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

As Gene Schultz, the heavyweight, weaves through the crowd, he steps back in time. It has been 18 years--long, terrible years--since the boxer St. Paul fight fans once called "White Lightning" last climbed through the ropes. Since then he has talked about a comeback to anyone who would listen--his two younger brothers, his co-workers, his fellow barflies from years past, and friends from more recent sober times. And here he is tonight, October 22, at Grand Casino in Hinckley, entering the ring with a thousand fans as witnesses, and they're all on their feet, chanting his name, and he's making his professional debut, and it's all such a beautiful rush.

"Gene-O! Gene-O! Gene-O!" they shout, just like they did back in the late Seventies, when Schultz reigned as the best amateur heavyweight in the state and won back-to-back Golden Gloves Upper Midwest championships. Pumping his fists in the air, Schultz flashes a big toothy grin (revealing the ample labors of his dentist) and sops up the applause. His face is craggy, lined with creases and scars and graced with a flattened nose (not a product of his fistic career, but rather the result of a boot kick endured at a kegger on his 18th birthday). His eyes blaze pale blue, full of joy and almost young.

For a man his age--he's 44--Schultz is quite fit. His barrel chest is battened with muscle, and his arms are big and solid. Were it not for the fact that Schultz is missing his right leg, from the knee down, there would be little to distinguish him from the other fighters on the bill.

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

Those fighters are mostly veterans of the club circuit--tough, unpolished guys who've come from the Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago, and nearby Indian reservations. By and large the few fights preceding Schultz's dance down the aisle have been sloppy, as perhaps befits a card in which boxers are paid a mere hundred bucks a round. Most appear to have trained accordingly. One preliminary bout paired a flabby, slow-moving heavyweight from Pine City against a morbidly obese journeyman (311 pounds, with vertical stretch marks on his massive gut that made it look as if he'd been raked by a bear's claw). The duo had clubbed away at each other in a graceless, unscientific manner until the fellow from Pine City scored a second round TKO. No one seemed much impressed. By the time Schultz made his entrance--it was the fifth fight of the night--the spectacle of a one-legged fighter didn't seem so squalid.

Once in the ring, Schultz struts about to the strains of the Hank Williams sin-and-redemption number "I Saw the Light" and shucks off the Ralph Lauren bath towel that he'd draped over his shoulders in lieu of the traditional fighter's robe.

His opponent on this night is a corpulent pug from Milwaukee named Tory Martin--in the euphemistic words of promoter Ron Peterson, "not a known killer." Professional record? Zero wins, five losses, all coming in first-round knockouts. At 275, Martin's got more than 50 pounds on Schultz, but it's almost all fat.

At the opening bell, Schultz wastes no time. He shuffles to the center of the ring and commences throwing looping bombs. He sticks a few jabs, and he always moves forward. He hops on his good leg and pivots and plants off the fake one, a molded fiberglass and aluminum prosthetic built especially for boxing.

Then, 36 seconds into the fight, Schultz delivers a right to the body, followed by a swift right uppercut. Martin drops to the canvas, dazed by the blow and, perhaps, the uneasy distinction of having suffered a knockdown at the hands of a one-legged fighter. He's counted out by the referee and it's over.

The crowd loved Schultz when he came into the ring, and they love him more now. Everybody's on their feet, yelling his name, while the winning boxer thanks Jesus and smiles his biggest smile. "Nobody ever believed he'd make this comeback," says a beaming Dave Eckstrom, who drove up from the Cities to watch his longtime friend fight. "I always kept encouraging him. He always said God's been telling him to get back in the ring."

Like the handful of Schultz fans who've made the trip to Hinckley, Eckstrom is confined to a wheelchair. The two men are teammates from the St. Paul Rolling Thunder--a wheelchair softball team that has won national titles eight of the past nine years. That triumphant record, it turns out, has been one of the few bright spots in the last two decades of Gene Schultz's life.

 

A few days after his bout at the casino, Schultz is still flushed with the victory. He's just gotten home from his day job--he works as a pipe insulator at the University of Minnesota--and is relaxing in his three-room apartment over on the East Side of St. Paul. Settling in with a steaming cup of coffee, he lays out his tale, gritty and full of hardship and of Old Testament proportions in its epic suffering.

As a teenager growing up in this neighborhood, Schultz was always in trouble. It started, he figures, with his parents' divorce. He was 14 then, already a little wild. In short order he turned to the life of, as he puts it, "a junior hoodlum." Smash-and-grabs. Car thefts. Street fights. Any type of trouble, really--usually fueled by an unquenchable yen for alcohol and drugs and fast times. "I was a drinking, doping kid. I wanted to be a hit man for the Mafia," he recalls. At 17, he says, he accidentally shot a friend with a .22 caliber pistol in the basement of his mother's home. He got probation, but a year later he found himself in serious trouble again, this time for possession of a sawed-off shotgun.

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.

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."

Enter Ron Peterson, a veteran promoter bearing a history of rancorous relations with the state's boxing establishment. In recent years, Peterson has staged all of his fights on Indian reservations, outside the purview of the boxing board. After learning of Peterson's upcoming card, Schultz contacted the promoter, who made one request: Get evaluated by a doctor. In short order Schultz did just that--though he eschewed the doctor recommended by the boxing board for one of his own choosing. Soon afterward Peterson sent him a contract: Four rounds, four hundred bucks.

For his part Peterson says he was pleased by Schultz's mid-October performance at the casino. "What an inspiration he was. He's a legitimate boxer. If the guy's got enough guts to quit drinking, he's got enough guts to try anything." He says he plans to put Schultz on future cards, but adds the cautionary note that "as a promoter, I'm not gonna set Gene up with a guy who's gonna embarrass him or kill him."

O'Hara takes a different view. Though he is careful to note that the board may ultimately relent and grant Schultz a license to fight outside the casinos, he offers a word of warning. "I give Gene Schultz credit for his courageous stand," O'Hara says, "but this fight means absolutely nothing. If the promoters are gonna match him with a bunch of Tory Martins, maybe he could fight until he's 50. But eventually they're gonna want to pair him with somebody of ability--not some tub of lard."

Fine by Schultz. In the fading afternoon light, he dances and bobs and weaves through his small apartment. He has shucked off his fake leg, and is showing off his balance, hopping up and down, throwing jabs and straight rights into the air. Puffing, a little out of breath, he plops down on the couch. "Right now, I'm still the Great White Dope," he says. "But I think I can be the Great White Hope. I think I've got a 50/50 chance of winning the heavyweight title."

"I'm a one-man special agent," he adds then. "I'm a Special Agent of God boxer. When I get my robe, it's not gonna say 'Gene Schultz.' It's just gonna say 'Praise Jesus' and 'God Is Great,' and it's gonna have a cross and it's gonna say 'R.I.P., Mom and Dad.'"

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