Tragedy in Texas: The Sad Story of the Von Erich Family
In 1957, a former standout football player at Southern Methodist University named Jack Adkisson moved from Jewett, Texas to Edmonton in an attempt to catch on with the Canadian Football League. That didn’t work out, but a chance meeting with the legendary Stu Hart would change his life forever. By 1958, he was working for Klondike Wrestling. He and Stu invented the character of Fritz Von Erich, a Nazi villain.
From the time he entered the business until he retired in 1982, he was a standout both in and out of the ring. His career is truly legendary, as a performer, he held over 40 titles in 7 different promotions. He opened and ran World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) and was named the President of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) during the 1970s.
But let us back up a bit, to 1959, when Fritz’s 7 year old son, Jack Jr. died of an accidental electrocution. This began one of the most tragic stories not only in wrestling history, but arguably any family’s history ever. For most families, this is unheard of, a horrifying thought, for a parent to bury his child. For Fritz Von Erich, it was only the beginning.
In 1976, Fritz’s second child, Kevin Ross Adkisson, started wrestling for his Dad in WCCW as Kevin Von Erich. He stood out immediately, mostly due to working without boots, although he never intended to work that way. “Someone hid them on me”, Kevin said of his debut match, “so I just went with it”. “The Barefoot Boy” was wildly popular from his debut, good looking, and athletic, along with the bonus of being a rare (at the time) second generation star.
Kevin’s younger brother David joined the company in June of 1977. Called “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, David’s career took off faster than his brother’s. His temper and passion attracted fans to him. David and Kevin formed a tag team and quickly won the NWA Texas Tag Team Championships twice. After that, the brothers worked singles matches mostly. Kevin won his first singles title when he pinned Bruiser Brody for the NWA American Heavyweight Champion on Christmas Day 1978.
Kerry Gene Adkisson joined the family business in June 1979. “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich started working tag matches with Kevin and some limited singles competition. By 1980, he was a fast rising star, defeating Gino Hernandez for his first NWA American Heavyweight Title in the fall. Kevin started traveling throughout the other territories more and for a short time, Kerry was the only Von Erich in town.
By mid-1982, Texas fans were ecstatic. Kevin and David Von Erich had returned to the WCCW. And David hadn’t come back alone. His influence had brought the Fabulous Freebirds to the company. He and his brothers had great matches with them, particularly his 1 on 1 run against Terry Gordy. But everyone loved those 6 man matches, the 3 Von Erich boys versus Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy, Buddy Roberts, and of course, Michael “PS” Hayes. Again, villains make heroes.
Mike, not a stellar athlete, worked primarily as a 2nd man in tag teams with his brothers. He worked largely with Kerry, only teaming with Kevin once. David was a shooting star by this time, and the NWA had him feud against NWA World Champion Ric Flair across the country. He was so hot that the NWA Championship Committee voted in January 1984 to have David defeat Flair. A Von Erich would be NWA World Champion, something that had eluded his own father.
But, on February 10th, 1984, during a tour of Japan, David Von Erich died. The cause of this has been disputed for years, the Von Erich family claiming myocardial infarction or heart attack. Many others, including Ric Flair, stated it was a drug overdose. Flair in fact, claims that family friend Bruiser Brody removed the drug evidence to protect the Von Erich name. One thing is certain, David had been admitted to a Texas E.R. 2 weeks earlier with complaints of dizzy spells and flu symptoms.
In May of 1984, a tribute was held for David Von Erich. Kerry was named NWA World Champion when he defeated Ric Flair in the main event. 18 days later, he dropped the title back to Flair, never to hold it again. The real reason for this was the NWA was very aware of Kerry’s own drug problems. Concerned for the company’s future with him as champion, they immediately returned the title to Flair.
During a tour of Israel in 1985, Mike injured his shoulder, requiring surgery upon his return. 4 day after the surgery, he was rushed to the E.R. with a fever of 107 degrees, a side effect of toxic shock syndrome. During his healing, he lost considerable weight, and many believe; symptoms of brain damage surfaced. He often slurred his speech, as well as his ring work upon his return. He battled severe depression and alcohol and drug dependency spiraled as a result.
Kerry was in a serious motorcycle accident in June 1986. His right hip was dislocated and his right foot was severely damaged. The foot in fact, would later be amputated. Kerry hid this fact from fans and wrestlers alike for years, using prosthesis and even showering with boots on. With Kerry out of action, the company leaned harder on Mike, having him start a feud with Brian Arias in October.
Not long after that, Mike wrecked his car, suffering further head trauma. Stories abound from late 1986 through early 1987 of violent outbursts, drunk driving, and drug charges. Kevin notes an occurrence where his little brother attacked a streetlight for no apparent reason. Kevin believes that a large issue for Mike was his appearance; he and David looked very much alike, which caused the fans to have unrealistic expectations of him. On April 12, 1987, Mike Von Erich left a suicide note for his family, and then drove to Lake Dallas where he overdosed on sleeping pills.
Things were somber and quiet for Kevin and Kerry for the next few years, at least it appeared so. Kerry was badly addicted to pain killers and was arrested on drug charges multiple times. Kevin, always the rock, tried to help, but he had problems of his own. Albeit problems of a different nature. By 1990, he and his wife Pam were working on their 4th child. Just then, the youngest of Fritz Von Erich’s 6 sons, Chris, joined the company.
Chris loved the business and had always wanted to follow is his brothers’ footsteps. But, he suffered from severe asthma and a bone disorder that made them very brittle and easy to break. He had actually been involved in angles before. He performed run-ins against the Freebirds as a teen in the mid-80s. But finally, he was the next Von Erich. In more ways than one, he had been privately battling drug addiction and depression since Mike’s death in 1987. He battled pain and his issues for just over a year, but, on September 12, 1991, Chris Von Erich shot himself in the head.
The family suffered another tragedy soon after, when Fritz Von Erich and his wife of 42 years, Doris, split. They divorced in July 1992. Once again, Kevin supplied the good tidings when his 4th child was born a few months later. It was about that same time when Bret “Hitman” Hart states, that Kerry Von Erich confessed to him, that he felt his brothers calling him. Kerry shot himself in the heart on February 18th, 1993 behind his father’s ranch in Denton, Texas. And finally, in 1997, Fritz Von Erich passed away at age 68, after years of suffering from brain and lung cancer.
Kevin Von Erich has carried on as the center of the Von Erich universe. In 2006, he sold the WCCW video rights to Vince McMahon, officially closing the book on the company. In 2009, Micheal “PS” Hayes inducted Kevin and his family into the WWE Hall of Fame. Kerry’s youngest daughter Lacey started wrestling in 2007, winning the TNA Knockouts Title before retiring in 2010. And, be on the lookout for Kevin’s sons, Marshall and Ross Von Erich soon. The boys completed training under their dad and the great Harley Race in mid-2012.
A tragic tale indeed, but the Von Erich family story is one that everyone should know. Maybe a brighter future is ahead for the 3rd generation, they sure deserve it. Until next time, keep your shoulder off the mat.
A wonderful memorial video to the 1st Family of Wrestling.