Wrestling With Tragedy

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

Contrary to myth, Jack didn't push his boys into wrestling. It merely became their best option. Like so many young men who try to escape their father's shadow, the Adkisson boys fell backward into the family business.

And Jack, especially in his later years--after David died of an intestinal infection in Japan, after Mike overdosed on painkillers, after Chris and Kerry shot themselves--often spoke as though he wished they hadn't gotten into the sport.

"Some people say I pushed those boys into wrestling, and wrestling killed them--like I killed them," Jack said in 1993. "Killed them? I loved those boys. I didn't force them to be wrestlers. I wanted something good for them, and I'd rather they had gone into one of the professions, but when they wanted to be wrestlers, I helped them. But wrestling didn't kill them. Different things killed them."

Still, had David not been wrestling in Japan when he fell gravely ill in 1984, perhaps he would have lived.

Had Mike not been wrestling, he might not have injured his arm in 1985, had surgery, then contracted the toxic-shock syndrome that ruined his body and drove him to suicide two years later.

Had Chris not wanted to wrestle so badly, he might not have shot himself in 1991 for being so much smaller, so much weaker, than his brothers.

Had Kerry not been wrestling, he might not have become addicted to the painkillers he took to ease the pain in an ankle he wrecked in a motorcycle accident in 1986. He might not have become despondent over the prosthetic foot he had to wear, one that made him limp horribly as he walked into the ring. He might not have gone to his parents' ranch in 1993 and shot himself in the heart.

Then there was little Jackie. Jack often blamed himself for his first-born's death. He was convinced that if he had been home and not out on the road, wrestling in Ohio, then he could have prevented the child's horrific death by electrocution and drowning.

Oh, yes. Wrestling made the Von Erichs famous. It made them rich. It provided them with great expanses of land. It made them household names from the U.S. to Israel to Africa to South America.

But if wrestling didn't kill Jack's boys, it sure as hell didn't help them stay alive.

Kevin believes the Von Erich family story would make one hell of a movie. "You put wrestling as the backdrop, but the human story is unbelievable...It's funny, and it's sad, and it's an emotional roller coaster. I would think it's what a movie producer would be looking for. Why the heck aren't they knocking on my door?" He says this as though forgetting for the moment that it is his story he's retelling, his loss.

He already has the opening scenes of a film sketched out in his head. Before the opening credits roll, there's nothing but absolute darkness; the setting is the moment when nighttime black turns to early-morning dawn. The only thing you can hear is the sound of duck wings flapping and whistling in the distance.

Then, a gruff, booming voice explodes in the foreground: Let's get 'em!. In an instant, the whistling of wings and the pitch black gives way to the thunder and flash of shotgun blasts.

"There's gunfire all over," Kevin says, his voice rising in excitement. "Then The Von Erich Story pops up. I thought that sounded like a cool opening. The movie would start off with us as little kids--we had some funny stories--and then go on with our lives."

It's odd to hear Adkisson use that phrase--and then go on with our lives--if only because his brothers really never had a chance to go on with their lives. They were all dead well before the age of 35, most dying while in their 20s.

The deaths began as accidental tragedies. Jack might have said they were the acts of God, if he truly believed in such things. He became born-again only after his sons began dying. Jack needed to believe the deaths had meaning, that his boys weren't disappearing pointlessly.

Jackie Adkisson, born September 21, 1952, at Baylor University Hospital, was the first to be born--and the first to die. His death occurred when he was just seven years old, when his father was on his way back from a wrestling match in Cleveland. Jack and Doris were living in Niagara Falls at the time. Their place of residence was a mobile home, a sign of how transient their lives had been while Fritz Von Erich looked for his legend.

A man in the mobile-home park had been rewiring his trailer, and he left some wire exposed that night--wire still full of juice. Jackie had been playing at a friend's when, on his way home, he put his hand on the trailer. He was electrocuted--then fell to the ground unconscious. There, he drowned in a puddle of melting snow.

Jack blamed himself--blamed his long trips on the road, the lifestyle of the professional wrestler always looking for a better show in a bigger town. He was convinced that had he been there that night, his son would have lived. He tried to find God, but only found that he, too, wanted to die.

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