Homestead’s late and still much missed boys basketball Hall of Famer John Chekouras was not just a hoops guru and a much beloved teacher of special needs students.
He also knew a good idea when he heard one.
Chekouras was a fan of all sports and admired the vaunted Highlander track program a great deal. He also knew that then Homestead boys coach, former Tosa West long jump state champion and Wisconsin track athlete Dan Benson had spoken to his former UW teammate and former Seymour state shot put champion Jeff Braun about an amazing specialty meet that Braun had participated in.
“In the 1980s, Jeff told me about this crazy competition he got invited to,” said Benson referring to an all throwers meet of Olympic level athletes that had the best of the best take part. “That stuck with me and years later Chekouras and I said ‘Let’s try something similar.'”
And so they did. They put out feelers, got people interested and created some buzz.
It was initially called the Homestead Big Man Invitational and later morphed into a Field Event Festival. It was a spectacular success. It started in 1994 and ran for many years, inviting athletes from across the state. Its records would likely be the envy of many state meets across the country.
It didn’t hurt that in the first year of 1994 they were able to draw Luke Sullivan of Verona who had set the still standing D1 discus record of 193-3 the year before (see earlier post). All Sullivan did in that glorious first Big Man Meet was make everyone’s jaws drop. He even made everyone forget about the legendary Peter Leach of Whitefish Bay, who had almost knocked down a tree at Homestead with one of his many tremendous throws four years earlier.
Sullivan’s best toss that day was an awe-inspiring 196-6 effort, which not surprisingly is still the record for the event.
The meet was off and running after that. Sullivan eventually repeated as state champ later that year, but could not break his own state record (which can only be set at the state meet).
Not to say that his season was a failure by any means. Later in the 1994 season he threw even further than he did at Homestead with an imposing 198-11 fling.
Because of Sullivan’s example, everyone wanted to come to Big Man/Field Event Festival and boy, did everybody want to show off!
Current state shot put recordholder Steve Marcelle of Green Bay Preble set the meet mark of 63-10 in 2005 (more on him later). Also in 2005 (after it had morphed into the Field Event Festival), Victor Reynolds of Milwaukee Bradley Tech would set the meet triple jump record at 48-2.
As an encore a few weeks later in La Crosse, Reynolds would go on to break Olympic champion Ken Harrison’s long-time, previously thought untouchable state triple jump record with a 48-11 mark.
The 2008 Field Event Festival meet was also truly special as multi-time state jumps champion Paul Annear of Richland Center soared 6-10 in the high jump and Marcus Jenkins of Bradley Tech, who would later flirt with Larry Franklin’s still historic 55-year state long jump record (25- 3/4), went an astounding 24-3 1/2 in his specialty.
As shown by the the meet recordbook, Homestead coaches and officials worked hard every year to bring in the best of the best and they exceeded all expectations in 2002 in the Big Man portion of meet as they pulled in junior Gavin Ball of Monona Grove who had won the D2 discus as a sophomore in 2001 and also finished second in the shot.
They also attracted defending D1 shot champ senior Brandon Houle of Oshkosh North, as well as rising stars senior Katon Bethay of Milton and one big Joe Thomas of Brookfield Central, who was just a junior, but who was not far from the football fame that he would later earn in Wisconsin and the NFL.
All four had broken the 60 foot barrier in the shot earlier in the 2002 season and Benson and his then weight coach Dave Hoagland worked hard to get their coaches’ signatures on meet contracts.
When Thomas and his imposing fellow Central weightmen agreed to come just a few weeks before the May 8 meet date as the final pieces to the puzzle, Benson added these prophetic lines to the meet program: “This could be the most impressive weightmen’s meet ever.”
Central’s then coach Mark Pulkownik agreed: “This is going to be fun.”
And was it ever, as the fully credentialed quartet established their bona fides over and over again that day in Mequon.
The meet, which was run under overcast skies with an occasional light mist, started well enough with Ball, who still owns the D2 state discus record at 192-1 (set in 2003), beating Thomas for the discus crown with a 175-11 effort. Thomas was no slouch with a runner-up 172-1 toss.
But that was just the warm-up for the main event, the shot put.
1997 state champ Ian Douglas of Beaver Dam held the Big Man meet record in the shot at that point with an effort of 60 feet even, but that mark was battered down repeatedly this day as Thomas, Ball, and Houle combined for five explosive throws that all exceeded that otherwise solid standard.
Houle got it first with a 60-2 toss early in the prelims, but then mighty Joe unleashed all 6-8 of his vast potential for a 62-1/2 effort. It was the third time, but not the last, that he had broken the Lancer school record that spring.
“It felt good,” Thomas said at the time. “You can tell when it comes off your fingers, you get a nice flick of the wrist.”
Thomas’ throw would eventually stand as the winning effort but not without some serious challenges, as Ball howled with effort as he flung one 61- 1/4 and then on his last toss, Houle blasted the 12-pound steel ball 61- 7 1/2 – close, but not close enough to catch Thomas.
At the time, all three exceptional efforts were in the state’s all-time top 25. Interestingly enough, it was Bethay who had come into the meet as the top seed with a season best of 62-3. But this day at Homestead, all he could manage was fourth with a merely impressive 59-4.
But he would have a better day when it counted.
The quartet of champions posed together for a fun arm-in-arm picture which eventually found its way into that year’s edition of the Wisconsin High School Track and Field Yearbook. They talked, laughed and shared notes as they headed back to the parking lot.
Three weeks later at state, Ball would set his first D2 state discus record with an 181-7 effort and would win the shot put by over two feet.
Houle would go on to win the D1 discus title, but in the D1 shot, it was Bethay who got the last laugh, as he tossed 62-2 on a warm, sunny day in La Crosse to beat the defending champ Houle (61- 10 1/2) and Thomas (59- 5 1/4) and avenge his loss at Homestead.
In doing so, Bethay fulfilled a pledge he had made as he had walked off the Highlander ring three weeks earlier: “I know I can do better. I just didn’t have my best day.”
Bethay and the rest would all have many, many more best days ahead of them as the quartet would use the success they shared at the Big Man Meet as a launching pad for much greater athletic and personal achievements both in and outside of high school.
*Bethay excelled at Wofford College (South Carolina) so greatly in both football (defensive lineman) and track that he would eventually be inducted into its Hall of Fame. For good measure, he was an academic All-American too.
*Ball would go on to have a dominant senior season at Monona Grove in 2003, breaking his own D2 discus record and again winning the shot. He would later have a fine track career at NCAA D1 powerhouse Kansas.
*Houle would have such an excellent track career at UW-Oshkosh that he would be named to the WIAC’s all-time 100th anniversary track team in 2011.
*And Thomas would go on to have a dominant senior track season in 2003 winning both the shot and discus in impressive fashion. His best ever shot put of 64-4, set in a post-season meet in 2002, is still one of the best of all time.
And he would do much more when he got out of high school.
Thomas would go on to have an All-American football career in Wisconsin, winning the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman in 2006 and becoming the third pick in the first round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns, eventually having what many are calling a potential Hall of Fame career.
He retired a few years ago, lost quite a bit of football weight and can now be seen in the Milwaukee area happily doing TV ads for Jilly’s Car Wash. He is also building a budding career as a reality TV star competing successfully on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s “The Titan Games.”
As a final note, Thomas was a multi-sport athlete at Brookfield Central, leading very successful Lancer football and basketball teams too. He did not give up his multi-sport status at Wisconsin either, as he also threw the shot and discus for the Badger men’s track team on occasion, even breaking Braun’s 26-year old school indoor shot record in 2005 with an enormous 62-1/4 heave of the collegiate 16-pound iron ball.
He was using the old-fashioned glide method too which made his feat even more impressive.
Such is Thomas’ place in Wisconsin track lore, it’s not hard to imagine Big Joe having a shot put rolling around in a closet in his house somewhere. Maybe he even pulls it out sometimes to toss around in the backyard just for fun.
It’s something you just might find Ball, Houle and Bethay doing too!
UP NEXT: Solinsky finishes his marvelous career and relays start to take center stage as the Baylor Method begins its takeover of the recordbook.