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"I went to the kitchen where the chef was and either I tasted the food or I told him to taste the food. Then I waited about ten or 15 minutes to see if anything happened. Nothing. So I put the Slovenian flag on top of the plate, and I stood back and followed the caterer as she took it to my boss. When she dropped the plate down, my boss looked at me. I nodded. Then, only then, did he start eating. If I don't nod, he will not pick up the fork."
Richard Fike, a now-retired U.S. military officer, says he met Plevnik at a spring 1996 training session that he conducted in Slovenia. Fike, who among other things has taught close-quarter combat fighting skills to U.S. marshals and Secret Service agents, was the instructor.
"I was impressed by Iztok," notes the 50-year-old father of two, who lives in Ohio with his wife. "He had a little more desire, a little more hunger than the other guys, and you can't teach that. And in a business like ours, where you might have to die for your teammates, you want someone like him around you.
"I was training Iztok to sharpen his skills, to understand, say, the click of a knife. My guys can be playing pool and they are trained to hear that click across the room," Fike says, rubbing his beard. "I teach guys about observation skills knowing how many doors there are, how many people are around, where they all are, so that it becomes a sixth sense."
After he was shot four times in the Bosnian mountains in 1998, Plevnik took almost seven months to recover. It was then that Plevnik "realized that maybe I might need to change my career." So he called Fike, and several months later, he was standing at an airport in New York.
"Since I was small, I have been in love with America," Plevnik says.
Fike made a few calls and introduced Plevnik to a series of wealthy clients in Pittsburgh who were looking for personal trainers. Soon, Plevnik began earning what he describes as an average wage, and he settled into a modest life in America. "I learned English from watching news channels like CNN and Fox," he says, "and I had a therapist, Sam, help me out with some of the more difficult pronunciations, like 'th,' because we don't have that in my language."
"He came across as very serious," speech therapist Sam Chwat recalls. "But he was absolutely fascinated with the United States and this idea of it being a land of opportunity."
By 2003, Plevnik had developed a good command of his host country's tongue, as well as a roster of clients. But one fall evening at a Pittsburgh Steelers football game, his life took a bizarre turn. "I was with a client who knew the Steelers' owner," he says. "After the game, I made a joke about being able to kick the ball further than the team's kicker, so he led me down onto the field and told me to try.
"I walked onto the field, and I'd never even tried it before," he laughs, "but I guess I had a lot of strength in my leg because of the kickboxing, and I slammed the ball almost 50 yards and made a field goal."
A short while later, he was showing his skills to the coach of a semiprofessional football team, the Penn-Ohio Raiders. "I can honestly say he was the longest and most accurate kicker we have ever had try out," says the team's co-owner and head coach, Chris Brown. "He kicked that ball so far, he was denting up cars in the parking lot. We had to move them further away from the field."
Brown says Plevnik played two games with his team. "We never hold our guys back, and with the right coaching, he certainly had the talent to be playing for the NFL," Brown says.
After a friend arranged a tryout, Plevnik snagged a spot in late 2004 with the Miami Morays, who then played at the Miami Arena and were part of the National Indoor Football League. So he moved briefly to Fort Lauderdale and then Miami. Soon after arriving in South Florida, he learned of a modeling competition sponsored by the Wilhelmina Agency, one of the nation's top firms. He took third. "I only entered because the top three got a trip to Aruba, and I'd never been," he says. "They paid for everything why not?" (Karen Medina, the Miami-based director of the agency's lifestyle division, confirms he worked briefly for the company.)
It was around that time that he met Michigan-born beauty Jill Ann Skrzycki, who as a 15-year-old was among the nation's top skaters before being hurt in the nationals. She performed for several professional companies in New York and elsewhere, then modeled with agencies including Wilhelmina after moving to South Florida in 2000. "A mutual friend of ours was throwing a party, and he wanted to introduce us," she beams. "There's Iztok standing on this boat surrounded by girls. We said 'hi' and that was it."