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Muscling the most out of life

MEET YOUR NEIGHBOR: A high school dropout takes advantage of his build and his brains to make a living he enjoys.

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 11, 2002

TAMPA PALMS -- He's not Vin Diesel.

But he plays one in real life.

"I get that all the time," Tchalla Greene says of comparisons to Diesel, the star of last year's The Fast and the Furious and the new spy thriller XXX, which opened Friday.

It's understandable: The two men share a multiracial heritage, shaved heads, muscle-bound physiques and, despite several facial-feature distinctions, both boast commanding good looks.

Comparisons don't end there between Diesel, who graces the August cover of GQ, and Greene, 23, a certified personal trainer and fusion instructor at Gold's Gym off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Fast becoming Hollywood's top young action star, Diesel, 35, has plenty of brain with his brawn. He has written and directed independent features and received strong notices for dramatic performances in Boiler Room and Saving Private Ryan.

Greene, whom his friends call "T," balances mind and matter in his own way. He alternates killer workouts with studies of philosophy and music appreciation. His interests run the gamut from Martin Luther King Jr. to Genghis Khan, from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, to the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu.

Not bad for a former gifted student who -- feeling unchallenged and eager to make money and party -- dropped out of Niceville High School early in his sophomore year.

Admittedly hard-headed and brash, Greene clashed with the Panhandle-area school's administration and quit because he wanted to enjoy life.

What he found was hard work.

Lacking a high school degree and needing money to live on -- much less party with -- Greene used his musculature to build sea walls and work other construction jobs. It was tough, he said, but he acknowledged that he had a lot of fun with the money he earned.

"Work hard, play hard," Greene says. "That's still my motto."

But Greene soon realized he could do much more with his potential. He earned his General Equivalency Degree and later made the Dean's list at Ohio's Urbana University. While he would never advocate quitting school, Greene said his teenage induction into the party lifestyle made collegiate distractions less compelling.

"By the time I got to college, (drinking) was no big thing," Greene said, "I'd already been through all that. I didn't need to prove anything."

At 19 he worked a trendy nightclub security job -- again, as Diesel once did.

That's also about the time Greene informally began personal training. He had been lifting weights since he was 11, largely for athletic reasons, as he played football, soccer and baseball in school. He particularly excelled in football: As a middle-school defensive lineman, he once recorded six sacks in a single game.

He watched bodybuilding shows on television, inspired by stars such as Lee Haney, who earned eight consecutive Mr. Olympia titles (bodybuilding's top honor), and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who earned seven straight titles.

Weightlifting gave Greene an advantage in sports. But it also provided more meditative benefits.

"It became an escape," Greene said. "Those small moments between sets allowed me to think about things in my life. Weightlifting is a friend. I really enjoy it."

The name "Tchalla" came from his father, who is of African-American and American Indian ancestry. Greene's mother, who is white, is of British ancestry. Ask Greene if he thinks of himself as white, black, American Indian or something else, and you'll find that he refuses to be categorized.

"I'm all kinds of things," he said. "My roommates in college were black, and I got them listening to Bob Dylan. They didn't know what to make of me at first, but they came around (to it). ... I listen to everything, I read so many things, I open myself up. I don't want to be limited."

Greene's father named him after the Black Panther, a Marvel Comics superhero. The character's alter ego was "T'Challa," the prince of the fictional African nation Wakanda.

That was the original spelling of Greene's name, but when he was 10 he dropped the apostrophe and the capital C. Greene said that altering his first name was his way of taking ownership of it.

These days, he helps people take ownership of their bodies. While Greene hopes to begin graduate school at the University of South Florida soon, he'll continue with personal training.

"I sit down with (my clients), understand their goals, formulate the plan," he said. "Every program is individually tailored for them to follow. And I need to be challenged all the time, so I try to challenge them.

"This is great for me. There's nothing better than seeing them reach their goals. Because it's personal. These are my friends, not just my clients."

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