First Place Writing – Sports

Ben Ross

First Place
University of Iowa
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Grapplers continue to grieve over loss of Dave Schultz

By Ben Ross

Sometimes, when he’s feeling sad or nostalgic, Royce Alger puts on a royal blue sweatshirt and sits with a Coors Banquet beer in the backyard at his home in Des Moines.

With the phrase Team Foxcatcher, and a silhouette of a leaping fox outlined in gold on the sweatshirt, it helps him celebrate the life and cope with the death of Dave Schultz, a friend and teammate of Alger’s who met an untimely death almost 20 years ago. Schultz, then 36, was shot three times by a millionaire at a wrestling training compound just outside of Philadelphia on Jan. 26, 1996.

‘Where everybody wanted to be’

Foxcatcher Farm was set up and run with the money provided by John Eleuthère du Pont, an heir of the prominent du Pont family. Du Pont developed an affinity for Olympic sports late in his life. After using his land and money to train pentathletes, du Pont and his Foxcatcher Farm – the subject of a movie starring Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum to be released later this year – switched focus and resources on wrestling. World-class wrestlers stayed on du Pont’s 800-acre estate, named after his mother’s Foxcatcher Stables, which were also located on the land.

Du Pont’s money kept him busy for much of his life. He participated in several scientific expeditions to study birds in the Phillipines and had books published on his findings. Later in life, the millionaire, who was never seen in anything more sporting than a tracksuit, focused his obsessive behavior on Olympic sports.

Alger was one of the first wrestlers from Iowa wooed by the lure of money and other resources to train under the Foxcatcher name. After winning the NCAA title at 177 pounds as a senior in 1988, Alger wanted to continue to wrestle freestyle, the Olympic style of wrestling that closely resembles folkstyle. He was approached by du Pont at the NCAA championships that year and was invited to get paid to train under the Foxcatcher name for $1,000 a month.

Former Iowa NCAA champion Rico Chiapparelli and Alger were the first Hawkeyes to go out. Alger recalled that the strictest rules at Foxcatcher revolved around dinner. Everyone was supposed to show up for the meal promptly at 7 p.m. or let du Pont know if they couldn’t attend. Du Pont would ring a bell to summon the food from the kitchen help and ring the bell again after each course was complete so waiters could clear plates and deliver the next course.

Just outside of Philadelphia, in Newtown Square, du Pont’s family mansion on the Foxcatcher land – Liseter Hall – was a three-story Victorian-style mansion that was designed to replicate Montpelier, the Virginia mansion designed by the James Madison family. The estate had stables, lush gardens, a greenhouse, oil portraits, artisan rugs, a skating rink, ponds, and most importantly, a state-of-the-art training facility.

“The facilities were unbelievable,” Alger said. “The wrestling room was bigger than Iowa’s at the time. A bunch of poor, pro wrestlers – everyone wanted to wrestle for Foxcatcher … In retrospect, it was surreal. It was like a London Manor house.”

Many wrestlers stayed in the large mansion during their time at Foxcatcher. Other wrestlers, such as Dave Schultz, brought his wife and kids onto the property to stay and train full-time at one of the houses located on du Pont’s land.

Alger had heard stories of du Pont’s idiosyncrasies, but the two-time NCAA champion and three-time All-American wasn’t reluctant to head to Philadelphia and train with some of the best wrestlers in the world.

“We had a unique relationship,” Alger said about du Pont. “We both said we would climb K2 together, we were both out there, so we met in the middle … for me to say it was crazy, means it was crazy.”

Despite du Pont’s rarely being seen without a firearm holstered at his side and despite his extreme paranoia – du Pont was known to harbor a fear of foreign spies, and he often had wrestlers chase ghosts from his attic and trees on his property – grapplers still came to train for him.

“He was paying three times as much as USA Wrestling was paying wrestlers,” Alger said. “I won three U.S. Opens with team Foxcatcher. He knew I liked to gamble and party. The first U.S. Open I won, he cut me a check for five grand. I missed a few planes and blew it all. In ’92, I won my second U.S. Open, and he cut me a check for five grand, and I blew that. My third time, he cut me a check for five grand. I made him split it $2,500 to me and $2,500 to send home, so he sent some of it to my house. After a few days and some missed flights, I called my neighbor to grab my check and put it in the bank so I could spend the other $2,500, which I did.”

Other Iowa wrestlers had similar experiences to Alger’s. After some persuasion, Alger was able to convince freshly graduated Iowa wrestlers Tom and Terry Brands to train at Foxcatcher.

“It was no secret we wanted to wrestle international style, and Foxcatcher was a good fit for our style,” Iowa assistant wrestling coach Terry Brands recently said in his office, a large wrestling poster behind him on the wall that reads “Victory Within Each Of Us” in Russian.

He recalls flying into Philadelphia with his brother and being picked up by a limo, a first for both of them. This was the first of a few peculiarities Terry Brands witnessed in his time at Foxcatcher.

“He did do some strange things,” Brands said. “When we got there, he was carrying a handgun around. Strange stuff then, but if you look back at it now, it’s like ‘wow.'”

One of his exchanges with du Pont when he initially got to his estate gave Brands a glimpse into the personality of the millionaire.

“My first night I was there was during the holidays, and they had this huge Christmas tree in the great room,” Terry Brands said. “I walked down the hallway, and there’s du Pont, and he’s looking at this tinsel shimmering up at the top of the tree. I come in, and he goes, ‘Hey, what do you think that is up there?’ The tinsel is blowing a little, and I go, ‘Spirits.’ And he goes, ‘You’ll be a Foxcatcher tomorrow.’ Just like that. He turned, gazed back up there, and didn’t move. I got a drink and went to bed. Schultz would say, ‘Don’t worry about the weird stuff, he does a lot for us.’ ”

While the Brands brothers and Alger never spent more than two weeks at a time at Foxcatcher for training camps, they had been there long enough to see something was a little off with the man who wrote the checks for everyone and everything. Still, no one could imagine the event that would bring down what was then the premier wrestling club in the United States.

“1967, summer of love, Haight and Ashbury is where everybody wanted to be. That was Foxcatcher to us,” Alger said.

‘It wasn’t like we knew he was  going to kill somebody’

Dan Gable never spent a night on du Pont’s property. The Iowa coaching legend went there just once, a 10-day period in August 1994 to run the freestyle wrestling camp.

“Gable did run the camp out there in ’94,” Alger said. “We ran on the horse track – to this day it might be the hardest workout I’ve ever done, it was crazy hard, but [Gable] stayed at hotels. Gable didn’t embrace du Pont, I think [Gable] was a little wary. Gable has always been – when you’re a walking, talking, breathing legend, you’re always a little wary. We had a lot of vagrants that wanted to be around Iowa wrestling, so he had to keep one eye out. It’s a microcosm of being an elite athlete. Back then, being an Iowa wrestler was like a rock star, really.”

Du Pont tried to push Gable’s buttons, but the Iowa coach let the man worth more than $800 million have his way.

“When I came in the first day of practice, John came in and watched a little bit, but as soon as I dismissed practice, he called everyone back together,” Gable said. “He wanted to let everyone know just because I was the head coach for this event, he was in charge, not me. I figured it was coming, I didn’t even bat an eye. I didn’t care. I wanted to make sure I got away from the boss and do my own thinking in between sessions or at night. I didn’t hold it against him. I knew he was high-strung. I knew that was his type of mentality, and it was fine as long as the benefits for the sport were plenty.”

While Gable never said he attempted to dissuade or ban his wrestlers from attending du Pont’s farm, he would make them aware of the odd behaviors exhibited by the millionaire. Gable wasn’t the only one concerned with du Pont’s behavior. Two-time NCAA champion Randy Lewis also had his doubts.

However, du Pont’s demeanor was often overlooked by the wrestlers.

“His odd behavior … looking back you can say what you want to say about it,” Terry Brands said. “Du Pont would say some weird things, but you’re talking about a guy who was eccentric anyway. I know a lot of guys with money that are just like you and I are, too. It wasn’t like we knew he was going to kill somebody.”

Du Pont exercised his wealth whenever he saw fit. Wrestlers recalled he often traveled with a personal massage therapist, and on one occasion, Alger remembered, when the team’s plane was delayed in Barcelona after a tournament, du Pont paid more than $90,000 to have another plane charter Team Foxcatcher back to Philadelphia. To du Pont, money could buy everything.

“Crazy people with a lot of money want things money can’t buy, and that’s what foxcatcher provided,” Alger said. “He wanted to be called the great Eagle. His name was on all our national titles. His name was Foxcatcher.

“Schultz would wrestle him and let du Pont pin him – and he actually thought he was doing well. He threw money around frivolously.  The best analogy, I think for du Pont is Phil Spector – that was du Pont. A guy that was self-absorbed – a crazy person that doesn’t think he was crazy – that’s the worst kind.”

‘Don’t worry about it’

Schultz was the reason many wrestlers attended Foxcatcher in the first place. A three-time NCAA All-American at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and a gold medalist in the 1984 Olympics at 74 kilograms, Schultz is regarded as one of the best technicians in the history of the sport. The prospect to train alongside one of the most dominant wrestlers in the world was something that made putting up with a personality such as du Pont’s worth it.

Schultz was also the lone wrestler who could have a relationship, let alone hold a conversation, with du Pont. When someone had a problem with du Pont, he went to Schultz, and he would be able to calm both parties down.

“Schultz was kind of like our leader; when we went on trips, he could speak Russian, everyone knew him,” Alger said. “He was revered toward du Pont because he gave him a lot. [Schultz] knew how to caress [du Pont], keep him in flux. I think of Schultz as our Randy White. He was remarkable. If you want me to use one word, Schultz was “remarkable.” Different kind of humor. Surfer kind of guy that would take both your arms out and beat you with them.”

What started off as erratic mannerisms when the camp opened in 1989 escalated to odd and obsessive behavior exhibited by du Pont until the murder in 1996. Still, Schultz was able to lay rest to any issues.

“We were in a meeting where [du Pont] said he wanted to be addressed as the Dalai Lama of the West,” Terry Brands said. “He said that, and Kurt Angle just burst out laughing. He looked around and saw no one else was laughing, so he shut up. We’re all looking around like, ‘What the hell did this guy say?'”

Three months before Schultz was murdered, du Pont walked into the wrestling room at Foxcatcher and, for reasons that are unknown, held an AR-15 assault rifle up to the chest of four-time All-American and 1985 NCAA champion Dan Chaid. After he heard that story, Terry Brands called Schultz to make sure everything was OK.

“The week before we left for Krasnoyarsk, I was in Iowa City,” Brands said. “I called Schultz from [then-graduate assistant coach] Barry Davis’ telephone. I said, ‘Hey Dave, what’s going on? I heard [du Pont’s] getting rid of all this stuff on the farm, do I have to get ready for the news Foxcatcher doesn’t exist?’ He said, ‘Nah, don’t worry about it, we’ll get through it, we’ll be fine’ – that kind of thing. He was so matter of fact things would be OK. Even Schultz, who ended up on the worst side of it – you have that going on, and he’s just banding everyone together.

“We had a great relationship with him, he brought us together. He bridged the gap between us guys from Iowa, and all the guys out there – there’s no way we would have been together or connected to those guys without Schultz.”

To Alger, he saw the incident with Chaid as a sign of things to come.

“I was there for two weeks that fall, and the day after I left, Chaid called me and told me du Pont walked into the training room with a machine gun,” Alger said. “You could see a crazy man getting more and more bound to his insanity.”

The color of death

No one knows for certain why du Pont, the financial saint of American amateur wrestling, fired three bullets into the back of Schultz. Du Pont, who bankrolled wrestlers from Iowa and across the country to such a degree that his name became temporarily synonymous with the sport, pulled up to Schultz’s house in his silver Town Car, gun drawn, and murdered him while he was installing a radio in his car in front of his wife.

A few weeks before the shooting, around when he held a gun up to Dan Chaid, du Pont ordered everything black off the farm. Cars, clothes, even black wrestlers. He saw black as the color of death. There’s speculation that du Pont accused Schultz of hiding a black wrestler at his house. Du Pont was also upset that Schultz was going to retire from wrestling after the 1996 Olympics.

Either way, du Pont fired three rounds into Schultz. He was declared dead on the way to the hospital.
A 50-hour standoff between du Pont and local police and SWAT teams ended when power was cut off from du Pont’s mansion, where he was holed up. The police cut off power to his house, and du Pont was apprehended when he went outside to turn on his boiler. His arrest all but ended the Foxcatcher brand.

That summer, at the 1996 US Olympic wrestling trials in Spokane, Wash., seven wrestlers donned singlets with the Foxcatcher name and logo on them. Among them were three Iowa grapplers – the Brands brothers, and Alger.

The seven sparked negative reactions and an overall sense of disgust. Schultz’s wife called the gesture “immoral,” according to an article from the Chicago Tribune at the time, and many rooted for the Foxcatcher guys to fail.

“They wanted some forum to get angry, and they wanted to see us lose,” Alger said. “They saw us as sellouts. I wore it because Dave Schultz was my friend. To me, I didn’t live there. We came there because we wanted to train with the best, and Dave Schultz was the best. It wasn’t about du Pont. I had Gable in Iowa and Dave Schultz in Philly. It was the perfect situation.”

Spokane was the last time anyone wrestled wearing a Foxcatcher singlet. With the arrest of du Pont, the training facility all but closed. A handful of wrestlers – including Tom Brands – stayed and continued to train and collect money even though du Pont was in jail. His finances were still arranged to continue paying wrestlers.

“At first after Schultz got killed, it was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to wrestle for Foxcatcher because I’m going to honor Dave,'” said Terry Brands, “Then after the U.S. Open before the trials, it was like, ‘This guy murdered one of the greatest wrestlers and best technicians in the history of the United States. We’re not wearing du Pont’s colors anymore,'”

‘He has no reputation’

John du Pont died on Dec. 9, 2010, at the age of 72 while serving a 30-year sentence at the State Correctional Institution – Laurel Highlands, Pa. He had been battling a number of illnesses, and was found unresponsive in his bed that morning. Du Pont had been married briefly for less than a year during his early life but had no children.

With du Pont’s passing, there was a collective weight lifted off the shoulders of everyone who had interacted with Schultz and had a relationship with him. And despite the money, the amenities, and the opportunities provided by du Pont, everything was nullified the day he became a murderer.

“Here’s the reality of it – du Pont did a lot for wrestling when he was sane,” Terry Brands said. “What he did to Dave Schultz takes everything away. He has no reputation. Whatever he did for wrestling is irrelevant to me because of what he did to Dave Schultz.”

Today, wrestlers aren’t quick to point fingers and place blame on the loss of Schultz. Strong men who have won Olympic medals break down and stutter when talking about their fallen friend.

If there is anyone to blame, though, some point to U.S. Wrestling.

“In a way I was really pissed at wrestling – they brought us down to that level,” Alger said. “They let a paragon subject us to all that craziness.  U.S. Wrestling fostered this. I don’t blame anyone. I blame the position of our sport and its ability to foster esoteric personalities. Basically, to U.S. Wrestling, our sport was for sale. He not only had a hand on Foxcatcher, he had a hand on U.S. wrestling in general. From 1989 to 1995, the U.S. Wrestling Open was called the John du Pont Open. We compromised a lot of ourselves because of the money.

“In a perfect world, an Olympic athlete shouldn’t have to compete for a crazy person. There shouldn’t be someone like that in a position of power. We had one guy with a bunch of money trying to fill this crazy dream of being the messiah of wrestling. Dave Schultz was targeting to provide for his family, and he did that by fostering a relationship with a crazy person.”

Randy Lewis never set foot on Foxcatcher. He was outspoken about du Pont and didn’t want to spend time at the compound.

“[At the time] USA Wrestling sold itself out for John du Pont,” Lewis recently said, while wearing a red USA Wrestling track jacket. “They knew du Pont was trouble. They named tournaments after him, the John du Pont Open. They gave him legitimacy. They accepted the extreme amount of excess baggage that came along with his money. It was a train wreck waiting to happen … Worse than anyone could have thought.”

Since her husband’s death, Nancy Schultz had founded the Dave Schultz Wrestling Club to honor her late spouse. The club closed in 2005, but USA Wrestling has hosted the Dave Schultz Memorial International Tournament every year in Colorado Springs.

The sport has washed itself clean of all memories of du Pont. Villanova University has renamed its du Pont Pavilion – initially financed by du Pont to start a wrestling club there – to just the Pavilion. The mansion on the Foxcatcher estate was razed late in 2013. The land will be used as a housing project overseen by a real-estate company owned by the du Pont family.

What lives on of Foxcatcher is nothing but memories and memorabilia. The thought of Schultz’s death is one that likely burns in the brain of everyone who has held a stake in USA Wrestling over the past few decades.

“Did anyone have a thought of any danger? Because I was never around him on a daily basis, I didn’t think so. I didn’t think there would be too much harm, but obviously I was wrong,” Dan Gable said.