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The Von Erich Story

A Family Where Death Comes As Often As Leap Year

By Bill "Potshot" Kunkel

(The following article appeared in the October 24, 1991 issue of the Pro Wrestling Torch as part of the column "Potshots" © by the author. Some minor editorial changes have been made to the original text by the author.)

You hear a lot of things when a wrestler dies, especially when it is a suicide and especially when it is a Von Erich suicide. Von Erich deaths have become like Kennedy tragedies; after a while, they lose even their ability to shock us. We become numb to the never-ending horror stories, the public fascination and free-floating pop psych analysis.

When I got the phone call from Ric "Hotline" Carter on the afternoon of our Las Vegas WrestleTalk radio show on WLAV-FM, he played an interview, without preamble, that he'd taped earlier with a Texas law officer regarding the suicide of the youngest Von Erich scion. My first reaction was that it was a joke, albeit in bad taste even for Ric. But the sound of that lawman's voice, the flat, emotionless voice heard on a thousand news broadcasts, convinced me otherwise.

The saddest, most tragic member of the cursed clan was dead.

The grim tally simply boggles the mind. Jack Jr. electrocuted at age seven. David nodding out forever on Placidyl (the drug of choice for marginally-retarded stoners during the '70s) while on a successful tour of Japan. Mike taking a walk in the woods with a bag of Placidyl (tradition is important in the wrestling business), then lying down to get some rest from the relentless business of being a Von Erich.

And now Chris, poor doomed Chris, performing fellatio with a 9mm pistol because he was scheduled to go back on the asthma medicine that had originally stunted his growth and would now reduce further his hope of ever obtaining anything resembling muscle tone.

The irony of it all practically screams at you.

The "Von Erichs," born of a bogus Nazi heel moniker overlaid onto an All-American hero. But Jack Adkisson was always "Fritz" and his sons all used the Von Erich name and the family finisher, the "dreaded" Iron Claw, another trademark Gestapo gimmick, all the while becoming the Great American Christian Family of Pro Wrestling. The King and his unstable stable full of princeling studs built their own Southfork, with the sons living in their mini-mansions a short gallop from Fritz and Doris' big house

Like young colts, the boys ran wild. I have never met a Von Erich, but I have talked to people who were close to them and were part of the scene at the Sportatorium during the glory days of World Class Wrestling in the mid-80s. Imagine how regularly the boys were rounded up by the local heat and then cut loose because they bore the fake surname of a high-profile citizen and former Nazi heel. And how about Gino Hernandez, the "Handsome Half-Breed," a partying buddy of the clan who does not wrestle these days because he ingested too much cocaine and is dead. How does cocaine make a Von Erich feel, Gino? It makes him feel like having some more cocaine!

There was a quote from Fritz in the original AP report on Chris's death that hit me like a flatiron across the face. He said he guessed as how Chris figured he'd never make it as a wrestler so he "took the only way out he knew." Of course, stuff like this creates an image of Fritz as a Texas version of Tennessee Williams' "Big Daddy," a controlling monster who bullies his sons to his will with his money, his power and his expectations, holding onto his family through force of will. And pushing them into superstardom much as the wicked stepmother tried to fit her own daughters' ill-fitting feet into Cinderella's silver slipper, snipping off toes when required.

But appearances are often deceptive. I think the real story is different. I've heard stories again and again about friends dropping a dime to Fritz on his wild-eyed boys' behavior, but Fritz refused to believe it. If the reports came from a source above suspicion, say the CIA, then Fritz would dutifully face his sons and ask them if they'd been bad boys.

"No, dad," they'd swear to him.

That was good enough for Fritz; those boys would never lie to him.

Rather than Fritz's "iron claw" compelling his sometimes less-than-capable sons into the ring, I think there is another explanation. If you were a Von Erich, and grew up a Texas prince, and the only way to hold on to that status into your adult years was to become a wrestler, what would you do?

That's right. You'd hit the gym, gulp the 'roids, and try to look passable in a pair of tights.

Could a Von Erich become a manager? A referee? A Von Erich stooging for someone not named Von Erich? Unthinkable! How much less likely that they might become accountants or garbage men or even saloon keepers. Their status would evaporate. They would become "Kerry's brother" or "Fritz's son," but they could never lay fair claim to that silly, made-up family name. And so they stupefied themselves to death, pumping holes in their brains with pills and pistols.

And what about the Von Erich boys who did make it? Kerry was a stiff musclehead who loved to get ripped and drive various vehicles, from choppers to motorboats, at excessive speeds in his impaired condition. How many people do you know who go motorcycle riding barefoot, in the dark, then crash that motorcycle into a parked police car, necessitating the amputation of part of a foot? Fewer still would then mask that condition, return to wrestling, and continue to pump their body to inhuman dimensions live life on the edge. Is it heroism? Or is it desperation? [Note: Several years after the publication of this article, Kerry Von Erich killed himself, going the pistol route.]

Then there's Kevin, a nominal face who comes across as a surly, arrogant punk. At best a mediocre talent with the body of a born jobber, he is clueless on interviews and carries a record of no-shows that makes Buddy Landel look like Lou Gehrig. If he's smart, he'll find another way to make a living.

As Ric and I relayed the story of the latest Von Erich suicide over the radio that night with radio guest Steve Beverly, a song by Queen kept running through my head. "Another one bites the dust… another one bites the dust…"

--Bill Kunkel

Bill "Potshot" Kunkel has been writing for Wrestling Perspective since 1993.


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