All through the autumn, the Von Erichs had been waiting for the Canadian geese to return to the little pond behind their ranch house. Fritz had bought the geese a few years ago when they were still goslings, and Chris, the youngest son, would feed them by hand. Early last spring, fully grown, they had flown off to the north. When I drove out to the Von Erich’s 500-acre East Texas spread one chilly day last fall, I saw Chris, who’s 18, out in the yard, staring at the sky. The wind had come up unexpectedly, making a hollow sound as it scurried through the pines. "He looks for the geese almost every day," said his mother, Doris. "It’s amazing for him to believe that they will make their way back to our one little pond. But we tell him it will happen. I know you’ll think this is funny, but we consider them family. We know they’ll come back."
This was not the best time to visit the Von Erichs. A reporter from Penthouse magazine had been in Dallas the week before, asking a lot of questions about the Von Erich boys, and Fritz, who can be intimidating enough even when he’s calm, was in an uproar. From a far corner of the mansion, I could hear him booming into a telephone, his gravelly voice reverberating down the hallway like the sound of a freight train. "They’re not going to do this to us, damn it, do you hear me?" Fritz yelled into the receiver. "We’re not going to be written about like trash!"
The Penthouse reporter had been asking about the dark side of the Von Erich life. He was intrigued over what he called the "mystery" of one of the Von Erich sons, David, who was found dead in a hotel room in Japan. He wanted to know the "real" story about the suicide last spring of another son, Mike. "Don’t tell him a thing!" bellowed Fritz to a business associate. "My family isn’t going to be in a damn pornographic magazine!"
Such confrontations certainly weren’t new to Fritz Von Erich. For most of his professional life, he had been dealing with people who considered his family, at best, a garish curiosity. They were repulsed by the bombast and theatrics of wrestling; they thought it was all a scam, and surely, they figured, the Von Erichs were little more than actors who blurred the line between sport and showmanship. There was something about their lives that seemed so contrived, like a cartoon.
Yet there was also something else about them that one could not quite ignore. Astonishingly, they had become one of the legendary families of Dallas. Even those who cared nothing for the ribald netherworld of wrestling would find themselves fascinated, in a strange, almost morbid way, by the lives of the Von Erichs. Here they would come, the virtuous family in tight wrestling shorts, storming into the ring to battle their evil opponents. They would survive all the low blows, the metal folding chairs slammed over their heads when they were not watching. But then, as soon as the match was over, they would return to a reality that was littered with suffering. Since 1984, two of the six sons have died (another son, Jackie, was killed when he was 7 years old). Then Kerry, who was on his way to becoming perhaps the world’s most famous wrestling superstar, nearly lost his foot last year when he collided with a police car in a motorcycle accident. And last May, the oldest son, Kevin, came close to critically injuring himself in a match when his head was accidentally driven into a steel post. Melodrama, larger and more stunning than any illusion that can be created in a wrestling ring, has haunted the Von Erichs like a ghost.
When I began to spend time with the Von Erichs last fall, it seemed that their dynasty was coming to an end. For hundreds of thousands of wrestling fans, this mortal, all-too-imperfect clan was the last of a breed, the kind of people one used to see on old television westerns like Bonanza: plain country folk who, despite adversity, heroically stuck together and survived. The Von Erichs mattered; they were larger than life. A trip to see them was like the trip others made on Sunday mornings to church; though the people there were never certain they believed all that they saw, they felt reassured by a ritual in which the good guy, in the end, always wins.
Many wrestling observers, however, wondered just how much longer the Von Erichs could carry on. For the first time, rival wrestling promoters were coming into Dallas to lure away the prized Von Erich audience. Some openly declared war on Fritz and his sons, saying it was time for a new wrestling promotion to take over. Though I have never been sure how seriously to take the Von Erichs, as they struggled to save their name, I could not help but be intrigued, and perplexed, by their tragicomic saga, their rise and fall — and the suggestion of some larger myth that seemed to float on the fringes of their lives.
• • •
The Von Erich home, as big as a Ramada Inn, holds few mementos of the family’s wrestling legacy. Year by year, Doris Von Erich has taken down the pictures and posters. It is not that the memories are too painful; she simply wants her home to be the one last citadel of the old family she once knew. Long before Doris was a Von Erich, she was an Adkisson. The man who is now Fritz Von Erich was named Jack Adkisson, a football star at SMU who briefly played for the old Dallas Texans of the National Football League. When they married 37 years ago, they planned to quietly raise a family. Jack, a raw behemoth of a man, wanted to move to Corpus Christi to open a bait stand. But in the early '50s, he began wrestling in Dallas at the Sportatorium: to attract attention, he began to call himself Fritz Von Erich. He adopted the role of a Nazi villain; he was a terrifying figure, and wrestling promoters throughout the country loved him. Even in the mid-'70s, when he switched roles and became a good guy in the ring, the Von Erich name remained popular, and Doris realized that her attempts to raise her sons as Adkissons — as good farm boys undazzled by the bright lights of the city and the wrestling exploits of Fritz — would be futile. The teachers at school began calling her sons "Von Erich." She even found herself addressing her husband as Fritz. A quiet, Southern woman, the kind who was taught long ago to conceal inner turmoil behind an air of politeness, Doris told me that she still likes to be known as Doris Adkisson. "But to be honest," she said, "we hardly know who the Adkissons are anymore. We have been a wrestling family for so long. I suppose I want the family to know that when they are tired of being Von Erichs, there is a place they can come to where they can still be Adkissons. But I don’t know" — and there was a small catch of her breath as she looked out her kitchen window — "if you can ever stop being a Von Erich."
"The hell of it," growled Fritz Von Erich as he suddenly loomed in the kitchen door, "is that now people watch us to see what tragedy will happen next. I wish I could explain it, but I can’t." A scowl flapped across his famous face like sheet lightning. "We’re better known now because we die," he said.
Time has dealt malevolently with the old wrestler. Fritz, 58, limps from a long-ago injury. His face looks like a jutting cliff of granite, each muscle and vein stabbing from his skin. His head is as large as a bowling ball, his arms the size of hams. He nearly crushed my hand when he shook it; his own hands looked as if they had been broken in a fight and had not entirely healed.
Slowly, Fritz lowered his massive body into a seat at the kitchen table. Doris watched the swaying of her husband’s figure and gave a thin, pleased smile. She had been softly encouraging Fritz to spend more time at home. She would send him off on errands or have friends meet them for lunch in the nearby town of Edom. She would ask him why he wasn’t spending more time on his bulldozer, driving around the property, clearing land.
But though Fritz had been trying to ease away from the family wrestling business, events kept bringing him back. On this day, his nerves were as tight as a wound-up fiddle string. Not only was there the matter of the Penthouse reporter, but Fritz was worried about the upcoming Thanksgiving night show, where Reunion Arena had been booked for what had been billed as Kerry Von Erich’s "triumphant return to the ring." A few years ago, this would have been an easy sell-out house. In 1984, the Von Erichs drew 41,000 to Texas Stadium for what was then the largest audience ever to see a wrestling match in North America. At the time, Kerry had been named the most popular wrestler in the country by national wrestling magazines, more popular even than Hulk Hogan. He looked like Samson, with his long curly hair and magnificent body. He was followed by thousands of teenage girls, the first true pinup star in wrestling. A national tour was planned. The Von Erichs were poised to become the first family of American wrestling. But then came the deaths of David and Mike, and the motorcycle wreck that knocked Kerry out of the ring for 16 months. As hard as he tried, Kevin, the quiet, oldest son and the one most fiercely loyal to the family name, couldn’t sustain the Von Erich image by himself. (Chris, the youngest son, suffers from severe asthma and has not yet entered the ring.) Attendance began plummeting at the weekly matches in the Sportatorium, from 2,000 in the Von Erichs’ heyday in the early '80s to sparse crowds of 300. Wrestling fans had other shows to pick from now. Old Fritz knew that if Kerry’s comeback at Reunion Arena wasn’t successful, the Von Erichs might be finished.
To understand how the Von Erichs could hold such unyielding devotion to a business that has turned their lives upside down, that has brought them demons along with applause, that has killed off their sons, it is important to understand Fritz himself and how his life has been hammered into the lives of his sons. "It sounds so odd to other people," said Doris, "but the boys never felt they had to be different than their dad. They even encouraged each other to be like their father. I kept trying to tell them they could be any way they wanted. They could always be an Adkisson. They could go into art or music if they wanted. But finally, I had to admit that only one thing was important for them: to take on the Von Erich name."
When Fritz Von Erich decided to go into wrestling in the early '50s, the business had little of the glamour or rewards that it has today. Wrestlers spent long hours driving from one dank auditorium to another; Fritz would often wrestle for all of $5 a night. One time, after a match, a fan was so angered at Fritz’s antics in the ring that she stabbed him in the buttocks with a six-inch hatpin.
Even in the late '50s, when Fritz had come up with the infamous "Iron Claw" (spreading his huge hand over an opponent’s face, then squeezing) and promoters from all over the country and Canada were calling for him, he was not getting rich. He and Doris lived in a trailer park in Niagara Falls, New York. She had given birth to their first son, Jackie, in 1952, followed by Kevin in 1957 and David a year later. Then, in 1959, while Fritz was out of town on a wrestling trip, Jackie, then 7, touched a live wire while he was playing in the trailer park. Electrocuted, he fell down face first in a puddle of melting snow and drowned. It was a nightmare for Fritz and his wife. Doris felt herself going weak; she told her husband she wanted to die too. Years later, she would still judge time by recalling her first son’s death ("It happened nearly 12 years after Jackie died," she will say about some family event). The death of Jackie put the Von Erichs through the same kind of emotional ordeal that draws many to watch professional wrestling: they often felt like helpless spectators of their own lives who would wait through each day to see what new misfortune the world had in store. But after the loss of his son, Fritz returned to the ring with a vengeance. At least here, Fritz found a way to force his will on at least one corner of life.