A Leg to Stand On

After an awful wreck and years of ruin, a nod from God means comeback time for the East Side's favorite son

After contemplating the prospect of incarceration, Schultz turned to the gym. "I told my dad I was gonna quit drinking and take up boxing. He said, 'Show me, don't tell me,'" Schultz recalls. "That was a real inspiration--I worshiped the ground my dad walked on." He proved a quick study, winning Upper Midwest amateur titles in '78 and '79, though his father, Eugene, never got to enjoy his son's success. He was killed in a stickup at his St. Paul bar in 1977.

By most accounts, Schultz was always more of a puncher than a boxer, an anti-stylist who bore down on his adversaries with a rugged right hand and a fearsome willingness to trade punches. "He was a standup, stay-in-your-face, slug-it-out guy. Not real slick, just real tough," remembers Ron Peterson, the promoter who put on the card in Hinckley. "Who knows how far he could have gone? A big, strong white heavyweight with a lot of balls...he really got robbed by the accident."

The accident occurred in 1979, shortly after Schultz won the second of his two amateur titles. He'd been sober since taking up boxing, but suddenly felt restless. "I decided I'd join the Navy SEALs and go kill commies," he says. "So I went down to the recruiters' office and made an appointment for more comprehensive screening. I stopped at my dad's old bar for a soft drink, and this little Indian girl named Jenny Walker asked me for a ride on my motorcycle. I had a Yamaha 1100, the fastest production bike on the street, and she was saying, 'Go real fast, make it scary.'" Schultz figures he was doing 100 miles an hour when the truck pulled across the intersection. He laid the bike on the side and skidded a couple of hundred feet into a collision.

One-round wonder: Heavyweight Gene Schultz hoofs his hardware in the Hinckley ring
Sean McCoy
One-round wonder: Heavyweight Gene Schultz hoofs his hardware in the Hinckley ring

As Schultz tells it, he never lost consciousness, even after his knee was shattered and his leg severed at the ankle. (His passenger lost one of her legs, too.) As he lay in the road, he says, he experienced the first in what would be a string of powerful religious visions: "God just put this idea in my head. He didn't want me to kill commies. He wanted me to box and inspire people. When I saw my coach in the hospital, I said, 'Have you ever heard of a peg-legged boxer?' I said, 'Well, I'm gonna be the first.'"

After a lengthy rehab--including 16 weeks in a body cast--Schultz did indeed manage a return to the ring, fighting a total of six amateur bouts. But around the same time, he developed a cocaine habit, and training fell by the wayside. After suffering a technical knockout in Duluth and turning in a string of uneven performances elsewhere, Schultz was informed that he wouldn't be allowed to participate in the upcoming Golden Gloves tournament. He had dreamed of a third title, and then imagined he'd go pro. The disappointment was, he says, overwhelming. "They said, 'It's in your best interest not to box,'" he recalls. "I burned with anger and resentment. I threw away all my clippings and trophies. I just hated boxing. Then I started doing more coke, and in another year I started drinking again."

It was a slow slide down from there, with drunk-driving arrests, and brawls, and failed love affairs, and a series of suicide attempts. "One night in July of 1989," Schultz says, "I drank three bottles of wine and did some coke, trying to give myself the guts to stick an ice pick in my ear. Right into my brain. I lay on the floor for 45 minutes, but I just couldn't make the plunge, and I was bawling hysterically. What a mess I'd made of my life. And then all of the sudden, I stopped crying and felt an electrical surge, and God himself spoke to me from the heavens. He said, 'Relax, Gene, I will give you strength. I want you to box again.' It was the most soothing voice I ever heard."

The comeback never materialized--largely, Schultz says, because of his regular relapses. Then, this past May, Schultz attended a pro fight card in St. Paul. He'd been sober for a little more than a year--owing, he concludes, to the unflagging support of his friend Dave Eckstrom--and decided to make a move. He bumped into Jim O'Hara, the executive secretary of the Minnesota Board of Boxing, and announced his intentions. After attending the board's August meeting to apply for a license to box, he got discouraged and all but gave up. In Minnesota, he'd learned, fighters more than 36 years old must be evaluated and give the go-ahead by a doctor. And, according to O'Hara, the boxing board weighs other factors: a fighter's record of losses is considered, along with spells of inactivity. "You can't just have somebody take off 20 years, and then come back and say, 'I'm ready to fight again,'" O'Hara says. "You've got to take a closer look at it. Sometimes we have to protect people against themselves."

Frustrated and plagued by the belief that he'd been discriminated against, Schultz vowed to sue the board under the Americans With Disabilities Act. "I guess I was dreaming they were gonna welcome me back with open arms and say, 'Gene, you can fight, we love you,'" he recalls. "For a couple of weeks, I just lay in bed, watching TV, missing work. But then I snapped out of it."

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