With the release of the movie The Iron Claw (which I discussed here and here, and on the Pollock & Thurston podcast last week here, beginning at the 32-minute mark), the floodgates have opened more than ever on online pirate versions of my 1988 Penthouse article about the Von Erich wrestling family, “Born-Again Bashing.”
When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Below, I’m giving away this content. In so doing, I at least get it out there in its authoritative version, including the precede and postscript of its publication as Chapter 2 of my 2007 ECW Press book Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal. (I think I earlier misstated that it was Chapter 1.)
Those of you interested in Wrestling Babylon can still find it at Amazon. Inquiries for details on ordering autographed copies can be sent to [email protected].
BORN-AGAIN BASHING WITH THE VON ERICHS
A Cute Concept Decays into a Macabre Body Count
The following is adapted from a story that would be selected for the anthology Best Magazine Articles: 1988.
The publication of the piece was something of a departure for mainstream journalism – even if, as Fritz Von Erich complained in a preemptive and more positive profile in D magazine, my investigation did appear in “a damn pornographic magazine!” Among other things, I was invited to appear on the Late Show, a short-lived competitor to Johnny Carson on the then-fledgling Fox network. The producer’s preparation consisted of urging me to “blow the lid off wrestling,” unencumbered, in all likelihood, by the reading of my article. The clueless host, Ross Shafer (a game-show emcee who was hired to pick up the pieces of the Late Show after Joan Rivers was fired), read similar verbiage off a cue card while introducing me. On the bright side, I got the chance to chat in the green room with another guest that night, the distinguished movie director Paul Mazursky.
A pre-publication story about the article in the Dallas Times Herald naturally led the wrestlers in World Class Championship Wrestling to ask their bosses, Fritz Von Erich and Ken Mantell, about it. The boys were told not to worry, that the family’s vast influence had succeeded in getting the story killed. Soon one of the wrestlers discovered otherwise when he picked up the October 1988 issue of Penthouse from a convenience store rack on a road trip, and it was promptly passed around the back seat of the car between spot shows throughout northern and eastern Texas. Someone once said it’s a bad sign when you lie with full knowledge that you’re going to get caught.
Later, Percy Pringle, the circuit’s lead heel manager, left World Class to become a new character in New York: Paul Bearer, manager of The Undertaker. Pringle wrote in his resignation letter to Fritz Von Erich, “When I read the Penthouse article I knew the dream was over.”
MAY 11, 1987. Less than a month after his brother Mike killed himself because he felt he couldn’t live up to the family name, Kevin Von Erich was working the main event in Fort Worth when something rare happened: a moment of spontaneous, unmediated terror. As the television cameras rolled, teenage girls squealed, and spectators shouted for blood, Kevin and his opponent crisscrossed off the ropes. No doubt they were setting up the usual wild finish – perhaps a variation on the patented Von Erich Iron Claw, or a violent collision followed by an out-of-control brawl outside the ring, or maybe a miscarriage of justice, with the ref taking an accidental bump and failing to see the heel clobber the babyface with a foreign object.
We’ll never know what the climax of this match was supposed to be. For suddenly, without being touched, Kevin Von Erich’s abused body defied the script. Instead of snapping smartly off the ring’s taut ropes, he sagged heavily against the strands. Recoiling, he wobbled toward the center of the canvas, then collapsed, torso convulsing, pupils rolled heavenward.
The fans in attendance at the Will Rogers Coliseum probably thought they were witnessing the first documented case of a professional wrestler falling into holy rapture. What they were actually seeing, though, was the champion of the World Class Wrestling Association simply passing out in the middle of the ring in the middle of a match.
No matter what those in legit sports and others of respectable breeding may think, wrestling is a subtle, extemporaneous art form; experienced pros pride themselves on their ability to salvage even the most sour finish. But Kevin Von Erich’s swan dive supplied more grim reality than any ordinary eight-man tag-team match could bear.
Chaos reigned at ringside. The bell rang. The TV cameras were switched off. Wrestler Tommy Rogers scrambled through the ropes and performed CPR on his fallen partner, who was turning blue.
Later, after being released from Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth, Kevin explained on television how he’d nearly been killed by a dreaded new oriental neck punch, courtesy of his hated rival Brian Adias. Kevin vowed to avenge the blow the next time they met, whether it be in Fort Worth or Dallas or Mesquite or Lubbock or . . .
Thus, with the heady brew of half-truth and chutzpah that only the hypemeisters of wrestling could concoct, a genuine brush with mortality became just another angle to sell tickets.
* * *
If you’ve been living anywhere north of the Seychelles Islands, you already know that the pro wrestling “resurgence” is the marketing phenomenon of the eighties. If you’re a fan of any seriousness, you’ve also heard of the Von Erichs, wrestling’s tragedy-plagued, All-American first family. Hard-core aficionados will tell you that long before Madison Avenue turned Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and Andre the Giant into household names, the hottest promotion in the country wasn’t run by New York’s World Wrestling Federation, but by Dallas’s World Class Championship Wrestling.
The furor over World Class centers on the fuhrer of World Class: Jack B. Adkisson on his driver’s license, Fritz Von Erich to you and me – a Prussian bad guy who, through the magic of media manipulation, transmogrified into a God-fearing crowd favorite before retiring as an active wrestler. As a full-time promoter, Von Erich proceeded to build an empire around his photogenic sons: David, the rambunctious Yellow Rose of Texas; Kerry, the dumb but lovable jock with the long thick hair and Conan pecs; Kevin, the barefooted high-flying specialist; and Mike, the earnest overachiever. Together they pioneered the use of modern rock-video production techniques for their televised wrestling shows and shattered attendance records in the early 1980s.
Today the Von Erich dynasty is in ruins, both personally and professionally – a cautionary tale of the bitter price of celebrity, the excesses of parental authority, and the dangers in believing your own press clippings. Two of Fritz’s boys suffered drug-related deaths. A third continues to wrestle despite a crippling leg injury. The fourth and oldest, Kevin, is the hapless heartthrob who took that unscheduled pratfall in Fort Worth. At a show at Reunion Arena last Christmas, shortly after selling a share of the promotion to a new partner, Fritz pulled his latest stunt to drum up sympathy for himself and his kids: he faked a seizure that, for a while, allegedly, left him near death.
Somewhere along the way a cute concept decayed into a macabre body count.
“I’ve been around a lot of special athletes, but I’ve never witnessed anything like the development of this single family that, in its day, completely conquered the world of wrestling,” says Bill Mercer, a Dallas sportscaster who used to announce for the Von Erichs. “For one son to follow in his father’s footsteps is common enough. For two sons to do so is extraordinary. That a man could wield enough family control for three and four sons . . . well, it’s all pretty amazing. And also pretty scary.”
Indeed, in the figure of patriarch Fritz Von Erich, this ten-gallon tragedy, rife with Texas-size scandal, becomes a melodrama of Shakespearean proportion. In addition to being one of the top powerbrokers in wrestling – that bizarre amalgam of sport and theater rooted in the nineteenth-century carnival tent – Fritz is a born-again Christian, a respected member of the nation’s largest Southern Baptist congregation, a pillar of the community with ties to everyone from former presidential candidate Pat Robertson to Forbes 400 oilman H.R. “Bum” Bright, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. In those capacities Fritz airbrushes his sons’ image, exploiting not only their bodies but also their misfortunes. The fall of the house of Von Erich is Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker with a dropkick, a combination of pseudo-athletic zeal and quasi-religious righteousness, a farcical footnote to the sleazy legacy of televangelism.
There’s one key difference, though.
At the PTL ministry, home of Jim and Tammy Faye, the leitmotiv was sexual and financial impropriety; the scars were essentially psychological and fiduciary.
At World Class Championship Wrestling, people are dying.
* * *
MAY 6, 1984. Wrestling history was made as 32,123 fans at Texas Stadium – plus other thousands via closed-circuit television – attended the David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions. In those pre-WrestleMania days, the $402,000 gate was the second-largest of all time.
The atmosphere was much like it had been at David’s funeral three months earlier at the First Baptist Church in Denton. On that occasion almost 3,000 admirers – many of them kids listening to the service on a makeshift public-address system on the church lawn – paid their respects. You couldn’t buy a yellow rose in north Texas that day. Now his fans were waiting in the longest concession lines this side of a Prince concert to pay $10 for the same eight-by-ten color photo of David that used to go for $3. Underscoring the rock-show mood was fan Glen Goza’s performance of his eulogy in song, “Heaven Needed a Champion,” which had been getting airplay on Dallas radio stations.
The main event, between Kerry Von Erich and Ric Flair for the world title, had great “heat,” literally and figuratively. After thirteen minutes Kerry pinned Flair with a backslide; the championship that had been promised to his late brother was his. As the gold belt was presented to Kerry, who was surrounded by family and friends, tears flowed unashamedly under the searing Texas sun.
* * *
The Von Erichs refused to grant an interview for this story. “We see no reason to respond,” Fritz wrote in a certified letter, because this article “is not based on fact and appears to be of malicious intent.”
A recent cover story in D, a Dallas magazine, describes Fritz bellowing to a business associate not to tell us a thing: “We’re not going to be written about like trash. . . . My family isn’t going to be in a damn pornographic magazine!”
As we were going to press, Fritz’s partner, Ken Mantell, told the Dallas Times Herald that “anyone who says the Von Erichs are not a Christian family, well, that’s a crock. An outright lie. . . . Being a Christian does not mean you are perfect, does not mean you haven’t made mistakes in your life. There’s another book that says, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’”
A spokesman warned that the family was prepared to take legal action if any nuggets of official mythology, such as the circumstances of David Von Erich’s death, were challenged. “His sons’ image is very important to Mr. Von Erich, and he’ll do what he feels is necessary in order to protect it,” the spokesman said.
That much is certainly true, according to friends and foes alike in the ultra-secretive wrestling business.
“If you know Fritz,” says a fellow promoter, Bill Watts, “you know he’s sincere from the way he thinks. He truly believes the tragedies of his family have brought many, many youngsters to Christ. He thinks the Von Erichs are the most name-conscious family in sports.”
Another promoter, Paul Boesch, agrees, but adds, “You have to wonder why, after all he’s been through, he doesn’t just find his kids a nice hamburger stand somewhere and say, ‘Here, you’ll live longer this way.’”
Living longer, or shorter, was a tragic pattern established early in the marriage of Jack and Doris Adkisson – their first son, Jack Jr., died in 1959, at the age of six, when he accidentally electrocuted himself outside in a rainstorm and drowned in a puddle. In those days, climbing the wrestling ladder, Fritz Von Erich was on the road constantly, working not only big-city arenas but also hundreds of tank towns in between.
Five more boys followed for the Adkissons, and by the time they were in their formative years Von Erich had bought out Dallas promoter Ed McLemore. Fritz also was a millionaire, largely through real estate investments in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex during a couple of building booms in the 1970s. At one point he owned three airplanes, a cattle herd, and 5,000 quail. The family homestead was a 168-acre ranch near Lake Dallas (now called Lewisville Lake) in the town of Corinth, a small community in Denton County, north of Dallas, where Fritz served as a city councilman.
Two factors peculiar to the Dallas corporate culture contributed to Von Erich’s business success. The first was the mystique surrounding his tenure as a football player at Southern Methodist University. In fact, Fritz was only a part-time offensive guard for one season at SMU in 1949 before leaving in a dispute with the coaches. But he managed to parlay those ninety-two minutes of blocking in front of the legendary Doak Walker – as well as a record discus throw in a track meet the following spring – into a niche in the SMU business clique. Dallas insiders describe this as a circle of powerful friends, including insurance magnates, bankers, and politicians, that controls much of the city’s commercial life.
Then there was religion. In their book The Von Erichs: A Family Album – recently issued by Taylor Publishing, which specializes in Christian subjects – Fritz recalls being deeply moved by a sermon given by Dr. W.A. Criswell at the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas around 1974. Shortly thereafter a divine voice guided Fritz to open his bible to Psalms 23. Not long after that, the same powerful force compelled him to pull his car over to the shoulder of Interstate 35E one day and ponder his sins. Jack “Fritz Von Erich” Adkisson was born again.
The potent alchemy of sports, showbiz, and evangelism became explicit in the fall of 1981, when World Class Championship Wrestling began its relationship with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Dallas station, KXTX, Channel 39. A KXTX producer masterminded a new-style wrestling show that was briskly paced and employed four cameras, instant replays, and features edited to the beat of hit songs, a la MTV. In almost every respect the program’s slick production values foreshadowed the manufacturing of “Hulkamania” on the East Coast three years later. At its peak World Class was syndicated into more than sixty markets across the country. (Starting in 1986 it also was seen regularly on ESPN, the cable sports network.) Fritz Von Erich even appeared several times on Pat Robertson’s CBN talk show, The 700 Club.
Sons Kevin, David, and Kerry fit naturally into the core of the World Class talent stable – clean-cut, carefree country boys who looked good in the ring and even better on posters. “These boys were raised to be jocks,” Fritz told the Dallas Morning News in 1983. “When they were youngsters, there were no kids scrawnier than mine. They were made into champions.”
A close observer describes his paternalistic style as “hands-on”: “Fritz is a very aggressive, physical guy. When you saw him with the boys, there was always a lot of hugging and displays of raw affection. But he was also very strict. It was all ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ He ruled the roost with an iron hand.”
Kevin started at fullback as a freshman at North Texas State University before a knee injury ended his football career. Kerry earned a track scholarship at the University of Houston by winning the state high school championship in the discus throw. Once they got into wrestling, though, David outshone both of them, due mostly to his fiercely independent spirit. As the boys grew older and married, Fritz continued to keep them on a short chain – for years, all of their families lived within a mile or so of their parents. But in 1981 David rebelled. After an argument with his father, David went on the road. During nine months as a villain on the Florida circuit, he learned all the psychological tricks of the wrestling trade – working the crowd, calling the “spots” in a tough match, doing kick-ass interviews – with a thoroughness that would never have never been possible if he hadn’t had the courage to leave Fritz’s glowering shadow. When David came back to Texas in late 1982, he was as polished and professional as the Beatles upon their return to Liverpool from Hamburg.
Thanks to David’s smarts, Kerry’s popularity, and their antagonists, the perfidious Fabulous Freebirds, Dallas grew into a major wrestling capital. In 1984 David was slated to capture the championship of the National Wrestling Alliance (one of the sport’s several major bodies). In February of that year, hoping to season himself further and enhance his recognition abroad, he embarked on his second tour of Japan.
His first scheduled match, in Tokyo, never happened. The same day, David was found dead on the floor of his hotel room. He was twenty-five years old.
The cause, or causes, of David’s death are a mystery. The Von Erichs say he died of a ruptured intestine caused by a hard lick during a match in Japan. That’s obviously false, since David hadn’t yet wrestled there. Nor can we put much stock in the family’s other kaleidoscopic accounts, which have included but are not limited to (a) a stroke, (b) a heart attack after a strenuous match, and (c) food poisoning from eating sushi.
Inside dressing rooms and booking offices the gospel has always been that David died of drugs. Sources close to the handful of American personnel who accompanied him on that tour – who included fellow wrestling star Bruiser Brody – confirm that, in the hours following the discovery of his body by a Japanese wrestling official and before the arrival of the police, drugs were flushed down the toilet. There is even reason to wonder if an autopsy was performed before the body was flown back to the States. (The Von Erichs at first offered to show me a copy of David’s autopsy report and death certificate, but later reneged.)
The drug hidden from the authorities was a sleeping medication called Placidyl. If David mixed it with alcohol (and he was known to be fond of Jack Daniels), he may well have taken a lethal dose and, in the isolation of a foreign hotel room, been beyond the reach of timely help. Of course it’s also entirely possible that a drug reaction compounded the effects of a stomach disorder.
Whatever it was that did David in, his loss devastated World Class. Fritz’s religious tone became more strident and sectarian than ever; the show now even featured an official World Class chaplain, a charismatic minister named Gary Holder, who regularly used airtime to sing his boss’s praises. The other brothers’ histrionics increasingly resembled those of just another old-fashioned local-family promotion with a flashy production number. Eventually Fritz lost interest in the day-to-day operations and retreated to his new house near Tyler. Weekly shows at the Sportatorium used to be automatic sellouts; now they were sometimes lucky to draw 200 people. The booking agenda lurched from the creation of a phony Von Erich “cousin” to the use of female mud wrestlers.
In 1987 World Class tried to turn things around by parting company with KXTX and signing a new production deal with Bum Bright, whose personal fortune is estimated at more than $600 million. But by then Connecticut promoter Vince McMahon had already turned his World Wrestling Federation into a cash cow with unprecedented international multimedia merchandising.
David’s demise shook the wrestling industry; it was one of those events, like JFK’s assassination or Buddy Holly’s plane crash, that utterly reshaped the landscape. Further, the hoopla surrounding David’s funeral created the uneasy sense that this goofy fringe form of junk entertainment was getting too big for its britches, but at the same time no one was prepared to do anything about it. The money and glory were simply too good to resist. Virtually overnight, wrestling was repositioning itself near the mainstream of the sports and entertainment spectrum via the brave new world of video. This sea change brought both unforeseen marketing opportunities and unforeseen human costs, creating responsibilities that many in this enterprise of excess couldn’t handle.
Abuse of drugs, especially cocaine and steroids, had long been part of the game. Now the sums of disposable income grew larger, the pressure to beef up physiques more intense, the one-night stands more far-flung and demanding. During pro wrestling’s renaissance, the deaths of athletes in their twenties and thirties – not to mention the auto accidents and legal scrapes stemming from their impairment – became almost as commonplace as packed houses and children’s toy deals. And some of the most egregious examples emanated from that bastion of Christian virtue, World Class.
The most potentially damaging drug incident was Kerry’s arrest at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in June 1983. Kerry and his wife were returning from their honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when U.S. Customs agents, during a routine inspection, caught him with eighteen unmarked tablets in his right front pocket. Inside the crotch of his pants was a plastic bag containing an assortment of nearly 300 other pills (including codeine, diazapem, Librium, and possibly Percodan), ten grams of marijuana, and 6.5 grams of “blue and white powder.” The Von Erichs wove the ensuing publicity into the World Class TV storyline, vaguely suggesting that Kerry had been framed by the Freebirds, their archrivals. Eighteen months later, after behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the charges were dropped by the Tarrant County district attorney.
With that kind of discipline from the top, the word quickly spread that World Class was one of the worst drug offices in wrestling – a reputation reinforced in February 1986 when Gino Hernandez, one of its leading stars, died of a massive cocaine overdose. Shortly before his death, Hernandez was feuding on TV with Chris Adams, and they had recently done one of those ridiculous skits in which the dastardly Hernandez supposedly blinded the gentlemanly Adams.
That gave World Class announcer Bill Mercer the opportunity to put everything in perspective. “We have suffered two terrible tragedies in the last week – the blinding of Chris Adams and the death of Gino Hernandez,” Mercer deadpanned.
* * *
FEBRUARY 2, 1987. Kerry Von Erich, on crutches, slipped undetected through the stage entrance of the Fort Worth Convention Center for his first match since June 1986, when he had suffered a dislocated hip, a crushed right ankle, and internal injuries in a motorcycle accident.
The fans had been assured that Kerry was ready to rumble. What they didn’t know was that in the days following the accident – in which Kerry, traveling at an unsafe speed and making an ill-advised pass, plowed into the back of a patrol car – doctors almost had to amputate his foot. In thirteen hours of delicate microsurgery, they transplanted tissue from other parts of Kerry’s body to his extremity in an effort to restore circulation and movement.
His opponent this evening was carefully instructed to “sell” for Kerry, for it was clear in advance that the man who was once among the most agile 250-pounders in wrestling would be virtually immobile. Still, they had to try to make a good show of it, so while Kerry changed into his trunks, a doctor filled a syringe with enough novocaine to numb Secretariat’s hoof. Thus fortified, Kerry discarded his crutches, gritted his teeth, and hobbled into the ring. The match lasted five minutes and, as planned, Kerry won.
Afterward, when the novocaine wore off, an examination revealed that the ankle had rebroken. Four months later, in another operation, the foot was permanently fused into a walking position. On Thanksgiving in 1987 Kerry returned again, but he would never be the same.
* * *
One of the supreme ironies of World Class Championship Wrestling was that, through satellite technology, it became one of the most popular English-language programs in, of all places, Israel. It was on an August 1985 tour there that Mike Von Erich began the final fall of his short, tragic life.
If David’s death was a pharmacological fluke, and Gino Hernandez’s just an inevitable part of the business’s ruthless fallout, Mike’s was a crime against decency. He never should have been a wrestler in the first place. Wrestling experts say that, with the possible exception of an occasional gimmick headliner such as Mr. T, Mike Von Erich was the single most pathetic piece of talent ever given a major push: small, tentative, and uncoordinated inside the squared circle, weak and halting in interviews, he had nothing going for him except his name.
Mike himself seemed to realize as much, and the guilt showed in his shifting eyes and erratic body language. Meanwhile, meeting his father’s rigid expectations took an incalculable toll on his personal growth. Desperate to be as big as his brothers (he was billed as 220 pounds, but never weighed more than around 180), he took dangerous doses of steroids. Despondent over what he interpreted as his inability to live up to the family name, he took uppers and downers. Once shy and naturally likable, he became unruly and troublesome. At the end he made repeated cries for help – vague smoke signals at first, then stark sandwich-board signs, and finally wanton binges of self-destruction.
“I know we’re only ‘rasslers,’ but we’re still people and we have to treat our children like people,” says Lou Thesz, arguably the sport’s greatest performer from the 1940s through the mid-60s. “And you can’t live your life through your kids. Fritz never understood that. I remember watching him one time backstage in Fort Worth. They had the TV monitor on, and there was this man – grossly overweight, chain-smoking – sitting there transfixed, watching his kids. Every time one of them did something, he’d turn and point to the screen and say, ‘Isn’t that great?’ It was embarrassing.”
In the Von Erich hagiography Mike was another great one, second only to Kevin in natural prowess. “He had a bad shoulder which stayed injured much of the time in high school,” the Family Album states. “In track he was an All-District hurdler, long jumper, and discus thrower.”
The memory of Lloyd Taliaferro, the athletic director at Lake Dallas High School, varies slightly. “Mike was a good boy, but he didn’t compete much beyond the junior-varsity level,” Taliaferro says. “Once, when he was a sophomore, he took a spill over a hurdle and hurt himself. That shook him up real bad.”
Kevin, David, and Kerry at least had brief collegiate careers; Mike was funneled directly into wrestling. Within months he had a world-title shot. But despite Fritz’s efforts to sell Mike as a stud, the fans never bought it. His frustration over his chronic bad shoulder and inability to get himself “over” manifested itself in sprees of ill-tempered violence outside the ring. In May 1985 Mike was charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault against Dr. Timothy Shepherd during an emergency-room altercation at First Texas Medical Center in Lewisville. A Denton County judge later acquitted Mike.
At Tel Aviv Stadium a bad bump in a rock-hard ring caused Mike’s bum shoulder to pop out again. Following an operation on the shoulder performed as soon as he returned to Texas, he somehow contracted one of the rare male cases of toxic shock syndrome, a form of blood poisoning most commonly associated with tampon use.
Transferred to Baylor University Medical Center with a 105-degree fever, his kidneys next to useless, Mike clung to life as calls from concerned fans flooded the hospital switchboard. (The Von Erichs, with characteristic modesty, say the outpouring exceeded that which accompanied President Kennedy’s trip to the Parkland Hospital emergency room in 1963.) The Von Erichs held a press conference to thank fans for their prayers. “Folks, let me tell you, a miracle took place, just that we have Mike today,” Kevin said.
Fritz, however, was never content with just having his son alive. Even though Mike’s weight dropped to 145 pounds, and many observers wondered if he’d suffered brain damage because of his slurred speech, Fritz lost no time repackaging him for the wrestling “marks.” Mike was nicknamed “The Living Miracle”; fans were promised that he would defeat the odds, wrestle again, and claim a championship for God and family. To give the gimmick momentum, Mike was wheeled out in a car to wave to the 25,000 fans at the big October show at the Cotton Bowl. He made his official return to the ring on July 4, 1986. By then, he was also battling hepatitis.
“There’s almost nothing about pro wrestling that really outrages me, except for the Von Erichs,” says Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. In 1985 the publication named the exploitation of Mike’s illness “the most disgusting promotional stunt” of the year.
The extent of Mike’s physical and mental deterioration became apparent during the production of a TV special entitled The Von Erich Trilogy. At a taping session at a local health club, Mike was shown working out and getting himself back into fighting shape. The only problem was that after almost an hour of takes the crew still couldn’t get a coherent interview out of Mike. Never one of the best “stick” men in wrestling, he was now hopelessly incompetent at the microphone. He fidgeted, complained about the heat, took his jacket off (revealing a stringy upper body), mentioned his wife (a no-no, for as a teen idol he was supposed to make the boppers believe he was eligible), and trailed off into a rambling monologue about the biblical character Hezekiah and his attending physician, Dr. William Sutker (“a great man who saved my life … He’s Jewish, by the way, but he told me this has meant a lot to him spiritually and everything”).
When the production crew finally gave up on the shoot, Mike retreated into the corner with a young friend, and the two of them bragged loudly about gang-banging a girl the night before.
The others at the gym turned away in revulsion. This wasn’t wrestling. This wasn’t religion. This was sickness.
Mike’s weird behavior started leaking to the public:
On April 11, 1987, Mike left a bar in Denton and was swerving severely on Highway 377, headed toward his apartment in Roanoke, when an officer pulled him over. Inside his Mercury Grand Marquis were a small quantity of marijuana and two prescription bottles. One of them, with a dirty label more than three months old, said it contained fifty tablets of Trinalin, an antihistamine commonly prescribed for hay fever. The bottle actually contained seventy-eight pills of five varieties: forty-two of a barbiturate; fifteen of a drug that wasn’t analyzed but appeared to be Tedral, an asthma medicine; ten of Buspar, an anxiety-relieving agent; ten large, round reddish-orange pills that weren’t identified; and one tablet of Darvocet, a painkiller.
Mike tried to bribe the cop. When that failed, he agreed to a blood test. It showed a blood-alcohol content of .05 percent – under the legal intoxication level of .10 percent but probably dangerous in combination with the other drugs in his system: 30 mg/L of ethchlorvynol (presumably from Placidyl – a cruel echo of David’s fate), 1.1 mg/L of butalbital (a barbiturate), and 0.26 mg/L of diazepam (indicating the intake of Valium or its equivalent).
The Von Erichs dispatched the family lawyer to the Denton County jail to post Mike’s $3,500 bond for drunk-driving and controlled-substance charges. That was at 3:20 p.m. on Saturday, and it was the last time anyone ever saw Michael Brett Adkisson alive.
Early the next week a note was found in his apartment. It read: “PLEASE UNDERSTAND I’M A FUCK-UP! I’M SORRY.” Along the side was scrawled: “I love U Kerry, Kevin & your families.”
On Wednesday evening Mike’s car was spotted near the entrance to a park on the south shore of Lewisville Lake. Inside was a second note, which said simply, “Mom and Dad, I’m in a better place. I’ll be watching.”
While police combed the many square miles of woods around the lake, family members gathered for the vigil. But not Fritz – he attended a scheduled evangelical crusade in Denton. That night in Lubbock, where Mike was scheduled to wrestle, the crowd was told that he was missing and that “foul play” was suspected. To the bitter end, Fritz Von Erich was determined to burnish the family image.
Hours later, a K-9 corps dog located Mike’s body in a sleeping bag in a tangle of underbrush. The cause of death was acute Placidyl intoxication. He was twenty-three.
* * *
MAY 3, 1987. The spring wrestling extravaganza at the home of the Dallas Cowboys was now an established tradition in the Metroplex sports scene. Of course, the latest death in the family dictated a few adjustments in the format. For one thing, instead of the Fourth Annual David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions, this was the David and Mike Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions; for another, Sweet Brown Sugar had to substitute for Mike in the Canadian lumberjack match against Brian Adias.
There were many other changes – most notably the presence of only 5,900 fans, who together paid a mere $71,000. The Von Erichs had publicized a $100 ticket entitling the holder to a luxury box seat and a catered meal with the family. That idea was scrapped after only fourteen fans signed up.
Between bouts, gospel-singing prodigy Jill Floyd took to the ring to deliver a stirring reprise of “Heaven Needed a Champion.” She was followed by the composer, Glen Goza, who recited a poem dedicated to young Mike.
And while Mike Von Erich’s hallowed Christian memory was being invoked, maintenance workers prepared the pit for an upcoming women’s mud-wrestling special attraction.
On September 12, 1991, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News called me. “What is your comment on the suicide of Chris Von Erich?” he asked. I hadn’t yet heard that Chris, at twenty-one the youngest surviving son of Jack and Doris Adkisson, had just fatally shot himself in the head. At only a few inches over five feet tall, Chris had been an even more ludicrous pro wrestling prospect than Mike – yet into the ring Chris, too, had gone. In my Penthouse article Chris was the unnamed “young friend” of Mike’s who had joined him in loudly holding forth about double-teaming a girl.
Kerry Von Erich had drifted to the World Wrestling Federation, in the middle of cards, as “The Texas Tornado.” The other wrestlers noticed that he never removed his right wrestler’s boot, not even in the shower. During one match in Las Vegas the boot accidentally came off outside the ring for a few moments, and some of the spectators with close-up looks reported a gruesome sight. The strong suspicion is that Kerry wrestled much of the last seven years of his life on one foot, the right one having been amputated.
In 1992 the federal Drug Enforcement Administration got a tip that a wrestler on the WWF tour was traveling with a large supply of cocaine. In coordination with the local police, the DEA scheduled a raid of the dressing room prior to a WWF show at the St. Louis Arena. But someone in the building’s management alerted the wrestling people and the raid came up empty. Besides, in the typical Keystone Kops style of drug warriors, the DEA apparently didn’t realize that the subject of the original tip was Kerry Von Erich – and he had just gone off the wrestling tour and into drug rehab.
On Friday, February 20, 1993, Kerry, now back on the independent scene, was scheduled to wrestle the Angel of Death at the Dallas Sportatorium. But two days before that, Kerry, who was already on probation for a previous drug conviction, was indicted on cocaine possession charges.
On Thursday afternoon he went to his father’s home in Denton County and said he wanted to drive around the property. Later in the day Fritz got worried and searched for his son. Kerry lay about a quarter of a mile away, dead from a self-inflicted .44-caliber bullet wound to the chest from a Smith & Wesson handgun. Kerry Adkisson was thirty-three.
On October 7, 2001, “Gentleman” Chris Adams, a mainstay of World Class Championship Wrestling in the eighties, was shot to death in a drunken brawl in Waxahachie. Three months earlier, Adams had been indicted for manslaughter in connection with the April methamphetamine overdose death of his girlfriend.
In 2006, as this book was being prepared for press, a third-generation Von Erich, Ross – the son of Kevin and the nephew of David, Mike, Chris, and Kerry, and the grandson of Fritz (who died of cancer in 1997) – was in training to become a pro wrestler. Good grief.