Wrestling, abuse and death: the twisted tale of the Von Erich family
It’s a story told many a time, a tale of a cursed family that rose to wrestling fame in the heyday of the sport, only to be destroyed by substance abuse, injuries and depression. But the story of the sons of Fritz Von Erich can’t be told without looking at the man himself.
Jack Barton Adkisson was born in Jewett, Texas in 1929. He was a collegiate football player for Southern Methodist University, but wasn’t able to make the cut in the NFL. He traveled to the Canadian Football League, but while in Edmonton, he discovered his future in the legendary Dungeon of the progenitor of an equally famous wrestling family, Stu Hart.
After training Adkisson, Hart renamed him Fritz Von Erich and made him a horribly German heel and the brother of another fake German, Waldo Von Erich. At the same time, he would start a family in Texas with his wife Doris.
Their first son died at the age of seven while Fritz was on the road, a victim of an awful freak accident that saw him electrocuted before drowning. By that time, they already had a second son in Kevin and a third in David. Kerry, Mike and Chris would follow in the years to come. And even from a young age, it seemed clear Fritz had plans for his children.
After the loss of their oldest son at a young age, Fritz cut his travels back. Though he would make appearances in Sam Muchnick’s St. Louis area super-shows, his focus turned to his own backyard as he started his own corner of the National Wrestling Alliance, a promotion known as World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW).
In the late sixties, Fritz would turn babyface in World Class, after his arch-nemesis (and main booker) Gary Hart would expose him as just another Texas boy. By this time, his young sons started to appear on television. Even as children, Fritz gave his fans the promise of a next generation of Von Erich.
And that’s when the true horrors behind the Von Erich legacy began.
By the time, Kevin, David and Kerry entered their teens, they were put into grueling workout sessions by their father. Despite time playing a variety of junior high and high school sports, he would work them out for another three hours after school everyday. While the boys grew up in wrestling and knew wrestling, it was clear their father wanted to make it clear they didn’t have a choice. Their future was wrestling whether they wanted it to be or not.
Kevin made his in ring debut in 1976, David followed in ’77, and Kerry finished the trifecta in ’78. By 1980, Fritz had raised the stars that he would bank the future of his promotion against, and all of them were his sons.
It’s hard to grasp just how popular the Von Erichs were in early eighties Texas. Their television program was one of the highest rated shows in syndication, and while they were known around the world, they were practically gods in Dallas, Houston and the rest of the WCCW territory. While Ric Flair was taking over the south and a young turk named Hulk Hogan was tearing up AWA in the Midwest, neither shone as brightly in the wrestling world yet as the three brothers.
In 1982, the Freebirds made their arrival in WCCW. Michael Hayes, Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Buddy Jack Roberts were as charismatic as they were dastardly in the ring. They were the perfect villains for promotion built around the world’s greatest babyfaces. But even as perhaps the hottest story in wrestling up to that point began, the fissures that would break a legacy were already forming.
Fritz Von Erich raised his sons in the same mentality of so many wrestlers of that era, with kayfabe being above all else. World Class ran shows all over the state and their talent often worked upwards of a half dozen shows every week. Injuries weren’t an option. While the boys might be able to have an easier go of things as the booker’s children, they instead were relied upon to deliver main event sellouts in as many venues as possible. Night offs weren’t an option.
And while one can argue whether Fritz’s workout regime was barbaric or not, his behavior now became that of anything but a family man. He pushed his sons harder than any mortal could be pushed. Painkillers became a part of their regular diet, often along with the steroids they needed to keep their Adonis-like builds.
When they weren’t in action, their new lifestyle created a world in which they were kings. More than half the World Class crowd in the Dallas Sportatorium was comprised of women. By all accounts, the brothers were able to make their way through many of them. Meanwhile, recreational drugs became a habit for them as well, a vice that hit Kerry the hardest.
Fritz framed his three boys into the lifestyle of wrestling superstars. But his grueling conditioning exercises didn’t prepare them for the expense of their fame, nor the damage day after day in the ring brought. Yet Fritz forced them onto the road, with nary a care of the damage he inflicted on them in the process.
The youngest of the three brothers was arguably the most-talented. Kerry would be the only brother to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in front of a giant crowd of more than 45,000 people in Texas Stadium. Few people beat Ric Flair, but he did so decisively. While he held onto the belt for only two and a half weeks before dropping it back to Flair in Japan, it marked Kerry as what everyone already knew. He was the star among stars.
But it wasn’t even meant to be him.
Weeks before that title bout, the fourth of the five brothers, the much smaller Mike Von Erich faced down Flair in a 10 minute challenge in January 1984. By lasting out challenge, he allowed his brother David to pick the time and place of his title shot. The match was scheduled for April of that year, while David went off to a tour of All Japan Wrestling. Just eleven days after his brother secured his title shot, David was dead in a Japanese hotel room. He was 25.
The stories around David Von Erich’s death are a mess. And most of that mess comes from Fritz Von Erich himself. In order to save face, he reported the death of an intestinal disorder known as gastroenteritis. David died tragically, gone far too young, from an illness he could never have expected.
But for most, it was almost certain he died from his intense addiction to painkillers, drugs cleaned up by his friend and fellow wrestler Bruiser Brody in the aftermath of his death. But even that story comes secondhand (from Flair himself) as Brody would die just a few years later after a knife attack in Puerto Rico.
In the end, severe drug addiction can cause gastroenteritis. Whatever the case of his death, drugs were certainly involved. The cause of David’s death may never become clear, but there’s two clear factors: his high volume use of painkillers and his father’s push to make him a superstar under any condition.
Kerry would take his place in the match and win the NWA World Heavyweight title. But it was almost certainly a Pyrrhic victory for him. He was already addicted to painkillers as well. Just months before, he was arrested at the Dallas Ft. Worth Airport for drug possession, carrying hundreds of pills and a white powder. He was hit with misdemeanor marijuana charges, a slap on the wrist compared to the trafficking levels of drugs he carried. Fritz and Gary Hart turned it into a frame job storyline with the Freebirds as the culprits.
A year after his title reign, a nearly delirious Kerry would slam his motorcycle into the back of a stopped police vehicle in April 1986. The broken leg would have ended most people’s careers. But WCCW was already facing increased competition and losing viewers to the upstart WWF. By December, he was back in the ring, months if not years sooner than reasonable. He re-injured the foot so badly it would be amputated.
Fritz and Kerry would keep this fact secret from everyone, as Kerry continued to wrestle on a prosthetic for years afterward, almost certainly in an immense amount of pain. His drug addiction only grew worse. Kevin Von Erich described his brother’s addiction in an interview with Texas Monthly:
“Kerry wasn’t addicted to any one drug. He liked drugs. It wasn’t that he liked coke or ice or meth. He just liked that life of parties and drugs.”
It was clear to everyone he had a problem, but his father wanted his son to succeed as a bouncing babyface star of wrestling, his health be damned in the long run.
Yet despite his addictions, Kerry continued onward. His younger brothers Mike and Chris were not so lucky.
Mike and Chris both entered the wrestling world with health problems. Mike longed to be a behind the scenes guy, but injuries forced him to stand in for his brothers in their war with the Freebirds. A shoulder injury in his younger years kept him from being the high school athlete that his brothers were. In 1985, he re-injured that shoulder on a tour of Israel.
His surgery seemed to go well, only for him to fall victim to toxic shock syndrome. He went into major organ failure, but somehow pulled through. But the near death left him forty pounds lighter and with brain damage that caused his words to slur as he spoke. But in the world of Fritz Von Erich the show must always come before anything else.
He returned to the ring, but his ability to perform to the level he once did weighed on him. He fell into the same cycle of painkillers and drugs that already killed the brother he replaced on the card. It was clear his career wouldn’t last longer when he was arrested on a DUI charge. Days later, he would leave a suicide note for his family, drive off to a nearby lake and down a bottle of the painkiller Placidyl. He climbed into a sleeping bag knowing he would never wake up. He was 23.
He left his swim fins to his youngest brother Chris. Stories say inside them was another bottle of the drug and a note telling him it was for when he decided to get out of this world as well. Chris hadn’t even began his in ring career yet.
He would enter the wrestling ring in 1990 during the last days of his father’s days in Dallas. WCCW was already dead, replaced by a division of the United States Wrestling Association, a company formed when Memphis wrestling took control of the Dallas territory.
Chris grew up with severe asthma. He took prednisone for the condition from a young age, and this resulted in a smaller stature than even his brother Mike. His bones were brittle and he broke them doing simple wrestling moves. He wasn’t built to be a wrestler, but David and Mike were dead and Kerry had taken a job in WWF. His family needed him. Already addicted to painkillers and recreational narcotics, he entered the family business.
All indications are that Chris never recovered from the depression he suffered when his brother Mike killed himself. With his own career failing as it began, Chris took that note from his brother to heart. He shot himself in the head in September 1991. He was just 21.
Kevin all but retired the same year, with only a handful of matches throughout the 90s.
Kerry continued on in the WWF until 1992, the entire time wrestling on a hidden prosthetic inside his boots. He would leave the company to return to Dallas and the Sportatorium, now ran by the Global Wrestling Federation, another upstart. But a move away from WWF brought his drug problems out of the shadows of Titan Towers and into the public eye. While still on a ten year probation for his previous drug arrests, two more arrests for drug charges in a matter of months meant he would soon face jail time. His marriage was in shambles.
In his autobiography My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Bret Hart talked about the suicidal inclinations of Kerry Von Erich. He tried to talk him out of it over a year before his eventual death. But with the drug charges against him and his family gone, he finally failed his family at a time where no one still had the pull to keep him free.
A day after his final indictment on the charges, he shot himself in the heart at his father’s ranch. He was 33, an old man compared to his brothers.
By this point, the identity of the man most responsible for the tragedy of the Von Erichs was clear. His name was Jack Adkisson, but everyone knew him as Fritz. After 42 years of marriage, his wife Doris divorced him just months before Kerry’s death. One can only imagine the trauma she went through as she watched her husband push one son after another to their deaths.
Fritz Von Erich died in 1997, from lung cancer. He outlived five of his six children. He was 68.
Doris Adkisson would carry on quietly away from the horrors of her family. She would live close to her remaining son Kevin, before she passed away in 2015 at the age of 82.
She lived long enough to see the third generation of Von Erichs enter the ring. Kerry’s daughter Lacey would work for Wrestlicious and Impact Wrestling over a five year career before suddenly retiring in 2010. Much like the uncles she barely knew, Chris and Mike, her aptitude was never for professional wrestling. She retired to California where she runs an ad agency and has three children.
Kevin’s two sons were athletes in their own rights. Marshall and Ross Von Erich grew up without their uncles. Their grandfather died when Ross was 9 and Marshall was 5. Yet they longed to follow into their family’s footsteps. But it seemed Kevin learned from his family’s misfortunes. They would train with Harley Race before spending over a year as young boys in Pro Wrestling Noah. In over sixty matches for the company, their victories could be counted on one hand. They trained and they learned while working in a Japanese company that took injuries very seriously.
Over the next few years they worked sporadically around the country, with a handful of appearances in Impact and a run in the Oklahoma based Imperial Wrestling Revolution. It wasn’t until this year that they signed their first long term wrestling contract with Major League Wrestling. They won that company’s tag titles in November.
At 31 and 27, Ross and Marshall have outlived all but one of their uncles.
Where this new generation of Von Erich goes remains an open question. But it seems clear without the toxic influence of their grandfather, their chances for survival are far greater than their uncles.
The Von Erich legacy is one of tragedy, but few Texas wrestling fans look at their days in World Class for the horrible circumstances behind the scenes or the clearly abusive tendencies of their father. For them, it remains a halcyon day of right versus wrong in wrestling. The Von Erichs versus the Freebirds.
Perhaps it is a twist right out of wrestling storytelling that the Von Erichs’ true villain was among them all along.