An iron worker's son, Bobby Fitzgerald realized during his Depression-era childhood that competitive speedskating could provide him with a ticket to travel and three meals a day.
He was described as "Blistering Bob Fitzgerald" at the North American championships in 1946. Another story nicknamed him the "Powderhorn Pegasus" as he skated out of his hardscrabble south Minneapolis roots to national and international fame — tying for a silver medal in the 500-meter race at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
"Fitzgerald grinds out his wins," Frank Stack, a Canadian bronze medalist, said in the mid-1940s when speedskating meets at Powderhorn Park drew big headlines and crowds of 20,000 spectators. "He is a strong boy who can dig in and out-pump anyone facing him today."
But a back-wrenching injury while in the Army — leaving him incontinent and barely able to walk — nearly scuttled Fitzgerald's athletic career. Embarrassed by the far-from-the-battlefield nature of the injury, he didn't talk about his amazing comeback until later in life.
Born in 1923, Fitzgerald graduated from South High School in 1941 and logged a year at the then-College of St. Thomas before enlisting with the Army Air Corps in 1942.
During a lull in pilot training in California, Fitzgerald joined a game of touch football that quickly grew rougher than he anticipated.
"We were diving for the ball and a guy planted his GI boot in my back, and another on the back of my head," Fitzgerald said in a 1996 interview when he was 72.
Knocked unconscious for more than an hour, Fitzgerald was afraid he'd be kicked out of the service if he reported his injuries. He suffered blackouts and impaired depth perception, his legs grew numb and he had trouble walking.
"You could have stuck an ice pick in my leg and it wouldn't have hurt," he told St. Thomas news director Jim Winterer for a 1996 alumni magazine article, finally breaking his silence. "People thought I was drunk."
After nearly colliding with another plane and then an airport tower while flying with his instructors, Fitzgerald wound up in the hospital as his ailments worsened. That's when doctors discovered a congenital spinal defect right where the football player drove his boot, and he was sent home with a medical discharge.
A doctor at the Veterans Hospital in Minneapolis offered to fuse Fitzgerald's spine, while admitting he'd never performed the operation before. "I said, 'See ya,' " Fitzgerald told Winterer.
Winterer, now retired, said his 1996 interview with Fitzgerald still gives him goose bumps. "It took hours of careful interviewing to uncover the details of what happened to him," Winterer said in a recent e-mail.
The speedskater recalled how, after a clamp to control his incontinence lasted 15 minutes, he found a 75-cent tubelike device in a pawnshop to help. He was in constant pain from hip to knee.
Fitzgerald also was a mental wreck — feeling demoralized and ashamed at letting down his family and his country during wartime. He said he felt "kind of dumb, like a jerk."
Glimpsing a chiropractor's office from a streetcar, he began undergoing spinal adjustments. At first, he could only shuffle about 5 yards along the beach. But as the months wore on, he ran farther and took to squatting to ease pressure on his damaged nerves.
Regaining bodily control, Fitzgerald began biking and climbing the steps at Powderhorn Park as he did as a teenager when he first won the junior national title at 15 in the late 1930s.
The war canceled the Olympics in 1940 and 1944, arguably Fitzgerald's prime. By 1945, after his early success, his disabling injury and a nearly yearlong grueling rehabilitation, he was back on skates — eclipsing the world speedskating record for the half-mile.
"Oh it felt good, just to start skating again," he said in 1996. "I just tried to be positive and to cram as much good into life as possible."
Fitzgerald won his silver medal at the 1948 Olympics at 24 and finished 15th at the 1952 Games in Oslo. By then, he had graduated from St. Thomas and the Northwestern College of Chiropractic. He considered his chiropractic career payback for the three chiropractors who got him back on his skates.
He was thrown off the board of the state chiropractic association in 1959 when he opposed expanding the field to include physical therapy, believing chiropractors should use only their hands to adjust the nervous system. The state Supreme Court later tossed out a libel suit he had filed during the brouhaha, arguing his Olympic success and lobbying work made him a public figure.
Twice married, Fitzgerald had four children, a stepdaughter and six grandkids. He practiced chiropractic until a serious stroke in 1998, and died in 2005 at the age of 81. He's buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
"As I look back now," he told Winterer 25 years ago, that stomping during an Army football game "might have been the best thing that ever happened to me."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.