Cal Neff — a legendary Staples athlete from the 1960s — died last week. His friend Myles MacVane sent along a special tribute. They have been edited for length. A full version can be found on Facebook; search for “Myles Angus MacVane,” and scroll down.
A giant fell last week, and all who knew him well were shaken by his passing.
In 1964 I donated over 300 pounds of equipment and a pair of squat stands to Staples’ weight room. Football coach Paul Lane let me use the room whenever it was open.
I was fairly strong. But one evening I noticed a strongly built 15-year-old do 10 deep, full squats with over 300 pounds on his back. I was thunderstruck. That young man was Calvin Neff.
Within 2 years Cal and I became fast friends. Though his great strength was always present, I came to appreciate his many other qualities.
He was intelligent, well-educated, liked to read, played a strong game of chess, had a quick wit and a vivacious personality. He was open, unaffected, direct, and, almost childlike in his sincere enquiries. Above all, he was loyal to his friends.
Though he was just 5-9, he was a powerhouse. Once, a young man fled into a telephone booth to escape Cal’s wrath. Cal simply picked up the whole telephone booth and flung it 6 or 7 feet. Then he walked away.
Cal believed wholeheartedly in William Blake’s adage that “The road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.” Cal was certainly on that road. Without ever joining the Armed Services, Cal was “special forces,” and a special force of personality is what he had in spades.
As he matured, he specialized in powerlifting. Cal bulked up to over 250 pounds, bench pressed 525, and earned a master’s rating in powerlifting. Yet his weight, and the methods he used to gain it, hurt him. In his late 30s or early 40s he could barely walk, and needed a cane to support himself.
In later years, he ran a marathon — in Vietnam. That’s the kind of drive and willpower that he exemplified.
Near the end of Cal’s time of excessive mass, his life took a totally unexpected and fortuitous turn toward the East. It turned out to be the keystone of his existence. He, who would have laid down his life for a friend, was saved from a life of working as a guard at Bridgeport’s North End jail, in Bridgeport, working the door at the Black Duck, and tooling around in an over-sized, over-powered, totally unnecessary, red pickup truck by a childhood friend who grew up a few houses away from Cal.
Gerry Manning opened a door for Cal to walk through, so that he might become the person he was always meant to be. Cal, as with everything he ever did, saw the opportunity, and barreled through that doorway.
Gerry was a few years older than Cal. An artist by nature, he eventually returned to Westport to enter the business that his father had built dealing semi-precious gemstones.
I guess that in Cal, his friend and childhood neighbor, Gerry found the perfect protégé to learn the overseas trade. Cal gave up the red pickup, the door at the Black Duck, and the concrete corridors of the North End Jail, and moved to Lantau Island, off the coast of Hong Kong. After several years of daily travel to Hong Kong by ferry, Cal’s business interests shifted to Sri Lanka, where he lived before settling down for good in Thailand. There he found a wife, with whom he had a son, Colter M. Neff, now 17. After a divorce, Cal found his last wife, a younger woman who practices Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing).
Cal Neff loved his son more intensely than he had ever loved anyone. Their bond was breakable only by the Grim Reaper. Cal’s life in Thailand was the adventure that most of us can only experience vicariously, as if in a dream, during a vacation. His training blossomed into a practice of Strong Man events.
At times, when the behemoth participants in those events would come to Thailand to train, compete, or vacation, Cal would train with them. He had his own commercial gym for a while. He was invited to Scandinavia to design a strong man event gym there.
He kept up his own practice of those events in Thailand, even staging competitions for up and coming Thais interested in the culture of strength. At his son’s school he taught the proper methods of strength and health, using his vast knowledge of those subjects to help the children find a wholesome path — one which, at times, he had strayed from in his own youth. In that field, I can think of no better a role model than Cal.
Cal Neff was a unique force of nature. In the end, the youthful excesses of the road that led to his own, personal palace of wisdom, marshaled an insidious attack upon the organs that supported that still muscular, still strong body, and finally cupped the bright light in Cal’s eyes. But we will always remember his childlike wonder, his strong personality, the man who would have given his own life unhesitatingly to protect a friend. And to the end of our days, we shall revere him not as a legend, but as our true friend, the one friend who loved life so much, that life created legends to wrap ‘round him.