Of all the things to be good at in life, John Brenner had to be blessed with the ability to throw a shotput.
He doesn't understand it, either.
And while he'd love to revel in the glory of his sport, he has concluded there is none.
If he were to throw a baseball as well, Brenner, 25, would get the girls, the condo in Marina del Rey and maybe even a milk commercial. But what he mostly gets now is this unflattering callous under his right cheek--complete with ingrown hairs--the reward for scraping daily a coarse iron ball against his face.
Try explaining it at dinner parties.
Brenner's right hand looks as if someone has beaten it with a mallet. His fingers point north and south when they can point at all. He's big, 6-foot 3-inches and 295 pounds, but it hurts for him to shake hands. His right shoulder is larger than his left.
He suffers through it all for the honor of heaving a hunk of iron ore from one end of a pit of dirt to another.
"It's awful," Brenner said Wednesday as he prepared for today's Pepsi Invitational Meet at UCLA. "It's just something I do well. I might be strong at putting, but I sure don't like to throw the shot."
Meet one of America's hopes for an Olympic medal in 1988.
Brenner, who would rather sit through a root canal than practice, leaped back into the American throwing scene at the Mt. San Antonio Relays on April 27 with a dramatic victory over the latest hot shotputter from Texas A&M;, Randy Barnes.
Barnes, 19, who made the best throw in the world this year, was leading the event until Brenner's winning toss of 71-5 1/2 on his final throw.
Though the victory was dramatic for Brenner, it did more to serve notice to the shotputting world that ol' Brenner was back.
While at UCLA, Brenner was the 1984 NCAA title winner in both the discus and the shot but was unsuccessful at the 1984 Olympic Trials, finishing fourth. He spent the 1985 season fighting off a hip injury and the critics who suggested it might be his time to enter the business world.
It was out of frustration and embarrassment that Brenner returned to form.
His sport is a naked one, exposing every man and his machismo. Shotputting is almost a primitive athletic experience, harking back to a time when men threw tree trunks for distance.
But so, too, is it personal.
"In the shot, you either did it or you didn't," Brenner said. "You have it or you don't. Losing is like a personal injury. It's like getting beat up in a fight. You feel that bad."
It's the personal confrontation that keeps Brenner going.
It's an event in which athletes must be provoked into great performances.
A putter stepping into a ring before a throw can be worth the price of a ticket alone.
"There was a guy who would have his coach slap him in the face before he stepped in the ring," Brenner said. "It would really get him going. There was another who would stuff smelling salts up each nostril when he threw. I don't know how you could live and do that. Another would scream, 'I am Zeus!' and then step in the ring."
Brenner, though, can't manufacture anger through gimmickry.
Yet, he can't throw well unless he's truly mad.
Meet a man and his dilemma.
At the Mt. SAC meet, he drew inspiration from all the raves about Barnes, making himself the underdog.
"When I've got problems in life, I can come out here and and take some of those things out," Brenner said. "But sometimes, when it's a perfect day out, I can't get anything going."
Sometimes he wonders why he couldn't have been like his brother, Hoby, a tight end for the New Orleans Saints. At least in the National Football League there are some tangibles. Hoby can touch his new car and home, and can revel in his six months of vacation every year.
Even Hoby marvels at his brother's dedication.
"I would not be playing football if I was not paid well," Hoby said. "I wouldn't have the time to continue playing football if I was not making a living."
But amateur athletes must find the time.
John Brenner can make some side money from endorsements, but shotputting to him is like holding down a second job.
In the mornings, he works for a family-owned company in Downey that makes cutting blades for big-rig tractors.
Brenner leaves work at 1 p.m. and heads for UCLA, where he begins his workout with his personal coach, Art Venegas. Training ends about 7 p.m.
Brenner searches for solace in his profession.
"If you are No. 1 in my sport, everyone will acknowledge that," he said. "If I can throw for the world record, I can say I'm No. 1. Not taking anything away from Hoby, but he can say he's the best tight end in the NFL, but you just can't prove it."
So Brenner keeps pushing the envelope.
The world record is 74-2 1/2, set by Ulf Timmermann of East Germany. And if Brenner ever gets mad enough some day, he just might break it.
"John has that kind of distance, maybe even beyond," Venegas said. "It just takes putting one good season together."
Brenner is hoping he's in the middle of one. He has yet to be defeated in an outdoor meet in 1986.
But there remain memories to haunt him.
The year 1984 started off pretty well, too.
He had geared his whole season around winning the NCAA meet and, more importantly, beating the greatest collegiate shotputter of his era, Michael Carter of Southern Methodist University.
Carter, a silver medalist in the 1984 Olympics and now a nose guard with the San Francisco 49ers, had won seven NCAA titles (four indoor, three outdoor) entering the outdoor championship in 1984.
Only Brenner stood in the way of a perfect collegiate career.
And Brenner beat him.
Three weeks later, though, at the Olympic Trials, Brenner made the team only as an alternate, which is about as exciting as being named water boy.
Shotputting is a sport of peaks and valleys, and Brenner said he peaked too soon.
"It's tough to say whether I made a mistake," he said. "The NCAAs and the Olympic Trials were so close that I thought it wouldn't make a difference. I thought I could do it. But my body was tired and my mind was gone by the time of the trials."
Brenner again wondered why this sport had chosen to consume him.
Brenner says he doesn't even like to watch other throwers during a meet.
"I'm not even into the aesthetics of the event," he said. "To me, shotputting is not fun, it's work. I mean, it's not like you go out, have a few beers and then go throw the shotput."
Brenner's workouts are a story themselves. He says it takes his body days to recover after a session.
Brenner does leg squats with 705 pounds. He does the same with the bench press at 450 pounds.
Why does he do it?
Brenner isn't sure. It's just something he's always been good at.
In their younger days in Fullerton, Hoby remembers trying to throw with John.
"I just couldn't do it. . . . I still can't do it," said Hoby, who is 6-4 and 240. "I can't get it anywhere. I just don't have the physical makeup."
John Brenner isn't so sure it wasn't a curse.
He was a football player, too, at Fullerton High School. But there was a coaching change between his junior and senior seasons and the new coach wanted to convert Brenner from a fullback to a lineman.
Brenner wanted to remain a fullback. The relationship soured quickly.
Brenner played his senior season but never wanted to play again.
So now he must live with the litany of inquiries.
When the Saints are in town, Brenner will wait for Hoby outside the gate after a game.
Fans often ask him for his autograph. Sometimes he'll explain that he's not a player. Sometimes he just keeps quiet and signs.
"Unless I carry around a shotput, no one would know what I do," Brenner said.
So Brenner trains and throws, day after day. Being called a world champion would make life easier. An Olympic medal hanging around his neck might fulfill his sense of purpose.
But, most important, he might then be able to rid this sport from his life.