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.

"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.

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.

"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.

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.

"I heard a pop, and I said, 'Chris, tag me,' and he goes, 'No, wait, I'm gonna do my drop kick,'" Kevin recalls. "I said, 'No, Chris, no!' Well, a drop kick would have been perfect, but he couldn't do it. I could tell his arm was broken. But he threw his drop kick anyway, and he fell and broke his other bone, too--the radius and the ulna. Broke 'em both. It was too bad that it just wasn't to be for Chris. He had heart, though."

Chris became too weak and too injured to wrestle. In September 1991, after loading up on cocaine and Valium, the 21-year-old took his own life with a 9mm pistol. He killed himself on the family's farm, a mere 300 feet from the dream home Jack had built for his wife. Kevin found his brother lying near a pile of old Indian relics that Chris and Mike had once collected.

There was also a suicide note, which read: "It's nobody's fault. I'll be with my brothers."

In 1993, his mother told The Dallas Morning News that Chris' death was, in all likelihood, almost an accident. She believed he was "toying with the idea when the gun went off," and she didn't believe "the note he left was written with conviction."

Kevin also never thought Chris meant to kill himself. To believe that a second brother had died by his own hand was just too difficult for him to accept.

By the early 1990s, Kevin Von Erich was almost wiped out by wrestling. The business had changed dramatically since the birth of Jack's WCCW. Now he had the mighty WWF and WCW to contend with, each with their cushy cable-TV deals and marketing gimmicks. The regional promoters were dying in the hinterlands, losing their audiences and their wrestlers--to the Vince McMahons and Ted Turners of the wrestling world.

Jack had enough of wrestling after Mike's death. He no longer wanted to book his sons, and his business sense began to fail him. Fed up, he turned the Sportatorium over to Kevin and Kerry--who then teamed up with a Tennessee-based promoter named Jerry Jarrett. The brothers ended up suing Jarrett, claiming he had swindled money from the WCCW and cut the brothers out of bookings in the very organization they had helped build. Jarrett contended that he had rescued the WCCW, that the brothers weren't showing up for bookings, and that when they did, "they were not in a physical or mental condition to wrestle."

The suit was eventually dropped, but Jarrett likely had a point. Kerry was off in the WWF, and Kevin had exhausted himself trying to keep up the bookings in his brothers' absence. Sometimes he would wrestle three times a day in three different small towns; he became the franchise, the sole paycheck. Either Kevin fulfilled the obligations, or the family went broke.

Kevin found himself shooting up more and more with painkiller. He limped through the day and faked his way to victory in the ring. He took matches he shouldn't have, risking more concussions and injuries.

"Money was the only thing I got out of it," Kevin says. "But money was enough, because it was money for the family. The family was hurtin'. With the brothers going down, the family needed me. So you just dig down and get it, pull it out."

A bad concussion caused Kevin to be banned from wrestling in Texas, so he decided he'd just fight in Japan instead. "Over there, there are all those kickboxers," recalls Kevin, "and they like to kick you in the ribs and in the head. Well, the first night, the first match, my back was to the referee...and I got kicked right in the ear, and it was a terrible concussion. And so I had headaches, I was throwing up all the time, so the injuries are what made me get out of it."

Kerry was also in no shape to wrestle, much less walk. The motorcycle accident he suffered in 1986 had cost him his foot--and, in the process, turned him into a drug addict. By 1991, his wife of a decade, Cathy, left him and took their two daughters. She demanded he pay $2,500 a month in child support--which was nowhere near what he was spending on cocaine.

He was arrested in 1992 in Richardson for forging prescriptions for Vicodin and Valium. After a stint in the Betty Ford Clinic, he received a 10-year probated sentence. Four months later, on January 13, 1993, the cops pulled him over and found cocaine and a syringe in his car.

On February 18, 33-year-old Kerry went out to his father's house, secretly took a pistol he had given to Jack as a Christmas present, borrowed his Jeep, and drove out into the mesquite. He put a single .44-caliber bullet into his heart.

Kerry had warned Kevin he was going to kill himself--though Kevin couldn't bring himself to warn his father. Why upset the old man if Kerry was just bluffing? But it wasn't as though Kerry hid his suicidal longings: He dropped hints, left notes, and whispered to those around him that he was thinking of ending his life. But no one believed someone as strong as Kerry, who was the closest of all the sons to Jack, would actually become the third Adkisson boy to kill himself. Such things just don't--can't--happen. Only they did.

The last time Kevin wrestled in Dallas was shortly after Kerry's death. Promoters at the Sportatorium scheduled a Kerry Von Erich memorial match and asked Kevin to attend, though he wanted no part of it. He was sick of wrestling, sick to death of it. His family had disappeared in just a few short years--no way in hell he was going near the Sportatorium, a place packed with memories that were beginning to rot.

"I sure hated that, but I did come back and wrestle," Kevin says. "It was hard to get into that ring. I can't explain it. It was hard to do it...It just brought up those memories of the brothers and all that."

After his career ended, Kevin spent much of his time with his family and his father, watching the legend fade into shadow. Doris and Jack were divorced in July 1992, a year before Kerry's death, and Kevin could never figure out how Jack had withstood losing his family. Although Jack had lost so much, he had still held onto his home in Denton County and a net worth estimated at more than $600,000.

On July 25 of this year, Jack suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with brain cancer. He knew he didn't have long to live, and he welcomed death, said he was anxious for the chance to see his sons again.

As always, Kevin was there for his father, even though Jack, though never in any pain, was "hard to be around," fluctuating between being moody and distant. Jack and Kevin rarely spoke about the many tragedies they had both suffered--they didn't have to.

On September 8, Kevin and Jack were at Jack's house watching Monday Night Football when, during the fourth quarter, Jack began suffering enough for Kevin to call the nurse to administer morphine. Jack slept throughout the following day, then died quietly and quickly on Wednesday.

"He got out with no pain at all, and you have to think that's a good thing," Kevin says. "I've visited people that were suffering so bad it would take me weeks to get over it. But see, like, I'm telling you all this sad stuff. I guarantee you've got sad stuff too."

Now Kevin begins the task of collecting that sad stuff and showing it to the world. He and Mike's ex-wife are now assembling the family history and posting it on the Website, which is located, appropriately enough, at www.vonerich.com. There, Kevin will provide pictures and bios of his brothers and father, celebrating their place in pro-wrestling history--not as tragedies, he hopes, but as heroes. He will sell old videotapes of the brothers and Fritz; Jack had left behind hundreds of black-and-white reels of old wrestling films, which Kevin one day hopes to market on the Website.

"Someone asked me if I wanted to do the Website as a way to keep my brothers alive," Kevin says. "I said, 'No, not necessarily.' I just think it was a hell of a wrestling show, and I'd like people to see it."

Kevin often says that when people first meet him these days, they treat him as though he is "a ghost." There are those who wonder why he is not dead or how he kept from becoming another dead Von Erich. That is why he is willing, not necessarily happy, to rehash the past one more time. If nothing else, he shrugs, maybe someone can learn something from his tragic story. Meanwhile, he is still trying to figure it out for himself.

"I'm from the country, and last winter, there were persimmons growing on the tree," Kevin recalls. "Well, persimmons drop off during the winter. They fall to the ground and rot. The wind was blowing hard on this one persimmon, and it hadn't fallen off--and it was the dead of winter. I was thinking, 'I'm like that persimmon. I'm not going to let go of the vine. The wind's blowing, it's killing me, but I'm not going to let go.'

"I didn't have a choice. What was I supposed to do? Lay down and die? I'm a family man. I have kids. There were times when I thought, 'I can't stand any more of this.' But I think God strengthened me, and I can take it. It's great now. I have everything a man could want. I have children, I have a beautiful wife who takes care of my kids so I'm free to do the dad things--like play catch and things like that. I think things couldn't be better for me."

Minutes later, as if on cue, the cellular phone next to him rings. It's his son. He has been sick in bed all day with a cold. He wants his dad to come home.

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