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Inner cities have an abundance of kids with nothing to do—they can be found hanging out on the corners, on stoops or around the firehouse. A great many of these kids are not so much economically deprived as emotionally deprived, as Thompson realized. One day in January 1974 Thompson asked Michael Screen, one of the kids who used to drop by the firehouse several times a week, if he'd like to learn how to lift weights. Soon Michael was bringing his friends around, and in no time the new weight-lifting team had outgrown Thompson's house. He packed up his weights and his team and moved them to a corner of a small room in the Emery Recreational Center across the street from the firehouse. The ceiling slanted, which made it difficult to lift weights overhead, and the team shared the room with a pool table and about 100 other neighborhood kids. Nevertheless, after two months the group had 10 members and was competing in local contests.
"Emery was a center with a lot of bad, but baaad, people around," says Andre Johnson. "It was more of a community thing—with crowds, drunks and all sorts of strange people milling around—than it was a gym."
But plenty of kids came, too. During the five years the Crushers have been in existence several hundred have come and gone, relatively few remaining long enough to become members of what had developed into a first-rate team. But Thompson worked diligently with the basic group: Tony, Andre and Adrian. Toward the end of 1975 Thompson got restless and took off on a five-month trip around the world, flying to Europe, then hitchhiking around India before flying back to Washington. On his return, the only thing he expected to find of the Crushers Unlimited was a set of 200-pound training weights, but working out every day and awaiting his return were Tony, Andre and Adrian.
Early in 1976 Thompson managed to secure a small classroom, about 15' by 30', at Rabaut Junior High School in northwest Washington, and the D.C. Department of Recreation donated $1,500 for equipment. The remainder of the money—some $4,000—needed to convert the classroom into an adequately equipped training room came from Thompson's pocket.
The classroom at Rabaut became more than a gym for the Crushers—it was home. They painted the walls bright blue with white zigzags, hung a bulletin board with pictures of the team on one: on another, an artist painted murals of the team in action. There is also a blackboard on which a different quotation is written each day before practice. One day it might be COMPASSION IS THE ROOT OF ALL MORALITY—ROUSSEAU. Another day it may read IF WE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO DO, LOVE AND RESPECT EACH OTHER, AND WORK TOGETHER, THEN NOBODY WILL STOP US FROM REACHING WHATEVER GOALS WE SET—BOB THOMPSON
The room at Rabaut is open five or six days a week, with regular training sessions scheduled Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m., and with another session on Saturday morning from nine until noon, unless a meet or exhibition is planned.
The evening training period presents a scheduling difficulty for Andre, who is studying to become an aeronautical engineer. He leaves home in D.C. for work at 5:30 a.m., is at his job as an animal caretaker at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. until about 11, when he takes a bus, a subway and a train to get to his classes at National Airport in Arlington, Va. At three he takes the subway back to D.C. to train with the team until 7:30. Last semester, twice a week after practice, he went to night school at Washington University of the District of Columbia. "Without the team, sometimes I feel I might not be able to do it," he says.
When Andre was 16 his family life was in disarray, and he gave up training and considered running away from home. The team threatened to throw him out, and he changed his mind.
"Lifting kept me off the streets and changed my attitude about life." he says. "I decided that if I stuck with it, I could get something out of it. Now I plan on training until my body just won't let me anymore. If I could get a job later, just coaching other kids. I could train and be able to teach."
Fourteen-year-old Wayne Smith's father is dead, and his older brother doesn't live with the family. Wayne joined the Crushers in 1976 but after eight months he got bored with lifting—he began to feel that the people around the neighborhood were having fun, while he was just working in a hot gym—"So I stopped training. But I missed the Crushers, and I came back. They treat me like a person, and I can talk things over with them. I'm planning on sticking with the Crushers when I get out of school. Bob is like our father—we're like a family. He tries to let us know what's happening in the world."