"I'm sorry I burned down the house."
After 19 years of seemingly dead-end searches, it's the first thing that came out of Reese Hoffa's mouth to the stranger on the other end of the telephone who gave birth to him.
Diana Watts was ecstatic and heartbroken in the same held breath.
"Oh, God, it's really you," she remembered saying. "I couldn't believe that he carried that all those years."
It's been eight years since Mr. Hoffa reconnected with his birth mother and discovered that his burning down the family home at age 3 wasn't the reason he was put up for adoption. In those eight years, the Lakeside High School and University of Georgia graduate has developed into the world's best shot putter and is America's gold-medal favorite in Beijing.
While Mr. Hoffa's Olympic journey will culminate Friday, his story, which has attracted media attention all over the world, isn't simply about himself. His story is intertwined with two mothers -- one who gave birth to him and let him go, and another who reared him and remains forever grateful for the opportunity. The gregarious Mr. Hoffa refers to them as his A-mom (adoptive) and B-mom (biological).
"I keep thinking I can't believe I get to be a part of this," said Cathy McManus, Mr. Hoffa's A-mom who lives in Martinez.
"He's inspired me," said Ms. Watts, his B-mom who lives with her husband of 18 years and two young children outside Jacksonville, Fla. "He's everything any mommy anywhere, whether they raised him or not, could ever want. He's just a wonderful person and great human being. I don't think anyone could ever ask any more from a child to grow into this wonderful human being with or without the sports."
Whether Mr. Hoffa would be the person and the athlete he is today if his childhood had taken a different path is a natural source of curiosity.
"Of course I wonder what it would be like if I'd stayed with my biological mom," Mr. Hoffa said. "But I have to truly believe that it was my destiny to go about life the way that it happened, to go through adoption and go into another family. I hope that I've enriched the lives of my adopted parents."
As much as his Olympic dreams revolve around a long personal quest, Mr. Hoffa understands he's representing two families -- and two mothers -- he holds dear.
"It's got to be a point of pride not only for my adopted family but for my biological mom," he said of his accomplishments. "She gave birth to this kid that was destined for greatness. He may have gone a roundabout way of getting there, but when he finally got there it was pretty amazing."
Young mom's struggle
Michael Reese Hoffa was born Maurice Antawn Chism on Oct. 8, 1977, to a 16-year-old mother of one in Louisville, Ky. He wasn't quite 4 when he accidently burned down the family's house playing in a bedroom with his older brother. A few weeks later, he and his brother, Lamont, were left in an orphanage by an overwhelmed teenager who had run out of options.
"I still think that when you burn down your family residence, some re-evaluation has to take place," Mr. Hoffa said. "It does create a bit of an upheaval."
The house fire wasn't the cause, but just the last in a series of events that led a desperate mother to do what she thought was best for her two boys.
"There were just a lot of things happening at the time, and I just felt that I couldn't handle the responsibility anymore," said Ms. Watts, a biracial woman who had lived largely on her own since age 10. "It was just one thing after another thing after another thing. It was just that I felt that I couldn't do the job well."
Adoption wasn't her intention when Ms. Watts (then Diana Chism) contacted the St. Thomas-St. Vincent home in Louisville.
"I was looking for someone to help me with the children and I called and asked them if they had some kind of temporary something that could help me," she explained. "They said no, they did permanent placements here. That was the first time I even considered that. I thought that was the best thing to do."
Mr. Hoffa understands the situation now, even if he couldn't in 1981.
"She did the best she thought she could, but I think she felt like something was missing on our side that she knew she could not provide at that time," he said.
The childhood images are as clear to Mr. Hoffa now as they were 27 years ago.
"It's moments in your life that get seared in your mind," he said.
He vividly remembers striking the lighter on the curtain cord and the flames that quickly spread beyond his control. He remembers details of all three orphanages he and his brother lived in. He remembers every one of the five prospective families he visited -- from the meals he had to the movies he saw to the windows he was taught to wash. He remembers not being allowed to ride the Big Wheel and having to shuffle around on a small horse with wheels instead.
Most of all, he remembers giving his mom a hug at the top of a brick staircase and being pulled into the building as she climbed into a car and drove away.
"I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I didn't want to eat or watch cartoons or anything."
Weeks later, he saw his mother again when she came to move the boys to a different orphanage. This time they did a better job of making the separation less traumatic while the children were distracted in a room full of toys.
"She went off into another room and she was just gone," Mr. Hoffa said. "I didn't see her again until 19 years later."
A new family
Steve and Cathy Hoffa had three children and another on the way when they decided they had room and love for at least one more on their farm in Bardstown, Ky. That it would likely be Maurice took root on his second family visit. It was close to Halloween, and they went to a haunted house. Maurice didn't want to go in, so he sat outside and fell asleep in Cathy's arms.
"That's when I bonded with my mom, just hanging out in her lap," he said.
On his fourth visit to the Hoffas' farm, they were sitting at the supper table when they asked him whether he would like to be adopted into their family.
"My immediate gut reaction was, 'No,' " he said. "They were like, 'What?' "
He eventually was OK with the idea. "I counted down the days until they came and packed all my stuff in a suitcase, and I was with the Hoffa family from then on," he said.
He chose a new name -- Michael -- after his favorite TV character on Knight Rider . The Reese was a nod to his birth name, Maurice.
He was quiet and withdrawn for much of his childhood, struggling to feel comfortable as a mixed-race child in the middle of a large white family (the Hoffas moved to Augusta and eventually had five natural children plus Reese).
"I was just trying to fit in, but I always felt there was this difference between me and my siblings," he said. "Of course they accepted me 100 percent, but there was always this sense of awkwardness and difference, and it took a long time for me to get over it and fully adjust into the family."
The love, nurturing and discipline he received from the Hoffas (since divorced and both remarried and living in the Augusta area) was unqualified. He was more athletically inclined than his brothers and always felt like he was playing catch-up developmentally from the less constructive time he spent in orphanages.
"It definitely challenged me as a person to figure out a way to catch up as quick as I possibly could," he said, "and gave me the work ethic I needed to make it through middle school, high school and college, but also just to continue to work hard when I was done with all that."
Athletics proved to be a haven for the shy young man and built his confidence that created the extroverted and funny personality he's now known for.
"He wasn't too different than his other brothers, except Reese was into sports and my other sons weren't terribly into sports," Ms. McManus said. "He made up for all of them."
At Lakeside, Mr. Hoffa played catcher in baseball and wrestled, but it was when he stepped into the shot put ring that his greatest potential was unlocked.
"When I went to that first state championship and he out-threw everybody by so far, I just got chills all over me," Ms. McManus said. "I thought this kid was definitely destined to be something big. From then on out, nothing he did surprised me. It totally amazed me, but it didn't surprise me because I knew he could do it."
Diana Watts always knew her son would be an athlete. He was big and strong even as a toddler.
When she returned to Louisville in her 20s and hoped to reunite with her sons, the only one she found was Lamont. He had been removed from the orphanage by her older sister.
Her baby's adoption file was sealed, and she searched everywhere for clues.
"I didn't know where Reese was and didn't know who adopted him," she said. "It was horrible not knowing."
Armed only with clues that he might have changed his name to Michael and might have been adopted by a family in Bardstown, she scoured newspaper clippings and graduation records in Kentucky to see whether she could find anyone who matched his description.
"I always knew he'd be an athlete, but I always assumed football and that's where I looked for him," she said. "I didn't know anything about track and field."
Mr. Hoffa had been looking as well. He'd tried to find his brother, but to no avail. He didn't even know his mother's first name.
By 2000, Mr. Hoffa was a senior All-American at Georgia. Ms. Watts had been married 10 years to her second husband, and they had a little boy named Adam that summer. When Mr. Hoffa's birthday rolled around Oct. 8, she decided to give her search one more shot.
"I always had the unrest of not knowing," she said. "I couldn't live my whole life like this. I needed some peace in my mind."
This time she tried the Web site Adopt-assist.com. Instead of just looking for postings, she posted something in the registry.
A couple of weeks later, Mr. Hoffa was making his usual perfunctory Web searches and on a new site got a hit on date of birth and home state. He couldn't believe the message he found.
It was a mom looking for her son and had all the right words, including his birth name, Maurice Antawn Chism.
Hardly believing what he saw, Mr. Hoffa sent an e-mail. After no initial response, he sent another. And another.
After not checking e-mails for a few days and suddenly finding three from a UGA student, Ms. Watts and her husband were worried this message from "reese hoffa-man" was a joke. The note ended with a plea,
"I really hope that you will contact me because I do care and have a genuine concern for you, so please find it in your heart to contact me. Thanks, Reese."
" I truly couldn't believe it," Ms. Watts said. "So I called him."
Ms. McManus was both thrilled and anxious when her son called to say he had found his birth mother.
"She cried a little bit because of the unknown," Mr. Hoffa said. "She might have been afraid that my birth mom would take all my time away from her. I'm careful to make sure my adopted mom knows, 'Hey, you raised me,' and give her the priority for whatever needs she has for me."
While admitting some small jealousy, Ms. McManus had different maternal worries.
"I was really concerned that if he found his birth mother and she did not want to be reunited with him that it would rip him up," she said. "And that was my fear. I didn't want to say I was jealous, but I was because this was my baby. I just thank God that she gave birth to him so he could be part of my life. It all worked out just fine."
Mr. Hoffa called Ms. Watts "mom" the first time he went to meet her at her former home in Indianapolis.
"I just fell over that because I wasn't expecting it," she said. "It was just very sweet and he just is. That's what he calls me, except when Cathy's around. Then he calls me Diana. He's very careful about that."
The two moms first met at Mr. Hoffa's Georgia graduation in 2001.
"I was delighted to meet her," Ms. McManus said. "I wanted to meet somebody who gave me Reese and I wanted to welcome her into the family."
They shared him at his 2005 wedding to his wife, Renata. They've been brought together again recently for photo shoots during the Olympic buildup.
Ms. McManus admires Ms. Watts for the strength she displayed letting Mr. Hoffa go to have a better opportunity.
"You always have to remember, we've got to walk in their shoes before we can try to judge somebody," she said. "She's wonderful and proud of him, and I'm glad she let me have him for my life. It's been a great ride."
A good son
Ms. Watts is equally thankful for the Hoffas and how they reared her son.
"It gave me such peace to know that he was all right and the Hoffas had taken him and they were such great people," she said. "I was at rest.
"I don't have one thought that I could have done the job that the Hoffas did -- that I could have done as well for him. I'm an older adult now, and I think that every child needs the opportunity to grow up in a well-built family, and he did. So I don't have any regrets about that. He couldn't have done any better."
Mr. Hoffa agrees.
"If I stayed in that environment, I don't know," said Mr. Hoffa, whose brother Lamont served jail time on possession charges. "Some potential would have been sacrificed. Athletically I would have been up there, but in this society you do need your academics. Without that good academic background, I think I would have just struggled all the way through."
Said Ms. McManus: "I think he would have gone far, but maybe not as far. He was in the place where everything clicked. The right coach. The right place. But Reese has the stamina and want-to so bad, he still would have gone far even by himself."
Now his two moms in Augusta and Jacksonville share the common bond of watching their son take center stage in the world's grandest sporting spectacle. They both marvel at the attention he receives, including sharing a brief version of his life story on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno three weeks ago.
"He was so cool," Ms. Watts said. "I couldn't believe how composed he was and natural -- though I believe they overmade him up."
Ms. McManus had a hard time fathoming it was her son.
"I'm looking at him thinking he's like a real movie star or celebrity -- and he's my son," she said. "Since I've been in this little realm of things, when I see things about some other stars I'm thinking they've got a mom just like me feeling the same kind of way I'm feeling. They can be a plain-old, plain-Jane person very lucky to have a child like Reese."
In Mr. Hoffa's case, there are two moms hoping to see him light up the house in Beijing.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or email@example.com.
REESE HOFFA'S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
1996: Won Georgia Class AAAA state championship
1997: Won Georgia Class AAAA state championship in shot put and discus
1997: Fifth at National Scholastics
1998: Third at SEC Outdoors, 11th at NCAA Outdoors
1999: Second at Southeastern Conference Championships, 11th at NCAA Outdoors, eighth at USA Outdoors
2000: Sixth at U.S. Olympic Trials, second at NCAA Indoors, fourth at NCAA Outdoors, ranked fifth in U.S.
2001: Sixth at USA Outdoors, third at NCAA Outdoors, SEC Outdoor champ, ninth at World University Games
2002: Sixth at USA Indoors, sixth at USA Outdoors
2003: Third at USA Outdoors, first at Pan American Games, fifth at USA Indoors, second at Home Depot Invitational, second at Stanford, ranked No. 9 in world
2004: Silver medalist at World Indoors, second at Olympic Trials, 22nd in qualifying at Olympic Games, runner-up at USA Indoors, third at Nike Prefontaine Classic
2005: USA Indoors runner-up, fifth at USA Outdoors, first at Millrose Games ranked No. 4 in world
2006: World Indoor Champion, USA Outdoor runner-up, USA Indoor champion, ranked No. 1 in world
2007: World champion, USA Outdoor champion, USA Indoor runner-up, first at London (22.43m/73-7.25PR)
2008: Olympic Trials champion, second at Nike Prefontaine Classic, first at Reebok Grand Prix, World Indoor Champs silver medalist
MEN'S SHOT PUT SCHEDULE
THURSDAY: Qualifying round
FRIDAY: The gold medal final will be included in NBC's broadcast from 8 p.m.-midnight.