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Over 50 bodybuilding champion going strong

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"I love them little bitty buns," moaned Garyville farmer and muscleman Ronald "Berlie" Monica, recalling his most recent tussle with the devil, after he won the state bodybuilding championship in the over-50 class and then sinned at the buffet of the Treasure Chest casino.

But it hurt so good. The shrimp, the fries, the baby buns, the butter blew up the owner of Monica's Okra World and rewarded him with a penitential tummy ache in the parking lot that marked the start of the final phase in an old cycle. On the way home, the darkness inside the car was like that of a confessional, as Monica vowed a return to a life without stain of grease.

"I'm starving," he proclaimed with a giggle one recent afternoon from the living room of his River Road home. Back in training and rippling out of his shorts and T-shirt, the 55-year-old sat on the sofa before a basket filled with the milk and honey of bodybuilding: Hydroxycut, Thermicore, Nitrotech, Glutamine, Creatine and the always-succulent Dehydroepiandrosterone. There was a not-entirely-out-of-place bottle of cologne in there, too.

"Scent of Aspen" aside, the changes wrought in his physique by three years of dieting, exercise, weightlifting and consumption of Ripped Fuel Metabolic Enhancer have only confirmed in Monica what he already knew about himself. Put him at the head of a nondeviating row of okra, strap a bucket to his waist, turn him loose at 5 in the morning, and he'll pick without pause for five hours.

Or, put him in a health club in Reserve, point out the weights, turn him loose, and the next thing you know he's gliding across the stage at the Pontchartrain Center in a bikini, muscles browned by artificial tanning lotion and oiled with the contents of a half-can of Pam cooking spray.

"I smell like butter, but so what," said Monica, roux-less for two years. "I'm all or nothing. Whatever I do, it's no halfway. When I got into the weights, that was all I thought about. I got a contest coming up, and I'm low carbs. I don't eat nothing. Got to stay low to get real lean. Got to get as lean as I could get.

"Today I ate six egg whites, three Nitrotech protein drinks, two cans of low-sodium tuna fish, two oranges and two brown rice cakes. Right now I'm living off my fat cells. The key to bodybuilding is, don't touch the muscle. After it ate my fat, it would start eating my muscles."

It? To one degree or another, who doesn't know "it"?

Class of St. John

Growing up in Garyville, it was sports. Monica liked the repetitiveness of it. While his father, a sugarcane farmer, plowed row after row from dawn to dusk, "Berlie" was becoming the best athlete in St. John the Baptist Parish. When he wasn't playing ball, he was often in charge of the family businesses, Monica's Sportsman's Club and Noonie's restaurant.

"I ran those by myself when I was 12," he said. "At dinnertime, I served 100 people. Whatever they wanted, I did it. I loved the barroom. I listened to all the fellas, what they were saying about gambling, smoking, drinking."

In a way, the men in the barroom were letting down. Monica's Sportsman's Club was their Treasure Chest. They seemed so relaxed that Berlie, quiet and intense, took up drinking himself. It seemed to loosen him up. He even had some beer the night before pitching for Leon Godchaux High School in a playoff game, with a major league scout in the stands.

"I wasn't the same that day. The scouts didn't want me after that," Monica said. "Alcohol ruined me with pitching. One day, that was all it took."

The long road to redemption led the best athlete in St. John Parish through long years of work in plants along the river. He also ran the bar, drank with the men and loosened up almost every night. Then he'd go to bed, wake up and go to the plant. It was a routine, but it was also like trying to plow a hill. Some can do it, some can't.

Unswerving dedication

Today, okra grows like crazy on the flat prairie land behind Monica's house. By a little past 3 a.m. Monica is on the abdominal exerciser in the living room, his eyes trained on an enormous television broadcasting the Weather Channel. Before the bodybuilding took over, changes in weather were a main topic in the Monica household.

"He's calmed down a lot," Monica's wife, Christine, said. "He used to worry about the fields so much. Bodybuilding took his mind off all that."

He started with a few dumbbells belonging to his sons, Berlie and Samson. But of course a few dumbbells are not enough for a man to whom only two quantities are ever enough: plenty or none.

"That's my personality," Monica said. "Where I work out at, even them young fellas, they can't believe what I look like. I tell them, the discipline comes with not eating. No more white rice, no more white bread, no more pork, no more sugars. No doughnuts.

"At the show this year, I could see the judges clapping. My posing is getting better. I'm supposed to be having fun on stage, but I got to stay tense and remember to smile. That's how I live. That's how I feel. After I ate the buffet at the Treasure Chest, I said, 'Why did I eat it?' Then I come home and started back training the next day. When I woke up that morning, I was sore from all that posing."

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