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In The Heart of a Champion, a nonfiction work by the Rev. Bob Richards, the world of sports has no room for backsliders or men of faint spirit. Not only do Richards' athletes remember to say their prayers, they advance into battle enduring torturous injuries. Runners tear ashen-faced down the stretch, while others are popping up, one after another, from operating tables to plunge into training against terrible odds. Johnny Twomey, "116 pounds of solid heart," has lost a shoe on the first lap of an indoor two-mile race, but around and around the board track he goes, splinters ripping into his flesh, to take second place. At Helsinki, Bob Mathias pulls a muscle in his thigh on the first day of the Olympic decathlon, but he lays a hand on his coach's shoulder and says, "Don't worry, coach. Somehow I think I can come through." Gritting his teeth, he smashes his own Olympic record. The Reverend Bob himself, pain stabbing at his left leg like a dagger, pounds down the runway at Helsinki and soars to an Olympic pole-vault record. Page after page, crippled athletes come forward wincing, until the reader begins to believe that he is a spectator at a giant, agonizing Olympic Games that somehow has been awarded to Lourdes.
The contestants have spit in the eye of medical science. Glenn Cunningham is there ("The doctors claimed he'd never walk"). Tenley Albright is there. ("They were saying of her, in pity, 'She will never use her legs again.' ") Wherever one turns, physicians are being made to look like knuckleheads.
The Lourdes Games begin, and as the runners leave the starting line a barely audible babble rises from their lips. Hark! It is the sound of men praying. Lou Jones, springing furiously through the 400 meters, is praying from start to finish. Gunder Hagg is praying around a turn. And all the while, our chronicler, the Reverend Bob, is hard at work getting to the bottom of things. To Gil Dodds he says: "Gil, what did you pray for at that three-quarter mark?"
No doubt there are readers who found The Heart of a Champion (published in 1959) a little gummy, but Richards himself faults it for a different reason. Though he regards it as a good book, inspirational to all men, he says, "The mistake I made was having it published by a religious publisher [the Fleming H. Revell Company] instead of by a publisher who puts out sales literature. I haven't made more than $4,000 or $5,000 the entire time on that book."
The Reverend Bob, who at 42 earns in the neighborhood of $125,000 a year peddling Wheaties in television commercials and delivering inspirational speeches on the banquet and lecture circuit, embraces a particular brand of theology that does not equate religious faith with poverty. God put us on this earth to enjoy its fruit, he argues cheerfully. If you're a salesman, he preaches at sales dinners around the country, work hard, have faith and lead the office in commissions. "Some salesmen say they can't close," he cries out, as if the very thought was enough to curdle the brain. "But I've seen men work on it till they're tremendous closers."
A plugger himself, Richards has made the most of his onetime image as a wholesome track-and-field star. Old-timers—people past 30—remember those headlines that in the 1940s and '50s appeared relentlessly in the Sunday sports sections following Saturday meets: REV. BOB WINS AGAIN. POLE-VAULTING PARSON TOPS 15 FEET. VAULTIN' VICAR STEALS SPOTLIGHT. DECATHLON DEACON TAKES TITLE. He won the Olympic vaulting championship in 1952 and again at age 30 in 1956, impressive handiwork for any man, let alone an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. Between appearances in pulpits, revival tents and banquet halls, he won 21 national titles—17 in the pole vault (indoors and out), three in the decathlon and one in the all-round, a decathlon-type event that includes heel-and-toe walking. Catapulting off the old metal pole, he cleared the magic height of his era—15 feet—126 times. As the years wore on, copydesk men reflexively whipped off their alliterative Richards headlines without having to come out of their postlunch stupors.
Today, his curly hair graying at the edges but darkened a little with dye, the Reverend Bob vaults into American living rooms as "the Wheaties man," his brilliant, even-toothed smile stretching from ear to ear. Though beginning to show wrinkles off camera, he remains as muscular and flat-bellied as the day he won his first Olympic medal and on screen appears much taller than his 5'10". "You see," he enthuses in commercials, "there's a kernel full of energy in every Wheaties flake." Bursting with energy himself, he turns upside down and takes a short stroll on the palms of his hands. Around the nation, T-shirted, beer-guzzling men dedicated to lazy living glare at the television, bristling. Richards looms into view again alongside a swimming pool and plunges not into the water but into a heaping bowl of Wheaties topped with strawberries and cream.
"Did you know," he muses in yet another sports-oriented pitch, "that enough bowls of Wheaties are poured each year to fill the Rose Bowl right up to the 56th row?" In Chicago a research chemist stalks to his typewriter and irritably demands of Richards, "How much milk is required to go with all that cereal?"
For 10 years the Reverend Bob has been pitching Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions. Sam Huff has come and more or less gone with his slacks, and scores of other athletes have had their brief flings with hair oil, athlete's-foot remedies and gasolines. But Richards keeps hanging in there with his dry cereal, so that today, image-wise, he practically is Wheaties. As a result, the smart alecks out front even call him to account for the package design. "This year," a letter complains, "I happen to be rooming with a fellow who eats Wheaties at an incredible rate. As you might expect, the Wheaties box is always to be found on our kitchen table and as a result I have been forced to stare at Jerry West for more months than I care to recall. Why not try other champions for a change? For example, champions in the world of philosophy? The top line might read: W. V. Quine, metaphysician from Akron, or, Father Joseph Owens, C.Ss.R., neo-Thomist from Toronto."
All right, let the wise guys amuse themselves. In the meantime General Mills, the maker of Wheaties, is paying Richards $75,000 annually, and sales charts indicate that his commercials sell enough Wheaties each year to fill, well, at least Fenway Park. He spoons in another $50,000 making speeches (at up to $1,000 per) and is, in short, fully able to take the wise guys in stride. "Mad magazine," he says, "had me eating Wheaties, then diving into a pool and drowning. You know—glub, glub, glub. They said, 'Let this be a lesson to you. Don't eat Wheaties before going swimming.' Well, that stuff about not eating before swimming, that's an old myth. I have eaten many times and gone in swimming."