Iron series.