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Matt’s Barbell: A Short Story

Posted Oct 08 2012 11:39am

The Olympic bar pictured here isn’t a top-quality bar by any standards. It’s a bit rusty; has some obvious bumps, dents and scratches… hell, when I loaded it into my car a few months ago, it literally started falling apart; one of the rotating sleeves figured out a way to detach itself from the rest of the bar. It sits along the wall behind my 80, 100 & 120lb dumbbells, out of the way but always in sight. I’ve never put a weight on this bar, nor do I have any plans to lift it, but it may be one of the most pieces of equipment in my home gym.

A few months ago, a good friend lost his 2 year battle w/leukemia. Actually, ‘good friend’ could easily be called an understatement. He was more of a ‘brother-by-another-mother’. I met Matt on the high school football practice field – which was really more of a gravel lot with just enough grass sprouting through to give it the label of ‘field’ – during the summer of 1986. We were both big, strong kids with the proverbial chips on our shoulders, so the coaches lined us up against each other every chance they could. I was the right offensive tackle, he was the left defensive tackle.

By our senior year, Matt was one half of the line, I was the other on sides of the ball. Through those 4 years, we spent countless hours training together, battling on the practice field, silently trying to outdo the other, making each other stronger, smarter, better. During 26 years of our friendship, we never spoke of our “competition” until I finally ended the silence mid-February of this year.

(Yes – that was an intentional nod to Henry Rollins, as Matt would certainly appreciate!)

I turned 40 (or as I prefer to call it, “20 again”) in February – the same day Matt had his 2nd stem-cell transplant. Many of us were cautiously-confident this would be his RE-birthday that we’d be celebrating for years to come.

Yes, it was leukemia, and yes… it was his second time going through it. The cancer mutated after the first stem cell transplant. We weren’t naive, but Matt was one of the strongest people (on many levels) you’d ever meet, so we were all approaching this as ‘another one of those things’ he would find a way to overcome. While all he really had to do to prepare for the transplant was lie there in the hospital bed, he obviously (and rightfully) had more on his mind than my birthday on that day.  A couple weeks later, he apologized for forgetting about it. I told him not to sweat it, I’d gladly give him the (re)birthday ‘win’ in our unspoken competition. He accepted the victory, acknowledged our ongoing ‘competition’ and laughed.

In the mid-’90s we often trained together at Quads Gym on Chicago’s south side. I’ve long since moved away, but he was still in the area. Even through the changes in ownership of the last decade (and lack of management’s attention to things such as lighting and cleaning), Quads was still his home. But when he was neutrapenic (immuno-compromised) due to chemo/transplant, etc., Matt’s workouts were scaled back immensely – and he was quarantined to his home, not unlike the ‘boy in the plastic bubble’.

Throughout his rock ‘em sock ‘em fight with cancer, Matt wanted two things more than . To go fishing w/his dad & brother – and to get back to the iron that defined him. Every time we talked, he’d speak of his itch to get back to some REAL weight, and not just the pair of dumbbells he brought to the hospital to help keep his head straight. Even though the weights he was moving were just a fraction of his peak (take his 800# squat, for example), he still took great pride in ANY progress he was able to make while simultaneously doing battle on the cancer-front.

In late March, it seemed as if he was actually cancer-free, though his blood counts were still taking awhile to recover. The doctors remained cautious and wanted him to limit any strenuous activities (you don’t get stronger when training, you get stronger when you recover, of course.) I still have an email from him dated April 7th that simply states, “I’m DYING to start training”. The following month, Matt was gone.

Which brings us back to the barbell… There are days when I could easily skip a workout in favor of 1000 other things. Sometimes my knees… or my shoulder don’t even want to go through the motions, let alone DO WORK. I, like everybody else, have distractions – and so many other things I’d like to do.

Matt’s family allowed me to choose one of his barbells. I requested this since our friendship was quite literally forged in iron, and as a reminder of our underlying (and ongoing) competition with each other. My home gym is also my office. No matter how many other things I be doing, with that barbell sitting just across the room, it’s awfully hard for me to find ANY reason to half-ass my own training. In the middle of a workout when the going gets tough and I want to stop before the last few reps, I know Matt – a guy who would’ve given anything to feel the weight of a fully loaded barbell across his shoulders just one more time – would brush off any excuses I could possibly invent with one of his characteristic “pffffffft”‘s.

Even though I now prefer to train alone, this barbell may be the best training partner I ever had.

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