Life is full of decisions. I've been lucky; I've always had really great options to choose from. —Richard George
SALT LAKE CITY?—
They don't come any more star-studded than the class the Utah Sports Hall of Fame will induct tomorrow night at EnergySolutions Arena.
The lineup includes John Stockton, Karl Malone, NFL football great Chad Lewis and two-time Olympian Doug Padilla. Two of those guys have streets named for them just outside the arena doors. Lewis was on two Super Bowl rosters. Padilla is still active in athletics as a coach at BYU.
The fifth inductee, Richard George, needs a little more of an introduction.
His biggest athletic claim to fame these days is that he's related to Andrew George, Richard's son, who caught the winning touchdown pass the last time BYU beat Utah in a football game — 2009 in case your memory doesn't stretch that far — and then went on to play briefly in the NFL before joining the Cougar staff as a graduate assistant coach. But Andrew's dad was on pace to surpass them all in the sports world before he decided to take that detour to Harvard.
Few Utah athletes have come out of the blocks faster. For Richard it began by throwing rocks in the small central Utah farming community of Kanosh, his hometown.
"We were always throwing rocks," he recalls. "I remember standing at the bus stop throwing probably 50 to 100 rocks just waiting for the bus. We even threw rocks for distance. I've thrown a rock 600 feet."
Rocks made way for baseballs, footballs and basketballs. Richard pitched his Little League baseball team to the Utah state championship. At high school in nearby Fillmore he was all state in both football, where he played quarterback, and basketball. But Millard High didn't have a baseball team, so he joined the track team and threw the javelin.
When he was a 15-year-old he threw the javelin 224 feet to set an age-group world record.
The feat wasn't just sheer luck. The year before, Richard's sister brought her fiancé home to Kanosh to meet her family. Richard's future brother-in-law, Ed Red, was a javelin thrower who had competed for the United States in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
"Javelin is a very technical, very difficult event," says George. "I was taught from the outset how to do it right."
For three straight years in high school, he set and re-set the state javelin record. By the time he graduated, he was already close to the Olympic qualifying standard.
BYU offered him a scholarship in track … and football … and basketball.
He contemplated playing all three as a freshman. He eventually discarded basketball, but reluctantly. He was a quarterback on the football team but soon realized he had a conflict when spring football rolled around the same time as track season. When he left on an LDS mission, he decided he'd concentrate on track when he got back.
Ten months after returning from his mission, he was U.S. national champion at the AAU championships; a few months after that, he won a bronze medal at the World Games.
The next year, at the age of 23, he found himself at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, competing in the 1976 Olympic Games.
He was on the doorstep of stardom when one of Those Things that happen at the Olympics happened to him.
After warming up with a non-counting throw of 288 feet — just 12 feet off the existing world record — he was all set to begin the qualifying round when the thrower in front of him, a Russian, shattered his javelin on his first attempt.
Richard had never seen that happen before. Neither had the officials. They didn't know what to do. Should they allow the Russian another throw? Should it come now or later? Arguing commenced. There was a language problem. Someone went for an interpreter.
An hour later, they finally told Richard, without warning, to go ahead and throw. He wasn't warm anymore. He didn't come near 288 feet. He didn't qualify for the finals. He sat on the sidelines and watched Mikos Nemeth of Hungary, a month shy of turning 30, set a world record of 310 feet to claim the gold medal. Second place was 286 feet.
Richard came back for his senior year at BYU in 1976. A new football coach named LaVell Edwards had revolutionized the football program, with a focus on quarterbacks. But Richard's football days were over. After the track season, so were his track days. The business school at Harvard had sent him an acceptance letter. He was newly married; he needed to be practical. He packed up his javelin and put it away in the garage.
He got that graduate degree at Harvard and used it to forge a successful business career that currently has him at the helm of a biotech company that is developing drugs for cancer and autoimmunity. He and his musician wife Jennifer have raised six children, three girls and three boys, all with their own unique pedigrees (and all planning on watching their dad's induction ceremony).
Almost 40 years later, Richard says he never looks back on what might have been; only at what has come to pass.
"There was a time when I was determined to set the world record in the javelin and I'm almost certain I could have done it. I quit probably eight years too soon," he says. "But there's no way I could have competed at such a high level and maintained all the other things I wanted and needed to do with my life. Life is full of decisions. I've been lucky; I've always had really great options to choose from."
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.