After Lawrence “Rob” Hufford had a chunk of his brain surgically removed from his skull, the only record he considered breaking was the one spinning through his mind like a recurring, unshakable nightmare: My days of competition and camaraderie are over.
Keep that in mind as I tell you this: in front of a rowdy, sunburned and awestruck crowd on Saturday at the Air Force track and field complex, Hufford broke the shot put record at the Warrior Games.
Five times. On five consecutive throws. Without a chunk of his brain that has been surgically removed from his skull, like we were saying.
“Some minor head stuff,” Hufford explained.
There’s something a little off with these guys, and I love it.
"Once I saw the levels at which these other (athletes) were performing," he said, "it just blew my mind."
Before we go on about Hufford, a retired Air Force captain, think of what you love the most and multiple it by 10. That’s how Hufford feels about the Air Force. It’s where he competed on the track and field team and played one season with the football team in the early 2000s. One thing I’ve learned about the Warrior Games is that military rivalries are a different breed of rivalry. Duke-Carolina's cute, Michigan-Ohio State spunky, but there's nothing on the sports landscape with juice like this.
“I always like to say: Army and Navy play for second,” Hufford said. “I definitely showed that today.”
Boy, did he ever. Rob’s first throw eclipsed the 15-meter barrier — Hufford’s stated goal before the event — and a Warrior Games official said it was a record. So was his second one, and his third one, and after his fourth one, also a record-breaking heave, Hufford unloaded a primal scream that should keep the Air Force Academy bear-free for the next two or three months.
It was at that point a few dozen sets of eyeballs turned their attention toward the shot put. Hufford, rocking a Chuck Blackmon beard and jet-black shades straight off the Bassmasters Classic, was scoring high-fives and man-hugs from every branch of military represented at the Warrior Games. An Army coach shouted: “Gimme some more of that!” An officer from the U.K. Armed Forces slapped his back with such force it would knock most of us into next week.
“We’re healing mentally. We’re healing emotionally and spiritually,” Hufford said. “Every time I go home from an event I feel better.”
There was only one way to go but up.
A month of bedrest followed the right temporal lobectomy performed by doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a few years back. Hufford said he had been suffering from epileptic seizures until the operation allowed him to function without concern. (Is modern medicine incredible or what?) He sustained a traumatic brain injury and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after a pair of tours in Iraq. Even so, when I asked for details about his time in Iraq, Hufford brought up a different memory: one of his units was involved in “Kids of Iraq,” a nonprofit that brought sporting goods, school supplies and toys to children across the countryside. He learned their smiles were just like his, even if an American football doesn't carry the street cred in Iraq of a brand-new soccer ball.
“We give this stuff to the kids, and they tell us, ‘This is where the IEDs are, this is where the bad guys are,’” Hufford said. “Then in 20 years, they’re not the bad guys anymore because they like Americans.”
You could spend all week at the Warrior Games and find hundreds of stories like Hufford’s. But when a man with a booming laugh launches a shot 15.78 meters to break the Games record — for the fifth straight time! — it tends to get your attention.
Plus, Rob’s 340 pounds, and I really didn’t want him mad at me.
“I’m going to go eat a huge steak right now.”