Blue Blood, Hero Heart

September 9, 2011

By Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CPT

“As long as I could remember there were only two things I wanted to become,” says IFBB pro bodybuilder Joe Palumbo. “I wanted to be a police officer and a superhero.” Joe would end up fulfilling that childhood dream — sans cape — working in law enforcement in New York. But it wasn’t until he set his boots to the rubble of the World Trade Center in 2001 that Joe fully grasped the true nature of heroism.

Hero Genesis

Joe was born outside of Naples in the small village of Cicciano, Italy, in 1961, but his family immigrated to Long Island when he was very young. His first exposure to the archetypal hero’s physique came through a Hercules comic. And in 1970, when a certain Austrian transplant took Hercules to the big screen, Joe was officially hooked.

“That’s where I first learned about Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Joe says. “And with Franco [Columbu] being from Italy, I always liked that look. By day, I wanted to build and get stronger and by night I wanted to be a superhero!”

Joe took to looking and living the part by embarking on a bodybuilding career in the hardcore trenches of the storied Mr. America’s Gym, and then heading to the police academy. But unlike Superman and Batman, who clumsily negotiated their identities, Joe found marked success in both of his existences. In 2000, he became an NPC Masters National champ (2000). The same year, he joined his department’s SWAT team.

Walking into Doomsday

On 9/11, Joe found himself in the middle of an unthinkable maelstrom of terror. Emergency vehicles, fire trucks and black-and-whites convened at the still-burning towers at 1 World Trade in New York. Columns of smoke bellowed into a pristine September sky, signaling the start of a war in which terrorists had struck a crippling first blow.

“When we started heading to Ground Zero, you could see the dark cloud and it was still 20 minutes away,” he recalls. “It was like doomsday. You felt it, you smelled it — and it was clear in the sky. It’s something that you’ll never forget. There was burning stuff, chemicals, human beings … inches of debris and dust covering everything. It looked like it had snowed everywhere. We weren’t prepared for that type of debris that was in the air. You could feel your lungs tickling, and your eyes burning. It was overwhelming. But still, you just wanted to get in there and pull people out that needed to be rescued.”

Joe and his team spent that day roaming the corridors of affected buildings, looking and listening for survivors, helping to assess structure safety.

“I was in a state of shock, really,” he admits. “It took a long time to realize this was for real. You walked around wondering if it was a bad dream. It was almost too much to take in.”

By definition, a hero is a being of extraordinary strength and courage who’s celebrated for his exploits. Physically, Joe’s achieved the powerful, Herculean look he’s aspired to since boyhood — one capable of striking fear into the hearts of villains everywhere. As a dedicated police officer, he’s been awarded six certificates for meritorious duty, a medal of commendation for going above and beyond the call of duty and was voted Police Officer of the Year in 2000. But on 9/11, as he and others toiled beneath the floodlights of the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, Joe had an epiphany. People don’t care if a hero wears the suit well. Sometimes, the most heroic act of all is just showing up. And that day, Joe did. MMI

Excerpted from the October Issue of MuscleMag.