ORLANDO, Fla. - Olympic bobsledder Howard Benford Siler Jr., an insurance executive when he retired in Central Florida 17 years ago, didn't much appreciate the way he was portrayed by John Candy in the movie "Cool Runnings."
Candy acted his part in the 1993 movie as a fumbling, washed-up rube who sought redemption by coaching four, ice-wary Jamaican athletes to compete as an Olympic bobsled team.
"The first half-hour to 45 minutes of that movie was a great misrepresentation of Howard," said his wife, Debra Shea Siler, "He wasn't a drunk and sloppy loser and all those things. But when the guys got off the airplane, that was spot-on.
"He was disappointed that Disney decided to make the movie a sort of comical situation as opposed to how serious their accomplishments were. There were scenes that made them look cutesy, silly.
"Howard said the guys were fun and easygoing but they were serious, which is the reason he accepted the job," his wife said. "And they were committed with more heart and soul than any athlete he ever coached."
Some months ago, when Siler was still actively playing senior softball, he was diagnosed with cancer. The Clermont resident died last week at 69.
By all accounts, he was an athletic stud, the opposite of Candy.
A Washington Post story about the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., described Siler as 6 feet, 200 pounds and built like a college fullback.
In the story, the 34-year-old Siler told of driving a 500-pound sled at 90 mph and crashing in a curve called Shady.
"I totaled that bob. It flipped over me and landed on my partner... Broke his skull in seven places. I got wrecked, too, but only my face. Nothing that wouldn't heal."
Siler took fifth place in the two-man sled event, achieving a modest comeback for the U.S., which had been in decline for many years in bobsledding.
"You know, they say a bobsled driver can't ask for much in life," Siler was quoted in the Post story. "When you jump in that seat, you only know two things for certain. The traffic's all one way. And if you crash, at least you won't burn."
Debra Shea Siler said that when she combed through his scrapbook she found a newspaper clipping from when he was in junior high school and had won a big basketball game by a point.
"He was an absolute, natural athlete who was good at everything," she said. "He had a knee replacement as a result of his bobsledding career. He had many injuries because of his bobsledding career. But nothing that kept him off the ball field at 69 years old."
Siler was a member of softball and bobsled teams in the Air Force, where he served for 13 years. His 30 years in bobsledding included being a nine-time member of the USA National Bobsled Team, a three-time Olympian and a Team USA coach.
A Chicago Tribune story in 1988 recounts the invitation for Siler to coach the Jamaicans. He was in his back yard, barbecuing ribs, when the phone rang.
"Guy on the other end asks, 'How would you like to be the coach of the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team?' I said, 'No thanks, I'm too busy coaching the Siberian surfers.'"
Siler eventually agreed and before long was besting other teams in international competition.
"The athletes are not the problem," Siler said in the Tribune story. "They just need the equipment, experience and facilities."
"If I say these kids can make it to the Olympics, they can make it to the Olympics," said the coach, played by Candy, in Cool Runnings.
In the movie, after the Jamaicans got off the plane and freaked out in their first blast of winter, their coach was asked if their Olympic entry was a big joke, or "do you really expect these Jamaicans to qualify?"
"Not only are they going to qualify, they are going to turn some heads doing it," the coach responded.
Along with his wife, Siler is survived by daughters Lisa Smith, Audra Claypool and Christina White; sisters Doris Breazel and Kathy Young; six grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews. Arrangements are by Becker Funeral Home.