Thursday, March 27, 2014

Getting an Education at Brigham Young University

Dr. L. Jay Silvester in record form.

During my high school years my life revolved around working out to play football, throw the discus, and competing with Allegheny  Mountain Weightlifting team. It was a good combination as all of those activities seemed to blend well together and kept me too busy to cause much trouble. Along with that I still worked on some construction jobs with my Father and also worked at a landscaping company on weekends as well.
 In western Pennsylvania football was a religion. Boys are raised to play and the rivalries between small towns are intense. A sample of the players that came out of that area include: Johnny Unitas, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, and Mike Ditka, to name just a few. My senior year I was named to some of the All-State teams that included a running back named Tony Dorsett, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and star in the NFL for many years. I started playing early and found that good players were rewarded with respect and with opportunities.
Since the time that I was a youngster my parents stressed that I should go to college. Neither of them had the opportunity, but were determined that we should. When my brother and I were on construction jobs with my Father, men would say, "Your boys are going to be good bricklayers" My Dad would answer, "Naw, they're going to college." I had no perception of what college really was or what I would do there, but I knew it was important to my parents and I knew they had football teams.
As my high school career progressed, I began to receive recruiting letters and even some calls and visits. The first place that actually offered me a visit was the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, the Army team. I really didn't think that I would be interested in the Army. A lot of my relatives and neighbors were drafted and sent to Viet Nam. Some didn't return. Some returned with missing limbs or other problems. I wasn't too excited about the military if there were other options, but the coach there continued to call. When I told him I was not interested, he asked if I wouldn't mind flying over there and at least looking at what they had to offer. Up to that point in my life I had never flown on an airplane so the offer to fly into New York City where the coach would meet me and take me up to West Point was more than I could pass up. It was a beautiful campus on the Hudson River and we (the other recruits and me) had a great time. We ate in the officer's club, swam, played basketball, and watched films of Army Rangers jumping out of airplanes. We never did actually see the day to day life of a cadet. I came home thinking maybe the military wouldn't be such a bad choice. Also, about that time Pres. Nixon announced the withdrawal of troops and the end of the draft.
I took several other recruiting visits but with encouragement of my parents and teachers,  ultimately ended up at the USMA. Usually entrance to a military academy requires a congressional appointment and is very competitive. Most cadets (as students were called) had prepared extensively to be selected.  I had not done any of the steps of the application process. the AAA (Army Athletic Association) had requested I be granted an appointment and so it happened. I had one problem though, I was not academically prepared. In high school many of my teachers gave me special privileges because I could play football. I was too naive to recognize that this was not a good thing. I assumed that college football players would really only have to play football. My experience was that being a good football player was enough to get you whatever you needed.  I suspect at some universities this maybe the case. However, I soon found out that at West Point, they really did expect you to go to class and pass the courses. While I did fine with the military training and on the football field, I found myself totally unprepared for 7 credit hours of calculus and analytic geometry along with other hard core subjects. At the end of my freshmen year I was given the option of repeating the entire year or moving on. I chose the latter. Also, believe it or not, the USMA didn't even have a real weight room at the time. The had an exercise room with some old fashioned wall pulley units and few makeshift barbells made of pipe and concrete. The philosophy there at the time was that weight training would make one too bulky to go airborne. Pushups and pullups were the answer. Shortly after I left, they bought into the Nautilus craze. It was years later before they ever got a real strength and conditioning program there.
Cover photo
United States Military Academy. I am the third from the left on the back row.
 Just kidding.
One of the asst. football coaches who I had a good relationship with asked me where I wanted to go. I had read an article in Strength and Health Magazine about a university out west called Brigham Young University who had just won the collegiate national power lifting championship. A guy named Greg Shepard wrote the article and coached the team as well as lifting himself. I told my coach I would like to go to BYU, having never been there and not really knowing anything about it except that they lifted weights there and it was far away, which is what I was looking for. Somewhere far away.
Coach Edwards around the time I showed up at BYU.
To make a long story short, I applied to BYU, and was turned down due to my poor academic performance at Army. A young football coach named Lavell Edwards contacted the admissions office on my behalf and I was permitted to register on academic probation. I spent the summer working to earn money, as I was would have to redshirt and would not receive any scholarship aid, and running and lifting to get ready to play.
When I arrived on campus in the Fall, as soon as I dumped my stuff off at the dorm, I asked the dorm attendant where the weight room was. I assumed everyone on campus would know. She didn't know but directed me to the physical education building. I finally found it in the fieldhouse. The old BYU weightroom was actually two weight rooms. There was a two level platform with chain link fencing for walls at the end of the fieldhouse. It would be small by today's standards, but was actually pretty good sized for the time. The lower deck was where they had student weight training classes and it was equipped with the standard Universal Machine units and some fixed weight barbells and dumbells. The upper deck was where the athletes trained and it had 6 or so platforms around the outside perimeter along with benches, squat racks, and quite a few Eleiko barbell sets with the early model bumper plates as well as tons of iron weights. By today's standards it would be considered primitive, but to me, it was heaven. To be honest, although not large, it would still function well today, better than a lot of the machine laden weight rooms that are designed more to attract young recruits than train serious athletes.

I was a little disappointed that there was not structured lifting program for the football team at that time, so I lifted on my own before or after practice. Greg Shepard had just completed his doctorate as I arrived on campus. As a grad assistant there he had the football team on a program that was a forerunner of the Bigger Faster Stronger program that he has sold with great success since 1976. When Greg left, they did not establish a full time strength coaching position for several years so the football players just trained on their own with some very strong dedicated players who did their own thing and some who never lifted. The football coaches encouraged lifting, but there was no program or accountability. The athletes who dominated the weight room were the Track and Field athletes. The throwing tradition at BYU is amazing and for many years was among the best in the nation. While I was there to play football, I loved to lift and had enough of a track back round to really appreciate what I saw in the upper weight room.
In high school I had basically taught myself to reasonably throw the discus by looking at sequence photos of Jay Silvester, 4 time world record holder and 4 time Olympian.  You can imagine my reaction when I first entered the BYU weight room and there he was lifting and presiding over the training. He was in his early 40's then. Tall and lean, definitely looked strong and fit, but not hugely muscular. Yet he did multiple reps with over 140 kg in the powerclean and bench presses with over 400 lb. and still threw the discus regularly over 60 m. By then he was Dr. L. Jay Silvester and was professor of physical education and presided over the weight room while also working with the throwers. There were some amazing throwers in those days. (and there still is) Back then BYU had a strong european, especially scandinavian connection. Here is a link: http://byuthrowers.blogspot.com/  Some of the guys in that era were Kenth Gardenkrans, Anders Arrhenius, Raimo Pihl, and Richard George. They did some great workouts.
There were also a lot of Polynesian athletes who loved to lift as well. Genetically blessed guys like Willie Moala, Albert Maielo, Moses Foala, Simi Mapu, and others also were regulars there and did some amazing lifting.
It was tough to lift during football season as your body takes a beating, but I persisted and later that Fall there was a  powerlifting meet on campus. I entered and that is where I met Greg Shepard for the first time. He was coaching in Idaho at the time and brought a group of boys down to lift in the meet at BYU. He was and is a dynamic coach. I have had many more interactions with him over the years which have shaped my approach to coaching. It was also there that I learned that Dr. Silvester was the faculty advisor of the BYU Powerlifting team which was a club sport on campus. I became a member and enjoyed the camaraderie.
BYU thowers in the 70's training heavy with L.Jay coaching.
Along with the new and exciting lifting environment, there were other big changes in my life during that time as well. Brigham Young University is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. When I first arrived on campus I was not a member of that church and didn't know anything about it. My interactions with the students, professors, and coaches there made me want to learn more. As I did, I determined that the teachings of the church was something that I wanted in my life. I was baptized during that first year and with encouragement from friends and teammates determined to serve as a missionary.
After my return at the completion of two years of missionary service on the Navajo Reservation, a lot had changed. The football team had a full time strength and conditioning coach and they had purchased a line of Nautilus machines and opened a new weight room area below the old area exclusively for football. Most of the guys I had lifted with were gone. The track athletes still used the upper deck weight room. One of the strongest was Tapio Kuusella who won a collegiate national championship in lifting and was a hammer thrower as well. He currently coaches the throwers at University of Utah. Another change was that I no longer had the desire to invest the time necessary to play football. I continued to lift though, as training could be done on my own schedule and didn't require the time investment that football did. The BYU lifting club provided a competitive outlet and allowed us to work out around our own schedule.
I continued to lift and compete there until graduation. By then I was married and working three jobs to get by. When we finally left Provo, we had two children, I had a degree, and had gained a lot more knowledge and experience with strength training that would serve me well in the years ahead.

1 comment:

  1. Very inspiring story, mate.

    I also used to play throwing events back in college for scholarship.
    Unfortunately I trained with a bodybuilder program instead of using a pure strength regimen.

    I should've focussed on cleans and 5X5s , damn.