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After 19 years of searching for his birth mother, the first thing that came out of Reese Hoffa's mouth when he found her was an apology.
"I'm sorry I burned down the house."
Diana Watts was ecstatic and heartbroken.
"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 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 University of Georgia graduate has developed into the world's best shot-putter and is America's gold medal favorite in Beijing.
While Hoffa's Olympic journey will culminate Friday, his story isn't simply about himself, but about two mothers - one who gave birth to him and let him go, and the one who raised him and remains forever grateful for the opportunity.
The gregarious 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, Hoffa's A-mom who lives in Martinez.
"He's inspired me," said 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."
Who knows whether Hoffa would be the person and the athlete he is today if his childhood had taken a different path.
"Of course I wonder what it would be like if I'd stayed with my biological mom," 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, Hoffa understands that he's representing two families - and two mothers - he holds dear.
A new family
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 accidentally 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'd run out of options.
The house fire was just the last in a series of unfortunate events that prompted 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 Watts, who lived largely on her own since the age of 10.
Hoffa understands now, even if he couldn't possibly back 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.
Steve and Cathy Hoffa had three children already and another on the way when they decided they had room and love for at least one more on their farm in Bardstown, Ky.
On Reese's fourth visit to the Hoffas' farm, Steve and Cathy asked him if 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 that later moved to Augusta.
"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."
He was more athletically inclined than his brothers but always felt like he was playing catch-up on the academic side.
"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."
In high school, Hoffa played baseball and wrestled, but when he stepped into the shot-put ring his greatest potential was suddenly unlocked.
"When I went to that first state championship and he out-threw everybody by so far, I just got chills all over me," his father 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, she found only Lamont. He'd been removed from the orphanage by her older sister.
Her baby's adoption file, however, was sealed and she searched everywhere for clues.
By 2000, Reese was a senior All-American at Georgia. Diana Watts had been married 10 years to her second husband and they had a little boy named Adam that summer. When Reese'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."
She posted a message in the registry of a site called Adopt-assist.com.
Reese had been looking as well.
A couple weeks later, Hoffa was making his usual perfunctory Web searches and 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, Hoffa sent an e-mail. 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," Watts said. "So I called him."
Cathy McManus was both thrilled and anxious when her son called to say he had found his birth mother. While admitting some small jealousy, she had different 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."
The two moms met at Hoffa's UGA graduation in 2001.
"I was delighted to meet her," 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 Olympics buildup.
Two big fans
Watts is equally thankful for the Hoffas and how they raised 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."
"If I stayed in that environment, I don't know," said Hoffa, whose older brother did time on a drug charge. "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."
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.
In Hoffa's case, there are two moms hoping to see him light up the house in Beijing.Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 081008