Bob Thompson relaxed on a table in the tiny Northwest Washington gym and explained how he made the journey from Virginia redneck to coach of an all-black, inner-city Junior Olympic weightlifting team.
"It doesn't take much," he said. "Just caring."
As Thompson talked, his young team members practiced.
A small 14-year-old boy struggled with a bar-bell that was nearly twice his weight. He started to lift it, staggered, and finally let the weight drop to the floor, narrowly missing his toes.
"You let your head defeat you," Thompson called out. "Concentrate on your technique."
The boy tried again. And this time he succeeded.
"I try to teach the boys that you don't have to big to lift weights," Thompson explained. "It's all technique - how you do it."
Thompson has taught the youngsters the techniques. And, in the past four years, Thompson has turned out two Junior Olympic champions, and his team has won 15 team awards and 150 individual awards in national, state and regional competitions.
Altogether, there are seven boys in the tiny gym (which used to be a classroom) in Rabut Recreation Center at Second and Peabody streets NW. They range in age from 13 to 19 years, and their own accounts, some of them have been in trouble with the law. Thompson and the boys fixed up the gym themselves, painting it bright blue and white. One of the boys who was on the team painted murals of other team members on the walls. Trophies line a shelf on one wall of the gym.
The gym is the home of Crushers Unlimited - the only black Junior Olympic Weightlifting team in the country. Thompson is their founder and coach.
For 48 hours every week, Thompson is a D.C. firefighter, working out of Engine Company 22 at Gerogia and Missouri avenues NW. He is 39 years old and has been a fireman for more than 16 years.
For the past four years Thompson has spent at least three hours a day, five days a week, training these boys to be weightlifters. He has taken them to competitions all over the country in a fire-engine red van which he bought for the team.
As coach of the Crushers, Thompson receives no pay, and by his estimate has spent more than $4,000 of his own money on the team. His work with the boys won him one of Washingtonian Magazine's "Washingtonian of the Year" awards in 1977.
Thompson, who describes himself as a red-neck, is from Danville, Va. He left school after the 10th grade. In 1961, after a stint in the Air Force, Thompson moved to Washington to join the fire department. He is divorced and lives in Takoma Park.
He founded the Crushers in January 1974. And although the team has only seven members now, more than 100 boys have participated in the weightlifting program since it began.
Thompson and the team practice in the small gym from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. MOnday through Friday. Because the gym is closed on weekends, the team has to go elsewhere to practice. Sometimes Thompson takes them to facilities in Montgomery County.
Most of the youngsters who are in the Crushers live near the school or firehouse. But one member, 19-year-old Ron Crawley, lives in Southeast Washington and travels in three hours and a day on the bus to attend practice.
The program began when Thompson, who had done some weightlifting in the Air Force, took a set of weighs to the firehouse.
"I would work out a little bit when I wasn't doing anything else. Pretty soon, some of the boys in the neighbourhood started coming around, and I started teaching them.
"We outgrew the firehouse, and the recretion department offered us some space in Emery Recreation Center across the street from the fire-house. We stayed there until 1976," he said. In the four years' time, the city's recreation department has put $1,300 into the program.
Thompson said that he started working with black boys because "I just happened to be working in a community that is black."
"Most of the boys don't have both parents at home. Or if they do, they don't have a very good relationship with their parents. Most of them wouldn't walk in here if they did.
"If they do walk in here, they're looking for something," Thompson said.
Tony Sims, a 17-year-old junior at Roosevelt High School, lives down the street from the firehouse where Thompson works. He has been in the program for four years.
"At first, I was just looking for something to develop my muscles, get stronger.
"I found that my body could handle the work, and that I was pretty good," Sims said. He has won more than 60 weightlifting awards and broken several Junior Olympic national records.
Sims said that the Crushers has given him "something to do with my energy. Now I want to be a champion.
"I want to be somebody. I'm somebody now because of this program," he said.
Sims and the other team members agree that the Crushers is more than a weighlifting team, primarily because of their relationship with Thompson.
Anthony Moore, a 17-year-old 10th grade student at Phelps Vocational School, has only been in the Crushers two months, but said he feels close to Thompson and the other boys.
"At first I was tripping out. He (Thompson) is white, right? I didn't know how take him. I thought he was a little nuts.
"But he and the Crushers accepted me right away and made feel like a part of the club. Bob has even given me some advice about personal problems. And I know he's there when I need him, that he would help me out if I need him," he said.
Thompson said that he is trying to fulfill other needs in the boys' lives.
"I know that if I had had somebody to talk to when I was growing up, things would have been different in my life. I went through a hell of a lot of pain, and I think it could have been different," he said.
"Something of the things I'm giving them are the things I misses as a child. My father never talked to me. He never told me anything. He never took me anywhere.
"He wasn't mean to me, but he just didn't have time to spend with me, so I had nobody to look up to. I had no model," he explained.
"I have a need to try to provide those things that I didn't feel I got. I try to project a father image," he said.
"Tony (Sims) is the closest thing I've got to a son," he said.
While Thompson talks about building champions now, he said the program didn't have that as a goal to begin with, and that the program is also for those boys who don't have championship potential.
"Everybody can't be a champion. It doesn't make any difference. We're talking about self improvement. We're talking about providing a positive activity in which these boys can get involved, learn to believe in themselves and win self-respect," Thompson said.
While he says, the program does have its frustrations.
"Our communications with the parents have not been that good. I haven't been able to get them as involved as I would like," he said.
Thompson said that he has had a running battle with the recreation department.
"We've been asking for more money to buy equipment for years. We need more space," he said.
Thompson said he would like to expand the program and take it to other parts of the city.
"Rabaut is not really in a disadvantaged area. The only way I can get to the boys who need the program the most is to get into the places where they live - in Shaw, Southeast and Anacostia," he said.
The major problems are lack of space and lack of money.
Thompson wants to devote full time to setting up a fire department community center, something like the police department's boys club, he said.
"We have asked the fire department to turn over to us and abondoned fire house 9th and R streets NW. We could turn it into a community center and expand the program for weighlifters and add some exercises programs for athletes as well as non-atheletes."
According to a fire department spokesman, Francis Flaherty, retired Fire Chief Burton Johnson was "very interested in the possibility."
Flaherty said that the fire department has been awaiting the appointment of a new chief before giving further consideration to Thompson's proposal.
Thompson said that, is addition to more space, the team needs money for uniforms, warm-ups suits and shoes.
"We've gone to meets with mismatched uniforms and holes in our socks," he said.
They also need money for entry fees for out-of-city meets and for food and lodging when they travel.
"When we travel, we camp out or sleep wherever people will let us.
"We've become junk food junkies on the road, because that's al we can afford.
"The boys and their parents chip in whatever they can, I put in what I can, and we pool the money," he said.
In addition to competiting in meets, the team also puts on free exhibitions and clinics in public schools, in shopping malls and in facilities for handicapped children thoroughout the metropolitan area, Thompson said.
At the moment, the team is getting ready to host the Teenage National Olympic Weightlifting Championship, which will be held April 22 and 23 in Rockville. The event will be sponsored by Montgomery County Department of Recreation.
Thompson is also convinced that two of the Crushers - Ron Crawley and Tony Sims - will be selected to compete in the Junior World Olympics, which will held this summer in Greece.
Thompson is planning to retire from the fire department in three and a half years, after 20 years of service.
"I'm prepared to give the program until I retire. They I want to travel." he said.
He believes the program is strong enough to survive without him as it did when he took a four-month leave from the fire department in 1975 and hitchhiked through Europe and ended up in India.
"The concept for the Crushers came out of my head, but it's more than me now. I've got some boys that believe in this program very much. I think we're on the verge of being able to do somethings for a lot of kids.
"Success breeds success. We've been successful. We've developed some good athletes. Whether we develop any more is not really important."