SB Nation

Matt Tullis | October 17, 2012

Feet of clay, heart of iron

Horseshoe champion Brian Simmons might be the toughest athlete in the world

Brian Simmons does not like the clay at this year’s World Horseshoe Tournament in Knoxville, Tenn. It’s powdery, slippery. Even the non-horseshoe pitchers can tell this, because the bleachers in the convention center, where the tournament is being held, are coated in a light gray dust and the concrete floor has gotten more slick with each passing day. The clay dust gets on Simmons’s shoes and then the shoes slip out of his hand. It’s supposed to be Kentucky Blue Clay but that is hard to believe. More like Kentucky Synthetic, one man says. It makes it damn hard to pitch a horseshoe with the accuracy normally attributed to a man like Simmons.

This is what Simmons is thinking about as he stares down a 14-inch tall stake. He is thinking about the slippery clay, and how he might adjust his release point, and as these thoughts slip into his brain, he has lost without even pitching the shoe.

“This whole game is mental,” Simmons says. “It’s all upstairs. It’s a mind game.”

We’re talking in the room where the trophy ceremony will take place on Saturday afternoon. It is Wednesday morning, and so far, despite his dislike of the clay, he is 9-1 in the qualifying round.

"This whole game is mental,” Simmons says. “It’s all upstairs. It’s a mind game." Horeshoe World Championships

Simmons is 51 years old. His more salt-than-pepper hair is thinning. He’s got a goatee and, at this tournament, is more often than not seen holding a light-colored beer from the concession stand. He’s got a slight frame, one covered by the large, baggy t-shirts he wears. The t-shirts change every day. He’s got Nike shirts with the logo of the Sod Busters, his local horseshoe-pitching club, on the back, but he will also wear shirts that feature airbrushed scenes that recall the rural roots of horseshoe pitching. One has a camper and a fire and horseshoe pits. Another shows a farm, complete with a barn and a tractor. A horseshoe wraps itself around the exhaust stack. When he’s on the horseshoe court, Simmons also wears a brace on his left knee and a black headband that he ties on at the start of the day’s pitching. He wears a tattered batting glove, always red and white, on his throwing hand.

That glove is meant to give him a little more feel for the shoe. He used to work in a machine shop with solvents and has never been able to develop calluses on his hand. But the gloves are doing no good. He’s tried four different pairs, and the shoes keep slipping.

For Simmons, he wants to think about one thing and one thing only. Making sure his eyes are locked onto his right hand as he releases the shoe. He does not look at the stake, at least not at the most important part of his throw. He starts by looking at the stake, but then his eyes let go of that target and start looking for his right hand, which should end up right in his line of sight at the exact moment the shoe leaves his hand.

And now he’s moving his hand around to compensate for the fact the shoe is slipping out of his gloved hand. Pitching horseshoes is a mind game, and for what seems like the first time in his life, it’s getting to him.

Simmons won this tournament last year, when it was held in Monroe, La., and the clay was far more to his liking. He beat Alan Francis, a man who right this minute is pitching on the court next to Simmons. Francis is considered by many to be the greatest horseshoe pitcher alive. He has won 16 world titles and has a ringer percentage a tad above 89 percent. Simmons is the only man going all the way back to 1995 who has managed to beat Francis at this tournament. He did it in 2000 and again in 2002. Then, after Simmons finished second to Francis in 2008, 2009 and 2010, he beat his rival last year in a 124-shoe matchup that many spectators are still talking about. Both men threw 107 ringers. Simmons won 42-39. In 2009, Francis beat Simmons in a 140-shoe championship matchup. Francis had 126 ringers. Simmons had 125.

They are two great horseshoe pitchers who have lived two incredibly different lives.“When they match up in the final game, that is what we all come out to see,” says Gary Roberts of Ohio, who ultimately will finish in 12th place in the men’s championship, losing to both men. “That time they threw 140 shoes, that was epic. I’ll never forget that.”

Roberts has been pitching horseshoes competitively since 1958. He played against Ted Allen, the one man folks will argue may have been better than Francis. He says Francis and Simmons are as good as any horseshoe pitchers who have ever lived.

They are two great horseshoe pitchers who have lived two incredibly different lives.

World Horseshoe Championships

Francis is 42 years old and has short-cropped black hair and a mustache. He tucks his shirts into his cargo shorts and wears black Nike tennis shoes. His first name is printed on the front of his shirt and his last name on the back. Also on the back of his shirt, like all of the competitors here (it’s a rule) is their hometown. For Francis, that hometown is Defiance, Ohio. It’s a town named for Fort Defiance, which was built in 1794 by General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who upon building the fort, said “I defy the English, Indians, and all the devils of hell to take it.” Francis isn’t really the defiant sort. Except for when it comes to horseshoes.

He is a purchaser for a commercial printing company. He says “Life is good,” a lot. He speaks like someone who has been interviewed thousands of times, and he probably has. He’s been featured in Men’s Journal and the New York Times, among other major publications. He is quiet, both on and off the court. He doesn’t necessarily care for the spotlight and he doesn’t rub his success in the faces of his competitors. All of his trophies from the World Tournament are stored in the attic of his ranch house in Ohio.

The youngest pitcher this year was 7 years old. The oldest was 90.

The World Horseshoe Pitching Championships are held every summer in a different U.S. city. This year, they’re being held in the Knoxville Convention Center, in the shadow of The Sunsphere, which was built for the 1982 World Fair. More than 1,200 people show up from across North America to pitch in 80 classes over two weeks. The youngest pitcher this year was 7 years old. The oldest was 90.

The spectators at this event, especially on the final three days, don’t number more than 300. They’re all, for the most part, pitchers who pitched earlier in the week and stuck around to see the men’s and women’s championships. They’re a lot like a tennis crowd, in that they don’t make a lot of noise. Ever. Or at least until a game is close to being decided. Then they will let out a collective “ohhhhhhhhhh” when someone misses a shot that would have won the match. And they offer polite applause when it’s clear someone has won a match.

In the meantime, they talk about things like the state of our country’s education system (it’s bad) and flea markets (they’re good). And they look for people who look like they don’t belong and offer to teach them the ins and outs of a horseshoe tournament.

Here, perhaps, is a good spot for a primer on horseshoe scoring, which differs a bit from the way a good portion of this country plays it in their backyards. Ringers cancel each other out, so if Horseshoe Pitcher A throws two ringers and Horseshoe Pitcher B throws two ringers, one of the men calls to the scorer “four dead” and nobody receives a point. If Pitcher A throws two ringers and Pitcher B throws one, though, the former will tell the scorekeeper “two dead three,” meaning he gets three points for the one ringer that wasn’t matched by his competitor. You can also get a single point for a shoe that is within a certain distance to the stake when your competitor has missed both shoes badly. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen very often at this level of pitching.

The shoes these men pitch don’t look anything like the ones that come with your standard backyard horseshoe pitching kit. The outer edges angle wider than your typical, perfectly curved shoes at home. The points are larger and more pronounced, the better to grab hold of the stake and not let go. This is, of course, all governed by “The Official Rules, Guidelines, and Specifications for the Sport of Horseshoe Pitching,” published by the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association. Of note is the fact that shoes cannot weigh more than two pounds, ten ounces, not be longer than seven-and-five-eighths inches and not be wider than seven-and-one-quarter inches. The opening cannot be more than three-and-a-half inches wide.

You can find hundreds of shoes for sale lined up across the back of the bleachers at the tournament. They even have the Brian Simmons signature shoes alongside the Alan Francis signature shoes. Simmons’s shoes, at least in this display, are red and his last name is embossed in big block letters across the top. The sides are wider than Francis’s shoes, which are blue. Francis’s autograph is embossed across the top of his shoe. You can buy either set for less than $75.

The world champion will take home $3,500 this year.Before every game, pitchers, even the best ones, water the clay and take a shovel placed behind the pit and start turning the clay around the stake. Some move clay from the back to the front. When they’re done, they take a can of spray paint and coat the stake. These horseshoe pitchers, especially the men and women in the championship class, get so many ringers they knock the paint right off the stake.

Horseshoe pitchers, even the best in the world, don’t make a lot of money. The world champion will take home $3,500 this year.

It cost Simmons somewhere around $3,000 just to travel from his home in Bristol, Vermont, to Knoxville, what with hotels and food and gas.

Because being the second-best horseshoe pitcher in the world is not a profit-making enterprise, Simmons has, in his lifetime, worked as a truck driver delivering everything from vinyl siding to beer, meat and seafood. He’s worked in machine shops and been a bartender. Now he is the night manager at a gas station and convenience store. He goes in at 4 p.m. every day through the week and stays until a little after midnight. The customers, they don’t know he is one of the best horseshoe pitchers in the world. His co-workers, though, they surely do.

Alan and Brian Simmons
Francis is the clean-cut world champion; Simmons is the goateed, head-banded, baggy-shirted, beer-drinking feisty underdog.

Francis is the clean-cut world champion; Simmons is the goateed, head-banded, baggy-shirted, beer-drinking feisty underdog. Both men have their fans.

Before the start of the second day of the tournament, Simmons walks from the concession stand to the statistics room to pick up his schedule and court assignments for the day.

He turns the corner and is at the spot where vendors are selling horseshoes stamped with his name and is stopped by two women who want his autograph. He signs some photos and a t-shirt, and then they ask for photos.

“Thank you so much,” one of the women says.

“It makes me feel good,” Simmons says back.

Francis throws shoes that weigh two pounds, eight ounces while Simmons throws two pounds, 10 ounces. Simmons throws the traditional turn-and-a-quarter, meaning he holds the left side of the shoe, with the opening to his left, and lofts it into the air. It tumbles toward the stake, the shoe rotating counter-clockwise one-and-a-quarter times. Francis is a rarity, a man who throws the quite untraditional three-quarter reverse turn.

People talk about how great a champion Francis is. As for Simmons, they say he is amazing, but with a caveat; he is amazing considering everything he has been through.

“How he does what he does with all his health issues, I will never know,” says Roberts. “It’s hard enough to do it when you’re healthy.”

And this sets up the other thing that sets the men apart. Francis has been a staple at the tournament, always healthy, always competing, and almost always winning. Simmons has missed many tournaments because of major health issues.

But when he shows up, the crowd knows they are in for a treat on the final day, when he and Francis will match up and, theoretically, play with the championship on the line.

Jerry Smith, who has written two books about the world of competitive horseshoe pitching, including “The Official N.H.P.A. History of the World Tournament Men’s Championships, 1981-2011,” is the resident expert. He likes to talk about how different pitching horseshoes is today than back in its heyday of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The tournaments are indoors now, which makes it easier to pitch. And there just aren’t as many good pitchers as there used to be. Still, Francis has won more world tournaments than anyone, by far. And only five men have won more of those same tournaments than Simmons in the history of the sport.

“Alan is much smoother than Brian,” Smith says. “Alan is like a machine. You could videotape him and they’re all the same. Brian doesn’t appear quite as smooth, but he still gets the job done.”

Francis, for his part, says it was good for horseshoe pitching when Simmons beat him last year.

“It’s good to have competition,” he says, “to have that one person there at your level. You know you have to beat him, and you know you could easily lose to him anytime you play him.”

This year, though, Francis says any one of four men could win the tournament. I don’t believe him. Seventeen years of history say only two men can win this tournament. Francis or Simmons.

The last person to win the World Horseshoe Pitching Tournament who was not Alan Francis or Brian Simmons is Walter Ray Williams, Jr., the Hall of Fame professional bowler. He won the tournament in 1994. It was his sixth world title, which at the time put him in fourth-place for most world titles. He was 34 years old when he won that title and seemingly in his prime. Surely he expected to be the greatest of all time. It’s funny how some things just seem to slip away.

Before he starts pitching on the second day of the tournament’s championship round, and two days after he tied one match and lost four straight in the qualifying round, a man came up to Simmons behind the bleachers and said, “What’s up?”

“Are you faking them out?”

“Gotta save it,” Simmons said. “Gotta save it.”

Then, after the man walked away, Simmons said, “No more messing around. I hope. I’ve gotta pick it up a notch. You’ll see everybody pick it up a notch today. I need to be more relaxed, just get up there and throw, just try not to lose a game before that last day.”

It was almost like a pep talk he was giving himself, and it almost worked.

In the last game of that day, Simmons found himself struggling against Mark Smith of Minnesota. Smith was ranked 54th coming into the world tournament, and had a record of 2-7 coming into this game. Simmons had succeeded, for all his trouble, in not having lost a game yet. This kept him square in the title hunt and heading for a showdown with Francis the next day.


“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Nobody will beat Francis.”At one point in his match with Smith, Simmons hit eight ringers in a row. Then he started missing. Badly. He missed both shoes three different times, and the next thing anyone knew, Smith had beaten Simmons by a score of 40-38.

After the game, I mention the fact that everyone but Francis has one loss, which means he still has a shot at the title. If he just wins out, and that includes beating Francis.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Nobody will beat Francis.”

He is right. He knows this. Francis probably knows this. And those who watched Simmons lose four straight matches on the final day of qualifying but said it didn’t really make a difference because he would turn it on when he needed to, well, they knew it too. They also worry about Simmons. This is not the man who beat Francis last year. This isn’t even the man who finished second to Francis the three years prior to that.

“What’s wrong?” they ask him when he comes off the court.

“No control,” he says. “The clay is too slippery.”

He must say a variation of this phrase 50 times on the final day of competition. And yet still it’s not hard to wonder, at least if you know a bit of his history, if there’s not something more worrisome at work.

World Horseshoe Championships

Nobody knows this at the time, but Simmons likely has a hairline fracture in his left ankle and plantar fasciitis in his left heel. He doesn’t even know this. He’ll find out when he gets back home to Vermont. But that’s really the least of his health problems, at least from a horseshoe-pitching standpoint.

For one thing, the bone in Simmons’s knee is riddled with holes. This was caused by high-dose prednisone that he took in the 1980s when he was battling Crohn’s disease, an irritable bowel disease that causes severe abdominal pain and constant diarrhea. In fact, his symptoms were so bad that Simmons didn’t even pitch horseshoes competitively in his 20s because he couldn’t make it through a game without having to run to a bathroom.

But his knee, this is a concern. He’s talked with surgeons about replacing the knee altogether, but several things are working against him. First, while the meniscus is weak, the cartilage is strong and Simmons says his doctor is afraid going in there and messing around will make everything worse. Plus Simmons is too active. Most knee replacements will last a decade or more because all the person does is walk and work. Simmons does all that, but he also pitches horseshoes every weekend, all year long. So instead, he gets a cortisone shot every three or four months.

But so what? He has a bad knee. He’s pitching horseshoes, right? Not running the 100-meter dash. What difference does it make?

Well, consider this: In the three preliminary rounds, where pitchers threw a combined 15 40-shoe games, Simmons threw a horseshoe 600 times, and that was just in regulation. That doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of practice shoes, although Simmons throws far fewer practice shoes than the others because of his knee. Then, in the championship round this year, he will throw 794 shoes, not counting practice. Over six days, with practice mixed in, he’ll throw a horseshoe more than 2,000 times. And every time he throws a horseshoe, he puts the full weight of his 160-pound body on that bad knee, which is wrapped in a black brace but on the inside is riddled with holes.

His doctor says it could shatter at any time.

“When I come down on that knee, the right side of the bone, it’s just a sharp pain that goes straight up to the knee,” he says.

His doctor says it could shatter at any time. If that happens, the knee will get replaced. Until then, he will continue to pitch those shoes, and he will land his full weight on that knee twice every two minutes for more than three hours a day, for six consecutive days. That’s about 340,000 pounds worth of pressure on a knee that is riddled with holes. And after the throw he walks 40 feet to the pit and does it all over again. Again and again and again.

It brings to mind Curt Schilling of the Red Sox pitching with the bloody sock in the 2004 ALCS or Willis Reed of the Knicks limping onto the court during the 1970 NBA finals. So many athletes play injured because they don’t want to lose their job and a well-paid lifestyle.

Simmons does not have those things to pitch for. He keeps pitching horseshoes because it’s what he does. It’s what sets him apart from everyone else he knows, nearly everyone else in the world. And if he has to do that through some pain, well, he’s just going to suck it up.

Simmons was born in Kittery, Maine to Clinton and Bertha Simmons in 1961. Clinton was a horseshoe pitcher, and a pretty good one at that. His ringer percentage was in the mid-60s to low 70s, and he was always pitching in a tournament somewhere. One day when Simmons was six or seven, he remembers watching his dad, and then going to the pit, picking up a shoe and throwing it back and forth.

“I entered my first competition when I could get it up there at 30 feet,” Simmons says. That distance is the length that kids, elders and women pitch from.

Sometime when Simmons was 10 or 11 years old, his father was injured at work. He worked for a company that made cable. He and a co-worker were cleaning out a tank that held trichloroethylene acid and the co-worker became overcome by fumes. Clinton tried to carry his co-worker out, but the man was big and Clinton was not. Clinton was also overcome by fumes and fell backward off the ladder, landing in a puddle of the acid.

Other rescuers got both men out of the tank, but everyone assumed Clinton was dead. They poured four tanks of oxygen into him, and finally, someone saw his finger twitch. They rushed him to the hospital, but the nerve damage was done. He wouldn’t ever pitch horseshoes again. But he would coach his son, at least until he died in 1996, slipping away in the middle of a quadruple bypass.

“When he died, I set a goal for myself,” Simmons says. “I wanted to prove to everybody what he taught me through the years.”

That year, Simmons placed fourth at the World Tournament. Alan Francis won.

Ailments Infographic

Having his colon removed was one of the best things that ever happened to him, Simmons says.To understand the truly remarkable nature of Simmons’ victories at this tournament, and to understand why so many in the audience at this tournament worry about him and his performance, you have to go back to a time long before Simmons was ever a world champion.

In the late 1980s, his mother Bertha was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died at the age of 52 in 1989. A short time later, Simmons learned he had colon cancer. He was 29 years old. Surgeons removed his large colon, which means Simmons has a colostomy bag. That is why Simmons wears big, loose-fitting t-shirts. When he releases the horseshoe and his shirt is pulled tight against his abdomen, you can see the outline of the bag.

Having his colon removed was one of the best things that ever happened to him, Simmons says. It stopped his Crohn’s symptoms, which allowed him pitch horseshoes competitively again. So having his colon removed was easy and nothing compared to the long list of troubles he would face in the 2000s, after he had become a world champion.

“I became septic and almost died there,” Simmons says matter-of-factly. “It was a rough four years.” In 2003, he suffered heart troubles and had an angioplasty performed. This caused him to miss the tournament that year, and in turn, miss the chance to defend his title. In 2004, he suffered a serious stroke that made it impossible for him to pitch horseshoes. In 2006, as he was still recovering from the stroke, he went in for surgery to repair a hernia and the surgeon nicked his intestine.

“I became septic and almost died there,” Simmons says matter-of-factly. “It was a rough four years.”

It took him a year to recover from that hernia surgery. Finally, though, he felt strong enough to pitch competitively. He planned to pitch in the world tournament in 2008 and started practicing. Then, just two weeks before the tournament, he suffered another stroke. A friend was with him, though, and got him to a nearby fire station quickly. Paramedics got him to the hospital quickly, and this allowed doctors to give him t-PA, a drug that breaks up the clot that had blocked blood flow in the brain. It stopped the stroke and saved Simmons from suffering any long-term damage.

He recovered quickly and went to the world tournament, his first since winning it in 2002. The result? He went 18-1 and finished in second place after losing to Francis in the final game of the tournament.

“I certainly missed him as a competitor,” Francis says. “There is not that many really good horseshoe pitchers around anymore, so to take him out of the mix was a very big deal.”

His appreciation for all Simmons has overcome has not dampened his desire to absolutely destroy him on the court.Simmons will pitch against Francis in Knoxville, but there will be little riding on the match. As far back as anyone can remember, Francis and Simmons have always been the 1 and 2 seeds at the tournament, which meant they would face each other in the final game of the tournament. As was typically the case, the winner of that match would be the champion.

But this year, Simmons is the third seed. He was the second seed in preliminary qualifying, but he pitched poorly enough (and Tom Williams pitched good enough) that it’s Williams who will be facing Francis in the final round of the day. As usual, the title will be on the line.

But first Francis must face Simmons. Francis is 13-0 coming into this matchup, while Simmons is 9-4, having lost four straight games. The matchup has none of the fanfare or hoopla — if there is such a thing at the world tournament — it’s had in the past. It’s not even being held on the court closest to spectators. It’s held all the way across the convention center floor. Spectators need binoculars to keep track of the ringer-count.

While Francis has enjoyed competing against Simmons these last four years, he wants his title back. Additionally, his appreciation for all Simmons has overcome has not dampened his desire to absolutely destroy him on the court. Francis does just that, and dispatches Simmons in 44 shoes. The score is 42-8. Francis hits 39 ringers while Simmons hits just 27.

“I was ready coming into this.”

Simmons is standing beside the bleachers, watching Francis pitch against Williams in the game that will determine this year’s champion. He has already pitched his final game, beating Dan Watson of Alabama 40-15 in 44 shoes. In fact, this is even after he and Watson walked to the concession stand and talked about the damned clay over beers for a few minutes.

“It’s just too powdery. I couldn’t control the shoe. Throwing that shoe, you have no control when it leaves your hand.”

He watches Francis and Williams go a round.

“I haven’t been pitching all that badly,” he says, “and then all of a sudden you get here, and now it’s time to go out there and you have no control of the shoe. It’s a little devastating.”

Williams misses a shoe. Francis needs two ringers to win. It’s over.

“It starts messing with you,” Simmons says. “What can you do to control it? Then you start doing something different than you’re used to. It’s the worst I’ve played in a tournament in years.”

Simmons ultimately will finish in sixth place. He had never finished lower than fourth at this tournament.


As Simmons watched Francis play Williams for the championship, he sounded like a man resigned to not playing in this tournament anymore. He doesn’t like how far he has to travel and how expensive it is. He doesn’t like that they cut the cash prize for the championship. He really didn’t like the clay.

“This is a dying sport,” he says. “It really is.”

This is a hard point to argue. It’s something the N.H.P.A. talks about regularly.

There will be pain, but it’s just one more pain in a lifetime of it, and he will push on and push through, just as he always has. But it’s hard to imagine someone willingly giving up the feeling that comes with being one of the best, with being someone everyone knows, especially when your normal daily life does not involve everyone wanting to talk to you because you are one of the best. Even though he lost, even though he had his worst tournament ever, people were still coming up to him after Francis won his 17th title. They wanted to know what was wrong not because they’re voyeuristic but because they care. They missed Simmons when he was out for five years, and they don’t want that to happen again.

Simmons drove back to Vermont on Sunday. It was a long 17 hours. On Wednesday, he went back to work at the convenience store. He was looking forward to the following weekend, though, when he would pitch in an HP Pro tour event at his club, Sodbusters and the New England championships the weekend after that. Because of the fracture in his ankle, he will pitch both tournaments with an air cast on his ankle. Sure, there will be pain, but it’s just one more pain in a lifetime of it, and he will push on and push through, just as he always has.

And he will win both tournaments.

About the Author

Tullis

Matt Tullis is a journalism professor at Ashland University in Ohio. He has an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. You can follow him on Twitter @matttullis.

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