Brains and Brawn… Bob Simpson and Christmas hams

Published 11:30 am Friday, May 21, 2021

BY ALEX CAMPBELL

Over the last several months, we explored the life of Paul Anderson, one of the strongest men (if not THE strongest) to ever walk the planet. It just so happened that he lived in Elizabethton for a while, which makes his story resonate with many of us.

This week, I would like to transition into another local strength athlete who is less well known but incredible in his own merit.

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When I first got into lifting competitions, it was the same way that most high school athletes in this region do – at the Hampton High School Bench Press and Deadlift Competition promoted by Bill Anderson.

I remember walking into the gymnasium the first time and seeing an older gentleman seated in a judge’s chair wearing black dress pants and a button-down dress shirt with short sleeves.

I remember the sleeves specifically because hanging out of each one was not just an arm, but something that more resembled a Christmas ham.

What struck me so much was that this man was no youngster. He had a full head of silver hair and enough wrinkles to let me know he had been in the game for a while.

He had to be over 60, and the girth on his arm hams was proof that he was no beginner at weightlifting either. It is not normal to see a man with arms like that much less a man of his advanced years.

I eventually learned that his name was Bob Simpson.

I did not speak to him for several years, but when I did it was just a passing “hello”. He just nodded his head stoically, the quiet type.

As I got older, I began to help with the operation of the competition and got to know Simpson better. He was the kindest man you could ever meet. He wasn’t surly, mean, or misanthropic, he was just quiet. But if you did get him talking, especially about weights, he warmed up pretty quickly.

Bob Simpson was faithful to that competition for over 30 years. He loved giving back to the youth and helping them develop a passion for the sport that he obviously loved as well. I got to see him every April and was able to know him a little better each year.

What comes to my mind first when I think of Simpson, other than his arms which resembled a mules leg, was his love of learning. Nothing exemplifies his love as much as one story.

Simpson was in his 80’s by now, and the first man to ever deadlift 1,000 pounds had come to town. Andy Bolton flew in from England to participate in a local deadlift competition on a Saturday night.

He stayed over for a few days and put on a clinic the following Monday for lifters to learn more from what was then the strongest deadlifter on the planet.

Dozens of locals paid their fee to work with Bolton, and just before we began, to my surprise, in hobbled Bob Simpson… on a cane.

You must understand that Simpson had a heart attack just a few weeks before. He wasn’t even cleared to drive yet.

He came in and plopped down his money. He wasn’t just going to let the young lifters learn from the best, he wanted in on some of that knowledge too.

I later learned that he asked his also elderly wife to drive him to the clinic, and she had remained in the car for hours. It required a huge effort for Simpson to attend, but it meant so much to him.

As I reflected on that event, I realized what made Simpson special, other than those massive arms.

It was his willingness to learn. Bob was getting older. Not only was his body in no shape to put any of the knowledge to use, but to be honest he would never be able to put it to use.

The information he gleaned would not help him break a personal record, win a competition, or impress people in the gym, yet he was there to learn. He wasn’t coaching anyone at the time either, so he had no one in mind in which to pass on the knowledge.

Simpson is what is known as a student of the game. He loved lifting, he loved experimenting, and he loved learning. It was no matter if it would ever make him stronger physically, as long as he had more knowledge about the thing he loved, then he was happy.

So many people today only want to invest in something or someone if it can provide something for them in return. They will go to school if it helps them get into the college they want.

They will return to school if it helps them make more money. They will give you a gift if they think you are going to give them one in return. But it is this “what can you do for me?” selfish attitude that ruins so many people.

I want to live my life like Bob Simpson.

I want to be on a life-long quest to better myself in every facet, and even when I can no longer get better in one area, I want to continue to push to get better in another. It is the journey that is important, not the reward at the end.

As I grow, I want my mentality to become more like Simpson’s (and yes, there is a little part of me that wants my arms to be more like his too), but that brings us to the next point.

Just how did he get those twin muscle children that hid under his shirt sleeves?

To be continued…