Over the past thirty years, I have interviewed Olympic gold medalists, Olympic coaches, athletes young and old to name a few. My first real interview after leaving Runners’ World taught me much. I compare it to the main character in Johnny Cash’s song, “A boy named Sue,”.
The dangers of interviews….
I have been writing on sports since 1977, first for college newspapers, then, an occassional short piece in Runners’ World during my stay there. Today, I wanted to
share with you the strangest, funniest, and scariest interview that I have ever done. It was done with the founder of a strength equipment company named after a mollusk. That said, get your sack lunch and here we go. Please note that this story is completely true-it is too bizarre to be made up. I have spoken to the interviewee several times over the past twenty one years, the last time about ten years ago, and he has always been nothing but the charming and eccentric gentleman I first met in 1986!
I had just taken the position of publisher for a new sports medicine magazine called Sportcare & Fitness, based in Wilmington, Delaware. This was a start-up. A head hunter hired me to a) develop a budget, b) develop a marketing plan, c) finalize an editorial approach and d) hire a staff. It was fun, it was exhilerating, it was exhausting.
As I worked on this project, it became quite clear to me for a magazine dedicated to keeping athletes healthy by informing their coaches and trainers of the most recent information on sports medicine, sports training and sports therapy, the publisher needed to be well versed in sports injury jargon. I asked our consultant to set up a meeting with the father of modern sports equipment, the head of the company named after a mollusk.
Now, this gentleman, the head and founder of the company named after said mollusk lived near the Everglades. This neccesitated flying to Orlando and driving the several hours to meet said gentleman. The gentleman in question asked us to meet him at a small, very local eating establishment in his home village. I use the term euphemistically as we were deep into the Everglades by this time . I was getting a bit concerned when we pulled up to this local eating establishment and there sat our interviewee.
Said interviewee, and founder of the company named after a mollusk, was about five foot six, in old, but well cleaned khaki pants, suspenders and a short sleeve striped shirt. He wore glasses and at the time was about sixty five years old. The drinking and smoking he did, however gave him an age and look of a man a decade older.
The potential interviewee asked us to drive with him in his car to our real lunch place, where he swore the food was great and he would talk. Interested in getting him to speak on back injuries, his specialty, and also looking to gain him as a first issue interview in our new publication, I jumped at the chance. My consultant, who, I found out later, knew a bit about the owner of the company named after a mollusk, was a bit more concerned.
As we sped away from our meeting place, our potential interviewee said, ” Now, here are my groundrules…” As he said this, he opened the glove compartment and produced a weapon, a firearm that was so large, it could have killed a bull moose in heat. He gently laid his precious firearm next to my leg and said, ” I do not have much use for journalists, but I am willing to give you an interview if you provide me with”
By this time, I was getting a big concerned. My consultant, who was sitting in the back seat, began to laugh uncontrollably, and he gave me this look like, let’s get the heck out of here, as we are gonna die, this person is a) nuts, b) has a very large gun.
Perhaps it was my age, perhaps it was my deep desire to succeed in my first publishing job, perhaps it was the andrelin that shot through my veins at the time,, but I was fascinated by this gentleman who was obviously either a) crazy, or b) one of the best actors I had ever met.
I told the gentleman from said company named after a mollusk that I wanted to ask him about back injuries and that I had no interest in his a) 22 year old former Playmate of the year wife, b) formidable gun collection or c) collection of venemous
reptiles or d) his collection of military jets behind his house.
This calmed our potential interviewee down. He smiled, put his gun in his pants pocket, pulled out a pack of Camel unfiltereds and asked me to lunch. After my consultant stopped screaming and regained his ability to breath, he joined us in the little dive that showed up in the middle of a growth of weeds. He did sit in a different booth from us. This made said interviewee smile.
We sat down at a little white table, in this little white washed wooden restaurant, and our interviewee was embraced by the cook and the waitress. He was a good old boy come home. Said interviewee ordered biscuits and gravy, a shot of Jack Daniels and some coffee. His gun sat next to the cup of coffee and he began to chain smoke his Camels. I started to ask quesitons about back injuries and said interviewee began to wax poetically about back injuries and their prevelences in modern day society. I started to think that this guy, even with his a) large firearm, b) shot of a strong adult beverage, c) prodigious cigarette smoking made huge sense. In fact, his comments, after doing some fact-checking, were all correct!
For the next one and one half hours, said founder of the fitness equipment company named after a mollusk told us about how the human back worked, his sale of said equipment company, his new company and how he, a man with an eighth grade education, had come up with an equipment line worth nearly one billion dollars!
As with many of my later interviewers, none whom carried a gun so large that they could kill large air breathing sea mammals, I became fascinated with this gentleman’s story. We bonded and after devouring his plate of biscuits and gravy, he invited us back to his home to see a) his beautiful wife, who he said, and I quote, ” Once they hit 23, women are no good to me..”, b) his new 727, c) his reptiles and d) his gun collection.
We spent several hours walking his compound, meeting his charming wife, seeing his charming reptiles and checking out his firearm collection. Said interviewee, the man who founded the company named after a mollusk, in my mind was a) a brilliant guy, b) a great actor, c) had more street smarts than anyone I had ever met. He shook our hands as we left and asked us to visit him at an upcoming trade show.
It was not until we reached Orlando later that night that I had found out our interviewee had dumped a Wall Street Journal writer in the middle of a road, about twelve miles from cilivization, the day before, when he protested the treatment said writer had received from said potential interviewee. This was something my consultant had known about, but he did not tell me, as he did not want to a) scare me b) scare himself.
I did use a few of my notes on the said interviewee who founded the company named after a mollusk and repurchased said company two more times, in the premier issue of my sports medicine title. I also met said interviewee at a few shows after that and he would always give me a wry smile.
In retropspect, I thank said interviewee of the company which was named after a mollusk, as he had given me a huge gift. There was no way, if I lived another hundred years, that I would interview someone so colorful, so eccentric, so fascinating. Boy, was I wrong..I have learnt over the past twenty years that there are things much more dangerous than a loaded gun sitting next to you on a bucket seat….but, I will save that for another blog.
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