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 its a challenge or something.
He rolls his eyes and grins: Im like, Dude, whatre you doing? The image becomes that of a giant, laughing teddy bear of a man. It fits him, too.
Video by Tracy Glantzfirstname.lastname@example.org
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 hes still learning about his current youngsters, ages 4-11.
I loved working with high school kids they respected what Id 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., hes 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 grips 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.
Ive 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 worlds 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. Its 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 Sorins gym during a Santa Claws grip competition and casually started doing things that caused the 61-year-old strength magnates iron jaw to drop.
I came to do dead-lifts, Williams said. I didnt care about grip then. But it was a challenge, so I said OK and wound up winning.
(Sorin) is the historian, he knows whats legit. I didnt know I had a powerful grip. But as time went along, I got better.
Indeed. At last springs 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 years 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 couldve 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 wasnt in it. To that point, I wanted to spend time going down that path to make others happy, he said. But it wasnt 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, Id 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 wasnt 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. Id 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, were 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. Im getting stronger, building a bigger platform. Times like those are a test; I trust in the Lord to direct my path when life doesnt make a lot of sense.
He laughed. Ive had a lot of moments like that since I turned down the NFL 10 years ago. I make 10 times less (money), but Im happy. Maybe thats what its 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 isnt a bank account. When youre on your deathbed, youre not going to be calling your accountant.
Some people say (about him), That guy is so weird. He laughed. I dont 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 worlds strongest man in the 1970s and early 1980s he coached one of the worlds 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. Its 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 Atlantas 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; thats 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 Id seen to Mark Henry, Todd said. They dont make them like that too often. At that strongman competition, Williams didnt participate, but later warmed to the idea of grip competition.
The first time I saw him do anything besides walk around looking big I wasnt the least bit disappointed, Todd said. (Sorin) didnt 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. Were 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, hes had to have both (nature and training).
At this years 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 worlds 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.
Hes a giant, Sorin said. He knows hes strong, and his work ethic is beyond anything Ive 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 doesnt realize the ripple effect of what he does. At the (Mighty Mitts), some of the worlds strongest people watch him and they marvel. They know what theyre 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 worlds 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 Pauls life and Richs life.
At Sorins gym, Williams often works out with Irmo High football players, encouraging them and, Sorin said, awing them as well. They know what theyre seeing in Rich, he said. But elementary school kids need mentors like him, too, even if they dont know what theyre 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 Ones 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 weekends Mighty Mitts competition, Williams was training hard. I get tunnel vision, he said. Im so intense, but its the only way I know to compete. I feel like Im guilty if I miss a workout. I dont 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 its 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, Im living the Rocky story.
He would be if Rocky had been much larger, with much stronger hands.