Sunday, September 10, 2006

"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" ---- 09-16-06

Remembering: Bob Mathias

As a young anemic kid, he battled whooping cough, measles, and scarlet fever; his father--a physician--ordered him to load up on vitamin supplements and take daily naps. By the time Robert Bruce Mathias captured the gold medal in the Olympic decathlon in 1948, he had grown to be a rock-solid, 6-foot-2, 200-pound physical specimen; he was STILL just a kid.

Bob Mathias died recently at his home in Fresno, California, at the age of 75--cancer being one of the few obstacles/challenges in his life he couldn't overcome. Growing up in Tulare, he was the epitome of a "natural"--jumping higher/running faster than either his older brother or any of his sibling's athletic friends. Three months before graduating high school, his track coach--Virgil Jackson--suggested competing in a decathlon in Los Angeles. Not even knowing what a decathlon consisted of beforehand, the youngster won the L.A. competition--qualifying for the national championship two weeks later. Another victory followed--and the '48 Olympics loomed for the clean-cut, three-sport high school star who'd often blush due to the unwanted attention thrown in his direction. The youngster would not disappoint; six weeks after competing in his very first decathlon (and having dealt with some brutal weather conditions at Wembley Stadium in London), Bob Mathias would return to the Central San Joaquin Valley--an Olympic champion at the tender age of 17.

He'd go on to lead Stanford University to a Rose Bowl appearance in 1952 as a gifted fullback; he'd win another Olympic decathlon gold medal the same year despite dealing with a pulled thigh muscle at the Games in Helsinki. The first ever decathlon champion to repeat, Tulare's modest "golden boy" had amassed nine victories in nine competitions--including two Olympic gold medals--all before he reached the "ripe" age of 22.

Though perhaps considered one of the greatest all-around athletes ever in his early 20's, Bob Mathias had other things on his mind. Though drafted by the Washington Redskins, he elected to serve in the Marine Corps/Reserves from 1954-1965--exiting with a strong desire to help the public in other ways. It should come as no surprise that this selfless man would go on to serve four terms in Congress as a respected California Republican--greatly assisting constituents REGARDLESS of their political preferences/affiliation (he once personally delivered a delayed Social Security check to a distraught woman in his district--yes, a Democrat). Hell, both in AND out of the athletic spotlight, it seemed as though EVERYTHING Bob Mathias touched turned to "gold."

His political career done, Bob Mathias became the first director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado; who better to lead such an establishment than the man whose natural abilities knew no bounds. He also ran a summer camp for children and became a motivational speaker during his fascinating life; additionally, he did fund-raising work for the U.S. Olympic Committee. The once "greatest athlete in the world" is enshrined in both the National Track and Field and U.S. Olympic Halls of Fame.

Perhaps one of Mr. Mathias' greatest legacies is that he never abandoned his roots--always staying rather close to his Central California neighborhood long after his athletic successes had thrilled an entire nation. And success never went to his head--as stressed by childhood friend Pat Hillman speaking at his funeral service: "Even when he had many reasons to be proud of his accomplishments, he never acted as if he were famous." The great Rafer Johnson--the decathlon gold-medalist at the 1960 Rome Olympics who was inspired to compete due to Mathias' athletic efforts--also summed up Bob's unassuming nature while addressing mourners: "I don't use the word 'genuine' often, but it goes with him," said Rafer. "That's his legacy. A genuine guy."

Bob Mathias now rests in the Tulare District Cemetery--not far from the high school district's stadium that bears his name. Yes, a hero to many, but far from pretentious--Mr. Robert Bruce Mathias. The sporting accomplishments of this incomparable man were only rivaled by his willingness to give back to those who always supported him. Oh, and the man chosen to play Bob Mathias in the 1954 movie "The Bob Mathias Story"? Appropriately, none other than Bob Mathias himself. I guess some lives are just too difficult to duplicate--even in Hollywood.

Bob Lazzari

Reprinted by permission of the Valley Times.


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