Thirty years ago, MSU football alum won 'American Gladiators' first Grand Championship to keep funding dream of playing in the NFL

 

“American Gladiators” contestants (from left) Terry Moore, Aimee Ross and Brian Hutson pose together in 1989 amid two weeks of filming for the syndicated television competition in Hollywood, California. Hutson, a Brandon native and former Mississippi State University strong safety, won the male division of the 1989 season as well as the show’s first Grand Championship a year later. He used the $45,000 in total prize money to continue working out so he could chase his dream to become an NFL player.

“American Gladiators” contestants (from left) Terry Moore, Aimee Ross and Brian Hutson pose together in 1989 amid two weeks of filming for the syndicated television competition in Hollywood, California. Hutson, a Brandon native and former Mississippi State University strong safety, won the male division of the 1989 season as well as the show’s first Grand Championship a year later. He used the $45,000 in total prize money to continue working out so he could chase his dream to become an NFL player. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Zack Plair

 

 

Brian Hutson had been here before. Four times to be exact.

 

Leading his opponent, Lucian Anderson, by only two points, Hutson needed to win the obstacle course, dubbed The Eliminator, by one second. Just one more time.

 

The Brandon native built his narrow lead with a perfect 3-for-3 performance in human cannonball, earning 10 points in the wall climb and five in Power Ball. But he faltered in three other events - the Joust, Breakthrough and Conquer, and Assault. Historically, Hutson's Eliminator times had been much faster than other competitors, but it had been six months since he had done it. In the interim, Anderson had proven every bit his equal.

 

 

The whistle blew to start the race.

 

Staying neck-and-neck, the competitors pushed oversized rubber balls up a ramp and rolled them into holders placed at the top. They moved to the balance beam, where they both scampered across while trying to dodge medicine balls being swung in their path.

 

"My strategy was always to run across that thing as fast as I could and jump at the end to the mat (on the other side)," Hutson said. "I knew if I could get over that, I'd win. ... The medicine balls were bad enough to knock you off, but sometimes the ropes (attached to the balls) would wrap around your arm and pull you off."

 

At the end of the beam, a ball harmlessly glanced off Hutson as he dove safely to the mat. Anderson was hit hard, though, and fell into the pit, costing him a five-second penalty and taking his heart out of the race.

 

Hutson, meanwhile, swung on a rope over the short wall leading to the home stretch, navigated a few cones and prepared to run through the last obstacle guarding the finish line - four paper-covered doors, behind three of which stood hulking bodybuilders prepared to impede a contestant's progress.

 

"If he hits you, he's probably going to stop you," Hutson said. "You had to assume the guy was going to be there, get low and bust through."

 

Following that plan, Hutson (at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds) dove through the paper and under the arms the waiting 6-foot-5, 250-pound Gemini, then crawled across the finish line to become the first male Grand Champion of the "American Gladiators" television show.

 

That moment also made him $35,000 richer, helping him pursue another, much grander dream of playing in the National Football League.

 

Add that to the $10,000 he had already won on the show and it "wasn't bad for four weeks of work," he said.

 

 

'Well-built' at Mississippi State

 

Among the photos displayed in the Addison, Texas headquarters of Hutson's office furniture company, none commemorate his spandex-clad American Gladiator triumphs from three decades ago.

 

Athletically, he said, he'd rather be remembered as a football player. Beyond that, the photos show his family and his ties to Mississippi State University.

 

Redshirting his freshman year of 1983, Hutson played 10 games as the Bulldogs' punter in 1984 before establishing himself as the starting strong safety during his sophomore and junior years. He earned his bachelor's degree in business administration in 1986.

 

As a three-sport all star coming out of Brandon High School - football, baseball and soccer - Hutson even tried his hand at playing for Ron Polk's baseball squad. The only problem was he tried out in 1985, the year MSU finished a game short of a national championship appearance with a team that boasted future Major Leaguers like Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen and Jeff Brantley.

 

"I quickly figured out those guys were real baseball players, and I was a football player pretending to be a baseball player," he said.

 

Hutson got in one game and had one career at-bat, hitting a bloop single to right field. When the team traveled to play some games in Hawaii, he returned to spring football.

 

The hit gives Hutson a distinction no Bulldog - not even Clark or Palmeiro - could ever top: a 1.000 career batting average. Polk and Hutson still keep in touch, and both regularly mention the feat.

 

"Any time he writes me, he signs it, 'Brian Hutson, your only 1.000 hitter,'" Polk said. "That's a record that can never be broken."

 

Though Hutson was best-known for his football prowess, the legendary baseball coach regarded him as "one of my favorite kids."

 

"He was good-natured kid with a great, big smile," Polk said. "He could run. He was athletic and you could tell he had skills. If he had played only baseball, I think I could've made him into a prospect."

 

Polk had no idea Hutson's versatility had ever brought him into the nation's living rooms as a contestant on the pilot season of "American Gladiators," a show that ultimately ran for seven seasons into the mid 1990s.

 

To this day, Polk said, he hasn't seen any of those episodes. The results, though, speak for themselves.

 

"He looked the part ... just a well-built kid," he said. "I'm not surprised at all that he won."

 

 

A $10,000 opportunity

 

By 1989, Hutson had a problem.

 

After college, he had signed as an undrafted free agent with the Los Angeles Raiders.

 

But he played only a year on the practice squad before getting cut.

 

From there, he played a short stint in the Canadian Football League that yielded no better prospects.

 

He wasn't quite ready to give up his NFL dream and "get a real job." He needed funds to stay in shape, but those were running low and time was running out.

 

At the perfect moment, a $10,000 opportunity came knocking.

 

"I knew a girl who worked for MGM (Studios) who told me about an open tryout in Houston for a new (competitive) show," Hutson said. "I thought I'd give it a shot."

 

Hutson was one of 12 men and 12 women selected to compete in the show's inaugural season filmed in Hollywood, California, starting with preliminary rounds and moving to a single elimination bracket.

 

Both the male and female winner earned the $10,000 grand prize, with the runners-up receiving $5,000 each.

 

The "everyman" contenders were no slouches. A few, like Hutson, had played college or professional football. The events, which the season's opening montage describe as "action-oriented" and "visually interesting," were physically exhausting and often involved hard contact.

 

En route to winning the male division, Hutson won all four rounds, besting "Lost Boys" actor Billy Wirth in the semifinals and former football player Craig Williams in the final.

 

Arguably most daunting, though, were the Gladiators - in the men's division, mammoths with names like Nitro, Gemini, Titan and Malibu that would play foils for contenders' efforts to score points in every event.

 

"There were a lot of good people there from different backgrounds," Hutson said. "The gladiators were all good guys. A lot of them were Hollywood actors, but they were also athletes. They were all real nice, but when they went on the air, they would act mad or whatever. ... If you showed them up or made them look bad, they'd gang up on you in the competition, though."

 

The entire season filmed in 12 days, on what Hutson called "turf rolled out on a sound stage," which made being tackled onto barely covered concrete particularly painful.

 

Contenders practiced on all the events for two days then began competing, spending most of their time watching their fellow contenders and learning from their mistakes. Meanwhile, show producers were adjusting their own miscalculations.

 

"They were literally making it up as they went," Hutson said. "They changed a bunch of rules if it gave the contenders too much of an advantage. But I get it. They wanted it to be more competitive."

 

One such rule change came courtesy of Hutson, who in human cannonball - where contenders swung from a rope at stationary gladiators braced on platforms - extended his feet to knock off long-haired surfer dude Malibu, who then had to get stitches above his left eye.

 

After that, contenders had to keep their legs tucked in the event.

 

"Malibu (played by Deron McBee) was Tarzan at Universal Studios," Hutson said. "He considered himself an actor. He didn't want to tear his face up or break a bone."

 

In the early rounds of the competition, the Gladiators palled around with the contenders off camera. As the rounds went on, that began to change. Some, though, were always in character.

 

"Mike (Horton), who played Gemini, was probably the nicest guy off set," Hutson said. "Dan (Clark), who played Nitro, was a nice guy but he took it seriously. He was in form all the time, and he was one of the better athletes."

 

 

Returning to the arena

 

When the show started, the idea was the winners would join the Gladiator team.

 

Hutson said neither he nor the female winner were physically big enough to pull that off so the plan changed.

 

Plus, the show's popularity soared, renewing for a second half-season in 1990 with 12 new competitors of each gender. They asked Hutson to return and compete against the second-half winner, who turned out to be actor/dancer Anderson, for a grand championship - a tradition that continued throughout the show's tenure.

 

"They told me I'd come and stay for the two weeks, and I'd only have to do one show," Hutson said.

 

But in the six months since he had first competed, there were changes. Specifically, a wall-climbing event had been added. In Hutson's one chance to practice, he fell.

 

Anderson, on the other hand, had performed well on the wall and had competed on it four times in winning his title. So, when the two squared off on the wall in the Grand Championship, show cohost and renowned sportscaster Mike Adamle went to the side Anderson was climbing to prepare for a post-event interview.

 

But Hutson, surprisingly, won the event easily, forcing the crew to stop filming so Adamle could move to the other side.

 

"I remember thinking, 'I'm getting up this wall,'" Hutson said. "I looked over at Mike (after I did it), and he just had this huge grin on his face."

 

The Grand Championship winnings technically included a Chevrolet vehicle worth up to $30,000 and $5,000 in cash. Hutson already had a vehicle.

 

"I went to a Chevy dealership, took the car, then turned around and sold it right back to them," Hutson said. "I needed the money."

 

Producers floated the idea of bringing Hutson back as a referee, instead of a Gladiator, after the Grand Championship. At first, both sides seemed willing, but a deal never came together.

 

"I ended up making the Patriots, so I wasn't available anyway," he said.

 

 

Realizing the dream

 

When Hutson signed a free agent contract with the New England Patriots in 1990, the sports section of the Boston Globe published a story and a photo making light of the defensive back's reality show past.

 

"There I am in the paper swinging on a rope," Hutson said, recalling when he saw the photo. "The story was something like, 'the Patriots are dipping into the bottom of the barrel.'"

 

But as the NFL season went on, Hutson's stock went up and he eventually made it on the field in two games. He was playing very well in the second half on the road against the Miami Dolphins, when a Miami player rolled over on his leg after a tackle and tore up Hutson's ankle.

 

Hutson was cut by year's end and signed another free agent contract with the Green Bay Packers for the 1991 season. His ankle never fully recovered, however, and he retired from football before he ever saw the field again.

 

"Nobody can tell me I didn't make it," he said.

 

 

Getting 'a real job'

 

Hutson left Green Bay intent on finding the "real job" he had long evaded having to get.

 

He and a business partner started an office furniture store in Searcy, Arkansas, where Hutson met his wife, Angie, whom he married in 1998. Terry Moore, a former UCLA linebacker who competed with Hutson on the "American Gladiators" pilot season, was in the wedding party.

 

Now Hutson lives in the Dallas area and his business, BHC Office Solutions, has locations in Addison and Searcy, as well as Rogers and Conway, Arkansas.

 

The Hutsons' son, Race, 17, eschewed athletic pursuits in favor of more "creative" ventures, Brian said. The younger Hutson builds video games as a hobby and wants to attend the University of Chicago to major in paleontology.

 

None of the Hutsons seek out the old episodes of "American Gladiators," but when they come across the syndicated reruns, they'll stop to relive Brian's 15 minutes of television stardom.

 

"Race saw an episode once, took one look at me and said, 'That's not my dad,'" Brian, now in his 50s, recalled. "Of course, I was younger and buffed up then."

 

"People ask me occasionally where my muscles went," he added. "I tell them, 'Nobody pays me to work out anymore.'"

 

Brian isn't big on advertising his time on the show, but he doesn't mind when people bring it up. In fact, he's grateful he did it.

 

"It was fun. I enjoyed it," Brian said. "If I hadn't done the Gladiators, I wouldn't have been able to chase my dream. I couldn't have afforded it."

 

 

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.

 

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