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Bob Mathias, American Legend

They just don't make 'em like they used to.  Bob Mathias, born November 17th, 1930 passed away on Saturday of cancer after leaving an incredible legacy as one of the world's most prolific athletes and as an example of the complete man in every facet of his life.  The funny thing is that most of you have probably never heard of him- I wouldn't have either except that he was a fraternity brother and close friend of my father at Stanford.  The story of Bob Mathias is so incredible that his exploits- and character- are almost beyond belief.   He remains to this day the youngest person to have ever won an Olympic Gold Medal (at age 17) in Track and Field when he won the Decathlon in London in 1948 and again in Helsinki 1952! 

As a child, he was diagnosed with anemia and his physician father prescribed a special diet, iron pills, and daily naps in order to overcome his ailment.  He grew up in the small farming town of Tulare, CA and by the time he graduated, he was a three sport athlete at 6-3, 190 lbs.  A track star in high school, his coach suggested that he try the decathlon at the AAU meet in Los Angeles in 1948.  He replied, “That’s great, Coach, it sounds like fun. But just one question: What’s a decathlon?” 

Mathias went to Los Angeles and won even though he had only three weeks to prepare for the event and had never competed in the pole vault, long jump, javelin or 1,500-meter run. At the start, he had difficulty clearing eight feet in the pole vault. But with the help of a track manual, Mathias became competent in the pole vault as well as the javelin. He won the national championship two weeks later to qualify for the '48 Olympics. 

At the Olympics, the unknown Mathias was in third place among the 39 athletes from 20 countries after the first day. The second day's competition started at 10 a.m. on August 6 and didn't end until 12« hours later because of bad weather and general confusion. When Mathias wasn't competing, he spent most of his time huddling under a blanket as he sought to protect himself from the cold and heavy rain.

The discus was Mathias' specialty, and he responded with the best throw of the day at 144-4. It put him into first place. Before the javelin throw, the next-to-last event, cars were driven into Wembley Stadium and their headlights were turned on to illuminate the foul line because there were no infield lights.

The final event was the 1,500 meters, contested in the gloomy darkness over a wet and clinging track. When a weary Mathias staggered across the finish line in 5:11, he was the Olympic champion. In just his third decathlon, the 17-year-old had registered 7,139 points, the only competitor to surpass 7,000.

Then it was off to Stanford where Mathias played fullback for the Indians (as they were known prior to a PC revolution on campus).  He led Stanford to a Rose Bowl berth after scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against USC- one of them on a 96 yard kick return; Mathias was the only man to compete in the Rose Bowl and the Olympics in the same year.  In Helsinki, Mathias broke his decathlon world record and beat his closest rival by more than 900 points.  After his second Olympic Gold, Mathias graduated from Stanford a received a commission in the US Marine Corps, acted in a film story of his own life, and founded his own boy's camp before being elected to Congress as a Republican in 1966. 

After losing his re-election bid in 1974, he became a consultant to the President's Council on Physical Fitness, raised money for the USOC, and served as the first Director of the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. 

"Bob Mathias was one of those rare individuals with the ability to inspire a nation through his determination and perseverance. He was a champion in every aspect of life, and he embraced the values that make our country and the worldwide Olympic movement special," U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth said in a statement.

This man in every way epitomized the spirit of America and died a true patriot whose vast accomplishments were never tarnished by arrogance, bad behavior, or the selfish motivations of today's modern athlete.  There were no endorsements, signing bonus', or locker room histrionics- just a true blue American "boy wonder" whose example inspired all that knew him including my father.

Prior to his '52 Olympics bid, my father filmed Bob's training preparations and produced a documentary of his athletic achievements.  During this period, my dad gained a tremendous respect and admiration for a man who was at the time a bonified American sports hero and yet was a generous and humble friend and fraternity brother.  It is difficult to imagine a person of his caliber walking across the national stage now, but we should recall with pride that Americans like him once prevailed upon the youth of our country the importance of perseverence, character, and humility.

He was enshrined in the National Track and Field and the US Olympic Halls of Fame.  I never had the privilege of meeting Bob Mathias as he and my father went in their own directions after Stanford, but many of the things my father taught me as a child were no doubt learned from the example set for him by Bob Mathias. 

Bob Mathias died of cancer on September 2nd at age 75.  He is survived by his wife, Gwen; two brothers, Eugene Mathias of Tulare and Jim Mathias of Three Rivers, Calif.; a sister, Patricia Guerrero of Tulare; four daughters, Romel, of Twain Harte, Calif., Megan, of Colorado Springs, Marissa, of Folsom, Calif., and Alyse Alexander of Medford, Ore.; a son, Reiner Mathias of Sandy, Utah; and 10 grandchildren.