Powerful impact

Imagine football without weightlifting.

You can’t.

But until an innovator from Baton Rouge introduced weightlifting to the sport more than 50 years ago, football players relied on what they were born with to overpower the other guy.

Enter Alvin Roy, proprietor of Alvin Roy’s Strength and Health Studios, promoting its “Slenderizing Salon and Turkish Baths” at 233 Oklahoma St.

Try imagining LSU winning its first national football championship in 2003, not 1958.

You can’t, of course, but had it not been for Roy’s weight training and—to a lesser degree—his use of a steroid growth supplement, the legendary Tigers of yesteryear might have been also-rans instead of the strongest team in the land.

Five decades later, in LSU’s opulent football operations building—a weightlifter’s paradise—awards are given in Roy’s name. Gayle Hatch, the local weightlifting guru who coached the U.S. team at the 2004 Olympics, got his start under Roy and still relies on some of his theories.

There’s a book in the works about Roy, and although his use of then-legal steroids adds a shadow of controversy to his stellar record of accomplishments, his supporters hope to cement him in Baton Rouge lore with a statue. They believe he should be remembered as a pioneer who grasped the benefits of weight training before anyone else, rather than the “father of the steroid” in the NFL.

The old “Turkish Baths” building is gone, a victim of urban renewal in an area between LSU and downtown that desperately needs upgrading. But Roy’s daughter, Astrid Clements of Baton Rouge, grabbed a few bricks after the demolition.

“Let me tell you something: I lived behind that studio,” she says. “I was in it all the time.”

Clements’ eyes light up, and occasionally moisten, when talking about her dad and his old studio. In her sprawling Country Club of Louisiana home, Clements has turned half her bedroom floor into a workplace strewn with old newspaper clippings, books and memorabilia about Alvin Roy. A souvenir book from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where Roy was a manager/trainer for the USA. Countless stories from the Morning Advocate and now-defunct State-Times newspapers. Pictures. Magazines. And the original 4-by-6 index cards on which he used to keep track of his athletes, marking in pencil the heights, weights and lifting progress of guys like Jimmy Taylor, Billy Cannon, Gayle Hatch and Bob Pettit.

Clements and her younger sister, Gina Abraham of Lake Charles, are committed to organizing a book about their father and somehow commemorating his life—and those of other successful Baton Rouge natives—with a series of statues.

They got a big boost from a local trainer named Jimmy Miller, who took it upon himself to save the studio and promote Roy’s legacy. He’s even created a MySpace page devoted to Roy. The online slide show is remarkable.

“My father was cutting-edge in so many aspects of the physical fitness revolution,” Clements says, “and this was the incubator for all this, right there on Oklahoma Street.”

Roy died from a heart attack on April 27, 1979, a few days after his 59th birthday. A handsome, witty and funny man, no one could deny that he’d packed a lot into those 59 years. He was, by all accounts, quite a ladies’ man.

“He couldn’t help it,” says daughter Astrid with laugh. “He was so good-looking!”

Roy was born and raised in Baton Rouge and graduated from Istrouma High School, and his later impact on his alma mater changed the face of football in Baton Rouge forever. Roy attended LSU then went into the U.S. Army, where he met Bob Hoffman—who happened to be the godfather of barbells in the United States and the longtime U.S. Olympic coach. While stationed in Paris, Roy was exposed to the Olympic-style training and lifting that he later incorporated into his health club and the training regimens of all those Hall-of-Famers who would pass through his doors.

Hoffman selected Roy as a manager for the 1952 Olympic team and later helped him buy the health club.

Roy, who had a son from a previous marriage—James Alvin Roy Jr., who goes by Buddy and lives in Greenwell Springs—met German-born Edith Schoenknecht while on a weightlifting trip to Berlin. The Army officer married the stunning German beauty, who became his partner in the health club and the mother of their two daughters. They divorced in 1960, and the girls stayed with Alvin while Edith moved to Beaumont.

“My dad was Mister Mom,” says Clements, who was 9 when her parents divorced. “This is why Gina and I are so passionate about it. He was the greatest father two little girls could ever have. We felt so loved, so cherished, so safe. That just gives you a little snippet of the kind of man he was.”

One with a sense of humor, too.

One day he told Hatch, “When I came back from Germany I had a beautiful fraulein wife and I had a prize German Shepherd dog. And I had my barbell set. My wife left me, my dog died, but I still have my barbells.”

Roy was known in Baton Rouge as the man who ran the health club and the host of a Saturday TV show on WBRZ called Future Champions.

“That show affected a lot of kids,” Hatch says.

Before Istrouma High School became the breeding ground for LSU football stars in the mid 1950s, it played second fiddle in football to local rival Baton Rouge High. Roy offered his services to Istrouma football coach Little Fuzzy Brown to make his team stronger. Future Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon, then a junior at Istrouma, tells the story:

“He emphasized weightlifting for strength, not for show and tell, but to be a better, stronger person. He had tried to get the weightlifting in at Istrouma, which was his alma mater, for three or four years. We had a good team when I was a junior until we played Baton Rouge High, which had a number of scholarship athletes who would play in college the next year. And they beat us handily.”

Cannon remembers a big truck pulling up to Istrouma the first day back at school in January—filled with weights for the team. “I had never seen so many weights in my life,” he says. “That was the first weightlifting for team sports anywhere.”

Cannon recalls that the next year, Istrouma beat teams from Memphis and Little Rock, defeated Baton Rouge High and won the state championship … “because we were bigger and stronger than we were the year before.”

More than just local high school fans noticed. Future basketball Hall of Famer Pettit defied the St. Louis Hawks brass and continued to lift with Roy, crediting his strength for much of his success. And Paul Dietzel, LSU’s young football coach, not only took his Tigers to Roy, he started lifting and working out himself.

“We made a magic run, and I think the weightlifting was instrumental in the run,” says Cannon, whose LSU team went undefeated to win the 1958 national title and came within a hair of repeating the feat in 1959.

“He believed in what he was doing, and he wanted to do it to help the school,” Cannon recalls. “We had guys who other people would call too short, too slow, too this, too that. But they all played, and they played well, and they were all strong—stronger than they would have been normally.”

Word got out. Football players from all over the country trekked to Oklahoma Street in Baton Rouge to train. And finally the San Diego Chargers called. Sid Gillman, the general manager and head coach of the American Football League upstarts, hired Roy to do for the Chargers what he had done for high schools, colleges and LSU.

Roy’s impact on the Chargers was immediate, and he added a twist. When the Chargers sat down to eat at the training table they’d find a little pink pill beside their plate—a steroid called Dianabol. Some players took the pills, but not everyone was comfortable with the little-known steroid. Quarterback John Hadl later called Roy the team’s “medicine man.” Hadl said he was one of about 10 Chargers who didn’t take Dianabol.

At the time it wasn’t illegal, and it was commonly used by European weightlifters.

“No, it wasn’t against the rules. It was kind of like a supplement,” says Hatch, adding that by today’s steroids standards the dosages were pretty light.

“But that is a true story, and as much as I owe to Alvin, I don’t think I could stand up and deny it. The only thing I can say is the whole time he trained me he never suggested I take Dianobol.”

Steve Courson, a Pittsburgh Steelers star from 1978 to 1983, came out after his career and claimed that his heart trouble was a result of his use of steroids. He called Roy “the father of the steroid in the NFL,” although there is documented use of steroids in pro football the year before Roy arrived in San Diego. And Joe Don Looney, a star running back for Oklahoma in the early 1960s, wrote in his biography that he came to train in Baton Rouge to work out with Roy and get steroids.

“That’s a black mark, I guess, on his legacy,” Hatch says.

Astrid Clements doesn’t deny the steroids, but she says, “We never heard that out of my daddy’s mouth. It was never in our consciousness.” She adds that she and sister Gina researched their father’s use of steroids and determined he was simply on the cutting edge of training for his time.

“The U.S. weightlifting team used them. Just like high-protein supplements, whatever, to make you stronger and healthier,” Clements says. “I’m telling you, my father would have never hurt anyone. If there was something that would have hurt someone physically, emotionally or psychologically, whatever, he would not have used it.”

The bottom line back then was that Roy was effective, and he went on to work with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders. Wherever Roy went, his teams won, and won big.

Roy sold his studio in 1978 to group of businessmen who hired Hatch to run it. Hatch went on to enjoy legendary success himself, and he credits much of it to Roy.

“Sometimes I would see him drive by,” Hatch recalls. “He would drive by and look in, but he didn’t stop. I could tell he was homesick. But he didn’t stop.”

But Hatch didn’t let Roy stay away. In the late 1970s, he invited Roy to meet a young weightlifter named Tommy Calandro. Said Roy that day, pointing to Calandro and Hatch, “You will make the Olympics.”

In 1984, with Hatch as his coach in Los Angeles, Calandro became Baton Rouge’s first Olympic weightlifter.

The health-club business has changed from the old days, but not for Hatch. His lifters still work out much same way as they did under Roy.

“What I did when I started my program was take the basic foundation of what Alvin had taught me and then I added more of the Olympic lifts into the program,” Hatch says.

Hatch, a vocal proponent of drug-free lifting, experimented with European and Russian training methods for 10 years before coming up with a system that has sent not only Calandro but also Bret Brian to the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. Among his many athletes and protégées is Tommy Moffitt, LSU’s strength coach. And there are countless other acclaimed lifters and pro and college athletes who have gone through his program.

Gone is the building remembered as the “Turkish Baths” near the foot of the Mississippi River bridge–Nicholson Drive off-ramp, now just another vacant Oklahoma Street lot.

But Roy’s legacy lives today in young star athletes like Travis Roy.

The grandson of Buddy Roy, he was a star football and baseball player at Redemptorist, not to mention a national Junior Olympics weightlifting champion. Young Travis Roy’s coach? Alvin Roy’s former protégé: Gayle Hatch.

A statue, book for Roy

Astrid Clements and Gina Abraham are working to honor their father’s historic contributions to the world of sports right here in Baton Rouge.

For a man credited with revolutionizing strength training, Alvin Roy is not widely known. His daughters want to change that. Their effort may be as much about remembering Roy’s character as it is about his career.

“He had the most positive attitude you can ever imagine,” says Clements, who still lives in Baton Rouge. “He motivated everyone around him to have that attitude.”

Within the past year people have inundated Clements with inquiries, wanting to know the story of Roy’s work and trying to document it.

One of those people was local fitness professional Jimmy Miller, who tried in vain to save Roy’s old gym from the wrecking ball. The old Turkish Baths were demolished to make way for future redevelopment, but not before Miller set up a MySpace page with photos and other information trying to drum up awareness of Roy.

“His legacy is being lost or forgotten,” Miller says on the MySpace page. “Who he was and what he did for my industry will be remembered from here on. We owe it to the health and fitness industry … we owe it to Alvin Roy.”

Roy’s daughters are working toward getting a book written, and they want to see a statue eventually sculpted and displayed in a visible place in Baton Rouge. By year-end they hope to pick a sculptor, find a place to display a statue, and launch a fitness-themed fund-raising campaign with corporate sponsorship.

“He was very humble man, but he did great things,” Clements says. “We want people to remember that you don’t have to leave Baton Rouge to do great things.”

You can send your recollections, stories, photos or other accounts from Roy’s life to Clements via e-mail at [email protected] Find Miller’s MySpace page with a Google search using the words “MySpace Miller Alvin Roy lifting.”—TOM GUARISCO