Cal State LA Hall of Famer Tommy “Tiny” Lister, who went on to a successful acting career that spanned more than two decades, passed away on Thursday. He was 62.
Lister became nationally known a few years after leaving Cal State LA as “Zeus,” both in the world of professional wrestling and also in the movie, “No Holds Barred.” He also gained great notoriety as the character “Deebo” in the “Friday” movie franchise.
“The Golden Eagles mourn the loss of our great, world-class student-athlete Tommy “Tiny” Lister,’ Cal State LA Executive Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Dr. Daryl Gross said. “He was the gold standard of excellence for not only our track and field student-athletes, but all our student-athletes. He will be dearly missed, but never forgotten.”
Lister won an NCAA Division II championship in the shot put in 1982 and was inducted into the Cal State LA Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 2008, he was inducted into the NCAA Division II Track and Field Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Faiplex in Pomona. That class included another Cal State LA Hall of Famer, Nicole Duncan.
“Tommy “Tiny” Lister was a superstar to kids and adults alike growing up in Los Angeles,” former Cal State LA track and field coach Christopher Asher said. “You either knew him as the movie character that he played called ‘Zeus’ or you knew him as your neighborhood bully ‘Deebo” in the movie ‘Friday.’ I’ll always miss my buddy “Deebo,” AKA Tommy “Tiny” Lister.”.
Asher worked with Lister extensively over the years during his time as Cal State LA.
“I remember when I met with him and said that we would name a track and field meet after him at Cal State LA,” Asher said. “He was so excited, so honored that this would be happening. He wore the Cal State LA colors on his sleeve. At the Tommy “Tiny” Lister Classic held at Cal State LA, he honored many people and his credibility in the streets and the track and field community in Southern California made it a big annual event.”
Lister took the advice of long-time USC head coach Ron Allice, who told his star thrower that Cal State LA would be a good fit. Lister, who went to Compton High School, was on Allice’s first team at Long Beach City College in 1979 and part of a state championship team. Allice was honored by Lister at the 2007 Tiny Lister Classic.
“Tiny Lister was very, very special to me in many, many ways,” Allice said. “He was on my very first team at Long Beach City College. He and I had a talk and I told him that I thought there was a place that would be right for him and where they’d watch over and guide him and I recommended he went to Cal State LA.”
Allice said Lister had a great personality and enjoyed having fun with his teammates.
“We took a team photo after winning the state championship and you know how guys will try to look bigger than they are by sucking in their stomachs and putting out their chests?” Allice said. “Well, Tiny was right in the middle of the photo doing that. Everybody loved Tiny because he had such a contagious personality. He was very gracious to people, no matter who you were.”
When he was coaching at USC, Allice had Lister take part in a dinner the night before the USC-UCLA dual meet where he got the Trojans properly fired up for their crosstown meet.
“I had Tiny come in wearing a UCLA outfit, just busting through the door,” Allice said. “He challenged all of them, told them they were going to get beat tomorrow, blah, blah, blah. Then I hit him over the head with a bottle – it was a prop. Tiny told me afterward, ‘coach, that hurt!” The team loved it.”
Following Allice’s advice, Lister thrived at Cal State LA during his three years at the university.
Lister’s best mark of 61-8 stood as a Cal State LA until 1997 and is currently No. 2 all-time in program history. He became the first thrower in program history to record a mark of more than 60 feet and he won his national championship in 1982 after sitting out the 1981 season due to injury. He returned healthy in 1982 and broke the old school record by nearly six feet on his way to the national title.
He improved his best mark to 64-3 with the Converse Track Club in 1983, but gave up track and field in 1984 to try his hand in professional football with the New Orleans Breakers of the United States Football League. Despite not having any experience in organized football, Lister was offered a spot on the practice squad midway through the exhibition season. Lister, though, a business major at Cal State LA, opted for a career in acting.
He quickly went on to become a highly-recognizable figure on screen and in the world of sports entertainment. He was the professional wrestler known as “Zeus,” who was a rival of Hulk Hogan’s in the ring as well as in the movie, “No Holds Barred.”
Lister then left wrestling to pursue acting and worked in more than 140 television and film productions.
“Everyone knows that my track and field career, my time at Cal State LA is more important to me than my movie career, than working on multimillion dollar films or working with famous actors,” Lister said while visiting the campus in 2010. “It’s here that it all started for me.”
He was very supportive of Cal State LA athletics over the years. Lister used to host a celebrity basketball game in the University Gym before the Tiny Lister Classic began in track and field.
He made a tremendous impact at the track meets he hosted and always took time to interact with student-athletes.
“He was like having a teammate from an older generation,” said former Cal State LA track and field star and current Cal State LA Events and Facilities Manager Dameion “Lucky” Smith. “He was bubbly and strong. He looked so strong, but was the sweetest guy I’ve known.”
Lister was also active in ministering across the country, reaching out to troubled youth and sharing his story in churches and schools.
Tina Fernandes, Cal State LA’s current track and field and cross country head coach, used to bring her teams from USC to the Tiny Lister Classic. She broke the news to her Cal State LA men’s and women’s track and field teams early Friday morning.
“It made my heart very heavy and sad to hear the passing of one of Cal State LA’s great Golden Eagles, Tiny Lister, aka Deebo, passing. Right away, I started remembering all the memories that I experienced. Tiny and I both went to Compton High School and Long Beach City College at different times. We met each other through Coach Allice, who coached both of us,” Fernandes said. “Tiny was a big supporter of Coach Allice and Cal State LA. I remember Tiny coming up to USC for a meeting on how he could get USC to come compete at his meet. He sat with Coach Allice and I and we both said that we would support it as long as he needed us to. Tiny would frequently visit USC to give inspiring speeches to our student-athletes.”
“I want to thank the Lister family for supporting Tiny through his career a life adventures. We want to honor him and bring back the Tiny Lister Meet to honor his legacy! We also want to give our condolences to the family and let them know that he will always be one of our Golden Eagle heroes,” Fernandes added.