The Von Erichs have been the stuff of legend, at least in North Texas, for as long, it seems, as anyone can remember. Their story is one of triumph, reverence and tragedy that is unsurpassed by any single family this side of the Kennedys.
And on April 4 in Houston, World Wrestling Entertainment will bring the Von Erich story front and center, when the family is inducted into the Hall of Fame along with such other legends as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat and Koko B. Ware.
This is a story that left an indelible mark on wrestling, both in the family’s successes in the ring and tragic excesses out of it.
For those who don’t already know, here’s a quick history lesson.
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While playing in the Canadian Football League, Jack Barton Adkisson met, and began training with, wrestling legend (and father of Bret and Owen Hart) Stu Hart. He was dubbed Fritz Von Erich, and quickly rose to prominence as a heel, propelled by his pseudo-Nazi character and imposing 6-foot-4-inch frame. (Naturally, in the late '50s and early '60s, Nazism was still a red-button for audiences.)
Thus began a family tradition that continues to this day. Von Erich traveled the world wrestling, going as far as Japan, where he was known as "Tetsu no Tsume," or in English "The Iron Claw," a nod to his finishing maneuver.
Over the years, Fritz had six sons, five of which who would follow in his footsteps and become professional wrestlers.
His eldest son, Jack Jr., died of an accidental electrocution in 1959 when he was only 7 years old. Although heavily distraught over Jack’s death, Fritz continued to travel into the 1980s. Throughout that decade, each of the surviving Von Erich sons would rise to some degree of notoriety in the wrestling world.
The decade also saw, however, the beginning of a string of drug-related deaths, beginning with the curious demise of David, the oldest, in 1984, while in Japan.
The official cause of death is listed as acute gastroenteritis, but it is generally thought that drugs played some role in David’s final moments, and some (including Ric Flair) have suggested that the actual cause of death was an overdose which was subsequently covered up.
Three years later, in 1987, Mike died of a self-inflicted overdose after a long bout with toxic-shock syndrome, from which, it is said, he never fully recovered.
Chris Von Erich, suffering from depression over his brothers’ deaths, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1991.
Finally, Kerry, known as the "Texas Tornado" and the "Modern Day Warrior" committed suicide on his father’s Denton ranch in 1993. He had struggled with substance abuse for years before the incident and was spurred on by a motorcycle crash that led to the loss of a foot.
In 10 years, Fritz had lost four of his five surviving sons. He died in 1997, of lung cancer, in Dallas.
Abiit ad maiores.
Kevin is the only remaining Von Erich son. He lived in Denton in the years following his retirement from wrestling but has since moved to Hawaii. Kerry’s daughter, Lacy, continues to wrestle and manage for various companies.
Make no mistake, the Von Erichs are to wrestling what the Kennedys are to American politics, whatever that means, good or bad. They gave their lives to the business, and to the area, and left a legacy that is as important as it is tragic, and cautionary.
Portentous isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind.
Regardless of whether it is good or bad, the importance of the story is that it will be told, on the very mountain top of professional wrestling.
The Von Erichs will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on April 4, by Michael "P.S." Hayes, a former wrestler and family friend, as a part of Wrestlemania weekend.