The Legend of Big Rich

At the recent Arnold Sports Festival, Big Rich set the record in every grip event. Thomas Prior

SIZE DOESN'T MATTER. That's one of the first things the strongmen tell you, even though most of them are large enough to have their size infiltrate their names. Like "Big Rich" Williams, 6'3", 410 pounds, the man with the marvelous hands. The hands themselves are average looking. Not the sort of things you'd note from afar, as you would, say, J-Lo's backside or Drew Gooden's beard. And, yet, despite their ordinary appearance, Williams' hands are the strongest in the world. Perhaps the strongest that have ever existed. And on this March afternoon, at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, Williams intends to use those hands to show the world the power he holds, like a superhero, at the ready, in his palm.

It's just after lunchtime at the four-day expo of bodybuilding, arm wrestling and strongman contests, and the 32-year-old Williams is backstage, staring into a cinder block wall, head inches away. Other strongmen grunt and groan through warmup exercises, slapping Tiger Balm onto their sweaty bellies. Williams and six of his rivals are up next on the expo main stage, to take part in the second annual Mighty Mitts competition, a subset of the strongman event that centers exclusively on hand strength. Also known as grip, Mighty Mitts tests the skills of an intimate community of men who lift, hoist, pull, grab and clutch extraordinarily heavy items. It is equal parts freak show and athletic feat, having evolved from the carny tents where grip legends wrapped horseshoes into heart shapes and passed them out to swooning ladies.

As the minutes tick down to showtime, Mighty Mitts' most senior contestant, 61-year-old Odd Haugen, makes the rounds, catching up with friends. Williams doesn't join the conversation. Instead he sways foot to foot, growls, scowls, keeps his eyes on the wall. Finally, it's time: The grip guys are summoned onstage and introduced to a crowd of thousands. Then the first event begins. Using one hand, the men must hoist a 163-pound anvil by the horn and walk. The first few contestants can't even loosen the weight from the ground, their palms slipping uselessly as if they were tugging at a tree root. Haugen frees the anvil, carries it a little less than three feet and drops it to the floor like a Buick.

Now it is Williams' turn. He approaches the anvil, bends, wraps his right hand around the tip and lifts. He waddles the length of the stage, turns and waddles back. He does not rush. He carries the anvil like a lunch pail. He lets it slip at 60 feet, eight inches. That nearly doubles the world record -- the one he set last year. The crowd erupts. As they should. Because in all probability, they will never see anything like that again.

WILLIAMS WASN'T ALWAYS a modern-day John Henry. He started, as most large boys do, playing football. And he was good: a three-year starting left tackle for Gardner-Webb, a Division I-AA college in Boiling Springs, N.C. He allowed only one sack as a senior in 2001. At a predraft workout in March 2002, he ran a 5.36 40-yard dash, benched 225 pounds 37 times, broad jumped eight feet and squatted more than 700 pounds. The Dolphins, Bears and Packers, among other teams, invited him for a visit. An NFL career was his for the asking; many experts projected Williams to be a top-100 pick.

Then he went to meet the folks in Miami.

"The city was too hot, too big, too everything," he remembers thinking. His agent said fine, on to the next team. But that's when Williams did the unthinkable. He took a pass on the entire league, withdrawing from the draft a week beforehand. "People thought I was stupid, crazy, that I didn't think it through," he says. "But I did."
Truth was, football had been dead to Williams for years. Training was his true love, even as a kid. His father, Richard Williams Sr., a retired GE employee who had played high school football, remembers his son at age 8, dressed as a strongman for Halloween: "He wore my weight belt and stuffed his arms and legs to look muscular."

Rich Jr. says he joined his junior high football team in Charlottesville, Va., so he could have access to the workout equipment. "I was always curious," he says. "How strong could I be?"

Even as the younger Williams excelled on both sides of the line in high school, football was a means to another end, a way to earn a free ride to college. At Gardner-Webb, his ambivalence over the sport gave way to hatred. He felt like he had little control of his situation, and he questioned the motives of agents and scouts. But he couldn't afford to quit. And he didn't want to let his teammates down. "In a way," says Williams, "I was doing what my family and friends kept telling me was in my best interest. That was why I got an agent, set up meetings with teams. But in my heart, I knew I wanted out. My playing football made everybody else happy. Not me."

And so it was that a likely third-round pick, with earning potential in the millions, walked away from an NFL career and into the arms of an uncertain future. He was 23. "I had no plans, really," he says. "I knew I'd be ridiculed for my decision. But anything was better than suiting up another day. It is the worst form of deception to pretend you love something you don't."

A short list of people who thought Williams should have faked it and collected the dollars: his agent, his father, his then-girlfriend, his best friend, his teammates, his teammates' parents, his neighbors, his classmates, his college coach, his college coach's wife.

Notably absent from the list: his mother, who reminded him that he need answer only to God, not the will of other men; also, many current and former NFL players. "A lot of the people arguing for me to take the money were people who had never played a day of football in their entire lives," Williams says. "But when I spoke to guys in the league, they understood the brutality of the game, the sacrifices you make to play."

Donovan Craft, a friend and former teammate at Gardner-Webb, remembers trying to reason with Williams. "I wanted to make sure he realized what he was giving up," Craft says. "I would have done anything to play. And he wasn't even tempted. He didn't care about the prize."

Says Williams: "I believed I had other things to offer, even if I didn't know then what they were. I had faith."

He ended up graduating in 2003 and getting a teaching job in a public high school in Kings Mountain, N.C. He met a smart woman there named Sue, married her six months later, and stopped thinking about football entirely. Or tried to. "People always bring it up, ask me about it," Williams says. "They can't believe I walked away from the paycheck, the glory." But he is uninterested in cash or worldly enticements. He has no real debt. He doesn't even have a credit card. "That's another reason why I didn't need the NFL. Material things don't mean anything to me. Money can't give you longer days. The so-called American Dream ... it's temporal."

His single indulgence is his cherry red V-8 Dodge Ram, tricked out with a Flowmaster. The vanity plate reads "Lone Wolf," which he says is a joke. He keeps the truck in mint condition, spraying on tire gloss in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

AT HOME IN COLUMBIA S.C., Williams works out in loose nylon shorts, cobalt-blue Converse sneakers and a massive, black T-shirt with "John 14:6 one road" silk-screened on the back. He rotates among three gyms. For grip training, he uses Sorinex, a strength equipment manufacturing company founded and run by 60-year-old Richard Sorin, an amiable, earnest guy who happens to be a former grip master.

The grip community is a tiny one; fewer than a dozen men compete professionally. In the gym, photos of Sorin hoisting things with his hands -- his mustache in full vaudevillian bloom -- adorn a back wall. Under the photos are implements of grip training: anvils, cast-iron buckets, waist-high metal cones, chains strung with steel spring "grippers," coiled pinchers that resemble Satan's salad tongs. To the untrained eye, it looks like a scrap yard. To Sorin, it is a beloved, if under-appreciated, museum.

"Twelve men in the world have ever lifted that," Sorin says, gesturing to a 50-pound blob of metal, obstinate not due to its weight but due to its shape. He adds that grip equipment -- confounding geometric configurations of thick stone or metal -- dates back to ancient Greece in design and sells for hundreds of dollars on eBay. A blob goes for $700, mostly to grip fans like Sorin, men who believe, as he puts it, that "the sign of a man's bond is his handshake."

Unless your day job is at the anvil plant, grip skills can lie dormant, unobserved and unheralded. And that makes grip the rarest of abilities -- something you are born with that you stumble across via happenstance. A genuine surprise. A gift. Williams discovered his gift in October 2008, after walking into Sorin's gym. "Rich is a wonder," Sorin says. "He came in and lifted the anvil and looked at me like, 'What's so hard about that?'" Sorin's eyes widen. Then he points to another patron. "That guy over there? He can deadlift 800 pounds. But he can't lift the anvil once. It staggers me what Rich can do. He's like a tall tale you'd hear, the man who can lift medicine balls with his fingertips."

After bypassing the NFL, in 2002, Williams kept training. He toyed with the idea of entering strongman events, but he didn't want to dope, and he knew this might diminish his chances of success. Still, he worked hard. "I just wanted to be as strong as I could possibly be," he says.

In 2005, he took a position touring with Team Impact, a traveling youth ministry. He served as a strongman evangelist, tearing phone books in half and flattening frying pans, as evidence of God's power. "Bait," he says, "to keep them on the right path." When he lost the job in 2009 due to budget cuts, Williams continued to train. "When I did two-a-days, I worked out like it was game day. I still do. Training keeps my head on straight."

It was while working out that grip competitor Tex Henderson spied Williams moving dumbbells around by the ends, palming them like basketballs. As Henderson recalls, "He had no clue that was unusual." Williams assumed all strongmen had strong hands. "He didn't realize that he was a super freak," Henderson says. Together, Henderson and Sorin convinced Williams how unique his hands are -- once-in-a-century stuff.

Every weekday at 6 a.m., Williams goes to work as an elementary school crossing guard. Then he's off to his main job as an in-school supervisor, helping kids who may be struggling. After school, he hits the gym, where he often waits hours for a spotter big enough to cover his weight. And then it's home to his wife and two children: Chelsea, his 14-year-old stepdaughter, and 5-year-old son Xavier. Sometimes Rich will go see a movie or tinker around the house. It is a quiet, controlled life.

He doesn't watch football on television. He has no favorite team. He doesn't regret abandoning the NFL. And he kind of wishes people would stop trying to make him feel bad about it. "At the end of the day, you have to live with the consequences of your decisions," Williams says. "With grip, maybe I can be a pioneer. Maybe it takes someone like me to make it more respected, not just a bunch of guys picking up weird stuff."

AFTER SHATTERING EVERY WORLD RECORD in grip at the Arnold, Williams walks around the packed expo collecting free supplement samples. He's happy, but a little put out. Mighty Mitts competitors had been promised a purse of $10,000, but after the event, a representative informed them that a sponsor had bailed, leaving the total haul at $5,000. So Williams earned $2,000 for winning, or half of what he was due. "The Arnold folks should have stepped up and made that right," says Sorin. "Some of these guys couldn't even cover their travel expenses."

On the expo floor, amid the bodybuilding tanners, extended razors and protein powders, Williams stumbles across a booth for Liquid Grip. The vendor is holding a contest: $250 to anyone who can hoist a weighted cone six inches in diameter. Williams approaches and asks what the world record is. "Uh, 182 pounds," answers the Liquid Grip rep, disinterested. The cone is a gambit, a way to lure customers. No one is supposed to actually lift the thing. Williams does -- once, twice, then again with more and more weight. "They were staring at me in shock," he says later, back at the DoubleTree Inn. "I ended up doing 190 pounds. I could have done more if I hadn't just gotten done competing."

Williams, showered and sitting on a lobby couch, says he gave some of his unexpected $250 windfall to Henderson, his roommate for the event. People don't realize, he explains, how hard these guys train (15 to 20 hours a week) or how little they earn (less than $6,000 annually). Grip didn't even start paying athletes until the past few years. Not that it's about the money. "I'm starting to realize there aren't a lot of guys out there like me," Williams says, laughing. And he's right. Rare is the man who moves everything he touches. "My strength is part of my testimony, my goal to inspire."

He says he is fiercer now than when he played football; he benches 620 pounds, squats 1,100, and his resting heart rate is 54. It's clear he owes a debt to his genes. His father, now 60, is still roughly his size and nearly as strong. His mother benched 250 pounds in high school. When Williams was 6, his dad introduced him to a Mr. T weightlifting set. The two started exercising together. They'd run six miles a day. If Williams couldn't continue, his father would hoist him atop his shoulders and keep running.

As he recounts the story, Williams' eyes begin to mist. Embarrassed, he sniffs and says, "My dream for myself? I want my son to tell his children that his father was a man who never gave up. A man who was strong."

He wipes his eyes, and then it dawns on him. How simple it would have been to miss. How, if he had made a different choice, if he had done the expected thing, he could easily have lived his whole life in the dark, never knowing his own strength.