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Dan Dewitt: They broke the mold after Ernie Izzi emerged

The best Work-Out Gym story, and one of the better Ernie Izzi stories, is the one about the bank robbers.

They were working guys, rumored steroid users capable of shifting huge amounts of iron, who came in several evenings a week — as did I and another then-Times reporter, Ted Goldman.

Goldman said they reminded him of a crew in an old gangster movie, especially the way the littlest one bounced around like a fox terrier trying to get the attention of the biggest one.

I told Ted that he had an active imagination.

Then the Hernando County Sheriff's Office released a photo of a bank robber, bag of money in hand, who wore a mask but couldn't disguise that he looked like an NFL fullback.

Pretty conspicuous build, I thought, though I didn't make the connection with the guys at the gym until a few weeks later, in October 1991, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced the arrest of the six-member "Spring Hill Gang" for 20 bank robberies in Central Florida and one in New York.

"There went half my business," Izzi, the gym's manager, told the Times.

He ran the small gym just west of Brooksville for about 20 years, starting in June 1990, a date I remember well because I was the first one to join, the first to write my name in the soon-to-be tattered and stained ledger book, the first one to lay out my $20 in monthly dues.

Ernie's wife of 32 years, Diane, and I had a laugh about the bank robbers last week when she called to tell me that Ernie, 65, had recently died of complications from diabetes and that his funeral is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Brooksville.

We had several laughs, as a matter of fact.

About the way Ernie, whose diabetes had led to the amputation of one leg in the 1980s, used to freak people out by getting on the leg press machine with his prosthesis turned backward, foot pointed down.

About the way he loved to watch Jeopardy — and bark out correct answers — on a tiny, fuzzy-screened TV, that, like just about everything else in the gym, was covered with a fine coat of talcum dust.

About the brief appearance of the one piece of cardio equipment I remember in the gym — a treadmill that really gathered dust. And about how the gym was all about free weights — benches, bars and racks of 45-pound plates — and crude-looking torture devices that Izzi welded together himself, leaving seams as fat as night crawlers.

"He was a real MacGyver," his wife told me.

We laughed about tea he sold, a proto-energy drink with the consistency and calorie content of a bottle of corn syrup, and — I once checked — twice as much caffeine per ounce as Mountain Dew.

Most of all, we laughed about the collection of people who gathered there. Lots of workers from Florida Crushed Stone, including a couple of whom, like me, Ernie trusted with a key.

I remember letting myself in one Sunday morning and seeing a couple of the most massive of them consume several Styrofoam clamshells full of ribs, ham, eggs and grits as preparation for an epic, barbell-bending free-weight workout.

Who else went to the place? A steady stream of reporters from the Times, including Jeffrey Gettleman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times this year, workers from the Department of Children and Families, Circuit Judge William Law, and several Brooksville police officers and Hernando County sheriff's deputies.

"Cops and robbers in the same gym. We got everybody," Diane Izzi said. "It was the Cheers of Brooksville."

In recent years Izzi got to Farmer John's Key West Café in Brooksville for an occasional lunch "even if he had to crawl there," she said. "That was his highlight."

His weekly poker game at the (temporarily shuttered) Hilltop Lounge was such a priority that, a few months ago, he demanded to be released from a Tampa hospital early so he didn't miss a hand.

"It was crazy. He had the doctor scrambling trying to get him out of there," she said.

His health and enjoyment of life had been in decline for years. His body was worn out, his death a relief. So Diane is hoping to hold a "celebration of life" after his Mass, time and location to be announced.

There, I imagine, we'll hear the very best Ernie Izzi stories.

Dan Dewitt: They broke the mold after Ernie Izzi emerged 10/27/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 27, 2012 12:33pm]
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