Many years ago, I trained at a little hole-in-the-wall gym in Taylor, Texas. It was one hell of a gym, too; owned by a local cop, and very “old school.” Dumbbells over 200 pounds, more plates than you can imagine, and hardcore rock music played on the regular. Yes, ladies and gentleman, this was an iron kingdom!
While training there, I met a man named James. He was a very large, very strong man. The one thing that stood out the most was that his forearms looked like a man’s calves. Seriously, he looked like he had a slab of beef in those things. He became my first REAL lifting partner. He was far more experienced and knowledgeable than I was at the time, so I just did what he said. There were weeks we would train a body part five days in a row. I remember asking him if we should be doing that, because such and such magazine had an article that said you shouldn’t train so much. James looked at me and laughed and said: “Li’l Man, don’t ever believe a motherf***in’ thing in those big-time magazines! Don’t study the sport of bodybuilding, study the science and art of the body.” Those words hit me to my core because I was a martial artist and a fighter. It changed my perspective completely and forever on training.
After I trained with James for a while, he insisted that we change our training times to later in the evening. I showed up excited and ready to train hard on our first evening session and he said, “We aren’t training; we are here to learn.” So, we sat there and talked training for a bit when he looked up toward the front and said, “Time to learn, Li’l Man.” I looked up and I saw the largest man I have ever seen in person. He was a 6’8” black man that was built like three tanks. I was in shock at how massive he was.
James took me over to meet the walking mountain. The mountain’s name was John. He had a soft spoken voice, and when I went to shake his hand, my hand completely vanished in his. For the next three hours, James had me watch John train. He was not only mythical in size, but was also out-of-this-world strong. He started with squats and worked up to 700 pounds for 4 sets of 10 reps. I bet I re-calculated the weight on the bar at least 10 times, because I couldn’t believe it! He then moved to behind-the-neck military presses seated in a squat rack. His top set was 405 for 8 reps and he paused at the bottom each time.
During the course of his workout, I got to learn what he did for a living. He worked for the railroad. I was like, of course he does! This guy is John Henry from the stories I read when I was a kid. I never had the guts to really ask what specifically he did for the railroad. I was just happy to be able to see John train and hear what he had to say about it. He would laugh and joke with everyone at the gym and he took a real interest in what everyone had to say, no matter what it was about. He was a great human being (although I still have doubts he was truly human).
James even told him about me being a martial artist and a fighter. John thought it was cool as hell, and asked me all kinds of questions about it. Here is the biggest, strongest, most intimidating man I have ever met in my life taking an interest in what everyone else does. It thankfully shattered so many misconceptions I had up until that time.
John’s two boys showed up about half-way through his session. He stopped mid-set and hugged on them and talked to them about their day before he went back to training. His boys even went and started training, doing a routine their dad wrote for them.
After his training session, he made it a point to go around the room and talk to those he knew and the people he just met that night.
What I learned that night was not how to train better, but how to be a better human being, no matter who or what you are. While his insane strength was truly amazing, it was overshadowed by who he was as a man, father, and mentor to those in the gym.
I still can’t believe I met John Henry…
Strength & Honor