His blue eyes never divert. His swinging arm never wavers. His impassive expression seldom changes and, most times, neither does the result.
To watch Rick Bermingham pitch horseshoes even in practice, when the pressure's off and nothing's at stake except the mere act of getting the forged steel object around the stake itself is to observe a man in complete control of the task at hand.
Nothing rattles him, not the cricketlike click of a photographer snapping off pictures nor the chatty onlookers hanging around the pit at Sacramento's Granite Park. Time after time, his left arm swings like a pendulum, the shoe revolving one and a quarter turns in flight before making a definitive and satisfying clang around the stake. Another ringer.
"Me and the stake," Bermingham said. "Zero in. Me and the stake. Don't let anything get to you."
Such single-mindedness, such discipline, is what has propelled the 45-year-old Roseville resident to four consecutive state horseshoe pitching titles and given him a No. 5 ranking heading into this weekend's National Horseshoe Pitchers Association world championships in Monroe, La.
There was a time, however, when Bermingham's life was anything but focused and in control, when his nearly decade-long addiction to methamphetamine led to burglary and jail time, homelessness and estrangement from family and friends, when the next hit off the pipe meant more to him than anything, even his abiding affinity for horseshoe pitching.
In a sport so reliant on patience and a steady hand, a powerful stimulant such as meth would be the last drug a competitor would want to take. But Bermingham, something of a horseshoe prodigy after starting as a teen on the family farm in Sloughhouse, squandered his talent for more than a decade.
"It was bad," Bermingham said. "I was on a bad road. I started at 22. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was lost. I used to try to pitch when I was mething, and it was a joke. I couldn't be consistent. Some (tournaments) I did really good, some really bad.
"I quit horseshoes for a while. It was guilt and shame. I didn't want them to know I was using. So I just stayed away."
Twice, Bermingham was locked up. He pleaded no contest for felony burglary and drug possession in 1996 and again in 2002. But in 2003, after being paroled and completing drug treatment, he found solace in religion, a renewed relationship with his elderly mother and strengthened ties with his girlfriend. He is employed in construction and is planning to get married soon.
And, yes, he rediscovered horseshoe pitching. Clean for nine years now "June 29, 2002, was the last time I used," he said Bermingham returned to the courts in 2004 and was embraced by the competitors he once was too ashamed to face.
Slowly, he began to regain the form that originally caught the eye of local horseshoe legend Monte Latino. The "Golden Boy," as they once called a much-younger Bermingham around the pits, was back.
The apogee came at the 2007 state championships in Yolo County, when Birmingham clanged ringer after ringer on the way to his first of four straight titles. After polishing off his opponent in the championship match, the stoic 6-foot-4, 250-pound solid rock of a man broke down and wept.
"I don't mind telling you, man, I cried like a baby," he recalled. "I just walked around (the court), by myself, thinking about it all."
That championship represented more than just a fleeting sporting triumph. It was validation that sobriety had improved every aspect of Bermingham's life.
"I think you've got to ask, 'Without horseshoes, where would Rick be?' " said his friend Gary Smith, who lives in Loomis. "A lot of the good things in Rick's life, after he got clean, came out of horseshoes. The friends he's made, getting jobs. He's become a role model for a lot of people who want to turn their lives around."
Bermingham, laconic by nature, is not the type to trumpet his story just as he is not boastful about his pitching prowess. But, if asked, he will acknowledge his drug troubles and his return to clean living.
"When I went into treatment, after jail (2003), I started going to New Life Community Church" in Fair Oaks, he said. "I give them all the credit of the world. I never went to church as a kid. It's been a huge eye-opener for me.
"You know, to win (in horseshoes) now is just like icing on the cake. I don't take life for granted now. People look up to me in horseshoes now. Before, they'd be reaching (to protect) their wallets when I was around. Now, they trust me again."
He's not just trusted now, say longtime Sacramento horseshoe mavens. He is admired.
"Rick's a real competitive player, but if anybody comes up and asks for help, he'll step right in and teach you," said Robert Cocagne, a horseshoe pitcher from Tulare. "He'll call you on the phone and email you and ask, 'How's your pitching doing?'
"When we had the courts in Yolo, he'd be out there working his butt off getting those courts ready. He'd get the clay to the right wetness, mow the lawn, dig up and fix broken stakes. Typically, a person of that caliber won't do that because they want to focus on their game. But Rick'll go do all that, then step in and still beat everybody."
Dedication to the sport Bermingham, rain or shine, puts in 200 practice tosses a day is what separates him from rivals, added Glenn Rippetoe, president of Sacramento's horseshoe club.
"He's a serious guy," Rippetoe said. "He practices and then practices some more. He's all concentration. When he throws, you can tell he's an athlete. You could say he's a natural."
Before becoming a horseshoe pitcher at age 15, Bermingham was a baseball pitcher. He pitched at Elk Grove High School and Cosumnes River College in the late 1980s, before his career ended with a shoulder injury. He never had surgery, and the injury doesn't affect the underhand motion of horseshoe pitching.
Under the guidance of Latino, a three-time world champion from Sacramento, Bermingham developed a smooth form that ends with a low-arc release that sends the shoe wafting toward the stake with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile.
Competitors marvel at Bermingham's form, calling it a thing of beauty.
"When I first saw him, I thought, 'His throw is different from anything I've ever seen,' " Smith said. "His shoe sounds different from anyone else's when it hits the stake. I call it a 'CLACK' in all capital letters. That's the sound, CLACK. Loudest I ever heard. You just know that shoe is on the stake. No doubt. People look at Rick and go, 'Wow, this guy's a professional.' "
Not in the literal sense, however. No pro horseshoe leagues exist, and ESPN doesn't televise events. Bermingham likes to joke that what he should've taken up as a lonely teen out in the country was golf, because he could be making money on the pro tour by now.
But he says he's content to pitch some shoes each day after eight hours of pouring concrete on job sites. He doesn't need fame or even recognition, though he says he's grateful that he has a gift for horseshoe pitching.
He works every day not to squander the gift. That's his focus now.
"I didn't think about things like that when I was on the road, living a path of destruction," he said. "It was time to grow up."