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The Truth About Foxcatcher

2014 November 30
by Greg Satell

Every story is a caricature, especially a Hollywood film. Some details are omitted to maintain the flow, while others are added to sharpen one aspect or another.  The truth is always multifaceted and even the most faithful telling cannot capture any narrative in its entirety.  I think it’s best to see the new movie Foxcatcher in those terms.

The film boils down nearly a decade’s worth of events to a little over two hours.  It tells the story of Dave and Mark Schultz, two of the best wrestlers the USA has ever produced and focuses on their dysfunctional relationship with John du Pont, a scion of one of America’s most prominent families.

Foxcatcher is based on Mark Schultz’s life story and is mostly told from his perspective.  It portrays two brothers taken in by the twisted psyche of a coddled aristocrat who wants to buy his way into their world of elite accomplishment.  Yet the most disturbing aspect of the story is not about du Pont or the Schutz brothers, but the part the rest of us played in it.

To begin to understand what happened at Foxcatcher, it’s important to take into context what it used to be like to compete as an Olympic athlete.  There was a strict amateur code and those who violated it risked being banned from competition.  Jim Thorpe, for example, was stripped of his medals in track for playing professional baseball.

So to achieve greatness and glory, athletes like the Schultz brothers had to endure not only privation, but near destitution.  Unlike their competition from the Soviet Bloc, it was a real struggle for them to make ends meet and still have time to train and focus on their sport.

So when John du Pont arrived on the scene, he was like a godsend.  There were high calibre wrestling clubs before Foxcatcher, like NYAC and Sunkist, that offered a place to train and some financial assistance with travel and event costs, but what John du Pont built was a different animal altogether.

With du Pont, top notch wrestlers received stipends and could live comfortably on his farm rent-free.  That, combined with coaching jobs and money earned from clinics and wrestling camps, provided a decent, albeit not extravagant income.  Athletes could focus on their training without having to wonder where their next meal was coming from.

I grew up near the du Pont estate and began working out at Foxcatcher in 1989.  I continued to practice there every summer during my college career.  It was a fantastic opportunity to train at a first-class facility with some of the best wrestlers in the world.  I wasn’t exactly Olympic calibre, but was grateful that I was able work out with them on a regular basis.

There was a regular group of athletes who lived on the farm or nearby and a steady stream of visitors from out of town.  You would enter the facility, form ad hoc groups, drill for awhile and then do some live sparring.  Sometimes, someone would demonstrate technique and we would try to improve our repertoire, but mostly we were there to train and hone our skills.

Practice sessions were low key and friendly.  Once, when I was late, Head Coach Greg Strobel made me work out with John Morris, Lehigh’s 300 pound heavyweight (I wrestled at 177 lbs), but even that was more in the spirit of fun than discipline.  Lehigh was in our conference, so John and I knew each other and he was always a good sport.  He somehow avoided flattening me like a pancake.

By the time I started training at Foxcatcher, Mark Schultz had already parted ways with John du Pont.  So I never met Mark, though I saw his brother often.  Dave was a living legend in wrestling circles, but what I remember about him was the calm, affable way he had about him, a rare quality among wrestlers—or anyone else for that matter.

I think that’s what formed the bond between Dave and John.   Even during workout sessions, Dave had a strange aura of tranquility that set him apart.  He was the kind of person that attracted others to him merely through his quiet, but significant presence.  His almost Yoda-like calm was a nearly perfect foil for John’s manic insanity.

And John du Pont was insane.  There was no doubt about that, even early on.  I only met him a few times—he didn’t regularly attend training sessions—but even casual contact with John left me with an uneasy feeling.  He had a bizarre look in his eyes that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Even a chance encounter with John just left you with strange pangs of foreboding.

Stories about John’s strange behavior were legion.  He had a bad habit of driving inebriated around the estate and crashing into things.  On more than one occasion, he drove the car into a pond.  He also regularly carried a handgun with him and once, during his 50th birthday party, he inexplicably starting shooting off an AK-47.

By all accounts, in the months leading up to the shooting John’s behavior became even more bizarre.  He kicked three Afro-American wrestlers off the farm and said that Foxcatcher was run by the Ku Klux Klan.  He confronted one wrestler, Dan Chaid, by pointing an assault rifle at his chest.  The warning signs were there, but it was hard for anyone to admit it.

Talking about John’s mental state at the training center was strictly taboo, but his problems were an open secret.  The subject would come up in wrestling circles and we would snicker and chuckle and say things like “ticking time bomb” and “trouble waiting to happen.”  No one wanted du Pont’s largesse to end, so we laughed it off and let the pangs of unease subside.

When I heard that John du Pont had shot Dave Schultz, I was horrified, but not completely surprised.  We all knew that something would eventually happen, although never dreamed that it would be so tragic.  Yet when all you do is hope for the best, things have a way of turning out for the worse.

The unfortunate truth about Foxcatcher is that we were all complicit.  We all knew that John was unstable and many suspected that he was dangerous.  Few spoke up and no one took any action.  A good man lost his life and a sport was scarred by tragedy, sorrow and dishonor.

Human beings are incompetent risk managers.  We readily accept present accommodations and fail to account for the price to be paid in the future.  When calamity strikes, we vow to be smarter next time, but seldom are.  Life goes on, new ambitions arise and we try not to think too much about it.

The lessons of Foxcatcher, and many other things, never seem to be learned.

– Greg


2 Responses leave one →
  1. Damion permalink
    November 30, 2014

    I grew up a wrestler, and adore the sport to this day… That movie was awful. I just wanted it to end. A brutal and haunting story. The pace and deliberate nature of what was to come was painful.

    I remember the posters of annual rankings we had in our high school wrestling room of the names of wrestlers from Foxcatxher, Sunkist kids among others that I viewed as elite… Little did I know what was happening in these elite circles of the sport I love.

    Great article and great insight.

  2. November 30, 2014

    Well, it wasn’t really like that most of the time. Du Pont wasn’t around as much as it was implied in the movie. Most of the time, it was just a great place to train, which is why everybody put up with John.

    – Greg

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