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A Family of Tragedy: The Von Erichs

Professional Wrestling in the 1950s was different from the Wrestling we know today. The first superstar Gorgeous George revolutionized media, inspiring the likes of Muhammed Ali, James Brown, and Bob Dylan. The idea of Kayfabe is alive. People do not know that it’s scripted and it’s a closely kept secret. Wrestlers would go so far as to break the bones of people to prove its realness and to protect the industry from people who are only interested in exposing the business. To break into the industry, people would need connections. The patriarch of the family, Jack Barton Adkisson, would meet the legendary wrestler/trainer, Stu Hart. Hart was creating his own wrestling family, giving the wrestling world the likes of Bret Hart and Owen Hart and training many other greats outside of the family, but not before christening another. Hart took on Adkisson, training him and dubbing him Fritz Von Erich, a German Nazi. The Von Erich family is born.

The first tragedy befell the Von Erich family in 1959 when Jack Jr. was walking home from school in the snow. He made contact with the trailer hitch, which electrocuted him causing Jr to fall face first into the snow, drowning in a puddle. He was just 6 years old. Before Jack Jr’s untimely death, the Von Erichs had welcomed two new members, Kevin and David. After that, the clan would welcome Kerry, Mike, and Chris. All while Fritz was rising through the ranks of numerous wrestling companies, even going so far as to help rebuild professional wrestling in Japan, after the murder of Rikidozan, one of the most influential wrestlers of all time. As the boys started getting older, Fritz began training them to follow in his footsteps. Fritz also decided to call it quits in the ring, focusing on his own wrestling company World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), with his children as the stars.

The Von Erichs

“The Golden Warrior” Kevin was the best athlete of the bunch. Six foot two and 235 pounds, a former D1 athlete in football before an injury derailed his hopes of the NFL. 

“The Yellow Rose of Texas” David was the biggest of the brothers at six foot eight. Another D1 athlete chose to pursue wrestling instead of college. He was the most technically gifted of the boys, understanding the psychology of wrestling with the ability to wrestle for hours.

“The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry was the best all around. Brimming with personality, the ability to wrestle for hours like David, and strength and size like Kevin.

Mike was leaner than the others, at six foot one and barely 200 pounds. He never wanted to be a wrestler, rather a musician, but was forced into the ring by Fritz.

Stardom

A trait that most of the Von Erich children had were their good looks and toned physiques, thanks in large part to Fritz’s routine of three hours of working out after school and sports every day. These four would quickly rise to stardom in Texas. Board games about them, comic books where they are the heroes, the most watched show in the state, endorsement deals, drawing 40,000 fans to events. Kerry was the most popular wrestler in the United States, beating out the likes of Hulk Hogan and Dusty Rhodes. They were the epitome of good Christian Texan boys. 

There was a negative to this stardom. The boys wore down quickly as WCCW became reliant on them performing to draw in people. Sometimes this meant wrestling twice a day. This meant night after night, no breaks, and no recovery. Fritz turned to another solution used by many wrestlers, prescription drugs. Heavy amounts of pills combined with alcohol to get to the next match and to sleep at night.

1984

David Von Erich vs Ric Flair for the NWA Championship was set for April after Mike Von Erich managed to withstand Flair for 10 minutes, giving his brother another chance at the title. The NWA board (bookers) decided that it was David’s time. He was going to defeat Flair to become the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. First, a tour of Japan with the biggest Japanese wrestling company, All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). Then national stardom at home.

February 10th, 1984, Tokyo, Japan. David Von Erich is dead on the bed of his hotel room. Mystery surrounds David’s passing. The official listing of death from the Japanese coroner was ruptured intestines caused by inflammation in the lower intestine. Wrestlers, including Ric Flair, believe he had overdosed on pills. Bruiser Brody (a close friend of David and someone who would be brutally murdered in four years) is said to have flushed the evidence down the toilet to save his friend and the Von Erich’s reputation. Kevin Von Erich and David Manning believe he died from a heart attack. David went to the emergency room two weeks earlier, experiencing flu-like symptoms. There can be symptoms of a heart attack up to a month prior. Symptoms are similar to influenza. Influenza can increase the likelihood of a heart attack occurring as well. Wrestlers also believe he was bulimic because of his binge eating followed by purging, something they witnessed him do multiple times. Bulimia could have played a role in either his heart attack or ruptured intestines. He was 25 years old.

The news of David’s death reached home via a 2 am phone call to David Manning. Manning headed to the Von Erich home to tell the family. Fritz’s first question, “Which one?” David’s death shook Texas. The service of David brought 4-5 thousand people to the service, hoping to see David one last time. On May 6th, Kerry defeated Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in front of 32,000 fans in an event dedicated to David. Kerry’s reign was short, losing it to Flair eighteen days later. 

1985 

Fritz tried to replace David, bringing in Lance “Von Erich,” a long lost brother, that the audience did not buy it. Fritz turned to Mike to replace David. However, Mike couldn’t/didn’t want to replace David. During a wrestling tour in Israel, Mike dislocated his shoulder. He tore multiple ligaments, requiring surgery. Once back in Texas, Mike became ill, with a temperature of 107 degrees. He was diagnosed with Toxic Shock Syndrome. Mike’s organs began to fail, with the Von Erichs being told to say their goodbyes. The hospital received over 250 calls an hour after the news of Mike’s hospitalization. However, Mike survived. Mike became a shell of himself, suffering brain damage. The Von Erichs held a press conference where Mike could barely form coherent sentences, with the family saying Mike will wrestle again.  

1986

On June 4th, Kerry crashed his motorcycle, dislocating his hip and damaging his right leg. Kerry tried to walk on his leg, only to hurt his foot, causing an amputation to his right foot. He was able to return to the ring with a prosthetic foot, but it was a secret to everyone, to the point of showering in the locker rooms with boots on to keep it secret from other wrestlers. The pain of losing his foot and wrestling had amplified his addiction to drugs. Mike would have his own car accident that worsened his condition. Mike became angry and frustrated over this, going so far as to attack inanimate objects. Another factor for this anger was the pressure to be David. A young guy who did not want to wrestle, forced to replace his technically gifted brother within a year, was too much on him.

1987

On April 8th, 1987, Mike is arrested and charged with driving under the influence. Mike would disappear for eight days before being found dead in a sleeping bag on the Von Erich property. In the back of his car, a suicide note for his family. Mike wrote, “You (his mom) have always been wonderful. I am in a better place.” Mike took a lethal dose of Placidyl, an addictive and deadly sedative. He was 23 years old. 

WCCW

The Von Erich business was struggling as well. WCCW had seen a massive decline, the Von Erich memorial show, which saw 32,000 people packed Texas Stadium in 1984, drew less than 6,000 people just three years later. The WWF (WWE) had the extremely successful Wrestlemania 3 and began expanding throughout the country, killing off wrestling companies left and right. WCCW faced more direct competition from a former employee, who started his company and began cutting into WCCW’s dwindling market. In an attempt to boost viewership and attendance, Fritz suffered a heart attack on the Christmas Day show in 1987. The heart attack may have been real, or it could have been fake. All we know for sure is if attendance and viewership were down, Fritz would do worse in his recovery and would need thoughts and prayers. If attendance was up, Fritz would be doing well in his recovery. WCCW would shutter in 1990. 

Chris

The youngest boy, Chris. Chris was only five foot five and had numerous medical problems, mainly stemming from asthma. The medicine given to him caused his bones to weaken. He became depressed after the death of his brother Mike. Mike and Chris were extremely close to each other because of their similar age compared to the other boys. The closeness is amplified by Mike’s suicide note, which included Chris. Chris would get his scuba gear, and in the scuba gear was a baggy of Placidyl for Chris when he was ready to die. Subsequently, Chris developed a drug habit to cope. Chris dreamt of becoming a wrestler just like his brothers, but because of asthma medication side effects. He couldn’t make it.

The pain continued for Chris until 1991 when he told Kevin that he was thinking about suicide after breaking his arm earlier that month. Kevin pleaded with Chris not to end it, but Chris assured Kevin he was not going to do it. Chris would shoot himself in the head on the family farm. Kevin and his mother Doris found Chris and rushed him to the hospital. He would die after arriving at the hospital. Chris was under the influence of cocaine and valium. He was 21 years old. 

1992 

Kerry was the only Von Erich to make it to the WWF (WWE). He won the Intercontinental Championship before departing the company in 1992. At this point, Kerry was beginning to have suicidal thoughts as well. His failing marriage and drug addiction. The pain for Kerry continued after leaving the WWF. He was convicted and given ten years of probation for prescription forgeries, escaping prison time. Kerry was open about this to Bret Hart. Hart mentioned that his two children need him and should not go through with it. Which seemingly convinced Kerry to hold off until 1993.

1993

On February 17th, Kerry was busted with cocaine, violating his probation. Kerry went home from the indictment, grabbed a .44 magnum unbeknown to Fritz, hugged Fritz, and told him “Dad, I love you.” Kerry headed off into the woods and shot himself in the heart. Fritz then found him dead. He was 32 years old.

Fritz

Fritz had outlived five of his six sons. His marriage had ended right before Kerry’s death. In 1997, Fritz had a stroke, then learned he had cancer that had infiltrated most of his body. The cancer had dramatically changed him. Once a devoted born-again Christian, he began questioning his beliefs. Why would god do this to him? It all culminated in an incident with Kevin. Fritz had pulled a gun on Kevin. “You would kill yourself too if you had the guts,” Fritz said. Fritz would succumb to lung cancer that had spread to his brain in late 1997. 

Today

The Curse of the Von Erich family is a tale of caution for Professional Wrestling fans. However, it did not end there. Kevin Von Erich, who used to have five brothers, now isn’t even a brother, is still around. The Von Erich family were recognized by the WWE in 2009, and inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Two of Kevin’s kids, Marshall and Ross, carry on the Von Erich name in the ring. Kerry’s daughter Lacey wrestled and is now a part-owner of a wrestling company in Texas.