When God Reached Out His Hand
A Letter to Cathy
Since Al Oerter’s death in 2007, his wife Cathy has been the recipient of hundreds of messages from people all over the world with stories of being positively impacted by her husband in some way. One such email was extremely special, and the following exposition is a result of that missive.
In early spring,1967, Douglas Kelban was a junior on the track team at Plainedge High School on Long Island, just trying to find his way. He had put the shot for a few sessions, but was, in his estimation, mediocre at best. He then picked up a discus and on his very first throw, sent it as far as the second-best guy’s on the team. It felt natural to Doug and he convinced himself to stick with it.
At 5’-9” and 180lbs, Doug was strong, but in great need of coaching for the event. The head track coach, Vincent Penne, had been a Hofstra record-setting quarter miler and recruited well and built a strong track program, but knew nothing of the throwing events. The field coach, Elias Macropoulos, was a wonderful history teacher, the department head, in fact, and a sweetheart of a man. Unfortunately, his discus throwing experience was less than zero. As long as Doug didn’t fall on his head, Mr. Macropoulos always encouraged, ”Good throw!” with every attempt.
Of Doug’s throwing teammates, the leader was senior football and wrestling standout, Louis Schepp. Louis was the biggest, strongest and most experienced thrower. Doug tried to emulate him, even though he didn’t have the the height, arm length or strength of the upper-classman. Now, Louis also suffered from a lack of coaching direction and, early on, never learned how to turn and spin properly in the circle. He would stand and just chuck or “punch” the platter in a range of 140 to 150 feet with just the old heave-ho. It wasn’t until he started competing in meets against other schools that he saw throwers turning and spinning in the circle. Even so, his results were about equal with or without the spin. Louis remembered, “We kind of had to figure everything out for ourselves.” Richard Edgar was the third thrower and, as previously mentioned, on par with Doug.
The boys had virtually nothing in what one would call “training aids” to improve in the event. There was no weight room at the school, nor any suggestion of lifting, and, as mentioned, an acute absence of technical coaching expertise. However, there was a homemade discus flip book which provided an animated view of the entire throwing sequence of 3-time gold medal Olympian, Al Oerter! Louis had found a magazine article with a sequence of photos of Al performing the throw. He cut out the photos and then stapled and bound the pages together to be used in training.
Doug, Louis and their teammates, and just about everyone else in track and field were aware of Al Oerter long before the boys picked up a discus. He was from Long Island, attended Sewanhaka High School (in the same county as Plainedge), had set the New York State record of 184'-2 ¾" thirteen years before, set three Olympic records to accompany his three gold medals, threw for four world records, and was in full bore training for the Mexico City Games set for one year later. This was the man that the Plainedge throwers referred to as, “GOD.”
One day, the three boys read in a local newspaper, or simply heard a buzzing rumor, that Al Oerter would be training at nearby Farmingdale College as part of his preparation for the Games of the XIXth Olympiad. This was not unusual since Al worked nearby at the Grumman Corporation and would often go to local fields to work out. While this was just hearsay, the discus boys decided to take a chance. So, Louis, Richard and Doug made the five-mile drive in hopes of getting a glimpse at the “supreme-being” during his workout. There was nothing like a deity to spice up your day.
The boys arrived and looked out onto the immense acreage of athletic fields and low hills that made up the campus. Back then, it was known as Agricultural & Technical College at Farmingdale, so the greenery and fields were vast, far greater than what the artificial surfaces and multiple structures would allow for today. As they squinted through the glare towards the throwing field, they were shocked to find no one else there except a lone, massive figure in the distance, silhouetted by the afternoon sun.
When they approached, they could see it was Al Oerter, just as in the flip book, now getting ready for a warm up throw after a brief rest. Then, the Olympian gathered up his discus and tossed the implement from hand to hand, finally letting it rest in his right. He then rotated at the waist, back and forth, slowly at first and then accelerating as his right arm swung like a pendulum. He began to pivot quickly on his left toe, making two full turns when, with the right arm extended and torqued, unleashed the 4.4 pound saucer with explosive energy, just as the weight shifted instantly to his planted right leg and foot, then back to his left toe for a nano-second, and then ending the rotation by hopping back onto his right. It was a symphony of explosive force, velocity and motion.
Doug Kelban remembers, ”He uncorked a warm-up throw with the grace of a dancer combined with enormous power. Our jaws dropped. The discus looked like it was going into orbit and would never come down.” Louis Schepp was equally awed. He said, ”The discus went out of his arm and it just went and went and went, like it never came down. Of the memories that day, that is the one that sticks in my mind. I had never been to a competition where anyone threw like he did.”
Al continued to follow the flight and finished his spinning with a few hops on his right leg. When it was over, he looked at the threesome and, with a smile and an inviting nod of his head, let them know that he wanted to meet them. The boys introduced themselves and shook hands. Doug was amazed that Al had stopped his training and took the time to say hello, expecting an elite athlete, one year before his next attempt at the Olympics, to be super self-focused, not wanting to be bothered. Al went back to work and then took another couple of throws as the boys watched. They remained in awe of what they were seeing, even finding it difficult to comprehend how they got to be in this spot, at this time, and with this world renown athlete.
And then, it happened. Al looked over to the high schoolers and asked, ”Do one of you guys want to give it a try?” The boys were stunned, but Doug was the first to take Al up on his offer. So, Doug stepped into the circle and took two quick throws, standing stiffly with a very slow turn on each, just as he had learned by observing his teammates. Al interceded and demonstrated, according to Doug, “How to accelerate the spin like a ballerina, while bringing the arms in and out to vary speed, and use the non-throwing arm to increase velocity across the circle.” It was the first bit of discus coaching Doug had ever received beyond the flip book, and it came from the best in the world.
Al instructed Doug to take another throw and include the elements of the turn and spin that they had just worked on. Nervous, Doug stood in the circle and started to slowly rotate at the waist. He went into his spin with his mind racing, trying to incorporate all he had just learned. After one rotation, Doug somehow lost his balance and fell down hard with a THUD!...directly on his butt! “I plopped down and just sat there, humiliated. I had just fallen on my ass in front of God!”
Doug doesn’t remember what his throwing buddies’ reactions were, for he was riddled with embarrassment. His ears were ringing and he thought he had bitten his tongue. He was sure he had been welded to the ground, incredibly fused to it at the buttocks. He wished for a quick death by starvation. Then, a big paw of a hand, Al Oerter’s hand, ruffled Doug’s hair. Doug looked up at the smiling mountain of a man standing over him when, in a voice strong and pure, the greatest Olympic discus champion said, “Don’t worry son, it happens to all of us.”
Doug Kelban recounted, “I don't remember saying anything. I mean, I wish I had said something. But it just bowled me over that this 6’-4”, 257lbs cut giant, without an ounce of fat on him, this legend, was so humble and sweet and kind. He reached out his hand and showed more empathy, more understanding and was more fatherly to me in that moment than my own father was 90% of the time. To meet a man that accomplished, that big, that powerful, who was that humble and that kind, it just sort of flabbergasted me. I didn't have words. But it all worked and I felt better.”
Doug got up and learned how to spin. Al helped all three boys with the basics and then demonstrated how to put the training into practice by throwing the discus. He evaluated each of them, corrected them as they threw, and encouraged these novice throwers. Doug, said, “Al was always supportive, helping me with my positioning, teaching me how to use my non-throwing arm to accelerate and yet maintain balance. So, eventually I did learn to do that.”
As part of his training regimen, Al always ran to retrieve his discus and then ran back to the circle. In a stadium workout, he would also run stadium steps from the lowest to the highest, repeatedly. On this day, he would carry a discus in each hand and run up and down the hills at Farmingdale. As Doug remembered, “He ran those hills again and again and again. I mean, this guy worked! He was as strong as an ox.”
Finally, the sun was dipping low, barely above the western horizon as Al Oerter, after throwing about 70 times, headed home to his young family and back to the next day’s grind of his computer engineering job at Grumman. Earlier, his lunch break consisted of power lifting at the gym across the street from his workplace. The time spent with the three Plainedge fledglings probably lasted an hour.
On the drive back home, Doug reflected on the magical experience just concluded. “I had met and been welcomed and comforted by God. Al just inspired me and it increased my desire to really do the best that I could. During that summer of ’67, after junior year, I went out and threw for two hours every day, come rain or shine.” Louis Schepp threw for a school record of 159’-11” that '67 season (which still stands today), placed 5th in the Nassau County Discus Finals and moved on to Brown University where he wrestled and became an AP All-American in football.
By the spring track season of his senior year, Doug was really starting to hit his technique and spin with efficiency. His distances began to improve a couple of feet a day. By the end of April, he threw a personal best of 142’. This was 30 feet better then where he was on that day the year before when he learned to “spin.” Then, distances started to go downhill. He knew that he had developed a hitch of some kind in his delivery but, not having a coach to analyze things, he could not identify the problem.
In the season’s last meet of the year, and Doug’s last of his career, a fellow competitor from Syosset High offered some helpful advice. He observed, “Oh, I know what you're doing. You're opening up too fast with your left shoulder. So, your left foot’s going in the bucket and the discus is kind of coming out overhand instead of on an angle where the wind would push it up." Doug went right to work and took a throw. He felt exactly what the Syosset kid was saying and knew how to correct it. However, the season was over and Doug was angry in the moment. “If I just had a better coach, I probably would have placed in states or counties. I wouldn't have won, but I certainly was capable of placing. Al Oerter inspired me to do the best I could at it, and I fell short of that. That hitch was the end of me.”
Doug went off to college at SUNY Buffalo in September and kept up his interest in the discus. In observing the college throwers, he concluded that, for him, throwing at that level was a “hopeless proposition.” He realized that he had to make up in strength what he lacked in size and arm length. Just for his own sake, he began a heavy weight lifting program for the first time in his life. Ten months of strength training proved to have a positive impact.
“When I came home after my first year of college, after having done all that weightlifting, I went up to Plainedge HS to where the track team was practicing. One of the discus thrower’s tosses landed near me. Now, I hadn't thrown the discus in a year, but I picked that one up and threw it back towards the throwers and well past them. They started to call me over to get in the ring and told me to take a throw. I did, and threw the discus over 150 feet. The kids started yelling, ‘Coach, coach, take a look at this guy!’ They were excited. I had to interrupt them. ‘I can't help you. I'm in college.’”
That misplaced pang of regret came back to Doug briefly. If only he had the right coach. It was then and there that his sour grapes went away. For him, throwing the discus was one of the times that he didn't feel shy or inferior. It was one of the highlights of his high school life and he never felt remorse about that again. The sixty minutes spent with Al Oerter, the “bottoming out” notwithstanding, was life-changing. Doug realized, ”Sometimes you just meet people in your life that make an impression upon you, that are unlike other people.”
Four months later, Al Oerter would go on to win his fourth consecutive gold medal at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Doug Kelban would never meet up with Al again or have any contact with him despite the fact that they lived about fifteen miles apart from each other for most of the next 25 years. The impact of that one moment in the throwing circle in Farmingdale, however, would last a lifetime or two.
Doug continued to follow Al closely, from his retirement after Mexico City through his return to competition in ’76, and his comeback attempt towards a fifth Olympic gold medal. Doug was aware of Al’s personal best throw at age 43 of 227’-11” while the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games. He had even read that, at age 48, Al bench pressed 505lbs, 64lbs more than when he was 32 years old. At the time, Doug marveled, “When I'm that age I'll be glad if I can get out of my chair; it astonished me!”
Doug went on to earn a Master's degree in social work and spent his career as a psychotherapist, helping others. Now in his later years, he realizes the full effect of that special encounter with Al Oerter. “It was his friendliness, humility, perseverance and empathy. The more people you meet in your life who are kind and humble and good, and yet you see how powerful and accomplished they are, the more it shows you that there's a right path to achievement. It doesn't have to be ruthless competition. You don't have to be jealous of peoples' successes. You just have to do your best.”
“And I also think he helped me a little bit with my perfectionism, because when he ruffled my hair and said, ‘Don't worry son, it happens to all of us,’ I thought, if God could say that, maybe it's true! And it wasn't because it had so little to do with his accomplishments and who he was, but so much to do with how he treated me, and that tells the story.
“I wish now, of course, with the wisdom of age, I had stayed in touch. And then, when he died, I thought of Ben Franklin’s quote: ‘Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon, and wise too late.’ And that's why I had to write to Cathy, because I felt that, with her loss, I had to share this experience of what a wonderful man he was; how rare he was. I felt that I owed that much. And so, I did that. I had a lot of gratitude and fondness and I wanted to share that experience. Later on, I learned of the many things he did and contributed to society; that he was an engineer and a painter and a philanthropist, a true Renaissance man; a rarity amongst men.”
Even when Al went through the toughest times in his life, such as the long illness and loss of his mother when he was just 15 years old, he didn't lose his empathy for people. Doug observed, ”He had a tremendous reserve of love and feeling for his fellow man. And that's rare in any human being, but especially in a world class athlete. I mean, look at the world and what’s going on. That's a rare thing; just an amazing human being.”
Now retired from his practice, happily married to his wife Susan, and a beaming grandfather, Doug Kelban continues to tell his story. “It was one of those experiences that stands out with you for a lifetime. I can't tell you how many people I've told about that. That's all I can say.”
And maybe the boys from Plainedge, knowing what they know now, might tell you that to call Al Oerter, “God,” today, diminishes his considerable humanity. But don’t worry about it. It happens to all of us.
© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved