Orphan to Olympian: Hoffa’s long road

Reese Hoffa was 21 years old, sitting at a coffee shop in his college town, studying for an exam. Then his cell phone rang: A number he didn’t recognize.

This was before Hoffa became a superstar in the world of shot putting. This was before he’d won the Southeastern Conference championship, before he’d won the Pan American Games, before he’d twice made the U.S. Olympic squad and became the 2007 world champion and set his sights on a gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. He hadn’t yet started dating his future wife; he hadn’t yet sat next to David Duchovny on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and talked to Jay about In-N-Out Burger; and he hadn’t yet become a public advocate for adoption, telling adoptive parents at events like this weekend’s National Adoption Day celebration in Florida about the transformative effect they can have on kids’ lives.

No, at the moment he answered his phone on that day more than a decade ago, Reese Hoffa was just a burly shot putter at the University of Georgia who always wondered what had become of his birth family.

On the other line, Hoffa heard a familiar woman’s voice. At first, he didn’t realize what a big moment this was. He didn’t think of all the phone books he’d pored through looking for his mother’s last name when his adoptive family in Georgia visited their Kentucky hometown. He didn’t think of the older brother he now considered the missing link to his past. He didn’t think of how growing up as a biracial kid in a white family always ate at him, how he doubted himself, never quite fit in, never felt comfortable in his own skin.

Instead, when he heard his birth mother’s voice for the first time since he was four years old, the first thing Reese Hoffa blurted out was this:

“I’m sorry I burned down the house.”

Reese was nearly four. It was his most vivid childhood memory, and one of his earliest, too, along with watching “The Muppet Show” and going to the park with his older brother and eating his grandma’s banana pudding.

His mother, still a teenager after giving birth to Reese at 15, was downstairs at their home outside Louisville, entertaining friends. Upstairs, Reese’s brother showed him how a cigarette lighter works. Then he touched the flame to a string hanging from old, frilly curtains. The fire caught the string, and Reese’s brother put it out with a cup of water. He did it again and again. Reese was enthralled. Then his brother left the room to fetch more water. When he did, Reese picked up the lighter and played with fire himself.

The flames sucked up the hanging string, swallowed the curtains, licked the walls. Reese watched wide-eyed. He shouted to his brother. His mother and uncle sprinted upstairs. They tossed buckets of water as the fire engulfed the top floor. From the front lawn, Reese watched firefighters put out the fire, but only after it had destroyed much of the house.

Then it was to a hotel, to an apartment paid for by Red Cross, to his grandma’s house, and finally, not long after the fire, to a big building in downtown Louisville filled with kids and nuns. This memory is burned into Reese’s brain as vividly as the fire: His mother giving Reese and his brother a hug, his mother walking away, Reese chasing his mother but a bunch of strangers holding him back. For days after, Reese barely spoke, waiting for his mother to return.

But she wouldn’t come back. Reese and his brother adapted to life at the orphanage. Reese learned to ride a bike, swam in the pool, went to prospective adoptive families’ homes for weekend visits. And then, just before Christmas, a family that lived on a Kentucky farm with three daughters and a son adopted 5-year-old Reese.

“Big white teeth, shining eyes all glistening, I fell in love,” recalled his adoptive mother, Cathy McManus. “His chest was all poofed out, a big stout kid but no fat on him.”

The memories of his birth mother and his brother — whom the Hoffa family did not adopt — became fuzzier with each year. But they were there. He remembered the taste of his grandma’s banana pudding. He got a 6th-birthday letter from his brother. He watched his adoptive mother stir instant milk and said, “I remember when my mom used to make milk.”

But slowly, he became part of his new family. He went to church and learned Catholic prayers. He got up early to feed cows and get fresh eggs. He began to call his parents Mom and Dad instead of Cathy and Steve. And in the yard, Reese was always throwing something: Breaking windows with whiffle balls, hitting an imaginary strike zone with a baseball, tossing the football with his adoptive brother, knocking the head off a Virgin Mary statue in the garden with an errant throw.

His adoptive family moved to Georgia. He grew into a big boy, playing fullback and lineman in football, catcher in baseball, and then, when a coach suggested he give it a try his junior year, a shot putter for the track team. In shot put he was a natural. He nearly doubled his distance his first year, winning the state championship and a Division I scholarship. He was a happy kid, but his adoptive mom always sensed a bit of reticence, like he was holding back his love a bit.

“The thing with Reese, he knew who his mom was,” said McManus, his adoptive mom. “He knew he’d been left. If he came too close to us, it’d be like he was doing his mom a dishonor.”

And so Reese wondered silently what became of that family. He blamed himself: There was a fire, the fire was his fault, and after the fire his birth mother left them. In college he set his mind to finding his birth family.

“When you’re growing up, you want to feel part of something,” Hoffa recalled. “You want to try to find your heritage.”

Which brings us to the phone call. Hoffa scoured adoption web sites, and on one, he found a woman who sounded like his mom. A couple weeks after he emailed the woman, his phone rang, and …

“I’m sorry I burned down the house,” Hoffa said to his birth mother, Diana Watts, confessing nearly two decades of guilt.

But his birth mother assured him: that wasn’t why you were put up for adoption. Back then, the teenage mom was barely making it financially, $100 a week to raise two kids. And then, soon after the fire, she ran a stop sign. A cop gave her a $120 ticket for not having insurance. She didn’t know how she’d make it, and she realized these kids needed something better.

When Reese heard this, his guilt lifted. He talked with his birth mother for two hours. He flew to Indiana, where his birth mother and biological brother lived. And his doubt about his identity lifted too. He realized his birth mom made the right decision. He cultivated a close relationship with his birth mother, though couldn’t do the same with his biological brother — the two just couldn’t connect after so many years. He realized his adoptive parents loved him as they did their biological kids. He realized his adoptive family gave him a shot at success in life.

And he made a decision. He would work his hardest to bring honor to his family name, and his true family name was Hoffa, the name of the parents who raised him.

“When you have lost people like I lost my birth mom at a young age and you remember the whole process of losing her, you want to grab on to something that makes you whole,” Hoffa said. “I really believe in the last name Hoffa being something powerful. You want to live your life to bring honor to that name.”

Hoffa hoists his jumbo-sized shot-putter’s body — 325 pounds and just short of 6 feet tall — into his jumbo-sized Chevy Silverado. He pulls out of the driveway at the jumbo-sized seven-bedroom house just outside Athens that he and his wife hope to start filling with kids after the London Olympics. He drives past the cows grazing next door and pulls into the athletic facility at the University of Georgia.

It’s early, more than seven months before the U.S. Olympic trials in June. Still, London 2012 is what’s on the 34-year-old’s mind. He knows it’s his last big shot. He’s been to two Olympics but never medaled, even though he’s ranked in the top three in the world since 2005. In Beijing, the pressure of being a favorite got to him, and Hoffa finished seventh. He knows even going to London isn’t a sure thing. Only three American shot putters will make the team.

But if he makes it, he wants to erase all doubt about being the best in the world.

“You have to throw well on that day, and if you don’t, that’s it,” Hoffa says as he stretches before practice. “I don’t worry about it being the Olympics. Not the crowd, not the competition, just me executing on that day.”

Hoffa steps into the shot put ring. With a puffy haircut and scruffy beard and big smile, Hoffa looks like a bulkier version of baseball player Prince Fielder. He cradles the 15-pound metal ball — a pound lighter than the Olympic shot put — against his neck. He bends his knees, rotates one-and-a-half times to build springlike power, and uncoils all that power at his fingertips, pushing the shot put with a combination of brute force and balletic balance. The shot put shoots from his hand at 28 miles per hour.

Just shy of 70 feet. He’s pleased. After all, the 2008 gold medalist won with a throw of 70 feet 7 inches. Plenty of time to add distance before London.

There’s something very definite about the shot put: He who throws furthest, wins. No room for doubt. It’s a comforting feeling, being a star in a sport with no room for doubt after so much of his life has been marked by doubting his own identity.

Sometimes he visualizes London: “Those are the moments you’re living for,” he says. Win a medal and his endorsement money will increase, his appearance fees will increase. That stuff is measureable. What’s not measureable is the feeling of being the best, and the security that will afford for Hoffa’s family, for his future children, for his ability to be a great father.

In London, he won’t pay attention to the big stage or the huge crowd, or to the entourage of his wife’s family that’ll be making the trip. But if he makes London, when Hoffa steps into the ring, there will be a new face in the stands sitting next to his wife and all her family: his adoptive mother, the woman who plucked him from an orphanage long ago and gave him a chance. She’s never seen Hoffa in an Olympics, and she’s still amazed that sparkling 5-year-old from the orphanage grew into an Olympian. And maybe, just maybe, just like at his college graduation, if she can work it out to make the trip, Hoffa’s birth mother will be sitting next to her.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.