Wrestling With Tragedy

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

Most thought David would become the Von Erich franchise while his other brothers came into their own. In May of 1984, David was scheduled to beat Ric Flair in the National Wrestling Alliance heavyweight championship. He never got the chance to take the title from Flair; instead, Kerry won the belt in front of more than 40,000 at Texas Stadium.

"I'm still not over Dave's death yet," Kevin says, the first signs of emotion peeking through the curtain. "That was the worst one. In 1984, when I got that phone call in the morning..."

He pauses, then looks down at the table. He reaches for a tortilla chip. "All the other deaths were terrible; they were bad, but nothing was like that first one. It was like something in me, like...I don't know."

Kevin looks up and flashes a sad sort of smile. "It hurt to the point where it couldn't hurt anymore. I didn't shut down or anything. It's not like I lost my ability to love or be soft or enjoy music or art or anything. But something in there just...like...I don't know how to put it. Maybe it was a protective defense mechanism or something."

David's death was, in one sense, bad for business. But it did allow Mike--an average-looking kid who didn't have his brothers' rough good looks or fiery, athletic style--a chance to step up, to fill the void as the third brother in the act. But in 1985, during a match in Israel, he dislocated his shoulder. During surgery to correct the injury, he contracted toxic-shock syndrome, which sent his temperature soaring to 107.

Somehow Mike survived--his parents referred to his recovery as a miracle--but he struggled for months to regain his strength. His body, once so resilient, rejected the workouts. He was in constant pain--and shamed by his failure. His falling apart became public: He stumbled when in the ring and turned against his family, once attacking his own father. Later, he was arrested in Fort Worth when he got into a fight with another driver at a stop light.

Addicted to painkillers and tranquilizers, he was arrested for driving while under the influence of drugs on April 12, 1987. He was released on bond, then disappeared two days later.

On April 17, his family found the 23-year-old in a sleeping bag near Lake Dallas. He had killed himself with Placidyl, tranquilizers prescribed to him by a Fort Worth doctor who had been treating Mike. Beside the corpse was a note in which Mike said he was going to meet David in a better place. In the note, Mike also wrote that he was "a fuck-up."

At the funeral, Kerry issued a statement. "I am so glad Mike is with David now. Mike never really liked to be alone." Not long after Mike died, Kerry left the family business and went under contract to the WWF--much against the wishes of the family. The Adkissons abhorred the WWF's "style," as Kevin calls it, the all-spectacle-no-sport wrestling practiced by Vince McMahon's stable of cartoon characters. Kerry became The Texas Tornado, another silly trademarked name. It wasn't good enough just to be a Von Erich.

Kevin, exhausted now by the toll the sport had taken on his family, began looking for a way out. "After Mike had died, we pretty much--well, I especially--had lost my zest for wrestling," he says. "It just wasn't fun. It was bad memories."

Of course, they would only get worse.

Of all the brothers, only Chris truly loved wrestling--and yet he was the one who would never make a career in the family business. Chris was too small too wrestle--a mere 5-foot-5 and 175 pounds--too frail from asthma and the medication that stunted his growth and made his bones fragile.

To the rest of the brothers, all of whom had athletic aspirations outside the ring--wrestling was just a business, a way to kill time during off-seasons. They were forced into the ring only after circumstances conspired against them. But Chris wanted to wrestle--if only, Kevin says, because he could not.

"He had so much pressure, but not from us," Kevin says. "He had pressure from himself and maybe from the fans, too. Sometimes fans can be cruel. They don't know what they're doing, but they can say things like, 'Hey, are you gonna be a wrestler when you grow up?' and things like that. They would just crush Chris, because he never got tall and healthy."

Kevin recalls one night in Little Rock, during one of Chris' rare appearances in the ring, how he taught his younger brother to perform a drop kick--a Von Erich specialty. The brothers would leap into the air, get horizontal with the mat, wrap their legs around an opponent's neck and send him crashing to the canvas. Somehow, in the middle of violence real or staged, the Von Erichs always seemed to fall with grace.

During a match in Texas shortly after that lesson, Chris and Kevin were a tag team, and Chris was in the ring. Kevin recalls how Chris hit his opponent, then raised his arm to block the man's retaliatory shot. When the wrestler hit him, Chris' arm snapped--it was broken, the bone so brittle from the prednisone he was taking for his asthma.

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