by John McKean
I’d just met the extremely muscular 40-something-year-old weightlifter, and it appeared he was trying to kill me! I often have that effect on people, but they usually have to talk to me at least for a few minutes prior to reaching for my throat; not so for no-nonsense John Vernacchio; he was all set to drop a 300+ pound barbell on my head practically at first sight! You see, I was the head judge at one of the very first National Masters Olympic lift meets, held at our own Ambridge VFW. John was noticeably more husky than most of the masters competing, and had opted to take one of the heaviest final clean and jerk attempts. It was a mighty struggle but John thrust it overhead to a good lock. Only problem was that his feet weren’t too content with their position. John shifted a little to get balance, then a few more steps toward the front of the platform, followed by some faster shuffling forward, then a bit of a run to catch up. With merely one foot of platform left, I reflected on one sage old judge mentioning that the head ref should always hold his position, no matter the jeopardy. Forget that, my integrity wasn’t so solid, and I dove for the audience!! But I kept an eye on ole John, who now just took baby steps, finally staying steady – he actually returned the bar to the edge of the platform after the relieved down signal, and earned three white lights! I shook my finger in amusement at John, who, I’m convinced, started my rapid subsequent hair loss in those scary few seconds!!
Oh, I got even with him some years later, via my then 6-year-old wild child youngest son, Sean. John was holding one of his elaborate All-round meets in his big carpet store and warehouse near Philadelphia. As was the case with most of V’s promotions, this was very well attended, and the warehouse portion certainly was a huge, wonderful facility to stage such events. The store section was closed to the public that day, but well furnished and a nice place to sit or lay down to relax before or after attempts for us lifters. But some of the guys complained to John about the “damn bird” in that room which was somewhat annoying when trying to rest! John said there were never any birds in his store, but came out for a listen. He THOUGHT he heard a slight “peep” after a while, and old time lifter, Paul Eberhardinger, identified it as a parakeet. Completely puzzled, John & Paul searched every corner of the room, hearing several more “peeps” all the while, but seeing no bird. In desperation, John started lifting sections of his sample carpetting. Finally on one pull of a plush piece, John came eyeball to eyeball with a smirking Sean who just looked him square in the eye and said “PEEP!” John coulda strangled the impish little lad! Later that day, Sean managed to throw a rock at a beehive and kick up an angry swarm of bees, and still later, John found he’d uncovered a deep open retaining pit outside the store and was attempting to do parallel dips over the treacherous hole!! Not that John ever told me, but I suspect Sean still has a lifetime ban from any Philly meet!!!
Yes, it was always an adventure and a first class thrill to compete in any Vernacchio contest! He went all out to make sure every detail was in place so competitors were free to do their very best. His combination olympic & powerlift weekends via his Easter National Masters contests were legendary! His enthusiasm was so contagious during these events, that he even managed to talk ME into olympic lifting on the Sunday Olympic lift portion, and I actually ENJOYED it, even as an awkward 42-year-old novice to those tricky lifts! I’ll never forget the time Art & I were at the Easterns and the overall best lifter trophy (both days-olympic & powerlift total), a huge sucker, was awarded to Art Montini by a proud and smiling John Vernacchio – Art smiled back, but then whispered to me, “Get the car started quick, and let’s get outa town in hurry; they must have made a mistake!!”
John was always a joy to compete with at all the many all-round contests we shared. Always grinning, he was as good a competitor as he was a coach & friend. Yet for as strong and dedicated a lifter that he truly was, he never took himself all that seriously – He laughed as hard as the rest of us when this very powerful man was beaten by my older son Rob, then 10 years old, in the hack lift one year (try as he may John just couldn’t get much more than a bare bar up past his massive thigh biceps!!!). Or the time during one of his IAWA world championships that he planned just ONE Steinborn lift (because it caused him TREMENDOUS shoulder agony to get the bar onto his back), but was three red lighted because he didn’t squat deep enough! (Yeah, he easily corrected that on a second attempt, laughing all the while!).
Yep, we’ll be telling John Vernacchio stories forever in the USAWA – there were so many crazy antics with him around, and he was so well loved by everyone! When you think about it, John will certainly ALWAYS be with us!