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Remembering Joe Rollino, a greek god in a borough of churches

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The scene is set in our mind’s eye: it’s 1954 in Coney Island and Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” is blaring from a nearby Murphy radio as a 49-year-old, 5-foot-5 strongman — a Greek god in the borough of churches — exits the Iceberg Athletic Club’s weather-beaten, wood-paneled bungalow near W. 22nd Street and accepts an insurmountable challenge: lift four of his muscle-bound pals at the same time.

Joe “The Great” Rollino doesn’t bat an eye. He grabs an eight-foot pole that conveniently sits nearby, centers it on his broad shoulders, bends his knees just a bit, then asks his buddies to grab hold. He digs his heels into the hot Coney Island sand and, with the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” now playing in he background, stands up, miraculously lifting the boys off the ground.

But this feat was but a small footnote among the Herculean accomplishments on his extensive strongman resume, one that included lifting two tons on his back, bending quarters with his teeth, and twisting an iron rebar around his forehead.

Fifty-eight years later, sideshow strongmen, pugilists, Coney Island Polar Bears, and Brooklynites of all stripes recalled those halcyon days when men could become titans with nothing more than hard work, perspiration, and the determination to be better than one’s betters as the corner of Bay Ridge Parkway and 14th Avenue was co-named after Rollino, a superman who entered this world in 1905 and left in 2010, two months short of his 105th birthday — an age when most mere mortals are usually bedridden.

Not Joe.

Those attending the “Joe ‘The Great’ Rollino Corner” street co-naming said the centenarian didn’t need a cane, eyeglasses, or dentures — despite a lifetime of snapping railroad spikes with his jaws.

That’s because the lifelong vegetarian abstained from tobacco, alcohol, white bread, and (most notably) steroids, and built his physique the old-fashioned way — through diet and exercise — a mantra that many say contributed to his, and some of his friends’, long lifespan.

“I’m 73 because of him,” said Bob Liquari, who met Rollino in 1949 while the strongman was doing chin-ups on the Boardwalk — and was one of the men photographed participating in the strongman’s 1954 friend-raiser.

Rollino’s life was an amalgamation of “Rocky” and “On the Waterfront” with a touch of “Forrest Gump” sprinkled in: weighing a mere 135 pounds, Joe boxed as a lightweight under the nickname “Kid Dundee.”

After his time in the ring, he went from gym rat to sandhog, using his brawn to help out on the Herculean task of building both the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. He was also a Brooklyn longshoreman and a lumberjack in California before becoming a Coney Island sideshow act.

Rollino spent his strongman days hanging out with the likes of Harry Houdini and the great Greta Garbo, who had hired him as her personal bodyguard.

When World War II broke out, Joe — at the age of 34 — fought in the Pacific and was easily compared to Captain America after he put his unbelievable strength to good use by carrying wounded soldiers, two or three on each arm, to safety.

Rollino got a leg full of shrapnel for his trouble, and legend has it doctors wanted to amputate, but Joe wouldn’t let them, insisting that his leg would heal on its own. When the doctors disagreed, he slept with a .45 under his pillow, daring any surgeon to come near him.

General Douglas MacArthur pinned the Silver Star for Valor on Rollino’s chest in the hospital before he returned home with all four limbs intact, as well as a Bronze Star for bravery and three Purple Hearts.

After the war, Joe joined the Iceberg Athletic Club. When two people drowned in Prospect Park Lake in the dead of winter, Rollino dove into the icy water to recover their bodies.

But residents of Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst say they didn’t know The Great Rollino.

They knew “Uncle Joe,” or “Puggy” — remembering an elderly man with a personality that was larger than his extra-large biceps until he was struck down by an automobile while crossing Bay Ridge Parkway near 13th Avenue, an accident friends say he would have survived had he simply braced for the impact.

Christina Vadala, Rollino’s niece and only surviving relative, said the corner co-naming was a way of sharing her uncle with everyone who knew and loved him.

“He was flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, but he belongs to all his family and friends,” Vadala said.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at (718) 260–4507 or e-mail him at wbredderman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/WillBredderman
Updated 1:49 am, June 17, 2012
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Reader feedback

Jerry from Bensonhurst says:
I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with Joe Rollino often in, what I thought at the time, was his later years - he was around 79, so I guess it wasn't as late as I thought (-:). I worked on 86th Street and used to run into him hanging around Vic Boff's Health food store. I had no idea of his past as the famous Coney Island Strongman. He was a great guy who always had great stories to tell. Truly an unforgetable character. This is a great tribute to him.
June 17, 2012, 1:07 pm

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