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    TIM PEELER: Remembering Tab Thacker
     
     

    Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the February, 2008, edition of "The Wolfpacker." Reprinted by permission of Coman Publishing Co., 2008

     

    BY TIM PEELER

     

    RALEIGH, N.C. -- It was hard to know who to feel sorrier for: the opponents who had to step onto the mat to face massive NC State heavyweight wrestler Tab Thacker, or that tiny moped that had to carry him back and forth from the College Inn to his classes every day, especially when pint-sized roommate Vince Bynum was riding on the handle bars.

     

    Let’s go with the moped, since it never had the chance to avoid facing Thacker with a forfeit, as many heavyweights of his day did.

    Whether on the mats, in the movies or on campus, Talmadge Lane Thacker turned heads, right up until the day he died on Dec. 27, 2007. He was 45.

     

    A mountain of a man, the 1984 NCAA heavyweight champion stood 6-5 and weighed roughly 450 pounds. I say “roughly” because there were only a couple of places where Thacker could weigh-in, and he usually just waited until the NCAA wrestling championships every year to step on the scales.

     

    As a junior, Thacker weighed in at 410 pounds. He worked hard on getting in condition for his senior year, because he was so driven to win a national championship. He was disappointed at having finished eighth as a freshman and sixth as a sophomore and junior. So he toned himself up, turning his ham-sized arms into muscle.

     

    Many of his friends commented on how (relatively) slim he looked. He figured after sweeping through the regular season undefeated and winning his fourth consecutive ACC heavyweight title, he had shed 30 pounds or more.

     

    So he was more than a little shocked when he stepped on the scales just prior to the 1984 NCAA Championships in East Rutherford, N.J., and saw the needle jump all the way to 447 pounds.

     

    “Surprised?” Thacker said. “Oh, yeah. I had been feeling a little thin.”

     

    It didn’t matter, of course. The NCAA had no weight limitation for heavyweight wrestlers. But after seeing Thacker, who never lost a match to an ACC opponent, early in his career, the NCAA immediately imposed a 350-pound limit for heavyweights, it said for safety reasons. NC State petitioned the change on Thacker’s behalf, because he would have been ineligible to compete.

     

    The NCAA eventually exempted Thacker and all other contemporaries who had already entered school from abiding by that limitation, which allowed Thacker to fulfill his dream of winning a national title. He completed his senior season at a perfect 31-0 and became the second individual wrestling champion in school history, winning the title on his 22nd birthday by beating Nebraska’s Gary Albright.

     

    But to think of Thacker as simply a wrestler is to miss the point entirely. In the early 1980s, he was an NC State icon, as recognizable and nearly as big as the Bell Tower, the Brickyard and Harrellson Hall.

     

    “I have a 400-pound body and a 500-pound heart,” Thacker said with great pride.

     

    And, for a guy who could crush just about anyone who ever looked at him the wrong way, Thacker had a sweet demeanor.

     

    “I’m a big guy trying to fit in,” Thacker once said. “I’m not big-headed, and I don’t try to intimidate anybody off the mat. I’m just trying to be average. People say to me, If I was as big as you, I’d beat everybody up.’ I tell them if you beat everybody up, you won’t have any friends and nobody to care for you.”

     

    He had friends by the dozens back then, and by the hundreds in recent years, if his crowded visitation and funeral were any indication.

     

    “His door was always open to everyone,” said former NC State track All-American Gus Young, one of the speakers at Thacker’s funeral. “And he always told you what he thought.”

     

    Young will never forget Thacker’s kindness. As a freshman, Young was lonely. A native of Jamaica who moved to New York with his father at the age of 12, Young came from a family of modest means. He couldn’t afford to go home to his family during the school’s Christmas break.

     

    “Come home with me,” Thacker said. “There’s always room for another plate at the table.”

     

    “I barely knew him at the time,” said Young, a member of the NC State 4x100 team that won the 1985 NCAA championship. “But he opened up his heart and his home. I was treated just like I was a brother or a son. That’s something I will never forget.”

     

    Obviously, Thacker’s size was intimidating. The first time Clemson football player William Perry saw him, “The Fridge” said: “Man, you make me look small.” Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, who gave Thacker his start in the movies, called him “Condo” while he was on the set of “City Heat,” in which he had a small part as a bar bouncer.

     

    The thing is, Thacker didn’t become a national champion because of his size. There were other big wrestlers on the scene back then who weren’t as successful as Thacker, who finished his career with an 84-13-1 record.

     

    “People thought he won because he was so big, he just laid on people,” said retired NC State wrestling coach Bob Guzzo. “That’s not true. Tab worked hard. He didn’t have great wrestling skills when he got here he never even won a high school state championship but he had the drive to develop his technique and make himself into a champion.

     

    “And for a man that big, he was very nimble on his feet. He could move around."

     

    He was quick enough to win a city-wide ping-pong tournament while in the seventh grade, and continued to take on all comers through college. He played defensive line for West Forsyth’s football team, and considered playing nose guard for Wolfpack head football coach Tom Reed after his wrestling career was over.

     

    But his main athletic passion was basketball. He had a sweet outside jumper. While at West Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem, back before he topped 350 pounds, Thacker could dunk a basketball.

     

    Even at NC State, when he weighed nearly a quarter ton, he could still tap the rim from a three-step start.

     

    “I didn’t play against him,” said NC State basketball coach Sidney Lowe, a Thacker contemporary. “And wouldn’t.”

     

    But Lorenzo Charles, Ernie Myers and Cozell McQueen, all members of NC State's 1983 national championship team, did, and while none of those guys backed away from the likes of Ralph Sampson, Akeem Olajuwon or Jon Koncak, some of college basketball's best centers at the time, they were smart enough to step aside when they saw Thacker barreling at them in a pickup game at Carmichael Gym.

     

    “If he started coming down the lane, nobody stood in there to take a charge,” Myers said.

     

    There was only one bitterness in his career: his failure to make the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. He always believed that politics, not his injury-hampered showings at the free-style and Greco-Roman trials, kept him from representing the United States.

     

    He experienced the Olympics vicariously through Young, who was a member of the 1984 Jamaican track and field team that won a silver medal in the 4x100 relay.

     

    Instead of the L.A. Olympics, Thacker went to Hollywood, rubbing bellies with the likes of Eastwood, Reynolds and Goldie Hawn. He enjoyed the spotlight, but his roots were in North Carolina. And, as anybody who ever wrestled him knew, Thacker was hard to uproot.

     

    He returned to Raleigh, where he ran several popular night clubs and eventually used his NC State criminal justice degree to open up his own company, Heavyweight Bail Bonds.

     

    In his later years, diabetes pinned Thacker. Three years ago, he lost a foot to the disease. Less than a year later, his right leg had to be amputated. In June, 2007, he lost his other leg.

     

    “After he lost his first leg, he was still able to get around as much as he wanted with a prosthesis,” said Young. “At some point, he felt he wasn’t contributing to his family. He had always been such a good provider, but he never really learned how to receive.

     

    “When he lost his second leg, it was like he lost his will to fight.”

     

    Friends and family all those people who had counted on Thacker for so many things over the years helped keep his spirits up over the final months, but his condition worsened. By Christmas, Thacker was in the hospital and he died quietly two days later.

    At his funeral at Raleigh’s Springfield Baptist Church, Rev. Daniel Sanders beautifully captured Thacker’s gentle spirit, his struggles with illness and his giving spirit, as did the people who shared in the celebration of his life.

     

    They emphasized what everyone who ever spent significant amounts of time with Thacker quickly learned: No matter what, the gentle giant always made you feel like you were the biggest person in the room.

     

    You may contact Tim Peeler at tim_peeler@ncsu.edu.


     


     

     

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