A small moment in the short life of former champion Big John Tate

by Betty Bean

It is a crisp October morning; a bright-blue East Tennessee Sunday pure perfect for meeting up with out-of-town company and going to breakfast and buying a paper and reliving the whipping the Vols had put on the Tide the night before. We marvel over how the rain hadn't bothered Peyton any as we finish our pancakes and coffee, and eventually, we make our way to the Summit Hill Weigel's next to the interstate ramp so Patrick and Rosie can gas up their Mercedes and head back to D.C. wearing their new orange ballcaps and looking forward to the fall scenery in the Shenendoah Valley.

We are walking out of Weigel's and saying good-bye, and there he is; smack in the middle of our storybook morning, all sad and sorry and stinking, just standing there on these two enormous bare feet. He says they stole his shoes and he has to go out Chapman Highway to get some more and needs 47 bucks.

I tell him I don't have it, and I give Patrick the bum's rush over to his car before he has a chance to go into his pocket.

"Who's that?" he asks.

"Big John Tate," I answer. I tell him John's probably looking for dope money and has run the stolen shoes scam on me before, and then Patrick remembers where he's heard that name—John Tate used to be the heavyweight champion of the world.

Big John barefoots it into Weigel's to find a fresh mark, and Patrick and Rosie, fighting the impulse to turn back and give him money on the off-chance that he's telling the truth, wheel onto the ramp that will take them to I-40 and back toward Washington. They carry the sight of John Tate with them.

So do a lot of us.

It wasn't like John's death last week came as a shock; everybody had a pretty good idea that the end of his story had been written a long time ago, and nobody seemed able—or, in the end, willing—to make things come out differently. But it wasn't like nobody tried. Over the years, the fallen champion was the recipient of as much human care and concern as anyone has a right to expect.

It is also fair to say, however, that John was on the receiving end of just about as much bad luck and mistreatment as a human can stand. Born into almost unimaginable poverty, he never had the same kind of educational opportunities as most of us, and he never got the knack of reading. During those brief bright months in 1979 between the time when he went marching to Pretoria and came back wearing a Stetson hat and a championship belt and the night he got knocked plumb out here in Knoxville on national TV, there were feel-good stories about how people were teaching the big sweet galoot to read, and everybody figured the problem had been pretty much taken care of. Even the mighty New York Times ran a spread on John's wife's efforts to make him a literate man.

But just like that, the title was gone and so was the wife. Poignant features on the sports page were replaced with news stories about John getting in trouble with drugs, being declared incompetent to manage his affairs, and fighting to break the trust fund that had been set up to save him from himself.

Unlike the sportswriters who have been writing obituary columns starting with John's glory days, I knew him only during that long downward slide. I started noticing him walking downtown in workboots and jeans, often with a pick and shovel over his shoulder. He looked tired; I gave him rides. From that time on, John and I rode around a lot. He was trying to get himself set up as a handyman and called himself "the hardest-working man in the clean-up business." Every once in a while he'd say the police were looking for him.

Sometimes it would be the end of the day and I'd offer to take him home.

He always declined.

I'd see him all beat up; for a while it became a rite of passage among street toughs to be able to say they'd whipped Big John Tate. Then I learned that John was equal parts predator and prey. My heart hurt for him; but it is a whorish writer's heart, and soon we were negotiating a story.

Trouble was, John was thinking about a come-back story.

"Kids look up to me," he'd say.

I'd try to explain to him that we'd need to stick pretty close to the truth, argue that kids could learn something from reading about his life, mention that we could work on his reading and then tell about how he'd finally learned how. He was unconvinced, and I put it on my list of things to do later.

One day he needed to go to the bank and cash a $270 check lawyer Jess Campbell had written him for some cleanup work. We went to a drive-through window, and John endorsed the check with a scribble that looked as good as most doctors' and handed it to me to give to the teller, who passed back an envelope full of cash.

I gave it to him, but instead of pocketing it, he held it out to me.

"Need some money?"

That was the day he let me take him home. But I had to promise I wouldn't write about it as long as he was alive. He directed me to an auto body shop on Martin Luther King, and we pulled in behind a bunch of junked cars.

John got out and opened the door of a faded Coupe de Ville:

"When you write this, remember it was a Cadillac."

He smiled that big old wide smile and thanked me for the ride.