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Seward weightlifter pursues grueling goal: a 1,000-pound bench-press
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Seward weightlifter pursues grueling goal: a 1,000-pound bench-press
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Seward weightlifter pursues grueling goal: a 1,000-pound bench-press

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Brian Forbes, 39, is one of only a few people in the world to lift more than 1,000 pounds with a successful bench press of 1,015 pounds during a power lifting meet in August. He trains in a gym he built in his home's garage in Seward, Neb.

SEWARD — Saturday mornings unfurl like Norman Rockwell paintings.

Students toss arcing spirals outside Lutheran college dorms. Mowers slice dew from the shadows of the century-old courthouse dome. Pickups ease over brick streets famous for spirited Fourth of July parades.

Megan Forbes compares her hometown to “Mayberry.” She should know. Like most of her friends, the daughter of a County Board member grew up in Seward and never really left.

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t spiced up her neighborhood. Take the May 2020 morning when Forbes hosted a garage sale on Plainview Avenue, a curvy street south of the grade school. Mothers browsed the two-car driveway for baby clothes and plastic toys, their young boys patiently waiting.

That’s when they heard it. The irresistible sound of power and testosterone. Iron striking iron.

The boys wandered into the garage, where they found a 300-pound mystery with a shaved head and grizzly beard. Beneath powerlifting banners and posters, Megan Forbes’ husband pushed the limits of the human body.

“I’m getting rid of the old Pack ’n Play and old stroller while he’s banging 800 pounds around in the corner,” she said.

To friends in Seward, Brian Forbes is a “Teddy Bear.” Big personality. Bigger heart. To strangers, he’s more like a bull in the china shop. Duck and cover. Indisputably, he is distinct.

A former hockey standout turned drug addict who met the right girl, married and settled down, had two kids and — approaching his 40th birthday — found a way to channel his stress and soothe his mental scar tissue. An obsession. A mission.

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He wanted to bench-press 1,000 pounds.

Only 13 people had ever done so in competition. Forbes didn’t have years of training or hours to burn — he worked the evening shift at a steel factory. He didn’t have a powerlifting team cheering and spotting him every day. He didn’t have a regulation bench — he built his first one from discarded lumber and straps. He didn’t even have a full clavicle in his right shoulder.

But it’s hard to tell Brian Forbes no.

“When he puts his mind to something,” Megan said, “that’s it.”

So he kept banging away on Plainview Avenue, working around the garage clutter of tricycles and scooters, trying to complete an eight-year journey to 1,000 pounds.

The hardest part? The last 2 inches.

* * *

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Brian Forbes bench-presses in his garage.

In the sports world, it’s the island of misfit toys.

Powerlifting often attracts self-destructive personalities who need distraction and escape from their vices. The sport demands 24/7/365 dedication, precisely what an ex-addict or an ex-con needs to exhaust the body and release pressure.

“They tear themselves up in a different way,” Omaha psychiatrist and powerlifter Jim Sorrell once told The World-Herald. “Everybody knows working out is like a drug. They’re addicts hooked on getting stronger. Imagine going from a junkie to the strongest guy in the world.”

Brian Forbes grew up in Waverly, a distracted kid with a reckless streak. He did backflips off the swimming pool diving board — at age 6. His mom suspected ADHD and learning disabilities, but his parents didn’t act. It was a different era. Mom and Dad divorced, and Brian got lost in his own mind.

“I pretty much quit on myself all the time,” he said. “I never thought I was good enough. I never thought I was going to amount to anything.”

He hated school. Hated to read. But loved to compete. Hockey especially. Forbes traveled to Lincoln and Omaha to skate with Nebraska’s best teenagers.

At 21, he was playing in a hockey summer league when he crashed head-first into the boards. He suffered a Class 3 separation in his right shoulder, tearing two ligaments. Doctors reset his collarbone and prescribed six months of physical therapy. Eventually, they went back and removed part of his clavicle.

Essentially, Forbes said, “I have no shoulder. I can’t do a pull-up.”

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Doctors gave him a long list of things he’d never do again, like sports and construction. By then, Forbes was already hanging with the wrong crowd. In four years, he’d consumed enough methamphetamine to lose 100 pounds. Now his future looked darker yet.

In 2006, Forbes was a 24-year-old cook at a Waverly bar. That’s where he met Megan. He didn’t have the guts to ask her out, but he threw a piece of raw fish at her.

“I guess that’s the way you flirt when you’re 23 years old,” she says now.

She liked the way he gravitated to underdogs and the way he treated the easy-to-bully high school employees. His insecurity fostered empathy. They started dating. Brian confessed his anxiety and addiction, but he showed her security, too.

“He has a larger-than-life personality,” Megan said. “Frankly, I do, too. I’ve always been told that I’m a lot to handle. And he has, too. We’re strong enough to handle each other.”

Within three months, they decided to marry. Oh, you should’ve seen the response in Mayberry. “I brought home this loud, ginormous man. Everybody’s like: What?!?”

And that was before he started taking ice baths in a backyard horse trough.

* * *

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Brian Forbes wraps his wrist before a lift in his garage. He has crafted a training regimen conducive to his solitary location and a disabled shoulder.

Obsession doesn’t develop overnight. It starts with seeds. Simple goals, like weight loss.

In 2013, Forbes noticed his father-in-law’s P90X program. He joined a 24-hour gym in Seward and tried to get in shape. Seven days a week, five years straight. He didn’t know much about mechanics, but he looked good.

Then he discovered videos of powerlifters blowing eye sockets and tearing pecs. Insane, yes. “But that seemed like something I wanted to do,” Brian said. Especially the bench-press. “Dead lift and squats are boring to me.”

Forbes consulted the internet and found a coach, who aided him enough to compete in the 2018 Cornhusker State Games. He lifted 375 pounds — raw. Not bad.

But raw training exposed Forbes’ shoulder to pain and limited his numbers. So he bought his first polyester bench-press shirt, which enhances safety and performance. He found new motivations, like his daughter and son.

“I want to teach my kids, if you have a goal, no matter how monumental it may be, don’t ever quit on yourself,” he said. “You don’t succeed if you don’t fail.”

In October 2019, at his first big powerlifting meet, Forbes benched 766 pounds. Not enough for him. More research. More calls. More gear. He found a breakthrough in Council Bluffs, home to one of America’s top powerlifting teams — Big Iron.

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Coach Jimmy Grandick invited him to drive up, have breakfast at Sugar’s Diner and try out with the misfit toys. Forbes passed the test and found a “brotherhood.”

He returned to Seward and crashed head-first into the science of powerlifting. He can talk for hours about the methods that shock his central nervous system and build strength. He crafted a training regimen conducive to his solitary location and his disabled shoulder.

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A set list for a workout for Brian Forbes in his garage gym in Seward.

What distinguishes Forbes in powerlifting, aside from his sheer numbers, is his ability to “self-handoff,” or unrack massive weight without help. Most powerlifters wait for spotters to place the bar in their hands. Then they lower it to their chest and press.

By unracking the weight himself — as much as 840 pounds — Forbes expends enormous energy and concentration. He also exposes himself to disaster.

“It could literally be the difference between meeting your lift and your last day on Earth,” said workout partner Ty Goode, a former Notre Dame football player.

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Forbes downplayed the danger. He engineered his own bench with “face-saving” welded bars to catch the weight if it falls.

“The worst that’s going to happen is I’ll have a little tummy ache for about an hour,” he said.

Training alone allows him to lift when he wants. High sets, low reps.

“You’re not going to be extraordinary if you’re not willing to leave ordinary,” Forbes said. “If you need spotters and lift-off guys, you’re not truly controlling your goal.”

Forbes tried testosterone seven years ago to strengthen his shoulder but determined that he and the family bank account were better off without it, he said. He relies instead on creatine and amino acids.

“I’ve been asked, what’s your steroid stack? It’s not something I need. It just creates another headache. If I was going to do this, I needed to do it clean or it wasn’t going to happen. …

“God puts us on this planet to do something. This is what he gave me.”

* * *

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Brian Forbes uses a hockey stick and resistance bands to build muscle in his garage in Seward, Nebraska.

Over the past 18 months, the pandemic disrupted the national powerlifting schedule.

When Forbes did get a chance at 1,000 pounds, he fell short. In July, he drove to Erie, Pennsylvania, lowered the bar to his chest, then hit his “sticky point” a few inches from the finish line. Spotters rescued him.

With each failure, he vowed “never again” and returned to the garage.

Back in Seward, Forbes struggled to share his obsession. His personality and presentation never felt normal. When Forbes shows up at his daughter’s softball game, strangers inch away. You can hear his cheers — and occasionally salty language — across the diamond.

“He’s always himself,” brother-in-law Brandon Smetter said. “He doesn’t tailor his mannerisms depending on the group.”

Said his wife: “He gets a lot of snap judgment. He’s just an extremely loud person, and he doesn’t always know how to read the room. So I do a lot of shushing and snapping and hand signals.”

To contend with anxiety, Forbes has tried to block out clutter. “Don’t let the little s—- bother me. Try to maintain an ‘I don’t care’ attitude unless it’s something that I really have to care about.”

That includes his appearance. The stronger Brian gets, the longer his beard. When he started powerlifting, Megan said, “I could actually kiss lips, not mustache. I’ve seen his chin twice in 15 years.”

On Oct. 27, Brian and Megan will celebrate 14 years of marriage. It hasn’t always been easy.

Megan admires his drive and discipline — he’s always been hard-headed. They both smoked until Megan found out that she was pregnant in 2010. Brian quit that day, cold turkey. “It took me another few weeks,” she said. “When he puts his mind to something, that’s it.”

But Brian’s one-track mind can be “a blessing and a curse,” Megan said.

Brian, why are you coaching powerlifters online in Australia when I need you in the house? Brian, why are you driving to Council Bluffs to train on Saturday when you haven’t seen your daughter all week?

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Brian Forbes' weight plates alongside his children's toys in his garage in Seward, Nebraska.

Megan, who works for Concordia University’s advancement office, tries to be patient. She knows his powerlifting prime won’t last forever. And 11-year-old Jacquelyn and 3-year-old Jakeb are gaining strength from this adventure, too.

“There’s such immense pride,” Megan said.

Even if they’re all terrified. Brian’s life insurance policy is maxed out. He frequently asks Megan to record him lifting so he can post it online or send it to a peer.

“I hit the button and close my eyes and don’t open them again until I hear the clang of the weights back on the rack,” she said.

As he lifts more and more weight, he eats more, too. Chicken. Eggs. Beef. “Buy a cow a month,” Megan jokes.

She wonders when she’ll get her husband back on Saturday mornings. And when the garage will be clear enough for parking.

“Am I going to be able to fit the van in this side of the garage this winter or not?”

* * *

All the variables had worked against him in Erie. Long car ride. Bad night of sleep. Out of routine.

On Aug. 7, Brian Forbes got a home game. Round The Bend Steakhouse near South Bend hosted a small powerlifting meet, highlighted by his latest attempt at history. Only 13 people had ever bench-pressed 1,000 pounds. None in Nebraska.

Forbes arrived early and started his warmup, working from the 55-pound bar all the way up to 975 pounds in full gear, lowering the weight to half an inch above his chest — not the full motion.

“I’m ready,” he told coach Grandick. He stared at the bench and said a prayer. His mind went silent. Just as he laid back on the bench beneath five spotters and three judges, Forbes heard his 3-year-old shout. “Go, Daddy.”

Spotters placed in his hands the bending bar — 10 plates totaling 1,015 pounds — and gingerly let go. Forbes descended. Good. He reached the bottom and touched his chest. Good. He pressed against gravity. Good.

Two inches shy of the end, he reached his sticky point again. The bar stalled. Inertia interfered. Megan felt herself shaking. And then … with heavy metal music blaring and friends and family shouting … Forbes found the strength. He pushed 1,015 pounds back to the top.

“The room just exploded,” Megan said.

Brian leapt off the bench, “said a few choice words” and bear-hugged everyone he saw.

“Don’t kill me!” his coach said.

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Brian Forbes, 39, is one of only 14 people in the world to bench-press more than 1,000 pounds.

The next day, Forbes felt like he’d been “run over by a Mack truck.” But come Monday, he returned to the steel factory and plotted his next move.

He doesn’t turn 40 until May, you know. And 1,100 pounds doesn’t seem so crazy to him.

“I’m just getting started,” he said. “I know I can go a lot further. But I’m in no hurry. I can take my time now.”

Before he left Round The Bend that Saturday, Forbes received a gift from the restaurant owner. A 64-ounce steak, which he devoured with the force of a half-ton.

A man like Brian Forbes can’t dream on an empty stomach.