David Adam

Watching Johnson gets McCulla's 'juices flowing again'

By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 5, 2018 6:05 pm

QUINCY -- After years of training to become one of the world's best discus throwers, Pat McCulla put that part of his life behind him for more than two decades.

He stopped training in Houston and came back to Quincy, where his throwing career started in high school. He and his father operated Bear Creek Woodworks for 20 years. McCulla retired after selling the business in 2007, and he rarely thought about throwing the discus.

However, in his car on his way home one day three years ago, he drove by Flinn Stadium and saw track practice. Catching his eye was a freshman named Jordan Johnson.

"I'd just pull up in the parking lot and watch," McCulla said. "He didn't even know. Then I'd sneak over there again just to check him out.

"He got my juices flowing again."

Johnson, now a junior at Quincy High School, recently broke McCulla's school record for the discus. McCulla's mark was 193 feet, 3 inches, and Johnson has topped it three times this spring, his best coming this month when he threw 196 feet, 3 inches at the Capitol City Relays in Jefferson City, Mo. It ranks among the top 12 throws in state history.

McCulla, who turns 60 in November, believes Quincy is producing one of the best young throwers in the world.

He ought to know. He once was one himself.

When McCulla started attending Quincy High School, he had hopes of playing basketball for the Blue Devils. He made the team as a junior but left the team after just seven games.

"I hurt my ankle really bad in the Thanksgiving Tournament," he said. "I quit so I could concentrate on the discus."

He threw the shot put in the ninth grade, but he didn't pick up a discus until one of the discus throwers was injured.

"I threw it 150 feet the first time I ever picked one up," he said.

McCulla said he never had a throwing coach when he was at QHS.

"We were still running on cinder track at Q Stadium, and we had an old universal (weight) set pushed away in a closet," he said. "I was on my own. (The track coaches) bought some old films to show me how to throw, and then I practiced and worked on my technique."

He was good enough to earn a track scholarship to Colorado, but he transferred to Kentucky after one semester. He started to work with Pat Etcheberry, the school's strength and conditioning coach who also threw the javelin for Chile in the 1964 Olympic Games.

When he was a freshman, McCulla said he was 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. He was squatting 200 pounds and bench-pressing 135 pounds.

"They were laughing at me," he said.

When he was a senior at Kentucky, he weighed 280 pounds. He was squatting 700 pounds and bench-pressing 425. The extra weight and strength helped him adapt from the high school discus, which weighs 2.2 pounds, to the college discus, which weighs 4.4 pounds.

He was the champion in the discus at the Southeastern Conference track and field meet three times, and he finished second the other time. He was a two-time All-American and finished fifth in the discus at the NCAA meet in 1981.

After graduating from Kentucky, McCulla moved to Houston in 1982 to train for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

However, an ankle injury suffered during training in 1984 hampered him. He finished seventh at the Olympic Trials at 60.17 meters, more than five meters behind the three men who represented the United States -- John Powell, Mac Wilkins and Art Burns.

"Being from Quincy, this will make sense, but I broke my ankle playing basketball," McCulla said.

"Sometimes we do stupid things. I was training at the University of Houston, and guys like Moses Malone trained there. I wanted to show them how a 6-foot-1, 280-pound guy could dunk a basketball. I could still do it. I'd go in the gym and freak people out.

"I broke my ankle about three or four months before the Trials, and that's the main part of my training. I couldn't train. I couldn't throw. I still had a stress fracture in my foot.

"When I didn't make the team, it was time to go ahead and do something else."

McCulla says he's had three hip replacements, and most of the discs in his neck are gone, but he doesn't think he would change anything about his throwing career.

"It could be worse. I still get around," he said. "I got to travel the country for six to eight years for free, and I got to do what I liked to do."

McCulla was married in 1988, but his wife, Margie, died in 1992 of breast cancer. Their son, Sean, and he lives in Minneapolis. McCulla says his biggest hobby in retirement is archaeology.

"I collect and sell artifacts on the side here and there," he said. "I've always been fascinated by what people in Illinois were like 10,000 years ago."

He's also fascinated by Johnson. He hopes Johnson can challenge the state discus record of 208 feet, 11 inches set in 2009 by Dan Block of Lake Park High School in Roselle. Block went on to become a two-time All-American in the shot put at Wisconsin.

"The kid has got it," McCulla said. "I can tell he's extremely motivated. He's got the perfect size. He's not too big for the circle at 6-foot-4, and he's not too small. He's technically savvy, and the stronger he gets, he'll be fine.

"I'm not blowing smoke to tell you that when I saw him throw for the first time, I thought I was looking in the mirror. I was like, ‘Holy cow!' He could be one of the better throwers in the world when he's done, and that's the truth."

McCulla says he would be willing to talk to Johnson as he prepares to move on to the college ranks, but he says he doesn't have much advice to offer.

"He's doing the right things," he said. "He's doing fine. His success is measured by feet and inches, and he's successful. I don't need to put any strange things in his head."