At a Mighty 104, Gone While Still Going Strong
By MANNY FERNANDEZ and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Published: January 11, 2010
Joe Rollino once lifted 475 pounds. He used neither his arms nor his legs but, reportedly, his teeth. With just one finger he raised up 635 pounds; with his back he moved 3,200. He bit down on quarters to bend them with his thumb.
Enlarge This Image
NO MATCH Joe Rollino bending a spike with his teeth. He once raised 635 pounds with a finger; he called that his proudest feat.
IN FORM Mr. Rollino at a party in Brooklyn for his 103rd birthday. He was one of the last links to the old Coney Island strongmen.
Enlarge This Image
EARLY BRAWN Mr. Rollino at age 10, weighing in at 68 pounds. In his prime, he was the greatest strongman, pound for pound, one expert said.
People called him the Great Joe Rollino, the Mighty Joe Rollino and even the World’s Strongest Man, and what did it matter if at least one of those people was Mr. Rollino himself.
On Monday morning, Mr. Rollino went for a walk in his Brooklyn neighborhood, a daily routine. It was part of the Great Joe Rollino’s greatest feat, a display of physical dexterity and stamina so subtle that it revealed itself only if you happened to ask him his date of birth: March 19, 1905. He was 104 years old and counting.
A few minutes before 7 a.m., as Mr. Rollino was crossing Bay Ridge Parkway at 13th Avenue, a 1999 Ford Windstar minivan struck him. The police said he suffered fractures to his pelvis, chest, ribs and face, as well as head trauma. Unconscious, he was taken to Lutheran Medical Center, where he later died.
New York is a city of extraordinary lives and events, and here, indisputably, was one of them — one of the city’s strongest and oldest, struck down on a Monday morning by a minivan in Brooklyn.
“Pound for pound, in the feats that he practiced, he was one of the greatest performing strongmen we’ve ever had, if the lifts he’s credited with are accurate,” said Terry Todd, a co-director of the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas, who knew Mr. Rollino for more than four decades. “He certainly wasn’t one of the strongest all-time strongmen, because of his size. To ask a well-trained 130-pound man if he can lift what a well-trained 400-pound man can lift is asking an unreasonable question. But for his size, Joe was apparently one of the strongest men who ever lived.”
Mr. Rollino stayed away from meat. And cigarettes. And alcohol. He said he walked five miles every morning, rain or shine. At the height of his career, he weighed between 125 and 150 pounds and stood about 5-foot-5.
He was a teenager when he watched Jack Dempsey knock out Jess Willard in 1919. He later boxed under the name Kid Dundee, became a Coney Island performer, worked as a longshoreman, fought in World War II and had a bit part in “On the Waterfront” that never made the film, not necessarily in that order.
Among his many accomplishments, Mr. Rollino was proudest of one in particular. “My finger strength,” he told an interviewer for ESPN The Magazine. “Six hundred thirty-five pounds. See the size of it. At 150 pounds, nobody ever beat me in this world.”
He was a legend within that small Coney Island society in which few New Yorkers would want to become known as legends: the men and women who swim in the Atlantic when it is at its harshest and coldest. On a 6-degree day in January 1974, Mr. Rollino and six other members of the Iceberg Athletic Club swam into the waters off Coney Island. The freezing Atlantic was like steel: It didn’t intimidate him.
“People told me he holds the record for swimming every day for eight years,” said Louis Scarcella, 59, a former homicide detective and a member of the city’s oldest winter swimming club, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. “He was known as the Great Joe Rollino, and he was great. You knew he was great just by standing next to him. He just had that humble confidence and strength. It shined.”
Mr. Scarcella, like many of those who knew Mr. Rollino, has a Joe Rollino story, or several Joe Rollino stories. And though some of them can be neither confirmed nor refuted, they get told and retold and told again, because they are too good not to. Mr. Scarcella heard that one winter in the 1950s, Mr. Rollino recovered the bodies of two people who drowned in Prospect Park, because the police did not have the necessary protective equipment and it was too cold for anyone else to jump in and bring them to the surface.
Mr. Rollino was a longtime member of the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen. Dennis Rogers, a fellow member and a professional strongman, remembered seeing him at the association’s annual dinner in June, at a hotel near the Newark airport. “He just came in to say hi to everybody and coached some of the guys that were performing,” said Mr. Rogers, who in 1995 prevented four motorcycles from moving at full throttle for 12 seconds, according to his Web site. “He would regularly work out in the gym. He was in pretty good shape. He walked a little slow but looked fine.”
Mr. Rollino had lately been living in Brooklyn with a niece, in a house on 14th Avenue, about a block from where the accident occurred. The driver of the minivan that struck Mr. Rollino, a 54-year-old woman who lives in the neighborhood and who remained at the scene, was not charged. She received a summons for having a defective horn, and the police said that neither speed nor alcohol was a factor. Mr. Rollino had been walking about 40 feet from the nearest crosswalk when the minivan hit him, according to the authorities.
Old photographs of Mr. Rollino are displayed in several neighborhood shops. People called him Puggy. “If he shook your hand, he’d break it,” said James Romeo, owner of Romeo Brothers Meats and Foods on 15th Avenue. “He wasn’t feeble.”
Charles Denson, a historian and the author of “Coney Island: Lost and Found,” first met Mr. Rollino at his 103rd birthday party at a neighborhood restaurant. “He was one of the last links to the old strongman days of Coney Island,” he said. “Coney Island was the training ground for strongmen. He was one of the best.”
Mr. Rollino wowed the crowd at the party, Mr. Denson recalled. He told stories about the old days, of course, but he was more than just talk, even at 103. Mr. Rollino put a quarter in his teeth. Then he bent it.
Stacey Solie and Karen Zraick contributed reporting.