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Taking His Shot

Despite His Size and Other Adversity, Eagle Rock's Williams Excels as One of the Nation's Best Throwers

April 20, 2000|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The physical strength is obvious, evident in Rhuben Williams' rippling physique and the distances he throws the shotput.

Then there is the inner strength. It is subtle, sheathed beneath the muscles but as integral to Williams' success as the power and speed he generates once he steps into the circle for competition.

Natural physical ability refined by hours of technical training have helped the 5-foot-10, 225-pound Williams become a state shotput champion for Eagle Rock High and perhaps the best all-around prep weight thrower in the nation.

Heart, developed when a maturing young man dutifully attended to his ailing father through a long and ultimately fatal medical condition, has helped Williams prepare for every challenge.

"I'm not Superman," Williams said. "But I'm a strong person and I got that from my mom and my dad. Through everything that's happened, I've always told myself that as I long as I don't give up, I can succeed.

"I don't want to be a woulda-coulda-shoulda. I want to attain everything I can and fulfill all of my potential."

Williams, 18, has plenty of upside.

The senior honors student is the two-time defending City Section shotput champion and won the state title last year with a throw of 62 feet 8 1/2 inches. He already has bettered that mark several times this season and is favored to repeat as City and state champion before moving on to compete in college.

"I know I can compete with the big boys now," said Williams, who leaves today for a recruiting trip to Oregon. "I can't wait to get out there and get that constant level of competition that drives you and pushes you."

Williams extended his stamina to the limit the last few months before his father, Chino Fats Williams, succumbed April 5 to complications from kidney failure that had occurred years earlier. He was 66, best known for his work as an actor on the 1970s television series "Baretta."

Each weekday morning before his father died, Rhuben arrived for school at 7 a.m., attended classes--including advanced-placement courses in biology and calculus--then tutored Eagle Rock shotputters on technique in the afternoon. Afterward, he drove to Citrus College in Glendora for his own specialized workout with Coach Lloyd Higgins, then drove back to a Los Angeles hospital or convalescent home to visit his father before returning home for dinner and homework.

"My father's death was not a surprise, so in a way, it has allowed me to breathe a little bit," Williams said. "One reason I'm kind of at peace is because he got to see me do a lot of things. Not as much as I would have liked, but I think I made him one of the proudest fathers he could be."

Williams' skill as a shotputter was apparent from the moment he first picked up the 12-pound ball.

Gil Espino, Eagle Rock's longtime track coach, also was the freshman football coach when Williams arrived on campus in the fall of 1996.

"I had never played organized sports before," Williams said. "I went out for football and my coach was like, 'Yeah, you're going to be a shotputter.' I said, 'OK.' I didn't know what it was at first."

Recalled Espino: "I handed him this round thing and said, 'I want you to take this and throw it over there as far as you can.' You could see his talent immediately. It didn't take a genius to figure out he could be very good at this."

Though he probably could have contended for the City championship as a freshman, Williams competed at the frosh-soph level and established a City freshman record with a put of 57 feet.

By the middle of Williams' sophomore year, Espino asked around in the track community, looking for a coach who could provide Williams with advanced training.

The name he kept hearing was Higgins'.

Higgins, a longtime physical education teacher at Monrovia High and coach at Citrus, is a Masters-level track and field champion who has worked with numerous high school and college athletes.

"Size-wise, people look at Rhuben and say, 'Well, he's never going to do much,' " Higgins said. "But you can never underestimate him. He is just phenomenal.

"He's extremely explosive and just had to learn how to control that when he's competing. He's what I call a whirling dervish."

Higgins worked with Williams on technique in the shot and the discus and also introduced him to the hammer and weight throw, events that most athletes do not take up until college. Williams threw the hammer--a 12-pound ball attached by a 4-foot wire to a metal handle--191-6 at an all-comers meet in late February. He has thrown the weight--a 25-pound ball connected to a triangular handle--68-0 1/2, the second-best mark by a high school athlete in the United States.

"I put [the hammer] in his hand and said, 'We have something,' " Higgins recalled. "You can tell pretty much right off the bat if a kid has a propensity to be successful at this."

Williams' all-time best in the shotput is 63--9, set in March at the Nike Indoor Championships in Bloomington, Ind. And his outdoor performance continues to improve.

At the Pasadena Games on March 25, Williams won the shot with a mark of 61-8 3/4, defeating his nearest competitor by 10 feet. He also won the discus with a mark of 169-10.

Two weeks later--and three days after his father died--Williams won the shotput at the FloJo Arcadia Invitational at Citrus College with a mark of 62-4 1/4.

"Not competing did not cross my mind," he said.

Last weekend at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Williams won the shotput with a state-leading mark of 63-0 1/4.

"It's been rough at times, but sports is what has kept me going," Williams said. "I'm looking forward to finishing strong in high school, doing well in college and hopefully getting the opportunity to travel and compete all over the world someday. I want to go after all the endless possibilities."

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