The strength community lost a brother with the passing of California powerlifting legend Richard Schoenberger on July 20. Affectionately nicknamed “Big Daddy,” he was 57 years old.
Schoenberger was known in local lifting circles for his prodigious, unenhanced strength. He was a drug-free lifter and achieved his personal records “raw” (no assistance from lifting shirts or other implements). His best raw bench press in a competition was 612 pounds, and he once benched 625 during a workout—at the time a world record in the American Amateur Athletic Union. Schoenberger was as consistent as he was dominant, posting a remarkable 13-year undefeated streak in bench press competitions through the 1990s and early 2000s. His other PRs included a 525-pound standing military press, 850 pounds for 10 reps on box squats, and a 425-pound bench press at age 16.
Schoenberger was a longtime training partner of well-known powerlifter, bodybuilder, and actor C.T. Fletcher. The two were so close that Fletcher constantly referred to Schoenberger as “my brother.”
A GoFundMe Page has been created in honor of the late powerlifting icon. According to his son, Josh Schoenberger, The Richard “Big Daddy” Schoenberger Legacy Foundation was set up to help younger athletes learn proper lifting technique—the kind Big Daddy would regularly preach—in a “positive environment.”
Strong and Drug Free
“As far as the numbers and competitions, you have to take into account that he was a 100% lifetime drug-free athlete,” Fletcher once said of Schoenberger’s powerlifting records. “There are only a handful of guys in history that are drug-free guys, lifting in a T-shirt, who [bench-pressed] over 600 pounds. And you’re looking at one [in Richard Schoenberger]. It’s a big f–-ing deal.”
Schoenberger’s feats of strength went beyond the weight room, into true strongman territory. In a 2019 interview, he told a story of when he once literally picked up a car – a Volkswagen that his father was working on in the family’s backyard. He lifted the car from the side and rolled it over, much to the shock (and pride) of his dad, an incredibly strong man in his own right.
Originally from Lakewood, CA, Schoenberger played college football as a linebacker and nose guard at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo for two years (1987 and 1988) following a stint at Cerritos Junior College and Lakewood High School before that.
Outside of powerlifting, Schoenberger was a devoted family man, survived by his wife Leslee and sons Josh and Zach. Professionally, he was an accomplished engineer and enjoyed a successful career as a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agent.
“He was exactly what the world should be,” Josh told M&F days after his father’s passing. “To know him was to love him. He was a real-life super hero. He made you a better person by just being in his presence.”
A big, strong man, weighing as much as 350 pounds during his powerlifting career, Schoenberger was by all accounts a gentle giant—an affable, down-to-earth type that others flocked to. If you knew Big Daddy, you liked him.
No Bigger Fan than His Family
Of all his admirers worldwide, Richard Schoenberger had no bigger fan than his son, Josh. As a 12-year-old, Josh recalls one impactful moment a father and son outing—at the gym, of course—that changed him forever.
After years of being taught the bench press basics at home, the 12-year-old shares the story of receiving his first weightlifting test when his father finally brought him to a local 24-Hour Fitness for a workout.
The outing began with a small warmup and some fatherly technique tips, then it was time to lift.
It was bench press day, and Big Daddy started off with a 45 on each side for a quick warmup. “I remember he kept saying it was an off day,” Josh recalls. Soon after, 135 went to 225, then came another pair of 45s. After finishing a set of 315, Josh says his father turning to him and casually asks, “Should I keep going?” “I’m like, yeah, keep going.” Josh said.
There was a terrifying catch, Josh says: “My father goes, ‘Okay, but you’re gonna spot me.’ I was like, I don’t know, it’s really heavy. I don’t know if I can. And he goes, ‘NO, you got this.’ It just gave me this confidence. when he told me I had it, I really had it.”
And now with about 40 gymgoers gathering around the area, Big Daddy proceeded, banging out what Josh says was about 20 reps. On the final rep, Josh said his father “struggled”—leaving it up to his him to finish the job. Josh used all his preteen might to get the bar back onto the rack safely onto the rack. The entire gym cheered, and then Richard turned to his son, and confidently said that it was his spotting support that helped him get through the set.
“You and I both know now that a 12-year-old ain’t got a chance pulling that weight up,” Josh recalls. “but that was the type of confidence that he gave to everyone that he met. It was incredible.”
Tributes for ‘Big Daddy’ Schoenberger
“The mightiest man to walk the face of the Earth,” Fletcher said of Schoenberger in the days after his passing. “It isn’t his 13 world drug-free titles, his 600+ bench press, his 1,000+ squat, or even his 525-pound strict military press that made him the mightiest. It’s the fact that he always had a word of encouragement for everyone he encountered. This was my brother. We trained together for 35 years, we reigned together as champions, and we grew old together. And when I was almost dead, my brother held me up! He never received the accolades a champion of his stature should have, maybe because of his refusal to ever take any type of enhancing drugs, or maybe it was because he was truly one of the nicest people you’ve ever met, with the biggest heart you’ve ever seen. His wife and two sons were his life. A dedicated father, loving husband, brother, and my brother. Now he’s in heaven warming up the bench for us so we can continue our set – Richard ‘Big Daddy’ Schoenberger.”
Jeff Tomko contributed to this article.