“I always saw God in lightning,” Kevin Von Erich says, by way of explaining why he stood in an icy Texas field many decades ago during a rainstorm, the water drenching him, a frigid wind biting at him. This was him at his lowest: drowning in grief at the loss of his five brothers, who together with him and their father, Fritz, and their mother, Doris, made up the most famously tragic family in professional wrestling. He was lonely and aching, wounded enough to make wandering into a downpour seem reasonable if it meant feeling something different.
Soon enough, he did: hail. Small pellets, but painful enough to drive him toward the best shelter he could find, a nearby persimmon tree. At his feet were the tree’s fruit, frozen and rotted. Only one remained on the branches—weathered, covered in sleet, but holding on.
That’s me, he thought.
“God didn’t let me drop to the ground and rot like the others,” he says now. “And it just dawned on me that God held me up—I didn’t hold me up—and he held me up for my children and the things that are important. That was my day of reckoning.”
Von Erich isn’t sure if he’ll tell that story during his one-man show, Stories From the Top Rope, which premieres Friday night at the Majestic Theatre and will run the following night in San Antonio. He isn’t sure what he’ll say at all. This is not a one-man show in the traditional sense, with acts and lines and set pieces, so much as three guys—Von Erich, host Dale Hansen, and longtime friend and former World Class Championship Wrestling referee David Manning—shooting the shit and telling stories from bygone days, when the Sportatorium was jumping and a pack of boys from Denton were as recognizable as the Cowboys.
There will be smiles and laughs and perhaps some talk about the upcoming movie The Iron Claw, in which Zac Efron (who plays Kevin), Jeremy Allen White, and others will chronicle his family’s life. (He cites a phone conversation with the movie’s director, his sons doing some stunt work, and two of his nieces making a trip to set as the extent of his family’s involvement with the production.)
But if he doesn’t know what he’ll say onstage, he knows what he wants people to understand about his life.
“The message I would give people is to do our best to keep going and don’t lose heart,” he says. “Life is hard. And you know what life does to you? It can either make you turn hard and hate the world, almost like it did my dad when he lost his sons. Or it can make you attuned to other people’s suffering. You see suffering, and it just tears you up because you don’t want anybody to go through what you went through.”
He does his best to choose the latter—even though it’s difficult, even though it hurts. He remembers doing a radio show sometime after 9/11 and taking callers asking him about loss. He told them what he knew then, and what he knows now: “It doesn’t get better. You just get used to it.”
He has had decades of practice. He is 66 now, twice as old as his last surviving brother, Kerry, was on February 18, 1993, when Kerry told him over the phone he was going to take his own life, as their brothers Mike and Chris had before him. “Don’t leave me alone,” Kevin pleaded with him. “You’re my only brother. Don’t leave me.” But Kerry did, killing himself by gunshot that day at their father’s ranch.
Kevin still feels the ache of that abandonment. He still gets jittery any time the phone rings before sunrise, the way it did when he learned that his brother, David, died from acute enteritis during a tour in Japan in 1984. (Their eldest brother, Jack Jr., died in an accident at age 6.)
For a while, he ran from it—to Kauai, the fourth-largest island in Hawaii, where he, his wife, Pam, and their four children could start over. Fish and duck replaced beef and pork at the dinner table. The family raised sheep and played in the jungle. Even there, as far removed from Texas as they could be in this country, it was a decidedly Von Erich upbringing: a strong-willed patriarch keeping his brood close and, wittingly or not, becoming an aspirational figure for the next generation. Perhaps that’s why his sons, 35-year-old Ross and and 31-year-old Marshall, grew up to become wrestlers, too: the heirs to the Von Erich dynasty. Kevin didn’t steer them toward it any more than he sought to become so much like Fritz that he wound up having the same interests and swears his sons act like just like them, too. It just happened that way.
“I guess that’s what I did, just thought I was doing the right thing,” he says. “Try to make myself do the right thing. And what is the right thing? Because there are so many colors and shades of right. Life is like a buffet. If you live long enough, you can taste all these flavors, but some are terrible.”
But this was more than rebuilding. It was healing. And he needed the Pacific Ocean to do it.
“I’ll tell you, there is nothing like swimming with the current and against the current,” he says. “There was a time when I got really dried out. There’s a lot of grief and suffering. And I know how to make myself well: I just need to get out and be alone with the ocean.”
For the initial stage of his new life—the first seven or eight years, he estimates—he’d hop in his boat and do exactly that. Bit by bit, he learned to live with the pain, until life became bearable and then something more. His kids grew up, then married and had kids of their own. Ross and Marshall grew into fixtures in the American pro wrestling scene as a tag team, as well as working overseas in Japan and Israel, where Kevin had his final match teaming with them at age 60. Finally, nearly two decades after arriving in Hawaii, it felt right for the family to return home.
“I was giving them my idea of paradise, and I didn’t really realize that they’re out there 18 years now,” he says. “And I love it. But I really missed Texas.”
So earlier this summer, he, Pam, and their children and families relocated to a ranch just outside Boerne, north of San Antonio. He’s still settling in, but that doesn’t dampen his excitement over hitting the highways of Texas, the way he and his brothers used to so many years ago. Back then he was adept at finding the best restaurants in small towns; he hopes to hit some old haunts and pick out new ones along the way, too. He’ll field questions from the audience—ask him to tell the story about swimming in the ocean with Kerry in Mexico at 2 a.m.—and reminisce with them.
Most of all, he hopes to impart some lessons he’s learned along the way. Do your best, show mercy, and forgive one another. And when you fail—“and you’re probably gonna!” he interjects—get back up and press on. Don’t get cynical. Don’t lose hope.
Of course, he cautions with a chuckle, “I’m an ex-pro wrestler. I’m not a wise man.” Then he corrects himself: “Or maybe I wasn’t, and I am now.”
It’s hard-earned wisdom, the kind he hopes no one else acquires. But if you have, he hopes even more that you keep going.
Stories from the Top Rope premieres tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. at the Majestic. You can buy tickets here.