The Fastest Man in the House – Michael “Varr” Tolzein 1975

Var laux“It was the fall of 1974 and we were sitting for dinner at our table of six in the ATO dining room. The custom at the time was for seniors to sit at each end of the table and the underclassmen to sit at the sides. DLux (Doug Laux ’75) was sitting at the head of the table and I was at the foot. I can’t remember who were at the sides this particular night but we would have likely had a couple of juniors, a sophomore and at least one Phrogue. Things were relatively slow that week.

We didn’t have an exchange planned.

Freegs (Jay Fregeau ’74) had graduated the previous spring and we hadn’t had a Road Rally since he left. He had become the instigator of that activity. This was an absolutely terrifying and dangerous affair, looking back as a 60 year old. All 30-40 guys who had cars in the ATO parking lot raced out of the dining room after Freegs declared “ROAD RALLEY!”, got in their cars and raced around the block a few times in an effort to get all of the cars back into their correct parking spots. The purpose was noble. The execution was scary. Guys like Luigi (Dave Pesevento ’75) in his orange 442 and Freegs in his little blue Camaro would actually race. At the last Road Rally in the Spring, Freegs missed the turn at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and ended up out of control through the soccer goal in the park across from the Snake (Sigma Nu) House. Luigi almost took out a poor girl just minding her own business walking back to FAR (Florida Avenue Residence Hall dorm). We were all back in place before the police came, Gerry (Kostelny ’75) our Worthy Master was quietly studying in his room when they knocked on our door. We were lucky that no one was hurt. We got off with a stern warning but, it was enough to scare us into laying low on that activity for awhile.

And… Lojo (Larry Jones ’75) had been so dominant in the pudding eating contests for four straight years that no one even wanted to challenge him. Lojo could eat a full bowl of chocolate pudding in about 1 ½ seconds… three quick swipes of his enormous tongue was all it took. He had already put down the latest Phrogue challenger for the fall.

So, I felt like I had to do something to spice up the life of the ATO’s. I surveyed the 80 or so guys currently eating in the dining room and just made a simple comment… “I think that I could beat any of these guys in a race”. I don’t even think everyone at the table heard me. But DLux did. He looked and me and said “What did you say”. I said, “You heard me”. It was like the challenge scene from the movie “Sandlot”. DLux proceeded to get the attention of everyone in the Dining room and made the announcement… “Varr says he’s the fastest man in the house and he’s willing to prove it. Do we have any takers?” Before dinner was even over, he had a note hand written and taped up to the wall in the Library… “Who thinks they can beat Varr in a 40 yard dash?”. Within an hour, there were over 70 names on the list. About the only guys who didn’t add their names were Claudelle (Rich Clausing ’77), Bimbo (Dane Luhrsen ’77) and Nort (John Norton ’77). Nort was an Illini football player who had recently had shoulder surgery and was sporting a full upper body cast holding his arm up and out at shoulder level like a giant hook which would have made it impossible for him to run without clothes lining all of the spectators along the course. Claudelle and Dane… well let’s just say that they could have timed a race between those two with a sundial and they knew it. Every other able bodied man in the house was on the list. In retrospect, it was brilliant on DLux’s part to phrase the challenge as he did… “Who can beat Varr?” instead of “Who thinks they’re the fastest man in the house?”. If he had chosen the second challenge mentioned, maybe four of five guys would have gotten involved. But with the first, nearly everyone wanted a piece of the action… and Varr.

DLux then proceeded to turn the list of challengers into a full-fledged bracketed and seeded tournament and announced that it would be held the following night before dinner. It was all laid out on a poster board before the end of the evening … one on one match races with the winner advancing and the loser being finished… single elimination. The tourney was on. DLux was a competitor and master of games. We also called him Milton Bradley. When we slept up in the dorm, he had organized a full nerf one on one basketball league.

The next afternoon, a 40 yard course was laid out in the park across Pennsylvania Ave. in front of the Snakes House. Our social chair, TK Boa (Terry Kelly ’75?) had acquired a keg of beer for the spectators and every ATO on campus, our little sisters and a variety of others were there to watch. I was up first against a Phrogue, little DT (Danny Taylor ’76). Ready… Go!. DT beat me good in front of what felt to me like half the campus. I had gotten this whole thing started with my trash talking and I lost in the first race of the first round. Man did I catch some grief. I still do nearly 40 years later any time guys from my era get together. I remember that “Streak” (Steve Pankey ’76), who had spent some time on the Illini track team, won the title. Gerry was second. By the championship, I had spent a fair amount of time by the keg so my memory of that part is a little blurry. The whole thing was completely done in one night. It was just one of those crazy, spur of the moment, impromptu things that happened while at ATO that has created a lifetime of great memories.

Did I learn my lesson?… of course not… some weeks later, I was giving my buddy Ruey (Gary Ruick ’75) some grief about his skinny legs. This ended in another challenge race. This time, I said that I could beat Ruey across the front lawn of the ATO house carrying Luigi on my back. Ruey could choose anyone else in the house as his “jockey”. This was an absolutely ridiculous challenge because I was all of about 5’ 10” and 145lbs. soaking wet at the time and Luigi was a good 6’3” and about 230lbs. Ruey did have skinny legs but he was a strong guy, about 190lbs. and had the option of picking a much smaller rider. I can’t remember who he chose but it certainly wasn’t someone Luigi’s size.   Again, with many of the ATO’s out to watch, the starter yelled “Ready” and “GO!”. I collapsed after two steps as Luigi’s weight drove us both down, my knees putting two large divots in the ATO front lawn. Ruey and his rider jogged on for the easy win. For weeks after that, whenever I would pass guys in the hall, they would put on their horse racing announcing voices and say, “and there goes SecreVarriet , Luigi with the reins…””

Michael “Varr” Tolzein 1975
July 13, 2013

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