In the fall of 2012, a five-year wade through pre-production ushered in the readied cameras of director Bennett Miller. Though his journey to Foxcatcher was arduous and tangential (one such detour led to the critically-acclaimed Moneyball of 2011), his endeavor yielded him a directorial award this year at Cannes International Film Festival. His vision shed light on the events that ultimately spurred the obscure and tragic death of Olympic gold medalist and wrestling icon David Schultz. To a pivotal degree, Miller’s work aids in preserving the spirit of a phenomenal athlete and extraordinary individual whose contributions were halted far too soon.
Though the events that transpire within the film are centered mostly in Pennsylvania, Dave’s career lies deeply embedded in Oklahoma athletics. In The Life and Legacy of Dave Schultz from 2006, Mark Palmer detailed Schultz’s early steps on the climb to a highly decorated career. The son of two Stanford graduates, Dave exemplified his parents’ aptitude in the ring by obtaining the California state championship prior to his high school graduation. His success led to an even more exceptional collegiate career, as his first (and brief) venture into the heartland placed him beneath the orange banner of Oklahoma State University.
After returning to California, Dave was promptly propelled back to the Sooner state, this time to the University of Oklahoma, after UCLA nixed its wrestling program. Dave resided here until the conclusion of his undergraduate stint, capturing the NCAA championship of his weight class in 1982. The following year, Dave captured a world title in Kiev, shortly followed by Olympic gold in 1984, thus immortalizing his uncanny abilities as a grappler.
At OU, however, Dave earned something personally more valuable than his world championship: the heart of his wife, Nancy Schultz.
“Though we both attended Oklahoma State,” she said, “we transferred to OU in 1981, where I truly met Dave and Mark (Dave’s brother, also an Olympian).”
With haste, the soon-to-be couple ignited a heartfelt spark.
“We just hit it off,” Nancy continued. “In a few months, we were dating. And in under a year, we were married, still in college.”
The quick matrimony between the two was not without reason.
“One day, he asked me, ‘Would you like to attend the world championship?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ so he responded that I would have to marry him,” Nancy said.
This stipulation was derived from the fact that you couldn’t travel with the athletes unless you were married. With that, Dave and Nancy remained close throughout Dave’s coaching and athletic career, eventually having a son and daughter, Alexander and Danielle.
However, Dave’s legacy was not only maintained by a prestigious competitor’s journey but also by that of an innovator. Dave made his presence known as an assistant coach for OU, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the early ’90s, Dave was placed at the helm of a project that, at the time, was considered the most promising program for grappling in the states: Team Foxcatcher. However, Dave was never given enough time to refine his wrestlers to their full potential, as his life was tragically ended by the team’s primary sponsor, John du Pont, in 1996.
Despite this tragedy, Dave’s abilities as a coach were obvious.
“Dave loved every aspect of wrestling,” Nancy said. “He was a genius at wrestling, and that’s what motivated him.”
Dave was regarded for his ability to synthesize and dissect even the smallest nuances of the sport, from preparation to mentality and physical execution. Dave’s real-life passion was ultimately conveyed through a cinematic lens (to a great effect) by Mark Ruffalo in Bennett Miller’s film Foxcatcher.
“I was initially attracted by the bizarreness of the relationships,” Miller said of his interest in the story. “It’s about people from completely different worlds attempting to pursue an interest together, perhaps not recognizing the peril that was congenital to the situation.”
Even between Dave and his brother Mark (portrayed by Channing Tatum), the difference in tendencies and drive are utterly juxtaposed.
“Dave was fundamentally different,” Miller said. “He wasn’t looking for validation, and he didn’t place the same kind of meaning on the goals that John and Mark had.”
In the brief hours that Miller used to consolidate a narrative that spanned more than a decade, the filmmaker illuminated what he felt was key to Dave’s persona.
“Dave was not as concerned with meaning as he was with living, either through his family, his sport or his community. Dave wasn’t so caught up in rhetoric of any kind,” Miller said.
In the film, Dave contrasts heavily with the film’s other figures. Whereas the sponsor found Foxcatcher to be a reaffirmation of his own beliefs, Miller said that Dave found the facility to be a “great garden” and an “opportunity to foster a quality of life for himself, his family and his fellow wrestlers.”
Dave was far more interested in cultivating the lives of those around him, which worked with his urge to pursue coaching.
After determining what made Dave who he was ideologically, Mark Ruffalo was left to refine many of Dave’s subtleties. Through countless hours of studying home videos and conducting personal interviews, Ruffalo was able to get his role down to minute gestures and a precise vernacular. Both Nancy and Miller agreed that Ruffalo successfully mirrored details including his movement, his laugh and even “the way he put down his coffee mug.” Nancy and Mark Schultz made periodic visits to the set during filming as consultants. Despite the disconcerting conclusion of the film’s source, the presence of the individuals who experienced it were “not a distraction,” Miller said, “but a testament to how harmonized the actors were.”
At a private screening on OU’s campus, the love Dave’s community possessed for him was evident. Many memorable faces were in attendance, including the university’s head wrestling coach, Mark Cody, and the director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (into which Dave was inducted shortly after his death), Lee Roy Smith. Similarly, Nancy introduced the film alongside her son Alexander, who she said “looks remarkably like Dave.” The showing, however, was not that of mourning but a talkative celebration of Dave.
In his time, he was a phenomenal athlete, an influential mentor and a caring father and husband. In death, Dave is a paragon of dedication, discipline and passion — a timeless example of how life might really be lived.