Five decades after feat, Mathias remains a hero

October 26, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

What sounded like make-believe, a tale of fiction lifted from the pages of an old pulp magazine, was played out in exciting reality when Bob Mathias emerged as an American idol of towering (and lasting) proportion. His achievements inspired Hollywood to make a movie: "The Bob Mathias Story," with, appropriately enough, the titled hero playing himself.

It was incredulous, then as now, that a 17-year-old would win the Olympic decathlon to become the youngest American athlete to earn a gold medal in track and field. Adding to the implausibility is he had never entered any type of decathlon until two months before when he heard about it for the first time.

Yet there he was at the 1948 Olympics in London, a mere teen-ager, winning the most demanding of all contests, 10 events within two days, and admitting the experience was all new. The same Mathias is spending part of this week at the Naval Academy, along with such other revered champions as Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey and Bruce Jenner in a training program put on by the USA/Visa Decathlon Team.

Mathias was a come-to-life "Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy," except his deeds were real, not mythical. A kid from a small farming community, Tulare, Calif., the son of a country doctor, he climbed to the peak of Mount Olympus and his name flashed across the universe. Suddenly, he was a figure of stature but success didn't alter his character or integrity.

Other impressive accomplishments were to come later: a standout student at Stanford and starting fullback on its 1952 Rose Bowl team, a draft choice of the Washington Redskins, commissioned by the Marine Corps, later a two-year assignment overseas under direction of the State Department and then election for four terms to the U.S. Congress.

When he made his second appearance in the Olympics, 1952 at Helsinki, he became the only man to win the decathlon twice, to successfully defend the medal. However, it was the Olympic ordeal of four years before, while a child among men, that set him apart.

"I didn't realize at the time what it all meant," he says. "I was too young. I read of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, when Adolf Hitler was involved, but I honestly didn't know the full impact."

Mathias, upon return, was welcomed at the White House by President Harry S. Truman long before it became an accustomed practice to so honor athletes.

"I went there with another Olympian, a small-bore rifle champion named Arthur Cook, who I believe was from Maryland. He also had won a gold medal. The president gave us each a fountain pen engraved, 'I swiped this from Harry S. Truman.' I still have it."

And where are his two coveted gold medals? "They're in the Bob Mathias Room they dedicated at the Tulare Library," he answered. "I gave the organizers a lot of uniforms and memorabilia and it's all on display."

About his experiences at London in '48, the first Olympics after World War II, he remembers the torrential rain, how he was at Wembley Stadium from 10 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. waiting to complete the decathlon program. It was an eerie scene he'll always remember -- the storm, an inadequate lighting system and only two box lunches for nourishment during a more than 12-hour wait.

He couldn't see the takeoff mark for the javelin throw or the pole vault as he came down the rain-slickened runway. So the judges improvised. They held flashlights so he'd somehow determine where he was going. He still didn't pick up the outline of the crossbar, in the darkness of night, with the rain coming down, until he was into the vault and airborne. Despite the obstacles and physical demands, Mathias achieved what historians insist ranks as one of the most incredible of all Olympic feats.

Only 17, inexperienced, with his parents and two brothers looking on, he had reached for the stars, even though they weren't visible on that stormy evening, and, in the testing throes of competition, touched them. Bob Mathias, now 64, is retired and lives in Fresno, where his five children and eight grandchildren have brought him nothing but pleasure.

As to changes in Olympic policy, he realizes things can't always remain the same but that doesn't mean he has to endorse the idea of professionals being admitted. "I believe the Olympics were intended for the finest and dedicated of amateur athletes. I regret the eligibility rules had to be altered in such a way."

One of his best friends, Gary Kerkorian, who quarterbacked the Stanford team before doing the same with the Baltimore Colts, is a judge in Fresno and they visit frequently.

"We were leading the Rose Bowl, 7-6, in the third quarter over Illinois but Gary threw two interceptions and when he came back to the bench didn't know where he was. He had suffered a concussion. His replacement, Bobby Garrett, ran into some interception trouble and the game went downhill. We lost, 40-7."

The memories are rich but he doesn't pound his chest in a gesture of self-aggrandizement. He was once invited to play Tarzan in a film but declined. Bob Mathias is a model citizen, a standout in any kind of crowd who never needed to wear a loincloth nor to swing on jungle vines.

This has been that rare athlete equipped with brawn and brains: an American hero -- not here and then gone. His place in the record book will remain for perpetuity.

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