When El Paso's Dave Peck began to play racquetball seriously 5� years ago, he didn't exactly put fear in the hearts of his rivals. Peck's game was fine, but his physique seemed ludicrous. At 5'10", 190 pounds, he had the wrong proportions for racquetball, in which quick reflexes and crablike changes of direction are so important. Opponents took one look at his Baby Huey body and choirboy face and found it difficult to keep from laughing.
"In one of my first tournaments, my opponent hit a shot that I had to cross the court to get," says Peck. "The guy thought, 'There's no way this fat kid's going to reach the ball,' and bent over to pick it up himself. I stepped by him and passed him down the other side. Another time I overheard a guy say, 'I play Peck in the first round, and then I play....' It so happens that I won the tournament."
It also so happens that he has gone right on winning. In 1978-79 Peck vaulted from 39th to sixth in the national rankings and was named Rookie of the Year. The last two seasons he has been rated in the top four, and in recent months he has been involved in some memorable finals, beating both national champ Marty Hogan and fourth-ranked Mike Yellen in 11-10 tiebreakers and losing 21-20, 21-20 to both Hogan and No. 3 Jerry Hilecher. No wonder the pro tour's been playing to full galleries. Currently ranked second, Peck is seeded behind only Hogan at this week's national championships in Tempe, Ariz.
"The way to judge a champion is how he does against his peer group," says Charlie Brumfield, author, wit, iconoclast and five-time national titlist. "That Peck's beaten everyone speaks for itself. It helps that he comes from Armpit, U.S.A. He beat everyone there, and he came on the tour thinking he could win. People from more civilized areas know they can lose.
"Another thing helping Peck is that he didn't start playing until he was 19. Other guys start at 12 and get played out when they should be peaking. Peck has both the maturity and the drive." And what drive! Peck is so intense in competition that he wears retainers to keep from grinding his teeth.
In discussing the 24-year-old Peck, his fellow players are more likely to stress his enthusiasm than his talent. This is misleading, because Peck's appearance notwithstanding, he has extraordinary natural athletic ability. In high school he finished second in the state wrestling meet in the 185-pound class and was a four-year starter at middle linebacker. After graduation he spent a summer at the Indiana University diving camp, learning forward 3�s and triple-twisting 1�s. And he's in much better condition than his physique suggests. A recent fitness test indicated that Peck's body is 12% fat. The figure people are told to aim for is 15%.
But Peck's peers have a point. Because most top racquetball players are virtually equal in ability, intangibles generally make the difference in competition. Peck's personality and history, not his strokes, are what set him apart.
He's as agreeable as can be. Speaking with someone he has just met, Peck cordially slaps the new acquaintance on the shoulder. It's dinnertime, so he shouts, "Let's pig out!" Peck arrives at the restaurant wearing slacks, a sport jacket and a T shirt featuring the words PIKE FEST, a reference to a raucous party weekend at Texas Tech. Following a victory on the court the next day, Peck raises clenched fists and screams, "Nothin' but tough!" Everyone, even his beaten opponent, is smiling.
Peck takes a relaxed view of pressure. While most other players are asleep by 10 p.m. the night before a match, Peck and kindred spirit Hogan may arrange a 3 a.m. Asteroids game. And, typically. Peck sees the best in every situation. Last year he pushed too hard to beat Hogan and became vulnerable to lesser foes; but after getting upset in the round of 32 at a tournament early this season, his play picked up quickly. "That loss was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "I dropped from second to fourth in the rankings and took a lot of pressure off myself. Now every time I go on the court, I think I'm going to win.
"I'll tell you a story, dude. The first time I played my coach, Dr. Bud Muehleisen, I was scared stiff. I mean, the guy won 54 national titles, a living legend. Well, he killed me the first game, killed me the second and was shutting me out in the third. I said, 'Dr. Bud, thanks for the game, but I've got to get outta here.' He sat me down and he said, 'Listen, Dave, you're taking this game too seriously. Go to the beach for a few days.'