It is impossible for someone else to ignore his hands, however. The average shotputter holds the iron ball on his fingers; Feuerbach is forced to palm it. Hundreds of thousands of throws have left the hand spavined. The tendons are chronically stretched, the knuckles twisted. When he shakes hands, Feuerbach offers limp bones.
Not long ago, he flew to Long Beach for a meet. At the time, he was eight pain-racked days into his wild psych. That night he went to a party, but first he had to find a weight room and do his squats.
The party should have been a diversion but it was far from a good time, thanks to old buddy Steve Smith.
"Don't bother to talk to the fat boy," said Smith, introducing Feuerbach to the surfer host. "He only says 'Oink.' " A few minutes later the pole vaulter shouted across the room in alarm, "Al, Al, what's happened to your hair?" "Nothing happened," Feuerbach replied apprehensively. "Why is it so short in the front?" Smith persisted. "It's falling out, that's why, you idiot," said Feuerbach. "I'm thinking of cutting it off, shaving my face and my head clean, getting rid of all the hair." "Al, you can't do that," replied Smith, his voice rich with concern. "You'll look like a basketball on top of a boulder."
Only when Smith was distracted did Feuerbach have a chance to relax. Then he chatted with another guest, Susie Atwood, the pretty 19-year-old Olympic swimmer. He learned that Susie was going back to college in the spring and giving up competitive swimming.
"You can't do that, you'll miss it, Susie," said Feuerbach, feeling pain for the swimmer.
"No, I won't," she replied. "I've been at it 11 years, six hours a day, and I've missed too much of life already. I've got to make it up in a hurry."
When the party was over Feuerbach and Smith went to a bar a few blocks from the vaulter's apartment.
"I don't understand Susie," Feuerbach said. "I could live without throwing, but I wouldn't want to. That's the kicks of life. If I thought the bomb was about to drop or if they told me I had cancer, I'd want to get out and throw, get one last shot at the big record."
Smith was unconcerned with death but he had a deadly fear of the time when he would no longer be able to vault competitively.