Wrestling With Tragedy

As the sole survivor of his family's ring dynasty, Kevin Von Erich struggles to keep a painful past alive.

His hands are those of his father--enormous, fleshy, strong. They are calloused, almost faded, worn from years of wrapping them around men's faces and using them as weapons. These are the hands that wrestled a decade's worth of opponents, men with such names as Ric "Nature Boy" Flair and "Gorgeous" Gino Hernandez. He made a small fortune with his hands, as his father did before him, and as his brothers did during their shortened stays in the ring. His hands carried on the family business even after Dad retired and his brothers died. He inherited The Iron Claw, the grip that made the old man a legend and the family a wrestling dynasty.

Yet when he shakes hands standing in the atrium of a Lewisville Mexican restaurant, the man once and forever known as Kevin Von Erich is soft, gentle, almost consciously so. He looks slightly worn down, tired--you can see that much in his sleepy eyes. His gut seems a little more ample, a touch softer than it did a decade ago, when he seemed to be made of granite.

Kevin Von Erich can still intimidate you simply by being, yet it's almost as though he is hiding the strength in his body and in those hands.

His is now the yielding handshake of a father who plays catch with his sons; who holds his four children and caresses his wife of 18 years; who moves boxes into the office he is setting up to deal with his father's estate. His is the handshake of a gentle man known to his family and closest friends only as Kevin Adkisson.

Kevin Von Erich doesn't really exist anymore. He disappeared two years ago, when Adkisson stepped into the wrestling ring for the final time. His body had been wrecked by injuries to his knees and to his head, having endured seven knee surgeries and at least five serious concussions. Even now, he walks with a slight shuffle, like a man who has been on a horse too long.

Kevin--dressed this cool November afternoon in a plaid flannel shirt, faded jeans, and a pair of flip-flops--says he is not in any pain, physical or emotional. He claims he has put behind him the injuries that wrecked his once-promising football career, the wounds suffered in the ring--and the deaths that have made the Von Erich name synonymous with tragedy.

Just 15 years ago, the Adkisson family was enormous--five brothers and a happy mother and father who were married when they were almost children. They lived, for a moment, a storybook life on 137 acres in Denton County, in a house Doris Adkisson designed and her husband, Jack, built. They owned, for a moment, the world of professional wrestling.

Then, in 1984, the brothers began dying, succumbing to accidents, illnesses, drugs, and self-inflicted gunshot wounds. The family had already lost one son--7-year-old Jackie, to an accident in 1959--then David fell. Then Mike, then Chris, then Kerry. The loving couple divorced. The empire collapsed--ravaged first from the outside by cutthroat competition, then from the inside by death. By 1995, there were simply no more Von Erichs left to wrestle. Kevin was the last brother alive, and he wanted no more of it.

Long ago Kevin had his fill of professional wrestling that had become more spectacle than sport. "To tell the truth," Adkisson says now, "wrestling was just a job to me."

If he ever loved it at all, it was because wrestling gave him a chance to be with his brothers and father--but they're all gone now, and they have left Kevin to take care of the estate, to keep the Von Erich name from becoming a footnote in wrestling's scant history books. Even now, he and his late brother Mike's ex-wife have begun putting the family history on a Website. It's a sort of "virtual museum," as Kevin calls it, a cybershrine to the glory days.

Kevin is 40 years old now, the lone survivor of the Von Erich legend. He has outlived his five brothers and just buried his father, who died of cancer two months ago. Kevin rarely goes public with his grief, acting as if his personal loss belongs to someone else. He speaks about his father and brothers almost as though they were out of town for a while, gone on a trip and due to return at any moment.

"I don't know what some kind of psychologist would say," he explains, emitting a quick grunt you might mistake for a chuckle. "I do just pretend it never happened, and it works fine for me."

But then why build a monument to your memories? Why attempt to preserve the very pain that has stalked you your entire life? His tragedy isn't virtual; it's remarkably real. Kevin claims the Website is all about making money, but get him talking about the past, chronicling his losses, and it becomes obvious: Kevin Von Erich is still wrestling--only this time with his demons.

The Von Erichs were once this town's ubiquitous heroes, authentic good guys in a sport filled with cartoon evil. Even patriarch Jack Adkisson, better known as the goose-stepping, Nazi-sympathizing Fritz Von Erich, became a hero--a good businessman who helped turn wrestling into a million-dollar enterprise, a good Christian who spoke in front of church groups, a good father who had no answers for why his boys died before he did.

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