Parents who are afraid to put their foot down usually have children who step on their toes. Chinese Proverb
I had a wonderful experience recently. One of my best friends Marvin "Iron" Simmons came to Albany to visit me for the weekend. You may remember Iron or perhaps you have heard of him. In the early eighties, he was one of the top ranked powerlifters in the world. At the time, Iron was a miniature black Atlas. I swear the guy looked like he could bench press an apartment complex. Never in my life had I seen a 132 pounder with more muscle tissue, and that would include world champions Joe Bradley and Victor "Shorty Bear" Williams. The guy was absolutely amazing. He looked like he weighed 180 pounds or more, certainly not 132 pounds.
Performance wise he was just as awesome. When most good bantamweights were struggling with a squat of 350 pounds, a bench press of 225 and a deadlift of 425 pounds, "Iron" was totaling well over 1200 pounds, and I know for a fact he was making those lifts totally drug free. There was no doubt that if he would have continued in the sport of powerlifting he would have won a number of world titles. That's not just a good friend talking either; it is simply fact. As it turned out, Dale Rhodes the United States Olympic coach recruited Iron to compete in Olympic lifting. Within less than a year, Iron was one of the top Olympic lifters in the United States. At 132 pounds, he snatched 240 pounds and clean and jerked 300 pounds. At the time, most good Olympic lifters were busting a gut just to total 400 pounds. After a serious back injury, Iron was forced to turn to bodybuilding. Like I said, he already looked like a black Atlas as powerlifter. When he got into bodybuilding, he literally turned himself into a hulk. He completely dominated the lightweight division in the Southeast. In all candor, Iron was the greatest all around strength athlete I ever meet. Again, that's not just a good friend talking either. It is simply fact.
Now, like I said, you may know of Iron or have heard of his accomplishments, but this is something you probably don't know about him. When Iron was in high school, he was one of the top running backs in the country. Lionel 'Little Train' James was Iron's back up. I am sure you know who Lionel James is. In case you don't, let me refresh your memory. Lionel was an undersized super star...same as Iron. At 5'6" and 171 lbs., James played running back at Auburn University and spent five years in the NFL with the Chargers from 1984-1988. In the 1985 season, James set the NFL record for all purpose yards (combined yards rushing, receiving, and returning kicks) in the history of the NFL with 2,535 yards. That same season he also set the record for receiving yards by a running back with 1,027 yards while also leading the AFC in receptions with 86. Lionel will tell you straight out that Iron was a better football player than he was. A rather grand compliment coming from one of the NFL's greatest running backs, don't you think?
Now, I am finally getting around to what I want to talk to you about...tough love! That was the very conversation that Iron and I had the weekend he visited me. You see we had a very similar, life altering experience when we left high school. First, let me tell you about Iron's experience. When Iron graduated from high school, he was one of the most highly sought after football players in the country. Penn State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Auburn and Louisville were just a few of the schools that were interested in him. He eventually signed a full ride to play at Louisville. "When I got to Louisville," said Iron, "I was scared to death. I didn't know anyone, and there was a lot of racism at the school. I also missed my mama and friends terribly. I immediately became home sick. I tried to stick it out, but after about three weeks, I called my mother and told her that I wanted to come home. At first she tried to talk me out of coming home, but I kept telling her how homesick I was. I remember her exact words when I told her that," Iron said with a smile. "She said, 'Come on home, Baby. It will be alright.' Well, that very night I was on a bus going back home to my mama. The coach actually came to Albany to take me back to Louisville, but I wouldn't go. My mama told him I wasn't happy there and that she would take care of me. At least she said something to that effect. My mama loved me so much she wanted to protect me...it was a mother's love doing the talking. Well, that was the biggest mistake of my life. I missed out on my education and an opportunity to play pro football. I don't blame Mama. I blame myself for not having the guts to stick it out," he said reflecting on the situation.
Now, I said I had a similar experience and I did. I had a scholarship to Notre Dame University after high school, but less than a week into my first semester the Kansas City Royals baseball team offered me a pretty good job. I was only 16 years old at the time. I went to my father and told him that the Royals had offered me a job and that I wanted to be a part of professional baseball. And he said, "What about your scholarship at Notre Dame? You will lose it. I told you I would help to put you through school, but I am not going to help you to be a baseball player." And I said, "But I want to do this with the baseball team." Like Iron, I remember exactly what my dad said. He said, "Okay, go ahead and go. If you do that, you are declaring yourself an adult and don't ask me for anything after that. You are an adult. You are free to do what you want." Man, I thought that was great.
Well, I wasn't with the Royals more than a week when I started getting homesick. I didn't know anyone, and the pressure was unbelievable. I wanted to go home, but I was afraid to call my dad so I sent him a telegram. I told him that I missed my family terribly and that I wanted to come back home. It was a rather heartfelt telegram. It took me hours to write it. Twenty-four hours later I had a telegram from my father and it simply said, "Tough...Love Dad." Three words but they were rather significant. The moment of truth! I was now an adult. What was I going to do now?
I am going to tell you what that taught me. It taught me about courage, about facing my fears, about fending for myself, about the pressures of life. It taught me a lot and I never would have learned any of that if my father had relented and let me come back home. If he had relented, most likely I would be working in the steel mills today. I stayed in baseball for years after that, just to show my dad that I could do it. I made a lot of money and put myself through college. I had my doctorate when I was only 23 years old. When I went home after earning my doctorate, my mother told me that it broke my father's heart to send me that telegram, but he was aware that if he hadn't done it I would never grow up." He was right about that.
There is a great postscript to this story though. Iron told me that after about a year at home he got a job working in the fields picking cotton. Interestingly, his mother got him the job because she wanted him to appreciate hard work and the demands of life. "It was a hell whole, working in the fields," Iron told me. "It was hot and back breaking work. Then one day after about three hours in the field I started getting sick, so I walked over to this tree and sat down to cool off. I wasn't there more than ten minutes when one of the older laborors came over to me and said, 'Mr. Thomas isn't going to like you sitting here. You are here to work.' "I looked up at him, and I swear he looked like he was eighty years old." Iron continued, "His skin was all wrinkled, he didn't have any teeth and he was all bent over from working in the fields. I said to myself, 'Hell no, I am not doing this the rest of my life. I left that very minute went home and told Mama I was going into the military and get my education.' And that is exactly what I did. When I went home many months later, Mama said to me one evening, 'Sending you into the fields and then watching you go off to the Army was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but if I hadn't done it, you would never have grown to be Marvin.' That was so true."
Yours in Strength,