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THE MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
Morton Sharnik
April 30, 1973
They said Al Feuerbach was too small to put the shot, but they neglected to measure his zeal
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April 30, 1973

The Magnificent Obsession

They said Al Feuerbach was too small to put the shot, but they neglected to measure his zeal

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In their last 11 meetings Feuerbach beat Matson 10 times. Still his name raises Feuerbach's hackles. "Oh, yes, Al resents Matson," says Coach Tom Jennings of the Pacific Coast Track Club to which Feuerbach belongs. "I think he even hates him, and that's surprising."

The surprise, simply, is that Al Feuerbach is the gentlest set of muscles in the West. Outside the shot ring, he is devoid of passion and totally pacific. His close friend and teammate, pole vaulter Steve Smith, pounds on him—not with slaps but powerful belts. "I wish I could hit him back, but I can't," Feuerbach sighs.

For the past year and a half he has passed his outwardly mild existence in San Jose. At first he lived in an old house with shotputters Richard Marks and Lahsen Akka Samsam, a Berber who is the Moroccan champion, and weight lifter Bob Kemper. Since January, Feuerbach, who is called Rhino, and Samsam, better known as Big Simba, have rented a two-bedroom apartment at 555 North 4th Street. The move from house to apartment went unnoticed in the old neighborhood, since the neighbors were only vaguely aware of Feuerbach's existence to begin with. As much as anyone his size can be a shadow, Al Feuerbach is a shadow. He travels around San Jose in a grimy 1964 Buick Wildcat, barely making a dent on the city's consciousness. Despite his international track reputation, he could be just another long-haired student, crammed into a T shirt, corduroy pants and blocky shoes. His sole distinction is a hand-crafted leather pouch slung over his shoulder in which he carries the tool of his trade, a 16-pound shot.

Yet in the arena, Al Feuerbach is a different person. "Al is all showman," says Jennings. "He's turned on by the crowd."

The Feuerbach of the shot ring is a throwback to a turn-of-the-century strong man. The muscles bulge out of a sleeveless jersey, his mustachio curves to nearly meet his long sideburns. Although he does not preen, he will strut. Before each put. he warms up by tossing the shot from hand to hand overhead—without looking.

Most world-class shotputters depend on enormous strength to launch the iron ball. Feuerbach moves it with a fine coordination of power and finesse. Without this technique, he could not overcome the laws of physics. Samsam, who has a degree in agronomy and is getting a master's in phys ed, says there are five different movements involved in getting the shot under way: the crouch, the glide, the summation of forces in acceleration, the release or explosion and the reverse. No shotputter crouches lower or explodes more quickly across the ring than Al Feuerbach.

At the moment of release, Feuerbach resembles the radiator cap on some classic car: his long blond tresses swirling, his right arm thrust straight out, his 250 pounds careening forward, balancing delicately on the toes of his left foot. Stagey but effective.

If the throw is a good one and he can feel the power surging the length of his arm, as well as hear the gasp of the crowd, Feuerbach will thrust his arms in the air. It is a classic, dignified expression of triumph, in keeping with his event and his muscularity.

Despite his earnest efforts, it is all but impossible for people to comprehend Feuerbach's fascination with his sport. "To me it's comical the way a man could be so involved with an iron shot," says Jennings. "Al has to be crazy as a loon. Ah, but then this craziness has done so much for him; he's seen the world, been exposed to people and developed a personality."

"Shotputting for me is not only a way of life but a life-style," says Feuerbach. "I can't think of any job that will allow me three months in Europe, not even if I was president of a corporation."

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