The first time I saw Al Oerter, I hesitated before I approached him.
The assignment called for an interview at a Modesto hotel the night before the Relays. I had dealt many times with successful athletes, even supersized successful athletes. The golly-gee element already had been weaned from my system. It was just another interview and story.
Then I was directed toward Oerter, and all systems short-circuited.
He stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 275 pounds. He was bigger than life, all sloped shoulders and bulging muscles. His career already belonged to the archives for becoming the first American to win gold medals in four consecutive Olympics in the same event -- 1956, '60, '64 and '68 -- a feat equaled in the long jump by Carl Lewis three decades later.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
I swallowed hard, hoping there was still some saliva left in my mouth for the interview. But when I introduced myself, he was no less than polite and gracious.
"Let's get away from everyone and chat," he said.
I'll always appreciate his good manners that night as he spared a few moments for a young reporter. Oerter died Monday of heart failure at the age of 71, but he was ill for some time. Peers such as Jay Silvester and Olympic shot put champion Parry O'Brien visited him in recent years. Like everyone else in track and field, they respected one of the best.
Oerter was all class and dignity. In an event overstocked with behemoths and rough-around-the-edges posers, Oerter carried himself like an English count, earnest but not unpleasant. He broke down his event almost move by move and discussed geometric angles and aerodynamics, factors so vital in tossing the platter long distances.
I doubt the story was as good as the interview, but Oerter gained a fan that night. More important, The Relays owes him a lot for his many appearances in Modesto over the years. His duels in the afternoon sun against Silvester, John Powell, Mac Wilkins and others are remembered well.
Oerter's impact on the Relays, in fact, is permanent. Like many world-class athletes of his era, he got along with longtime Relays director Tom Moore. It was not a coincidence there were many first-class discus events during the Oerter era.
In the spring of 1963, Oerter convinced Modesto Junior College officials to relocate the discus sector and take advantage of the prevailing northwesterly wind.
"Al and a few others were hoping to set a world record," recalled Bob Hoegh, the MJC track coach at the time. "We threw due north back then, so we switched it."
To this day, discus throwers spin the disc due west toward the tall trees. In 1981, Ben Plucknett set a world record. The venue remains a favorite of Modesto's discus queen, two-time Olympian and two-time national champion Suzy Powell.
For the record, she refers to one of her idols as "Mr. Oerter."
"He's one of the greatest Olympic athletes ever, regardless of sport or discipline," Powell said. "He strikes a chord with most Americans, the way he rose to the moment."
Incredibly, Oerter never won at the U.S. Olympic Trials and, as fate insisted, never went into the Olympics as a favorite. He was a pure competitor who knew by instinct when to conserve strength and when to max out.
His résumé speaks for itself. He threw at a world-class level until he was nearly 50 and, in 1980 at age 44 following a year off, he nearly qualified for another Olympiad.
Later, he became an artist and channeled all that emotion and talent onto the canvas. His substance far exceeded his accomplishments.
My last conversation with Oerter took place in 2000 during the Olympic Trials in Sacramento. His words opened a window to what made him a champion.
"If you know how to get by this meet (the Trials), you'll have a chance at the Games," he said. "You'll know how to take care of the pressure. But the Games I went after. The Games were serious business. I used to take a day off right before the Trials and regain some nervous energy."
And if an athlete failed at the Trials?
"That's life. Accept it," he said. "You don't wring your hands for the rest of your life. Not everyone gets into the top three. Those who don't go home and start working harder."
Thank you, Mr. Oerter.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.