Muscle Memories: The Life and Death of a Champion
I used to work out daily. I bragged a 425 pound. bench press, a 1000-pound seated squat, and 125-pound dumbbell presses, yeah really, and that was just for openers. I lived for anything that supported misdirected toxic masculinity. My physique was top shelf!
Back then I knew my way around a weight pile, a hot girl, a good book, how to scribble a decent poem or short story, circumvent an alarm, pick a lock, and was an accomplished second story man. You could say I was, uhm, well-rounded. I had the very best trainers and teachers too. I was a good, no, I was a great student and under the most adverse conditions if I say so myself.
My physique was top shelf! Did I already mention that? Now, my insides might have been overcooked spaghetti caused by all the late-night whoring around, booze and drugs but everything comes at a price, right?
Well, to put all my cards on the table, maybe my mental health was shot, my emotional capacity that of 10-year-old tantrum driven, porno mag addict with social skills on par with a Viking, but hey, who doesn’t have their flaws? Like I said, I was well-rounded.
I mean, right out of the gate I wasn’t working with much. There were no heart-to-hearts about the birds and the bees. My upbringing was questionable, life skills almost nonexistent, but I had manners. Yes, impeccable manners, my folks made sure we were well-mannered. That aside, other than what ma had taught us how to survive, I possessed only very basic life skills. I had zero idea how I would make it in this world.
But who knew, before I became an advocate of the sedentary lifestyle and what not to do to promote a long-life and healthy physical being, I once was a fine physical specimen of sorts. That’s worth something right?
That was in another lifetime. A lifetime that was about survival of the fittest.
Fast forward 25 years.
Believe me it took work to get to become the expert couch potato slug I am today. Don’t fool yourself into believing becoming a couch potato slug is easy. It’s not. It takes nothing short of total dedication.
Working out, running, sweating your balls off may seem like work but knowing just what combination of belt buster snacks to gorge on to self-medicate serious mental health issues, depression and self-loathing to assuage the pain of past mistakes made by leading a life of hedonism is, well, no easy task.
On occasion, the universe has a way of reminding me of what life used to be like now that I finally have my shit together, well, somewhat together. The universe likes to remind me of what not to do if I want to keep my shit together.
When I get ahead of myself, which isn’t hard to do, I begin the mental masturbation of pining for the old days. The old days when the money was fast, booze and drugs plentiful, and women easy. These days, those that didn’t rat you out, kill each other over money, become reduced to gin joint rummies, overdosed on drugs, or get AIDS, either woke up and went straight, are doing a long stretch in the joint or are dead. The latter applies to most.
When I start feeling sorry for myself and I get reminded of how it shitty the old days really were. Well, maybe not totally shitty. It’s twisted how easily we can glorify all the bad old days. We willfully ignore memories of the shit that caused so much grief. Maybe because bad can be fun?
Today, I see these things through different glasses. Back then, I accepted even welcomed the dark side of the life. I chose to live in it and accepted its consequences. Just bad juju.
In my youth, trouble and the price I paid were minor inconveniences on my road of life. I knew no better back then, and I cared even less.
All I wanted to be, was a street guy. I walked down dark alleys even when the streets were brightly lit. Every waking day was one of great uncertainty in which anything could happen. A life that began with a misdirected youth eventually led to a chaotic adulthood.
I had a knack for finding others like me. Phil Rohde was one of those.
Phil and I could not have come from more dissimilar backgrounds and upbringings. Yet we were two people living under very similar circumstances.
Like I said, the universe has its ways. Phil and I had crossed paths several times in our lives without even trying. It was as if our paths were meant to intersect. Sometimes it’s the universe that happens and you don’t even recognize it, sometimes you subconsciously search for it, other times, it’s just dangerous. There are no coincidences in this life, at least not from where I stand.
Yet, there are always lessons to be learned from it.
To go all the way back to the beginning, I first met Phil at one of the three high schools I would ultimately be expelled from. I was an intelligent kid who couldn’t get out of his own way. But that’s another story.
I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on him in the high school lunchroom. He was huge, a fucking monster. Conan the Barbarian. Five guys rolled into one. Little did I know then that he was marginally famous and, in some circles, quite infamous. Even notorious.
Phil was a college educated athlete and product of a well to do family, with a master’s degree in education and a teaching certificate. From where I stood, he had it all.
For a period, he was a gym instructor until he held some unruly punk over a second story railing and threatened to drop him on his head. Sadly, he did not as this kid was a real punk. That said, being held by your ankles over a second-floor railing by a man who was a former ‘Mr. America’ and as bodybuilding myth Joe Weider once put it, “pound for pound one of the best bodybuilders in the world”, is not my idea of fun.
Phil also had a bit of a temper. A flaw likely increased ten-fold by the massive doses of steroids he injected. It made him seem more intimidating than he really was and would ultimately be his undoing. He would eventually encounter people much more intimidating than him. Serious people. Extremely dangerous people. My sometimes dinner partners.
Admittedly, Phil had a god complex, something in a moment of weakness would confess to me. He thought he was God. The good Catholic school kid gone bad.
Some of us can admit and accept who and what we are, even embrace it. Others can’t ever come to accept their lives and times as the culmination of choices made.
Everything has a price; sometimes choices can cost you a lot.
It was 1984, I was a cocksure 21-year-old, already on my second stretch. I strode across the prison yard confidently making my way to the weight pile. Like ping pong balls my eyes bounced around suspiciously observing everyone in sight. Streetwise, tightly wound, ready to strike at a moment’s notice and utterly paranoid. Cool to the touch, a psyche full of rage. I had become a solid convict.
Not exactly the thing bright futures are made of. Like any young guy in the joint, I had a lot to learn about life but was wise enough to have nothing to prove. Mentors and mentorship aren’t positive attributes of prison life, so your kind of on your own when it comes to learning prison etiquette and navigating life behind the walls.
Men behind the wall ‘do not suffer fools gladly’ and there is little room for error. But I managed as I straddled the blurred line between sanity and total madness. My escape from the madness and monotony was to spend my time on the yard every chance I had. Having been an avid weightlifter in my teens was something I continued in the joint.
In my early twenties I was already a veteran schooled in the art of doing time. I had learned prison yard etiquette and earned my respect the hard way. You work out with your own, unless you’re neutral, not hooked up, not gang associated, which I was, gang associated that is. Therefore, I had to respect my religion and obey the laws of the jungle.
Out on the yard were a couple of man beasts lifting weights. There always is. Sure, they look scary, but looks can be deceiving because it’s usually the little guy you need to worry about.
On the street a guy’s physical health and mental well-being go straight into the shitter. They’re trivial matters, far less important than getting what he wants and doing whatever has to be done to get it. Once you’re in stir, all those things that didn’t mean shit on the street suddenly become the principles by which you lead your unprincipled life when you’re doing a stretch.
I was working on a bench press with a biker I had come to know as a workout partner when a shot-caller of a rival Latin Kings gang crew, Chinaman, had stopped by to say hello. I maintained good relations with rivals, it was good politics. I always had a knack for good politics, it is what has helped me survive all my life. Still, we both knew how things worked if our crews had to go up against each other.
It’s funny, knowing that at any given moment you could be forced into a situation that caused you to hurt or even kill someone you liked and respected. Some would think to strictly avoid each other. Quite the opposite is true.
With the knowledge and reality of our situations, the mutual respect Chinaman and I shared only grew. We both knew we would do what we had to do if push came to shove. Until then we could do business together and keep relations social.
Chinaman had on occasion straight out attempted recruit me into his crew. He hoped I would leave my own and hook up with his. It was never going to happen, but he said the door was always open even back out on the bricks. Many would have taken offense to such an offer; I accepted it as a compliment. On the street, his crew was heavy and made money.
He was a big guy, short and stout topping out at about 300 lbs. Some guys let that physical flaw fool them. What he lacked in physique he made up for in brains and savvy. He was a beast and took care of business when necessary.
On the street he and his people were big in the dope game and moved heavy weight. This amongst other reasons caused me to avoid a deeper connection to him. Moving dope wasn’t my game. It certainly wasn’t a moral issue; it was strictly business. Judges were handing out double digit bids for dope cases. I wasn’t in the mood for that kind of shit.
Whenever you take down any kind of score, you need be ready for anything and know it can all turn to shit fast. That’s what you sign up for. That said, you can still weigh the risk vs. reward. In the dope business where you better watch your friends closer than your enemies, the least of your worries are the cops and courts.
Still, from everything I knew Chinaman was good people.
When he approached me, he had a monster of a guy by his side. Middle-aged, six foot two, muscles on muscle, blond, pasty prison white with perfect teeth. His muscle. Phil.
Mr. America, commented on my weightlifting ability and good form in a group of guys who were just begging for torn ligaments and a lifetime of back problems due to their lifting form.
Having managed a good solid all around build top to bottom, I had transcended the average penitentiary weightlifter build of heavily muscled torso and arms and scrawny below the waist. Skinny legs and a big upper build were always a dead giveaway that a guy had done most of his lifting in the joint. Phil recognized me as an exception to the rule in our environment.
Shaking hands, he commented that I looked familiar. Although I immediately knew who he was, as always, I played my cards close to my vest. I replied that we had likely crossed paths in Joliet.
From the looks of Phil, I knew I could learn a lot about body building and health. We chopped it up a bit. Phil made comment we should lift together sometime. We shook hands again and headed our separate ways.
Phil was doing a five-year bid, his second, for transportation of controlled substances and grand theft auto. It was the culmination of a romantic relationship gone bad, his girlfriend’s stolen car and the delivery of a kilo of coke. He smacked her around, stole her car, picked up a kilo of coke, she called the cops and dropped a dime on him. Relationship over.
A five-year sentence was a nice deal for his offense. Phil was educated and manipulative and knew how to play the part as the good guy who made a mistake — or two. The intellectual educator, celebrity former Mr. America who had broken bread with the best bodybuilders of the time; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee Haney, Franco Columbo, Sergio Oliva, Lou Ferrigno to name a few. Men who had gone on to be titans in their respective industries.
Phil like most of the men in his chosen sport, fell far short of being bodybuilding titans who were the exceptions to the rule. Phil fell into the rule category, in the ranks with those too often self-serving, devious, volatile, manipulative, emotionally bankrupt with little regard for others.
Not that they were all criminals, they just had what it took to be a good criminal.
They woke daily to eat weights, shoot steroids and lived to swagger down the runways of the gods under the bright lights while people cheered them on and filled the void in their vacant psyches. The life of a world class bodybuilder, big egos and bigger inferiority complexes.
Still, this was enough to get him multiple passes and leniency with the law. After all he was the golden-boy, handsome, educated, good family background and an expensive mouthpiece.
He played a courtroom, judge and jury like he played his girlfriends. A little sweet talk, smile bright, and built like a Greek god, soon they were putting him up rent-free in their condos, parading him around in their Porsche and paying for his gym memberships, supplements, and steroids. Paying for his bodybuilding lifestyle. Arm candy. That is, until they met the real Phil.
I’ve been asked; what I could have possibly seen in Phil while painting such an unflattering picture of him. It’s hard to explain. I was no different than him. My picture was no more flattering than his. We were similar in many ways though how we got where we ended up was different. He also was different around me he was real.
There was the side of Phil he offered, and I received; his hard times and hopes and dreams, admitted weaknesses, fears, freely sharing his of his vast knowledge. There were the intellectual conversations we shared. Most people we associated with you couldn’t get very deep with, Phil and I could go to that intellectual level. But he also admitted that it likely would not end well.
In the early days, I would run into Phil occasionally on the yard and chop it up a bit. Eventually we would start lifting together on occasion. Me being the benefactor of his wealth of knowledge. We never talked gang politics or any of that shit. It was strictly about lifting and learning. He taught, I learned. I learned form, nutrition, and as I always learned, about the human condition. Since the beginning I have been a student of the human condition.
In turn I introduced him to people I knew on the yard. People who could help him on the outside. People often say that I know everybody. Even as a kid I knew people, a had a lot of connections.
Everything comes to an end.
Eventually we finished our respective sentences and hit the bricks again. As suspected, we each returned to out street lives with haste. Phil to his world and I to mine. Who knew we would once again cross paths not far down the road.
My world consisted of conmen, thieves, extortionists, stick-up men, drug dealers and murderers. General makers of mayhem, with a smattering of good decent people I kept outside this circle. People I could count on.
My entire life I’ve been around crime and criminals. Ever since I was a young boy, I always had alternate worlds I inhabited, walking in different shoes and wearing various masks. I had a knack for disappearing for periods of time whenever I had to recharge. I believe this ability is part of what ultimately saved me.
Fast forward to one of the periods in which I attempted to get clean and change my life. Admittedly, getting clean was slightly easier than changing my lifestyle. Crime is a lifestyle and can easily become an identity.
Then came the first of many shots at change if not redemption.
I walked into the room where I had been attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous for about six months. Another battle to try and get clean. Like most criminals I had issues, big ones. Mine were booze and drugs, a lifestyle since the tender age of ten years old. Like the crime, addiction was something I came by honestly. I lived and breathed it. I saw it daily.
Social, moral and emotional bankruptcy was the rule, complete dysfunction the norm, violence constant. I could lay my deadly issues all on my childhood but that would be a crock of shit. I made my choices. To be honest, I didn’t do the things I did because I got high, I got high to escape the things I did. I made a conscious choice to walk amongst criminals.
I didn’t know too many people in the rooms of AA very well which suited me just fine. I preferred it that way. I avoided getting close to people. Maybe that’s why it would take me several more years to finally get it.
Who knows. I had always been cautious with people in general. They just weren’t my kind of people. Little did I know then that they were exactly my kind of people.
I took my seat as usual just in time for the meeting to start. As usual I scanned the room looking for any good-looking girls I may want to get to know, my larger concern in life at the time. From across the room a hand shoots up high and waves to me, Phil sat at the other end of the table.
I wasn’t at all surprised to see him in the room. Opposites we may have been, though alike in so many ways. Other than a brief introduction, neither of us spoke during the meeting, an issue of trust of others in the room and our belief that we were different from them. We weren’t.
For the next several months we would hang out on occasion and talk about the bad old times. Phil needed work as he was still on paper, and his parole agent was riding him hard. I had some connections at a strip that needed muscle. He fit the role, ridiculously huge, intimidating to the average civilian, and adept at being an asshole when necessary.
The guys knew of Phil, a few had history with him on the circuit and were glad to have him. That was that. I introduced him, they chose him, he was on his own.
He was in a different class than most of the muscle heads he worked around. To begin with he was highly intelligent and articulate. Most of the other guys were not. They may have strictly been muscle, but they were dangerous muscle. Phil was not, he wasn’t built that way. Despite what others thought of him, he was inherently a good guy who looked the part but wasn’t.
In that world you can look the part, but you had better be able to put in the work. Sometimes the guy you wouldn’t give a second look is the one who will do the most damage.
Because of his pseudo-celebrity Phil would access bigger names, much stronger more capable guys than those at the club. The kind of people the strip joint muscle aspired to please. People who verified you and kept you close at an arm’s length before they let you into their world.
He got around and I’m sure he made a move or two for those big shots. Those are the guys you worry about.
Addictions always come home. It wasn’t long before Phil went back to the street, the gigolo hustle, and drugs. An alluring lifestyle hard for him to give up, and I imagined hard for anyone to willingly give up. We spoke frequently by phone but didn’t get together too often. I was busy trying to stay clean and trouble free, but like Phil, my lifestyle was hard to change.
Unsurprisingly, Phil went MIA for a time.
One day, a mutual AA acquaintance contacted me telling me to pick up the daily newspaper. John a long-time sober college fraternity brother of Phil and himself once a competitor on the bodybuilding circuit had assisted Phil in getting sober. John understood our relationship and that I was Phil’s go to for talks on certain subject’s others may not understand.
I picked up the newspaper to find and article about an ex-con, strip club bouncer, dope dealer, hustler who had hustled a female romantic interest. Confronted with a long stretch Phil had made a choice to become an informant and wire up for the feds and tape conversations of the club owners and their illegal activities in and out of the club.
I wasn’t surprised that when confronted with the choice Phil made the choice that he did. It happens more often than one might think. The bullshit about loyalty amongst criminals, yada, yada, yada is what it is, bullshit. You always need to be careful what you talk about around people you do know, much less anyone you don’t. A lot of guys will snitch when faced with a long stretch.
As bad as Phil wanted to be part of a world, a brotherhood of criminals, he wasn’t cut out for it, he just wasn’t built that way. Unfortunately for him, the people he wired up on were.
One night, an argument at the club with a well-known guy, an enforcer, ended up with Phil left in a parking lot badly beaten, and warned to not come around anymore. A bruised ego caused the mistake of verbal retaliation. Phil bitterly threatened to go to the FBI and tell them things he knew, which probably wasn’t much anyway.
But it doesn’t need to be much.
He was beaten more and shot in the stomach and left to bleed out. His extreme muscle mass is likely what saved him. He happened to not be wired up that night. No one was listening, no one was coming the rescue.
Badly beaten and laying in a pool of blood was the culmination of all his higher education, good upbringing and upper middle-class existence.
By no small miracle Phil managed to crawl far enough away to make it to a pay phone of a local 24-hour-diner. He used his phone call to call his handler in the FBI. They got to Phil before anyone else could and he talked about everything he could.
Sometimes when you think a part of your life is gone it comes back to pay a visit.
It’s hard to change your life at least from where I stood in mine. It would take years before I committed to my new life. It’s even harder to change your playgrounds and playmates. Even after I did, I still had contacts and connections that will likely remain for a lifetime.
Phil was gone and assumed in the witness protection program. It didn’t matter to me as I had nothing to do with his situation. I went on about my life.
About a year later a call that I never imagined I would get came unexpectedly.
Once again, John, left me a message, “can you please give me a call”. I did. What I didn’t expect was the message to be one sent from Phil now gone in WITSEC. The first thing John said was “I’m only relaying a message. I don’t want to get involved, but I figure I owe him this much.”
I listened, thanked him, and hung up. After some consideration I reached out to the number John gave me. It was an unlisted payphone, that much I was able to find out.
We sat in the dayroom of the YMCA in a near west suburb of Chicago. An unimpressive whitewashed room with several round tables, cheap plastic K-Mart chairs and a coffee vending machine. It reminded me of a high school lunchroom, not unlike the one I had first seen Phil in. Except this wasn’t high school.
Eerily quiet as the bright winter sun reflecting off the fresh white snow shone through the windows, the room was empty except for us. Our conversation was neither uncomfortable nor forced. We spoke freely. An air of melancholy consumed Phil. He looked tired, defeated, and worried; he had reason to be.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that crept over me; this was the culmination of both of our lives, our choices. I still had a lot to look forward to, he, not so much so. My eyes scaned the room and windows around us. Old habits die hard.
Was he sorry, no, not for the choices that got him to this table in this room in this YMCA at least. He flat out admitted to me that he thought he knew what was best even when he knew he didn’t. He repeated his god statement; “You know, I always thought I was a god. My own god. I knew it all. Invincible.” That was all he could say when I asked him why he left the witness program.
He was done testifying, guys were convicted and gone away. Not an earth-shattering criminal case by any means, just another bunch of pimps, dope dealers, juice loan collectors and worker bee criminals taken down. What had Phil accomplished? Not much. It was more about bruised ego, personal survival and payback than anything.
He didn’t last long where they sent him to start fresh. He just didn’t have it in him. Self-delusion once again convinced him he was his own god and believed they could never get to him. So, he called on his handlers and said he wanted out.
What did they care? They used him up. They gave him what he needed and got what they wanted. So, you want to leave go on your own, there’s the door. The Fed threw him a few bucks, and per his request set him up at the YMCA then cut contact. He had nothing else to offer.
We talked about old times in and out of the joint. He told me to keep working out, that I was a natural. He said he just wanted to say hello one last time and thank me for our friendship over the years. It was only then that I realized how few people had ever offered a helping hand in his life.
He mentioned he would visit with his family, his folks and then disappear. The cocky, confident Phil I knew wasn’t there. I knew it, he knew it.
He didn’t ask but I knew he couldn’t have much money on him, so I gave him the few four or five hundred bucks I had in my pocket. He was humble and grateful. His rare moment of humility threw me off. Once again, he looked tired, defeated and worried.
After about an hour we stood, shook hands and said our goodbyes. The reality that we would not see each other again went unsaid. It was strange feeling, as if I was closing the door on a chapter of my life and I had nothing to fill it with. So has been the case with so much of my life.
As I left the YMCA crossing the property to the parking lot, I caught myself scanning my surroundings for anyone watching me. Some paranoia never gives up.
Was I any different than Phil? Not really. What separated us was ego and choices. I knew how to walk softly, when to speak and when to listen. I knew what to get involved in and what not to. I hid in plain sight better than he did. Part of me was convinced he wanted to meet to feel me out for any possible information on potential harm I had in his situation as much as to say goodbye.
Phil was in the wind.
Time went by and like so many other things I filed the Phil experience deep into the recesses of my mind. You must convince yourself you know nothing about some things in case anyone comes around asking. I was good at that.
Nothing lasts forever.
The phone rang. The voice on the other end I knew though hadn’t heard in a while. John, Phil’s college fraternity brother caught me off guard. It had been close to a year since we last spoke.
He wanted to let me know that Phil had been found in a ditch in a western suburb of Chicago. According to John he was left for dead and that was all he knew. There was no easy way to process this news. It was not my first phone call of this nature, nor would it be the last. It was part of the world I inhabited and had since childhood.
Oddly enough I never read about it in the newspaper or hear it on the evening news. I wrote it off as simply not newsworthy, just another Chicago gangland slaying. Part of me wondered if it was story concocted for my benefit and that Phil had re-entered the protection program? Maybe he simply wanted people to believe he was dead and the idea of him being any threat was off the table.
I figured it was just my own deep sense of cynicism and paranoia. It had nothing to do with me yet had everything to do with me as I had been his middleman in many ways. I spent many hours listening to his secrets and had introduced him to people.
Phil, like I, was a lot of things. Most of all he was a person who found himself in a world he should not have been. Our paths met multiple times over the years, and I learned a lot from Phil in our short time together especially from his demise.
As time goes by, I still work hard to walk the straight line. It’s not always easy and at times I falter. It’s all about finding the strength, building the momentum, remembering the hard times and what can happen if I fall too far back.
I just keep moving forward.