Wrestling With Tragedy

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

"Fritz Von Erich" became the creation of a boy from a small Texas town who moved to Dallas when he was in his teens. Jack was a track star at Crozier Tech, then a football hero at SMU, where he shared the field with Kyle Rote--until he married his wife, Doris, and lost his scholarship. He took all sorts of jobs after college--working as a loan collector, a fireman, anything to make money. In 1952, when he heard there was going to be a pro football team in Dallas, the Texans of the old AFL, Jack signed up. He didn't last more than a couple of preseason games--his knees were too bad for football.

At the suggestion of an acquaintance, Jack then hopped on the pro-wrestling circuit. And he was awful, losing every one of his early bouts during a time when wrestlers were coming out of college; it was, for a moment in the 1950s, still a sport. It was hard to imagine that Jack Adkisson, who was once a golden, handsome man, would wind up becoming Fritz Von Erich--the German Bomber, the man whose Iron Claw grip could dead-stop any comer.

By the 1970s, Jack had become one of the pioneers in modern wrestling. He leased out the Sportatorium, formed World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), brought multiple cameras into the arena, and launched a televised wrestling revolution. During the early to mid-'80s on Saturday mornings, young boys and their fathers and grandfathers around Dallas would turn on Channel 39 to watch the Von Erich brothers tangle with the Freebirds or Ric Flair. Young women filled the Sportatorium, which even then was a decaying venue, and screamed in delight. They adored the boys' good looks, their athleticism, the way they destroyed the bad guys with such grace and charm.

And this was just in Dallas. Around the world, the Von Erichs were even bigger. By 1983, long before Vince McMahon took control of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and Hulk Hogan had become a household name, the Adkissons were millionaires, owning homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and parcels of land all over North and East Texas. They drew 40,000 to Texas Stadium for wrestling matches. They met presidents of foreign countries. They often couldn't go out in public without causing scenes.

Kerry, his hair feathered and flowing, was like a comic-book rock star; he was all locks and muscle. David, a walking grin, was the cowboy of the lot, as hard as the Texas ground upon which he and his brothers were raised. Kevin, his feet always bare, came off as the brother whose gimmick was that he didn't have one. In the world of pro wrestling, where ugly men passed themselves off as pretty boys in wigs and makeup and skin-tight leather, the Von Erich boys emerged as clean-cut warriors. They never fought dirty. They loved family, God, and their fans.

Jack Adkisson didn't necessarily want his boys to follow him into the ring--and they, in turn, were determined not to become wrestlers--if they could help it.

Kevin received a scholarship at North Texas State University, where he showed great promise at fullback and defensive end. While playing under legendary coach Hayden Fry, he injured his knee during a game. It took him four months to recuperate, but then he ruined the other knee while trying to catch a pass thrown too far behind him. Like his father, Kevin was relegated to the sidelines.

"It was so natural to me to watch my dad get in the ring and wrestle and want to do the same thing," Kevin says. "We all did. Of course, I never really wanted to wrestle. I kinda figured I'd enjoy it and would do it one day when I retired from football...But then I had two big knee surgeries... After that, I had to play football in these braces, and it took the fun out of it. Just firing out of my stance was a bitch. That was the beginning of the end."

David was a two-sport athlete at NTSU, where he too received a scholarship. He played basketball and football. According to Kirk Dooley, who in 1987 wrote The Von Erich Family Album: Tragedies and Triumphs of America's First Family of Wrestling, Kevin liked to give David a hard time about playing basketball, telling his younger brother it was "a sissy sport."

But it was Kerry, who was born 11 months after Jack and Doris Adkisson lost their first child, who seemed destined to make his mark in the athletic world. Like his father, who was a record-holder in the discus at Southern Methodist University, Kerry was one hell of a hurler. Jack, acting as his son's coach, made Kerry study films of Kerry's workouts and dragged his kid down to the ring they erected on the family property. While at the University of Houston, Kerry broke the junior world record--and shattered a longstanding Southwest Conference record held by his father.

Kerry was primed to attend the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, but then Jimmy Carter got political and boycotted the games. There was nothing for Kerry to do except go into wrestling.

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