Skinner danced to own drum

Bill Skinner is a remarkably unique character. He is not politically correct. He could care less if he offends you. He has had aspirations of competing in the Olympics. He considered pro boxing. He was asked to try out by an NFL team. He is a skilled welder who has trained prison inmates.

And he nearly lost his life when he was brutally stabbed in Knoxville trying to help a friend 35 years ago.

No, Bill Skinner isn't your ordinary Joe next door.

Skinner served in the Navy before making his way to Knoxville to throw the javelin for Chuck Rohe's Tennessee Vols. He had won the javelin in the Dogwood Relays in 1967 and later that year ran into a couple of UT track athletes at the Quantico Relays in Virginia.

``I liked the facilities, the area and most of the people there,'' Skinner said of Knoxville. ``It was a nice area to be in but not a progressive area.

``I made the statement (in the 1970s) that the only progressive thing I saw in Knoxville was turning right on red. That got a lot of dander up. You've got to say things like that once in a while.''

Does Skinner regret saying that? Absolutely not.

``I don't regret saying anything I say,'' Skinner said in an interview on the Sports Animal radio station in Knoxville. ``If it rubs somebody wrong, that's just too bad.''

If that rubs YOU wrong, stay tuned. In short order, Skinner said things that could offend Knoxville residents, gays, blacks and religious folks. But he doesn't care. He sees the world a certain way and isn't afraid to express himself.

He'll say things to raise the hair on your neck, yet show remarkable compassion for his fellow man. And he loves a challenge. Boy, does he love a challenge.

In 1960, Skinner, who was 6-7 and about 260 as a college athlete, was a boxing and weight-lifting instructor in Wilmington, Del. He worked with a javelin thrower who challenged Skinner after Skinner chided him.

Skinner welded together a broken javelin and lost by two feet to Bill Reeder. But in the next meet, Skinner improved from 179 feet to 210 while competing in a swim suit, an old football jersey and baseball shoes with welded on spikes.

Skinner asked a track official if his 210-foot throw was close to a record.

``You'll never see that record,'' said the official of the 229-foot mark.

Two years later, Skinner said he threw 268-8 and went up to the same official and said: ``There's your record.''

Skinner eventually became a world-class javelin thrower. His best was 291-10, although he said he surpassed 300 feet several times in practice. He won the NCAA, the AAU, the national track and field meet. He turned down a chance to tryout out for the 1968 Olympics because he had just enrolled in school and wanted to pursue his education. But a few years later, he was a favorite to make the 1972 games in Munich.

He never made it.

Skinner's career was cut short by a knife. He said he was at a restaurant off Chapman Highway when some gay ``rednecks'' began acting ``like a bunch of wild dogs.'' He asked them to stop because he was with his eventual wife. After a verbal exchange, security led the five or six men outside, where, according to Skinner, they began picking on a UT classmate of Skinner's.

Skinner asked the security to help. They refused, he said. So Skinner took matters into his own hands. While trying to help a friend, Skinner said he was stabbed in the back, the hand and the abdominal area, cutting his intestines in half.

That was the end of his javelin career.

He later became infuriated when the people that stabbed him – and the friend he was trying to protect -- were not indicted by a grand jury.

``It's beyond me how anybody could put their hand on a Bible and say they're going to be fair and honest and not return a true bill,'' Skinner said. ``That just broke my spirit. I became very bitter.''

Skinner said there were 22 witnesses but none were called. He blamed the outcome on a corrupt police officer.

Before that stabbing, Skinner had been kicked off the track team by Rohe because Skinner refused to shave his mustache. At 31, he felt he should be able to do what he wanted because there was no NCAA, SEC or UT rule against it.

``I was 31,'' Skinner said. ``I was older than half the coaches. I was a veteran, a national champion, a national record holder, on the Dean's list. I thought, hell, I'm entitled to wear a mustache if I want.''

Before his UT career ended over facial hair, Skinner relished the time he played body guard for basketball coach Ray Mears at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym in Nashville.

``Ray Mears was a master at antagonizing people and getting the crowd upset,'' said Skinner, who bore a striking resemblance to former Oakland Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson.

The UT basketball team was warming up before the game. Mears and Skinner waited behind in the dressing room.

``You could hear the crowd building up,'' Skinner said. ``They were yelling for Coach Mears to come out.''

Skinner was ready to hit the court. Mears preached patience.

``Not just yet,'' Mears said. ``Let's wait. It's not right yet. We've got to let ‘em get wound up.''

Finally, they walked onto the court. The crowd taunted Mears and Skinner.

``We see your body guard,'' fans yelled. ``We ain't afraid of you. We ain't afraid of him.''

Mears and Skinner walked down the middle of the court. Fans were going nuts, Skinner said.

At one point, the orange and white basketball UT used to warmup bounced into the Vanderbilt student section about 12 rows up. A UT manager went to get it, but was pushed away, Skinner said. So, Skinner came to the rescue.

``I ran across the court and got him out of there, and grabbed the ball away from the Vanderbilt students,'' Skinner said. ``They were all yelling, `We ain't afraid of you.' I said, `Guys, you didn't do anything about it.' I got the ball and got out of there.''

Skinner enjoyed the moment. He's enjoyed many moments during his life. After leaving Tennessee, he was sales manager for John Deere and lived in Illinois and Indiana. He was transferred to Georgetown, Ky. He retired in 1994 but then did substitute teaching at a vocational school. Later, he became a welding instructor for 10 years at a correctional complex before suffering heart problems that forced him to leave.

``I felt I was making a contribution,'' Skinner said.

Then, he summed up his rather intriguing life: ``I've never been a leader, but I've never been a follower. I marched to my own drum.''

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