Wrestling With Tragedy

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

"I can't imagine what it'd be like to lose a baby at that age," says Kevin, who was two when his older brother died. "Any radical behavior on my parents' part would have to be excused after that kind of grief."

Jack, by his own admission, became "pretty mean." He turned into a strict disciplinarian, quick to take the switch to the boys when they misbehaved, broke windows, didn't do their work around the house. Jackie's death nearly destroyed him until he took the family back to Texas in 1960; it was time to settle down, to give up the nomadic life. He still traveled, but his family now had a proper home in Dallas--the town where Fritz Von Erich would become, finally, a star.

Jackie's death also changed the way his father approached his career. Fritz Von Erich suddenly became a dangerous wrestler. The man who had lost his first 18 matches--not all were staged back then, especially for some guy who was just slumming it to pay the rent--became a nightmare in the squared circle.

"He didn't fear anything. He was just ferocious, and it showed," says Kevin. "He projected it because it was there."

Jack began appearing on a Channel 4 Saturday wrestling show, then at the Sportatorium, a low-rent operation that Jack transformed on the strength of his reputation as a local hero. Fritz was still a young man, in fighting form and killer shape, and he had learned much from his eight years spent bouncing from one hellhole to another in search of a few hundred bucks. He formed the WCCW and brought in name wrestlers from all over the country, long-standing favorites such as Verne Gagne, Wladek "Killer" Kowalski, Antonio Rocca, Bruno Sammartino. He then televised their performances from Texas up to Chicago, Minnesota, New York, and dozens of other Northern and Midwestern markets.

Back then, in the early 1960s, wrestling was for adults and still something of a sport, the outcome not always scripted in advance. It had yet to become populated by fat men sporting costumes and freaks who weighed nearly 500 pounds. The days of Hulk Hogan making children's movies and Captain Lou Albano appearing in music videos was still a long way off. Ted Turner did not yet own World Class Wrestling (WCW).

Yet as much as Jack revered the traditions of wrestling, he helped end the era as well. When his boys began wrestling on Channel 39, young kids began showing up to the Sportatorium. Beer sales turned to soft drinks; the children wanted autographed pictures of their heroes, wanted to jump in the ring and have the Von Erich boys feel how strong their muscles were.

Almost in an instant, the grown-up world of wrestling became children's TV--and a huge business. Television created thousands of markets, where before there had only been hundreds. Promoters no longer cared about making money through ticket sales; they had to put on productions, gaudy spectacles, in order to attract ratings and advertisers. The new breed of promoters needed superheroes and supervillains, Batman and the Joker duking it out in front of the cameras.

When television became big, Kevin says, "wrestling didn't depend on the gate anymore. We got in there and just rocked. We gave it all we had, so that in the mornings after the match, we were sore and felt like we had done our jobs. So we would get in the ring and break teeth and bones."

The boys began paying the price for their hard work. Kevin started shooting up with painkillers while in his late teens; his knees, ruined by football, throbbed almost non-stop. David and Kerry also began using drugs to numb the aching.

"We were taking shots of deadener in our knees every Monday night before wrestling, and that would last a few days," Kevin says. "It was just a fact of life. If you make athletics your business, it's a tough business, and you have to have your body as your vehicle. You have to have it in good working order, and if it doesn't work, you've got to put deadener in there and make it work. We abused our bodies."

Whenever the phone rings early in the morning, Kevin will, in an instant, wake from a deep sleep and answer the phone. He will, as he says, simply "freak out," so sure someone is calling to deliver the worst of news.

At dawn on February 10, 1984, Kevin received the call that his brother David had died in Japan. The family knew he was sick when he left to wrestle in Tokyo, but Jack and Doris never imagined a small flu would evolve so quickly into an intestinal inflammation that would, in a painful instant, take their 25-year-old son's life.

Just like that, another son was dead--and part of the business was now gone, the Von Erich who was perhaps the best wrestler in the family. The 6-foot-7 David--who had cultivated the image of the cowboy, never appearing without his black hat and leather vest--was the son who had turned out most like his old man. David, who was at once goofy-looking with his mangy red hair and imposing, had mastered Fritz's Iron Claw...and delivered it with a smile.

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