Mighty mitts

Columbia man has the strongest hands on the planet, and a determination to make a difference

bgillespie@thestate.comMarch 4, 2012 

  • “Big Rich” DAY JOB: In-school suspension supervisor at Mill Creek Elementary in Columbia CLAIM TO FAME: Winner of the strongest hands event in the 2011 Arnold Strongman Classic SIZE: 6-foot-3, 415-pounds with 23-inch biceps, 33-inch thighs, 23-inch neck and 66-inch chest MIGHTY MITTS WHAT: 2012 Arnold Strongman Classic WHERE: Columbus, Ohio WHEN: This weekend
  • 2012 Arnold Strongman Classic Events include: 1. Lifting a 163-pound anvil by the horn with one hand, and then carrying it; 2. Picking up a pair of 172-pound dumbbells and carrying them; 3. A “Grip Medley,” which includes ripping phone books in half.

Rich Williams smiles, reaches across a counter in the office at Mill Creek Elementary School and extends his right hand in greeting. And the first thing you think – or perhaps the second, after “man, this is one large human being” — is: What does it feel like to grip the strongest right hand on Earth?

In fact, Williams — known as “Big Rich” in the world of the super-strong — has large but soft, cushiony hands. His grip is firm, but not overpowering, let alone painful. He could probably do serious damage with that grip if so inclined, but he saves that for his “work”: grabbing and lifting objects that ordinary men, even extremely strong ones, cannot.

The question comes to mind: Are people who know about his resume ever scared to shake his hand? The 6-foot-3, 415-pound Williams — with his 23-inch biceps, 33-inch thighs, 23-inch neck and massive 66-inch chest — laughs with delight.

“Actually, some of them try to squeeze my hand extra hard,” he said in his soft, almost gentle voice. “Like it’s a challenge or something.”

He rolls his eyes and grins: “I’m like, ‘Dude, what’re you doing?’” The image becomes that of a giant, laughing teddy bear of a man. It fits him, too.

Video: Strong hands, strong heart

Video by Tracy Glantz/tglantz@thestate.com

Weekdays at Mill Creek, he is “Mr. Williams,” not Big Rich. In his third year at Mill Creek Elementary as an in-school suspension supervisor, he gets up each morning at 5:50 a.m. to pull crossing-guard duty, keeping tabs on bus arrivals and students; later, he works with struggling students. In a previous job, he was at a high school, and says he’s “still learning about” his current youngsters, ages 4-11.

“I loved working with high school kids – they respected what I’d done more – but I like the elementary environment,” he said. “You catch the kids in their fundamental years.”

After school, afternoons from 3:30 p.m. until as late as 10 p.m., he’s in an Irmo gym, Athletes’ Arena, where several times a week he works specifically on hand strength, or “grip,” as the discipline is called by its dozen or so world-class practitioners. Richard Sorin, who owns Athletes’ Arena and produces his Sorinex line of weight-lifting equipment used by college and professional football teams – as well as the peculiar gear that tests Williams’ abilities – is grip’s 61-year-old local guru.

This weekend, Sorin will be in Columbus, Ohio, running the “Mighty Mitts” competition at the Arnold (as in Schwartzenegger) Strongman Classic, an annual event that draws tens of thousands of spectators. Williams will be there, too, expecting to again dominate in his third year of competition.

“I’ve spent 31 years (working) in exercise equipment, and doing grip seriously for 20 years,” said Sorin, who was fascinated by hand strength since he was a boy. “I wanted to stage a competition to determine the world’s strongest hands,” and in 2010 he and Terry Todd, director of the H.L. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas, began the Mighty Mitts.

In that time, Williams, 31, has become a grip icon. “It’s almost like going up against Paul Bunyan,” Sorin said.

Until October 2008, Williams was just a huge, muscular man with a passion for power-lifting. Then one day, he walked into Sorin’s gym during a “Santa Claws” grip competition and casually started doing things that caused the 61-year-old strength magnate’s iron jaw to drop.

“I came to do dead-lifts,” Williams said. “I didn’t care about grip then. But it was a challenge, so I said OK … and wound up winning.

“(Sorin) is the historian, he knows what’s legit. I didn’t know I had a powerful grip. But as time went along, I got better.”

Indeed. At last spring’s Mighty Mitts, one competition involved lifting a 163-pound anvil by the horn, with one hand, and then carrying it. One grip competitor, Odd Haugen, hoisted the anvil and got three feet before dropping it. No one else could even clear the floor.

Then Williams grasped the horn, stood and waddled 60 feet, eight inches before losing his hold – nearly twice his own winning 2010 mark. In another contest, Williams picked up a pair of 172-pound dumbbells, with thick handles 2.5 inches around, and carried them 100 feet – at a slow trot. “Only two or three men in the world can lift them … and he runs,” Sorin said, shaking his head.

This year’s Arnold/Mighty Mitts will consist of four events. Big Rich won two of them last year; the other two – a nine-event “Grip Medley” (including ripping phone books in half, lifting a 52-pound “Blob” shaped like a giant aspirin tablet with one hand, and the anvil lift/carry), and the “Wrist Roller” (twisting a two-inch-around roller to crank up weight of up to 400 pounds) – are new. Williams has practiced them all in preparation to defend his title.

“I consider myself to have one of the strongest work ethics is the world,” he said. His philosophy: “Stay humble, hungry and hard,” he said.

Because for Williams, grip is a journey, not a destination – and the destination, he says, is what matters.

A LOVE OF LIFE

He could’ve been in the NFL, a pulling guard instead of a crossing guard. A 265-pound high school football player from Charlottesville, Va., he played at Gardner-Webb College, first as a nose guard, then an offensive lineman. “I didn’t like (switching to offense), but I went with it,” he said. “After that, the love (for football) went away. It was a means to an end, to keep my scholarship.”

That didn’t keep away NFL scouts from coming to see the three-year starter in 2002, a 350-pounder by his senior year with 5.36-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He was projected as a third-round draft pick, and “that got the agents calling,” Williams said, along with representatives of the Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

But, Williams says now, his heart wasn’t in it. “To that point, I wanted to spend time going down that path to make others happy,” he said. “But it wasn’t something I had a love for.” Friends urged him to play just 2-3 years, “set myself up” financially, but “money never drove me. I was always content with my life.

“Plus I figured eventually, I’d have to get another job – they call the NFL ‘not for long,’ and I was thinking long-term; why not focus on what I wanted to do long-term?” And so he walked away from football, toward … well, he admits, he wasn’t quite sure.

He graduated in 2003, took a teaching job in Kings Mountain, N.C., where he met future wife Sue (the couple have a 15-year-old daughter by her first marriage and a son, who is 6). He still loved weight-lifting. Williams said that comes from his father, Richard Sr., who “got me into working out for high school football,” but also his mother, Lindsay, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound high-school shot-putter who once bench-pressed 225 pounds. He found a way to use that in other areas of his life.

In 2005, he joined Dallas-based Team Impact, a traveling youth ministry. “I’d do feats of strength at school assemblies, churches,” Williams said. “It was a way to spread our ministry.” The job lasted four years until, faced with a lack of funds, Team Impact let him go. “I got back from Chicago, was looking at going to South Africa, and I got a call, ‘Sorry, bro, we’re laying you off,’ ” he said.

The experience still confirmed in Williams’ mind that ministry would remain a part of his life. “God has big plans for my life,” he said. “I’m getting stronger, building a bigger platform. Times like those are a test; I trust in the Lord to direct my path when life doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

He laughed. “I’ve had a lot of moments like that since I turned down the NFL 10 years ago. I make 10 times less (money), but I’m happy. Maybe that’s what it’s about.”

To date, his domination in the world of grip shows no signs of making him wealthy, either. Competitors earn, at most, a few thousand dollars if they win. But Williams says his goal is to inspire people through his strength – and his words.

“I want to impact lives; I want eternal impact, not temporal,” he said. “Happiness isn’t a bank account. When you’re on your deathbed, you’re not going to be calling your accountant.

“Some people say (about him), ‘That guy is so weird.’” He laughed. “I don’t care.”

A REAL ‘ROCKY’

Terry Todd has seen more strong men than most. A former competitive lifter himself – he says Sports Illustrated declared him the world’s strongest man in the 1970s and early 1980s – he coached one of the world’s greatest power-lifters (and pro wrestler), Mark Henry, who, like Williams, tipped the scales at 400-plus pounds and had, Todd says, “very strong hands.”

Hand strength is a particular passion for Todd, too. He says his maternal grandfather, Marvin Williams, could break a “native pecan” (not a modern, soft-shelled one) between his thumb and forefinger into his 50s. “It’s harder than it sounds; I did break one, but I failed more often,” Todd said. One of his cherished possessions is a plaster cast of the huge, thick hands of a Silverback gorilla, which his wife, Jan (also a weight-lifting legend), procured for him from Atlanta’s Yerkes Primate Center.

“People are fascinated by strength in general and hands in particular,” Todd said. “Boxers often test the vigor (of opponents) by how they grip in the handshake. Hand strength is one of the last things to leave you; that’s fascinating to me.”

Todd first heard about Williams’ ability from Sorin, who brought Williams to watch a strongman show. “When I saw him in person, he was the closest thing I’d seen to Mark Henry,” Todd said. “They don’t make them like that too often.” At that strongman competition, Williams didn’t participate, but later warmed to the idea of grip competition.

“The first time I saw him do anything – besides walk around looking big – I wasn’t the least bit disappointed,” Todd said. “(Sorin) didn’t exaggerate; (Williams’) hands are totally off the charts. The first year, he won all three of the events we had – not barely, but by a good margin.”

Todd was most impressed by the now-legendary anvil lift-and-carry, “because he took it so much farther than anyone else,” he said. “We’re in the early stages of this sub-specialty (grip), and others will come along. A lot of what Rich can do is from how he was made by nature – but to get where he is now, he’s had to have both (nature and training).”

At this year’s Mighty Mitts, Williams is one of eight competitors, including Haugen (still competitive in his 60s) and Williams’ buddy, Tex Henderson. Winners in the Mighty Mitts can earn up to $1,000 per event, but the real reward is the recognition of having the world’s strongest hands.

Williams has seen that already. Last year, ESPN The Magazine assigned a reporter to cover him in the competition (the magazine earlier had done a story on him when he turned down the NFL), and the reporter was so impressed, Sorin said, that she not only spent four days interviewing him in Columbia, but then followed him to The Arnold a few weeks later.

“He’s a giant,” Sorin said. “He knows he’s strong, and his work ethic is beyond anything I’ve seen. He had done no grip until he came here, and at first he was awkward, but as soon as he caught on – lights out.

“He has a gift. He inspires people. He doesn’t realize the ripple effect of what he does. At the (Mighty Mitts), some of the world’s strongest people watch him and they marvel. They know what they’re seeing. I know, too, and it still amazes me.”

Sorin, as does Todd, invokes historic strongmen of the past when talking about Williams. In his office, he points to a poster of the late Paul Anderson, declared the world’s strongest man by the Guinness Book of World Records, who once moved a 6,000-pound weight – the largest ever – and who before his death founded a youth home in Vidalia, Ga., now in its 50th year.

Officials from the youth home “came to visit me because they said they wanted to see someone as strong as Paul,” Sorin said. “I see a lot of parallels in Paul’s life and Rich’s life.”

At Sorin’s gym, Williams often works out with Irmo High football players, encouraging them – and, Sorin said, awing them as well. “They know what they’re seeing in Rich,” he said. “But elementary school kids need mentors like him, too, even if they don’t know what they’re looking at.”

Last October, nearly 200 youngsters at W.G. Sanders Middle School got a chance to witness Williams at his example-setting best. He took part in Richland School District One’s “Reading Rocks” program, doing feats of strength: tearing phone books in half, rolling up an aluminum frying pan “like a steel burrito,” squeezing full soda cans until they exploded. For the finale, Big Rich broke an aluminum baseball bat – over his head.

Then, he said, “(he) shared the importance of reading.” Reckon the audience was paying attention?

Williams laughs at the question.

Before he left for this weekend’s Mighty Mitts competition, Williams was training hard. “I get tunnel vision,” he said. “I’m so intense, but it’s the only way I know to compete. I feel like I’m guilty if I miss a workout. I don’t want to be an average guy.”

He believes he has it all: not just his hands and strength, but a family and a life he loves, and opportunities to share a message he believes in. And the end is nowhere in sight.

“I love the ‘Rocky’ movies, because it’s the journey (to the title fight) that makes him the champion, not the fight itself. People love that,” Big Rich said, his soft voice suddenly full and strong. “Well, I’m living the Rocky story.”

He would be – if Rocky had been much larger, with much stronger hands.

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