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Ed Burke, the 'Methuselah' of the hammer, an Olympian again

Ed Burke's latest Olympic quest began amid the clutter of his garage in Los Gatos, Calif. That's where he found a rusty, old hammer. Not the kind you drive a nail with, but the 16-pound, ball-and-chain variety used in track and field competition.

Burke had given up throwing it after the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. But at age 44, five years after demonstrating the hammer's use to his curious daughters , he's a better athlete than ever before.

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If anyone doubts it, Burke provided convincing proof by making the US Olympic team during this week's US Track and Field Trials at the L.A. Coliseum. A 235 ft. 7 in. toss in the finals was 20 inches farther than his best Olympic efforts in 1964 or 1968. And though the distance placed him third behind Bill Green and Jud Logan, it put him ahead of two dozen much younger hopefuls.

Only four other Americans ever earned the right to compete in Olympic track and field 16 years apart. Just being there, then, will be thrill enough. But Ed doesn't discount the possibility of winning a medal.

''With the Eastern Bloc countries out of the Games, I think I have a chance at a bronze,'' he says, not unmindful of his 7th and 12th-place finishes in earlier Olympics.

A lot of people will be cheering for him, including many Europeans whose enthusiasm for track and field far outstrips that of Americans. On the continent , aficionados refer to him as the Methuselah of the hammer. One East German thrower called him a ''marvel'' in a fan letter, which hangs framed over Burke's bed.

The family's refrigerator, meanwhile, is plastered with newspaper accounts of his incredible story. At a press conference here, he thanked reporters for the coverage, adding that ''it helps us get through one more day.''

Ed says ''us'' and ''we'' often, and with good reason. His wife, Shirley, has played an integral role in his success. She's more than just supportive; she's his coach.

That may seem odd, considering that the hammer is not a women's event and Shirley has no experience with it. But from watching Ed for years, she's learned about training and technique. ''Shirley's the person I look to when I get into trouble in the stadium,'' he says.

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Their special relationship is the stuff of Hollywood movies. In fact, Mark IV Productions has purchased the screen rights to the couple's story. ''It's a love story, a nice story,'' the broad-shouldered athlete, a fourth-generation Californian says.

It also is a tale of courage guaranteed to bring out the handkerchiefs. As a college senior at San Jose State in 1962, Burke agreed to let a photographer take some pictures of him throwing in practice. One errant throw sailed over the makeshift retaining fence and crashed through the window of his parked car, hitting his young wife.

Shirley made a complete recovery, but Ed was shaken by the experience and quit throwing. She talked him out of his premature retirement in time for that year's NCAA championships, where he finished third. He continued to pursue his throwing career, setting national and world records with a throw of 235-11 in 1967. His world mark was short-lived, but his national record stood until 1981.

After his second Olympics, though, Burke bowed out of the sport - seemingly for good. A political science teacher who also was successful in a couple of business ventures, he turned to surfing for his fun and recreation.

His reintroduction to the hammer came in 1979, after Shirley gathered daughters Anne and Claire around to watch a track meet on TV. ''Come see this. This is what your dad used to do,'' she said. A command performance soon followed, with everyone piling into a Ford pickup to go watch dad fling away at San Jose State.

The rhythm of the Mad Hatter windup, in which the thrower rotates furiously in a small, partly caged circle, came back quickly. Sensing Ed's rekindled interest, Shirley told him, ''You know, you never really finished (with throwing) before. You never really reached your potential. Go ahead and give it another try.''

So they launched forward, somewhat unsurely at first. At Ed's coming-out meet, the 1979 Martin Luther King Games, he experienced momentary stage fright. ''I was so scared I couldn't feel the cement under my feet,'' he remembers. ''In practice I kept throwing out of bounds. I went over to Shirley and said, ''I think it's too soon; I really don't think I can do this.''

Whatever her reply, it worked, because his first throw went 207 feet. That qualified him for the 1980 Olympic trials, and although he didn't make the team he began dreaming of marching once again in the Olympic parade.

Having put back on the the 60 pounds he shed during his surfing days, the 6 ft. 1 in, 243-lb. muscleman kept placing his divots farther and farther downfield.

In the past, Burke has sometimes thrown defensively against Americans whom he was expected to beat. But with the finals here on Father's Day, his daughters presented him with just the card he needed to take the offensive. It played the theme from ''Rocky'' when opened.

Ed took it on the field with him, drawing regular inspiration from it as his young rivals listened to rock music in their earphones. ''Those guys must have been thinking 'Burke has cracked,' '' he said afterward, relishing his part in deflating the age barrier.

Put away the rocking chairs, he preaches, and ''keep seeing yourself in that parade.''

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