I suppose the very first one was my uncle, Roy Jackson. I have blogged about him before – back on 05/14/2018 in a post titled “Bigger than Life!” Perhaps this is because at 6’ 2” tall, and weighing in at around 240 pounds (all without an ounce of fat on him), he was so much bigger physically than his older brother (and my father). Suffice it say that, as a little boy, I looked up to him as one impressive physical specimen.
As I grew older, however, I found more and more heroes. Among them were professional wrestlers, such as “Fireman Bob Armstrong”. He had the biggest arm muscles I had ever seen (in my 12 year old life). At the time, however, I thought he was the pinnacle of masculinity.
Later on, as the fitness craze caught on in America, professional wrestlers realized that big biceps alone, without correspondingly proportionate muscles distributed throughout the rest of their bodies, were not exactly representative of the ideal human form.
Enter Tony (a.k.a. “Black”) Atlas. He was the first wrestler to actually train his whole body in the gym, so as not to look lopsided while in his wrestling trunks. He literally had muscles bulging everywhere! And he once took time to show off his muscular strength by bench pressing 500 pounds on live television from inside a wrestling ring.
Shortly after this, in 1978, the 6’6” tall, 275 lb. “Mr. Universe”, Lou Ferrigno, was cast as “The Incredible Hulk” on a weekly CBS television drama. Overnight, all across America, impressionable young men such as myself took to weightlifting. We all desperately wanted to look like our newfound (albeit green) hero.
As the fitness craze took hold, weightlifting gyms sprung up all across America. Thereafter, for many of us, men like Dennis Tinerino, Tom Platz, Ed Corney, and of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu, became larger than life.
While few if any of us went on to achieve any fame as weightlifters, these men, who bore such titles as “Mr. America”, “Mr. World”, “Mr. Universe”, and “Mr. Olympia”, still served as our heroes and inspired us to grind away daily in the local gym.
These days, of course, my illusions have been somewhat shattered. As I have aged, I have come to realize that even men of iron have feet of clay! To begin with, the whole world knows that a certain fitness icon, despite his bodybuilding success, his Hollywood success, and his political success in California, still experienced moral failure as he fathered a love child with his maid.
Other once famous bodybuilders have found themselves caught up in crime, and are no now serving prison terms. Still others have made the news for various other nefarious activities. And all of this brings me to my point.
The news this week reported that Franco Columbu, two time “Mr. Olympia” who was considered the strongest bodybuilder who ever lived, passed away last week at age 78 from a heart attack while swimming in the ocean in his native Sardinia.
I want to take a moment and commend this man. He accomplished a lot in his life. Originally a boxer, he later transitioned into weightlifting and then bodybuilding, going on to win the “Mr. Olympia” title in 1976 and again in 1981. He also competed in the inaugural edition of the “World's Strongest Man” in 1977.
Later, he also had an acting career (with 23 credits) and authored numerous books on bodybuilding and nutrition. In 2001, Columbu was inducted into the International Federation of Bodybuilding’s Hall of Fame. Later, in 2009, he received the Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award.
Yet, despite his celebrity status, he remained a humble man. More to the point, he placed a premium on integrity. I say this because to my knowledge, he never allowed himself to be caught up in any moral, ethical, or legal scandals. That, in and of itself, is somewhat of a rarity. And for this, he will always remain one of my personal heroes.
Beyond this, unlike many high profile bodybuilders who merely parlayed their weightlifting success into social and material acclaim, Franco tended to live his life contented to stay behind the scenes. He transitioned from competitive bodybuilding into medicine, where he went on, quietly and consistently, to serve his fellow man.
Nonetheless, Dr. Franco Columbu (a licensed chiropractor later in life) proved that, despite his impressive array of muscles and humble service of others, he was still human in the long run. Alas, at age 78, he too was destined to go the way of all flesh, proving that.
The lesson I take from all of this is that no matter how large your muscles are, they will inevitably fail you. No man can live forever; and even the strongest eventually have to say goodbye! Thus, when we come to the end of our physical lives, we have to ask ourselves what truly remains.
And what remains is our soul! As well as a record of how we have spent our time in this world. To his credit, while Franco Columbu made the most of the physical body God gave him, this mild-mannered man seems to have made the most of something else as well - and that is every opportunity to improve the lives of those around him.
And if anything qualifies as heroic, surely that does!