The Washington Post

70-year-old raises money for Liberty High School in a one-sided challenge to its student athletes

Dan Durante, 70, did 39 pull-ups in 53 seconds. (Hey, everybody has an off day now and then, right?) (Richard A. Lipski/For the Washington Post)

This wasn’t going to be a fair fight. Everyone knew that going in. On one side was Dan Durante, trim and fit, but seven decades on in life. On the other, about 20 members of the Liberty High School football team and 10 cheerleaders, all in fine shape and more than 50 years younger. This one had mismatch written all over it.

Yes, Durante crushed them. Score one for the old guys.

Lenny Bernstein covers health and medicine. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports. View Archive

The contest was to see who could do the most pull-ups, an exercise Durante practices every day and the kids do not. At home, on his own pull-up bar, he routinely does more than 50 in less than 60 seconds.

“There’s life after 20,” he told the teenagers as they gathered in the high school weight room in Bealeton for the friendly competition. Pull-ups, he said, are a “very specific exercise. If you don’t do it, you won’t be able to do a lot of them” today.

“But it says what you can do.”

When fitness buff Dan Durante, 70, wanted to donate money to a small-town athletic team, he decided to make them work for it. So Durante challenged the Liberty High School football and cheerleading teams in Bealeton to a pull-up contest. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Indeed it says what we all can do. Fewer than 15 percent of people age 65 and over do any regular strength training at a time in life when it is especially critical. Sarcopenia — the natural decline in muscle mass that occurs as we age — and accompanying problems, such as osteoporosis, falls, obesity and difficulty climbing stairs, can be held at bay long into old age by simple weight-bearing exercises, experts say.

None of that was on anyone’s mind Saturday. The pull-up challenge Durante issued to the teens was a fundraiser. For every pull-up (palms facing outward) or chin-up (palms in) they could do, he would contribute a dollar to the football team, which needs more than $15,000 every year for equipment and travel costs that the Fauquier County school doesn’t cover. The top boy and girl would each earn $200 for the team. And if any of them could get within 10 pull-ups of Durante’s total, he’d pay $10 per pull-up.

“This is all Dan’s idea. This is something he wanted to do for the team,” head football coach Sean Finnerty told the group in the weight room, which included a few parents who came to watch.

Durante, he said, had come to every football game, cheering as Liberty won its conference championship and made it to the second round of the playoffs.

“If he can do this at age 70, what can you do as high school kids by pushing yourselves?” he asked.

Finnerty is also Durante’s stepson-in-law. They hatched the fundraiser sitting around on the deck after a barbecue one day. The first one, in March, raised more than $900. This time, unfortunately for the kids, Durante had more time to train.

As a teenager in Quincy, Mass., Durante did pull-ups to rehab a shoulder injured playing sandlot football, and he never stopped. Now a master’s sprinter, he ramped up his pull-up training when a knee injury halted his training recently. The knee is better now, and Durante hopes to compete in 2014 national and world meets in the 60-meter dash. He also has reserved a booth at the NBC4 Health and Fitness Expo in January, where he will offer $500 to anyone, of any age, who can beat him.

He went first on Saturday, recording 39 pull-ups in 53 seconds before he exhausted his arms. The pull-up bar at Liberty had a bit of sway in it, he said, reducing his total a bit.

Up first for the football team was . . . no one. Like rockers refusing to follow Jimi Hendrix on stage, none of the kids was willing to be the first compared with Durante.

“Don’t make me pick,” Finnerty said.

Finally, middle linebacker Matt Nailor stepped up and did 18. Keith Miller did 9. Daniel Jackson did 16. Tailback Brent Smith clocked 20, and Anthony Spagnoletti, a receiver and safety, did 21.

“It’s amazing,” he said of Durante after he caught his breath. “Not many people like him can do that. He’s got heart.”

A couple of 300-pound linemen did one each before Kevin Nailor, Matt’s twin brother, achieved the team high at 26.

On a lower bar, Haileigh Hurst, all of 14 years old, topped nine other cheerleaders with seven chin-ups. Deonae Carter-Beale did five. “I hope I can do that when I’m that old,” she said of Durante’s total.

The event raised $613 for a small-town football team that can use every hard-earned dollar. And Durante promised more.

“A year from now, I’ll be back,” he said. “I expect you to challenge me. At least get within 10.”

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