"The family didn't need the money," he says. "I just wanted to be my own person and to earn my own way."
In January 1957, during his senior year, Skinner went completely his own way. He dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. He served as a metalsmith on a guided-missile cruiser, took up boxing to stay in shape and lost only two of 17 shipboard matches. He left the Navy in the spring of 1961 with a high school equivalency diploma and returned to Wilmington, where he worked with the Delaware State Police for nine months. He decided not to make it a career because "it didn't pay enough money," and so in early 1962 he became a welder and sheet-metal worker. In his free time he boxed and lifted weights at the Wilmington YMCA. At the end of 1962 Skinner got married and apparently settled into a niche as a blue-collar wage earner, family man and casual athlete.
Then one afternoon the following spring he picked up a javelin and his life began to change. It all started as a lighthearted challenge from Bill Reader, a Middle Atlantic AAU javelin champion who also worked out at the Wilmington Y. Could Skinner beat him in the state meet two weeks hence? Skinner accepted the challenge, rounded up another javelin-throwing friend to teach him the rudiments and a couple of days later, using a broken javelin he had welded together, threw it over 200 feet. At the state meet, wearing a pair of baseball shoes onto which he had welded cement nails to serve as spikes, he tossed the javelin 179 feet, losing to Reader by a foot. Two days later, in Philadelphia, Skinner improved his distance to 208'10", defeating Reader and winning the Middle Atlantic AAU title. He was hooked. For the rest of the summer Skinner traveled everywhere there was a meet to throw in. The next year his best throw was 222 feet. In 1965 he raised his record to 256'1". By 1967, when he was 27, Skinner had a throw of 268'7", fifth best in the U.S. that year.
"I'd say I had my choice of a scholarship at just about any college in the country," he says, "but I wasn't ready to make that decision. My wife Rachel and I had a house, we had a young daughter, Stacy. I was getting plenty of work and we always had spending money in our pockets."
By March 1968 Skinner had finally made up his mind to go to college. He accepted a full scholarship at the University of Tennessee primarily because two of his closest friends in the javelin-throwing fraternity were there. In addition, the weight room, training room and practice facilities were excellent, and the track coach, Chuck Rohe, a cheerful, persuasive, energetic man, had built the Vols into a Southeastern track power since coming to Big Orange Country in 1962.
"It was a big change for me and Rachel," says Skinner. "We traded a $20,000 house for a married-students apartment. We gave up my income of about $13,000 a year for an athletic scholarship and a GI Bill allowance of $175 a month. But I didn't want to be a welder all my life and I saw this as a way to better myself."
What Skinner found out almost immediately was that it was also going to be difficult for a track-and-field man to adjust to the reality of life in an athletic program dominated by the football team. As an older man, a married man, a father, a Navy veteran, Skinner found himself serving as big brother to the rest of the track squad. As unofficial advisor and spokesman he was therefore privy to a great many gripes and problems that might not otherwise have caused him much concern. During the winter football players swarmed into the weight room in such numbers that other athletes were forced to reschedule their workouts. Football players were given top priority in the training room. When Skinner informed the head trainer that he had strained his back, he was told to stretch under a hot shower. The football and basketball players, who occupied the first three floors in Bill Gibbs Hall, were for a year the only athletes to have carpeting in their halls and lounge and telephones in their rooms. The football and basketball players were the only athletes to receive free passes to the movie theaters in town. Further inspiring any feelings of persecution and paranoia that might have existed on the track squad was the fact that its own coach, Rohe, was also the head recruiter for the football team.
A perquisite that particularly galled Skinner, who had a wife and young daughter to support, was the arrangement regarding the distribution of tickets to home football games. Each football player at Tennessee receives four seats to each home game as well as an option to buy four more seats at their face value. With each game a sellout and the float price for tickets often exceeding $100 a pair, it isn't hard for an enterprising player to clear $3,000 a season. The only restriction is that a player must get a friend to sell his tickets. It might cause talk if he were seen hawking them himself.
Skinner's naive suggestion was that a similar arrangement be made for members of other teams: two complimentary football tickets to each game.
"About all I could possibly offer him," says Rohe, who recently left Tennessee for Virginia Tech, where he is chief football recruiter and administrative assistant in the athletic department, "was four seats to each track meet, and he could have picked up as many of those as he wanted for two bucks apiece."