Leo Randolph sits behind the wheel of a Pierce Transit bus on a busy highway in the Pacific Northwest. His 40-foot coach moves through traffic the way its driver used to move past opposing boxers' fists: purposefully, swiftly, efficiently. Randolph is a friendly man, suited to helping move people, but an Olympic gold medalist? He is cresting a hill on 1-5 between Tacoma and Seattle. The Olympics are way behind him. "Twenty years," he says courteously.
The night of July 31, 1976, was the most glorious in U.S. Olympic boxing history. Randolph and five other Americans stepped into the ring at Montreal's Forum for the gold medal round, and all but one walked out an Olympic champion. Say what you will about the Americans who won nine golds at the '84 Los Angeles Games (from which Cuba and the U.S.S.R. were absent), but the U.S. class of '76 was the Dream Team of Olympic boxing.
Some of the American fighters were already emerging stars when they arrived in Montreal. Those who won gold medals included lightweight Howard Davis Jr., light welterweight Sugar Ray Leonard and the rambunctious Spinks brothers, middleweight Michael and light heavyweight Leon. The youngest, smallest and least-known gold medalist was the 18-year-old Randolph, a flyweight out of Wilson High School in Tacoma; his local Boys Club had raised the money for his mother, Mattie, to make the trip to Montreal and sit at ringside during her son's championship bout.
"I had been away from home six weeks, training," Randolph remembers. "At the final bout, I heard my mom. That gave me an extra boost." His opponent was a gritty Cuban named Ram�n Duvalon, the 1975 Pan Am Games champion. Before a capacity crowd, Randolph won a split decision and started the U.S. gold medal cascade.
"The feeling was superlative," says Randolph. "All the trouble to get there, the hard work: Once you make it to the top, all that stuff becomes obsolete. I learned that you could achieve things in life by putting your whole heart and mind to it."
While promises of wealth rained down on his Olympic teammates almost as soon as the sound of The Star-Spangled Banner had faded, Randolph returned to high school. He had taken off after his junior year to train for the Olympics, and he didn't waste any time getting back home. Keeping his promise ("Tomorrow I'll be home for church"), Randolph didn't even stick around Montreal for the closing ceremonies.
To be sure, he too had gotten some offers to cash in. One came from Leonard's people, who wanted Randolph to join their camp. Another came from a manager in New York who arranged for Randolph to audition for television commercials and then demanded a piece of the action when Randolph won his WBA title. A guy in Philadelphia offered a diamond ring and a limo if Randolph would use the man's business logos on his boxing attire.
"I didn't understand the significance of [the gold medal]," Randolph says. "I was a junior in high school, boxing for the love of the game. After winning the gold, going as high as you could go, I had no desire to turn pro." He looked at his more celebrated teammates and decided that what they had wasn't for him. "They had so much publicity and fame," he says. "Outside, I wasn't getting the things they were getting, but I was happy inside. I was satisfied with winning the gold medal." Besides, he had homework.
Yet home and school weren't the same as before. His life had changed. The city of Tacoma feted him, which made him feel proud but embarrassed by the attention. His school put his name on a billboard in front of the building, and that embarrassed him too. School officials held a day in his honor. ("I had a lot of days," he says.) But weirdest of all was the lavish attention of his peers. "People stole my library card, bus passes, anything with my name on it," he says. "All that recognition, I didn't want that in my life."
Randolph earned his diploma in June '77, and over the next year he worked at a number of unfulfilling jobs. One was at Boeing, making molds for airplane parts. Looking back he realizes he simply wasn't trained properly for the job. "I could get in the door at a lot of companies because of my gold medal," he says, explaining that he probably was hired because he was an Olympic celebrity. "But I didn't have the education to move up. I guess having a gold medalist made the executives look good."