PHILADELPHIA -- In the du Pont family, hobbies soon became passions. Mother collected Welsh ponies. Father collected fine thoroughbreds. And young John Eleuthere du Pont collected seashells and birds.
Understand, we are not talking about a few snail shells or a couple of sparrows. By high school, du Pont's shell and ornithology collections had grown so big, he decided he needed a museum to display everything. So, in 1969, he built one -- the Delaware Museum of Natural History, in Wilmington, Del.
"I had a big collection [of birds]; I studied them on the farm and all over the world," said du Pont. "Actually, I probably had the world's largest seashell collection, too. But I collected birds from everywhere."
John du Pont is 53 now, an heir to one of the world's largest chemical companies. He has put aside birds and seashells.
But he hasn't stopped collecting.
These days, he is trying to assemble the world's finest collection of amateur wrestlers. And he's having so much success, some experts in the sport think that in just two years, du Pont's %J collection of athletes has started to look far more like a wrestling empire.
On the grounds of the 800-acre du Pont estate, he has built the fanciest wrestling compound this side of Leningrad. The Foxcatcher National Training Center in Philadelphia's Newtown
Square covers 14,000 square feet and was built at a cost of $600,000.
About 86 wrestlers use the compound regularly, some of them drawing as much as $1,000 per month from du Pont. A select few live year-round on the estate.
The Foxcatcher lifestyle and the generosity of its benefactor have made it easy for du Pont to conduct recruiting raids on other clubs. In two years, he has netted Team Foxcatcher 19 top, Olympic-caliber wrestlers. (One, Rob Calabrese, is also a coach.) Du Pont plans, by 1996, to fill all the berths on the U.S. Olympic team with his own wrestlers. Some wrestling experts say he may pull it off.
Some are not pleased by du Pont's aggressive approach to a sport that was once clubby and regionalized, with recruiting done on a modest scale.
The once vaunted New York Athletic Club has lost nine wrestlers to du Pont. NYAC wrestling chairman Sonny Greenhalgh says du Pont has ruined the NYAC.
"I hate the way John du Pont deals behind my back," Greenhalgh said. "We'd be better off without him. He's turning these guys into professionals."
Du Pont counters that his club is doing only what Greenhalgh and others have been doing for years. They simply did it on a smaller level.
"Sonny is upset because I turned the game around on them," du Pont said. "I remember a time standing near the [weigh-in] scales and watching NYAC recruit people as they stepped up to be weighed."
If some members of the tradition-bound wrestling fraternity dislike his methods, du Pont thinks he can live with that.
A sixth-generation du Pont, he sees himself as the outcast of the family. His parents separated when he was 3. John lived with his mother, Jean Austin du Pont, in Newtown Square. Two older sisters and one older brother were already married and on their own before du Pont enrolled in school. He says he was close only to his mother.
Du Pont says his family was not enthusiastic that his sport of preference was wrestling over, say, cricket. In college, du Pont concentrated solely on swimming.
"Wrestling was thought to be the sport of ruffians," said du Pont, who now wrestles in masters competitions. "Someone of society, like John du Pont, should not wrestle. It wasn't a country-club sport."
The more people said wrestling wasn't proper, the more du Pont wanted to prove otherwise.
"Wrestling has always been my first love," du Pont said.
That and being someone else's benefactor. Du Pont has paid for the education of more than 100 college graduates.
"It gives me a great deal of pleasure to pass something on to kids," said du Pont, who receives Father's Day cards from his athletes even though he has no children. "It's hard to put into words what it means to me to see a kid you've known all your life, have helped him at Foxcatcher, and then watch him become a champion."
Du Pont and wrestling have sometimes been a tumultuous mix.
His first wide-scale involvement with the sport came at Villanova University, where he founded a wrestling program in 1986, funding the entire enterprise on his own. He paid for the scholarships, the coaching staff and many of the expenses while paying himself a one dollar per year salary as head coach. There was only one problem: What John du Pont funded, he wanted to run.
After a series of disputes between du Pont and his coaches, and du Pont and the school, Villanova decided it had enough. The program was summarily dropped after only two years.
Still, du Pont was determined to have his wrestling kingdom.
Two summers ago, the Foxcatcher National Training Center was RTC designated an official Olympic training site for wrestling.
The wrestling compound includes four wrestling mats, a trainer's room, coaches' offices, a weight room, a pool, lockers, a kitchen and a dining room. On a typical day, you find one area of the building resembling a health club, with athletes moving from one weight training station to another. Opposite the weight stations, others are on the mats, being coached at the fundamentals of freestyle competition. Later, the dining room is converted into a small theater where film of matches is broken down for analysis.
There is an eight-man coaching staff, now under the direction of Greg Strobel, but until last month, Jim Humphrey, the U.S. Olympic coach in 1988, was in charge. Among the staff members are a four-time Bulgarian world champion (Valentin Jordanov), a Soviet Olympic gold medalist (Sanasar Oganysian) and an American Olympic gold medalist (Dave Schultz). Strobel and Humphrey are the only full-time coaches at the facility. Each earns $70,000 per year. Schultz, a part-timer, makes more than $30,000.
Du Pont's wrestlers receive regular monthly training stipends, ranging from $400 to more than $1,000. Du Pont deposits the money into their individual USA Wrestling trust funds. At some smaller clubs, a wrestler may not get subsidized at all. If a wrestler is among the top 30 on the U.S. National Team, he is entitled to a monthly subsidy from USA Wrestling ranging from $250 to $650.
Du Pont also donates $425,000 a year to USA Wrestling to defray the costs of the U.S. National Team's program. In all, du Pont has given more than $1.2 million to amateur wrestling.
Du Pont is uncomfortable talking about his money, saying he sometimes fears people will take advantage of him if he's not careful. When asked about how he finances his athletes, he often squirms and says nothing. He abhors the image of a wealthy aristocrat, preferring to think of himself as one of the guys. Indeed, he is almost always seen dressed in blue Foxcatcher sweats -- at home, as well as at competitions.
His informality is such that he answers his own telephone and prefers to greet his guests at the door of his mansion.
Before Foxcatcher came along, NYAC ruled the East Coast. When Phoenix-based Sunkist Kids was formed in 1977, it recruited from territories overlapped by NYAC in the Midwest, where smaller clubs were and remain a spawning ground for wrestlers who eventually join larger clubs on both coasts.
"Back then, the unspoken rule was Sunkist would take everyone west of the Mississippi and NYAC would take everyone east," Greenhalgh said.
Art Martori, the Arizona citrus grove millionaire who sponsors Sunkist, says that with the proliferation of clubs -- there are about 30 nationwide -- boundaries have vanished. Everyone is fair game for recruiters.
Schultz recruits wrestlers for du Pont. He talks to athletes at competitions and focuses on every wrestler's worst fear: lack of training partners and money.
That's how Schultz enticed John Giura, a two-time World Cup gold medalist at 149.5 pounds, to leave NYAC. Giura lacked partners and was not being subsidized at NYAC. Foxcatcher had more than 50 junior-level athletes and a dozen intermediates, and was on its way to stockpiling 24 Olympic-caliber wrestlers when Giura decided to join Foxcatcher and live on du Pont's estate.
Du Pont offered Giura $1,000 a month in training expenses, too.
"I figured my best chance to become an Olympian was to come here. It was so impressive, a wrestler's dream," Giura gushed.
It was a dream other clubs can't duplicate.
"The kids come here because they know they will be taken care of; they have nothing to worry about," said du Pont.
Recruiting is legal in wrestling. So is paying athletes monthly training allowances. There are no training expense limits, either. Under FILA (Federation Internationale de Lutte Amateur) rules, wrestlers can be subsidized to train for competitions -- but not subsidized to compete for a specific club.