By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Mike always had to have a woman around," Martin says. "He could never survive a week without one."
And women seemed only too happy to accommodate him. He couldn't walk into a bar or restaurant without turning heads. Club owners put him on their no-wait A-list, figuring his impressive presence would attract more women, which would in turn attract more men. "He was just a shy country boy who was bitten by the Dallas bug," says one former girlfriend. "Dallas has lots of flash and beauty and fast-paced people who like to look good. He just got sucked up into that lifestyle."
In 1990, he met Judy Kurtz, then an American Airlines flight attendant, in a popular North Dallas nightclub. Ten months later they were married. "He was a child in a superman's body," she says. "My nature is to want to mother somebody, and he needed a mother."
The only thing that requires more discipline than being a bodybuilder is living with one. "It was my job to go to the grocery store and make sure he was fed every three hours," she recalls. But life could get intense when his obsession made him overly concerned about "retaining water or looking big enough," when he grew irritable because he needed to get down to 4 percent body fat before a show or when he injected himself with steroids because he was willing to do anything to win. He got a job as a baggage handler at American Airlines so he could travel cheaply to competitions. But Kurtz handled the bills, she says, and he seldom felt responsible or in charge of his life. Except, of course, when he was in the gym.
Crowds would gather around Scarcella, watching him wherever he trained. "Once he had 555 pounds on the bench, and the bar looked like it was going to snap," Chad Marr recalls. "He hit it for three reps, and it was effortless. Another time, someone left 315 pounds on an incline bench. He knocked off 20 reps while he was in his street clothes. The guy was strong as a damn ox." When Marr became his training partner, a powerful bond developed between them, forged out of the shared pain of grueling two-a-day workouts. "You push yourself to a place where you feel you can't walk and may black out. You find out what your limits are, and you go beyond them. It was an awesome thing."
Scarcella never lost his focus on the Mr. America title, which at the time was owned by the American Athletic Union (AAU). Although it would not qualify him as a professional, it was the most prestigious amateur bodybuilding title in the country. To get there, he won the South Western Mr. America, the junior Mr. America and Mr. USA.
On September 25, 1992, a ripped and ready Scarcella entered the 53rd annual Mr. America contest held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. His wife, Judy, was in his corner, coating him with tanning solution and oils so his body would glisten. Bob Gruskin helped out as well, coaching him on his mandatory poses, making certain he "put life into each one." Scarcella won the medium class with a flawless performance. In the overall competition, he out-posed the other bodybuilders, gathering strength and peaking perfectly while the others couldn't hold their poses. The judges' decision was unanimous: The 1992 Mr. America was Mike Scarcella.
"He was so excited when he won the 'America,'" Kurtz recalls. "It was the best thing that ever happened to him. How many other people can say they achieved their life's dream?"
Devastated by her decision, Scarcella hit the club scene harder, becoming a favorite customer at Baby Dolls and The Men's Club. "It didn't matter to him if you were a good person or came from a good family," says one former girlfriend. "What mattered was did your boobs and butt look good in a bikini?"
While competitive bodybuilding began its decline sometime in the '80s, stigmatized by steroids and drug use, there was money to be made in personal training, particularly for someone like Scarcella. At the gym, he had star power, and he developed a high-profile clientele willing to pay up to $100 an hour to train with Mr. America. For serious gym rats and young bodybuilders, his advice was often doled out for free. "He would talk fitness with anyone," Marr says. "He may have had a lot of bravado, but he was never condescending."
What made him outgoing and what kept him going was a nutritional supplement that he and other bodybuilders legally purchased at health-food stores: GHB. In powder or liquid form, GHB was marketed to bodybuilders as a natural alternative to steroids that would increase muscle mass by stimulating growth hormones in the deepest stages of sleep. Bodybuilders swore by its results. But what it likely stimulated was euphoria, which enhanced what bodybuilders already enjoyed doing: working out.