I have to say I am a bit skeptical of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the Von Erich Family that will air tonight on the mother station. The short, which is part of an amazing series by the network that focuses on triumph and tragedy in all sports genres, is taking aim at one of the famed wrestling families of my generation. The show is expected to present the personal side of their successes and failures and a family that had its highs and lows before the peak of Hulkamania and in the beginning stages of the changes in wrestling culture.
Although the family patriarch Fritz lived to the age of 68, five of his six sons preceded him in death (three by suicide). The firstborn son, Jack Jr., died at the age of six. In 1984, David Von Erich died in Japan from acute enteritis of the upper intestine. Michael, Chris, and Kerry all committed suicide in 1987, 1991, and 1993 respectively. Mike died after taking an overdose of Placidyl. Chris shot himself in the head with a 9mm handgun at his parents’ home in East Texas. Kerry shot himself in the chest behind his father’s house on Shady Shores Road. Kevin Von Erich is the sole surviving child of Fritz (Jack Adkisson) and Doris Adkisson.
It was one of the first instances where the “dark” side of the business was exposed. Before Hulk Hogan was accused of taking steroids and long before Owen Hart fell to his death, the Von Erich family were the poster children for everything that wrestling did to cripple competitors, as some would say, because of the pressures of the business, the success and the family name.
Wrestling has a way of grabbing athletes and sucking them into the walls of the business, one where they eat, sleep and breathe everything around them. That may be why Ric Flair, Terry Funk, Jake Roberts and even Hulk Hogan to some degree cannot get away from the squared circle. They are sucked in like a magnetic field and never released from its clutches. The demons like alcohol, drugs, women and the mystique of staying in character ultimately destroy them.
Other wrestlers, most notably Ric Flair in “To Be The Man” spoke candidly about David’s death and how it affected the NWA at the time because as a rising star, he was viewed as a performer who could carry the banner of the promotion and lead it well into the 1980s.
The official doctor’s report allegedly states that he died of acute enteritis, but Ric Flair in the autobiography, said, “everybody in wrestling believes” that it was a drug overdose that really killed him and that Bruiser Brody (a fellow wrestler who found David) disposed of the narcotics by flushing them down a toilet before the police arrived. Mick Foley also claims that he died from an apparent drug overdose.
Kerry’s death was just as tragic. He was in a motorcycle accident that nearly ended his life. He suffered a dislocated hip and a badly injured right leg. Doctors were unable to save his right foot, eventually amputating it. According to his brother Kevin, Kerry injured the foot following surgery by attempting to walk on it prematurely, thus forcing the doctors to amputate it.
He was able to continue wrestling after the accident with a prosthesis and until his death, kept the amputation secret to the majority of fans and fellow wrestlers, even going to the extreme of showering with his boots on.
Due to the amputation, Kerry became addicted to pain killers, followed by several drug problems. Amongst the many of them were two arrests, the first of which resulted in probation. After the second, which violated the probation and likely would have resulted in extensive jail time, Kerry committed suicide by a shot to the heart on February 18, 1993 on his father’s ranch in Denton County, Texas. Bret Hart states in his biography, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, that Kerry had told him months before about his plans – he had wanted to follow his late brothers, that they were calling him.
While I want to watch in anticipation, I hope the “short” is as well played as others that have left their mark on television and sports documentary coverage. Wrestling takes too many hits for its scripted outcomes, the breakdown of kayfabe and of course, the characters who come clean and tell everyone it is