The Original Power Plant: Robbinsdale High School
Robbinsdale is a small town in Eastern Minnesota. Founded in 1893, it is a perfect example of small town America. Its population has never reached 15,000, and crime is pretty much non-existent there. For many years, the town had 2 claims to fame, it was home to the oldest continuously active marching band in the United States, and Fawcett Publications, whose Captain Marvel outsold Superman in the 1940s, was founded there in 1919. So why are you reading about this little town? Simple, Robbinsdale High School became a hotbed of wrestling talent.
The legendary Verne Gagne graduated Robbinsdale High in 1943. Verne was a great star in wrestling and football, and went on to excel in both at the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he was drafted in 1947 by the NFL’s Chicago Bears, but chose to pursue wrestling instead. He trained for and was made an alternate on the 1948 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team. Gagne states that he would’ve been on the team had the coaches not found out that he had been paid to wrestle in a state carnival, which brought his amateur status into question. He began wrestling professionally in 1949, and quickly became one of the biggest stars of the business. Rumors state he made in excess of $100,000 a year through the 1950s, which if true, made his purchase of his own promotion, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) in 1960 much easier. Over the next 30 years, he was a force in the business, helping to develop dozens of stars including Hulk Hogan, The Iron Sheik, Shawn Michaels, Sgt. Slaughter, and Mr. Perfect.
Verne’s son, Greg Gagne graduated from Robbinsdale High in 1969. By 1972, he was a fixture in the AWA. He is most known for his 2 year run as AWA Tag Champions in the High-Flyers with Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell. He also had a memorable feud with King Kong Bundy in the mid 80’s and was a member of Sgt. Slaughter’s ill-fated Cobra Corps (I actually had forgotten that, thank you Wikipedia). He worked hard to help his dad’s company stay afloat until the company shut its doors in 1991. He has since sold cars, helped in talent development for the WWE, and opened a wrestling school alongside old partner Jim Brunzell. But, there have only been 2 Gagnes to go to Robbinsdale High. But in a period from 1976-1978, a staggering list of wrestlers began to emerge from this small town school.
Curt Hennig led the class of 1976 (in terms of wrestling significance). His father, Larry “The Axe” Hennig, was an established star in the territories, particularly the AWA of course. Trained by his dad, “Playboy” Buddy Rogers, and Verne Gagne, he made his in-ring debut in 1980. He moved on to the WWF in 1988, taking on the “Mr. Perfect” gimmick and forging a legendary career. He moved on to WCW for a period and bounced around in different wrestling companies until his passing in 2003 from a cocaine overdose.
Richard Erwin Rood
Richard Erwin Rood grew up blocks away from Curt Hennig. Also in the class of 1976, he showed no interest in joining the business until after graduating community college with a phys-ed degree. He trained under Eddie Sharkey and made his in ring debut in 1982 with Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. He bounced around the territories a few years and then returned to Mid-Atlantic in 1986 where he held the NWA Tag Titles with Manny Fernandez (a great team by the way) before heading the WWF. He moved back and forth between there and WCW through 1997 when he re-united with his childhood pal Curt Hennig in the n.W.o. He died on April 20th, 1999 from heart failure caused by an apparent overdose of mixed medications.
Another member of the class of ’76 was Tom Zenk. He weighed 135 pounds in high school and was pushed around by some of the bigger kids, including Hennig. After graduation, he became interested in weightlifting and bodybuilding. By 1981, he had won the Mr. Minnesota title. He soon met Joseph Laurinaitis (Road Warrior “Animal”) who encouraged him to start wrestling. Trained by Eddie Sharkey, he debuted in the AWA in 1984. Over the next few years he worked in Canada and Japan before heading to WWF as Rick Martel’s tag partner in the Can-Am Connection. He returned for a short AWA stint and then carried 3 different titles as Z-Man for WCW before retiring in 1996.
Another Class of ’76 alumni was Dean Peters. Captain of the gymnastics team, he was quick and agile. However, Dean was thought of as too small when he entered the wrestling business in 1984. But his athletic prowess and high-flying style was unique at the time. He worked as an enhancement wrestler for various independent promotions and the WWF (as Brady Boone). He also unsuccessfully challenged the Honky Tonk Man for his InterContinental Championship twice. He was repackaged as Battle Kat in 1990 before leaving in 1991. He worked a few matches for the WCW before retiring to become a referee. Peters died in a car accident on December 15th, 1998 on his way home to Tampa, Florida. His legacy was his impact; Rob Van Dam was a fan and in tribute, still uses all of Peter’s moves to this day.
John Nord graduated Robbinsdale High in 1977. He was an outstanding football player who gravitated to wrestling. Also trained by Eddie Sharkey, he made his in-ring debut for Mid-South Wrestling in 1984. Wrestling as The Barbarian, he was managed by Skandor Akbar, and later wrestled as Nord the Barbarian in the AWA. He left and made a short run in the WCW and then returned to the AWA as Yukon John (Ugh!) where he partnered with Scott Norton as the Yukon Lumberjacks (Ugh! Ugh!). He finally made it to the WWF in 1991 as The Viking and later the Berzerker, managed by the great Mr. Fuji. There he feuded with the Undertaker and even challenged Bret Hart for the WWF Championship. He went to Japan in 1994 and reappeared in the WCW in 1997. He was called just “Nord”, a blonde guy who had a decent win streak until he met Goldberg in 1998. He retired soon after, selling cars and working in a diaper factory.
Scott Simpson, another Class of ’77 guy, was a standout football player at Robbinsdale High. He played some college ball but got hurt, and during a rehab attempt before a USFL tryout, he met Joseph Laurinaitis (“Animal” in case you forgot) who talked him into wrestling. He was trained by (you guessed it) Eddie Sharkey before signing with Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. There, Ivan Koloff and Don Kernodle advanced his training and packaged him as “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff (given to him by and a turn on, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes), the prodigal nephew of Ivan. He was a big star for Mid-Atlantic through 1988, even legally changing his name to Nikita S. Koloff, when he left the company for his 1st wife’s health reasons. After her passing, he joined the nearly defunct AWA in 1989-1990 before a short WCW return in 1991-1992. In a match with Big Van Vader, he suffered a career ending neck injury from a stiff clothesline. Koloff then retired to become a minister and writer.
The last man I want to discuss is Class of 1978 alum Barry Darsow. Trained by (do I need to say it?) Eddie Sharkey, Darsow wrestled under a number of forgettable gimmicks until he joined Mid-Atlantic Wrestling in 1985 as Krusher Kruschev (he started that in Mid-South), joining the Koloffs as the 3rd Russian. It’s a good thing his career went north to the WWF as he is the only guy I ever saw try and be a Russian without any accent at all (well he did kind of sound like a redneck). He joined the WWF in 1987 when he quietly replaced Randy Colley (Moondog Rex) as Smash in Demolition. The pair had a great run for 3 years until they were joined by Brian Adams (Crush) and Bill Eadie (Ax) retired. He then was repackaged as Repo Man, who had a series of forgettable appearances through 1993. Since then, Darsow has appeared anywhere in wrestling that will have him, even in WCW in 1998 as Stewart Pain (an obvious offtake on PGA Tour pro Payne Stewart), a villainous golfer. Still wrestling today, he can be seen at a number of independent shows throughout the country.
Well, there you have it, what have we learned? Well, I think we know that Eddie Sharkey, who also trained the Road Warriors, Steiner Brothers, Jesse Ventura, and X-Pac, gets the job done as a wrestling instructor. And I guess there was something in the water fountains at Robbinsdale High School. By the way, before any clever guy mentions it, WWE Hall of Famer “Mean” Gene Okerlund also attended Robbinsdale High, but he never wrestled, so I chose not to include him, so there! Thanks for reading, and keep your shoulders off the mat.