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The King of New Orleans
How the Junkyard Dog Became Wrestling's First Black Superstar
By Greg Klein
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2012 Greg Klein
All rights reserved.
Anson County, North Carolina, was first settled in the colonial era. Although its roots are in the wilderness, its long history has mostly been agricultural, a boom-and-bust growth cycle that went bust in the '90s, when most of the local textile mills closed down. Its county seat had a similar fate; the first one, on the Pee Dee River, was prone to flooding. A second attempt, called Newtown, was located away from the river, and was renamed Wadesboro in 1787 in honor of local Revolutionary War minuteman Colonel Thomas Wade, who died that year. For three days in 1865, the town played host to part of Sherman's army while it was on its march north. More recently, invaders came from Hollywood: The Color Purple was filmed in the county.
Modern Wadesboro has about 5,000 residents, nearly 20 percent of the population of still-rural Anson County. The town is less than an hour east of booming Charlotte, but it has experienced very little of the suburban growth of neighboring Union County. Its eastern neighbor, Rockingham, with its famous NASCAR track, has had more success, but it, too, is suffering these days as the motor sport pulls back from its southern roots and sends its races nationwide.
Wadesboro has seen similar migration, as the cotton business has faded and the few mills that remain have been converted to make synthetic materials. "Today, our chief export is people," says Wadesboro town manager John Witherspoon. "We're exporting our workforce elsewhere."
To say the town was booming in the '50s is probably an exaggeration, but things were different: more Mayberry, less a southern version of the rust belt. Then, as now, the population was fairly evenly split between white and black. But the Wadesboro where Sylvester Ritter grew up had its problems, too. At times, in Wadesboro, as in wrestling, Ritter stood in the middle of the controversy.
He was born on December 13, 1952, to Bertha Lee Ritter and John Wall. Ritter's father was an absentee dad, a pattern Sylvester would largely repeat with his own children. His mother, too, would disappear at times; Sylvester and his sister, Christine, were mostly raised by their grandmother, Arzzie Lee Ritter, alongside their cousins, Vera and Carl Ray Ritter. Sylvester also had a half-brother, Calvin Colson, who grew up elsewhere. Very few of Sylvester's friends and neighbors remember seeing or even hearing about John Wall. Bertha Ritter was gone long enough that her children and the people around them referred to Arzzie as their mother.
In 1965, under a federal order, North Carolina began combining and integrating schools. At the time, the black kids went to Fasion School and the white kids went to Bowman, a short distance away. Bowman's junior-high football coach, Ed Emory, took an interest in some of the athletes at Fasion and began inviting them to play at the larger school. Today, "Coach," as he is still known, is a city councilman in Wadesboro, having returned to Anson County after a long career coaching in the college ranks. He remembers Ritter coming over in the first wave of players: "Tommy Peguese, he was the first one, and I seem to remember Sylvester and a group of about 17 boys following him. The coach at Fasion, he knew they weren't going to be very good there, but if they came and played for us, then all of them had a chance to win games and go to college." Ritter certainly fell into that group. He was huge, even in junior high, and he learned quickly, playing football for the junior-high team and wrestling on the varsity squad, where his size transcended his age and experience. "In the eighth grade, he was as big as he was the last time I saw him," Emory said, "228 pounds and over six feet tall. He became a real good football player."
Success took a little longer in wrestling, and Ritter encountered the first signs of the racism and hostility that accompanied the forced integration. "We were wrestling farther west, in Hope County, a place that had all sorts of issues, not just with blacks and whites, but with a big Indian population," Emory said. "For four to five years, they had a heavyweight who was about 400 pounds. So I sent Sylvester out there against him as an eighth grader. I told him, 'Sylvester, you might be able to muscle him and get a pin, but whatever you do, don't get underneath him, because he'll squash you.' Sure enough, he goes out there the first minute and tries to shoot on him and wham, he's underneath him. Then all of sudden there's this loud scream, and the heavyweight is jumping up screaming, 'that [racial epithet] bit me.' Well, I thought there was going to be a brawl, the crowd all converging on the mat. So I ran out there and shoved Sylvester down with a forearm and knocked him away from the issue. I asked him, 'Sylvester, what do you think you're doing?' He said, 'He was about to smother me.' I said, 'Son, he won't smother you in three seconds.'"
More serious was the development of a local KKK chapter in Anson County that was intent on preserving segregation. The local grand dragon, Roger Carpenter, had two sons at Bowman. Vernon Carpenter, sometimes known as Birddog, was in the same grade and on the same junior-high team as Ritter. Vernon's older brother, Charles "Fireball" Carpenter, scary name and all, played sports, but was not as interested in them as he was in being a tormentor. The presence of black football players, and specifically the idea of white and black players sharing facilities, sent their father and his group into hysterics. The strong emotions threatened to turn into violence.
One day, Carpenter led a group of 50 or so Klansman to Emory's office. "Roger Carpenter said to me, 'These men would like to speak to you.' I told him he was a father of one of my players, he could speak to me. Well, we worked it out so he could bring in a couple of young fellows with him into my office. He said, 'We're worried you're violating my sons' civil rights.' I asked him, 'You think what now?' He told me that his sons' civil rights were being violated with the black and white locker room. I told him, 'This here's football; it's not a democracy. It's a dictatorship and I'm the dictator.'"
Carpenter and his men went away that day, but no one was happy with the incident or the outcome. "My wife, Virginia, thought we were going to get blown up," Emory said. "She said, 'Coach, I'm putting the babies in the car and I'm going back to Greenville. You're going to get blown up and we're not going to be here.' My superintendent thought we were going to be firebombed."
The Wadesboro story found its way into the press through the Raleigh News Observer. When Sports Illustrated picked up on the local news, it became a national phenomenon. Of course, this only inflamed emotions more, and worried everyone around the situation. Then it got worse, and Ritter was in the middle of it. "Fireball would sneak into our lockers and steal Sylvester's shirt and put it in the white kids' lockers. Sylvester would get angry and would confront the kids, and he was the most intimidating guy for a seventh or eighth grader," said Emory. "So I tried to get in the middle of it, and it came out that it was Fireball. I told him to go home, he was off the team. Well, his daddy came back and charged me, a full head of steam. I just hit him before he could try anything, and then people broke it up after that. He was so angry he pulled Vernon off the team. Every day, poor Vernon would show up to practice and I'd say, 'Vernon, did your dad say you could play?' He'd say no, so I'd make him run around the field all practice. My wife said, 'Coach, you're crazy. I'm loading the [kids into the] van and going back to Greenville.'"
Eventually, the situation became too inflamed even for Emory. He left Wadesboro for an assistant coaching spot at Wake Forest before becoming head coach at his alma mater, East Carolina University. "Fireball" Carpenter didn't have such a bright future. The Klansman's son is currently in the middle of a 40-year term for drug trafficking.
Ritter continued to thrive in athletics, eventually lettering in football, wrestling, and track and field. Even early on, he liked professional wrestling. Richard Johnson grew up with Ritter, and preceded him at Fayetteville State University by a year. "Sylvester, he didn't have a dad. He used to come over to my house and my dad loved wrestling, so we all used to watch it," said Johnson. "We would watch it every Saturday morning." The local group, Jim Crockett Sr.'s Mid Atlantic Wrestling, was enjoying one of its best runs. Johnson said some of their favorites were Johnny Valentine, George Becker, Haystacks Calhoun, and the Great Bolo.
According to Frank Richardson, the head track coach and assistant football coach at Bowman at the time, Ritter was good at everything. "I don't recall him on the junior varsity," said Richardson, "he went straight from eighth grade to the varsity. Even in ninth and tenth grade, you could tell he was extremely ambitious, extremely competitive." Richardson remembers Ritter being well liked, as well. "He was precocious. What I mean by that is as a child, his size understated his age. But he was very well liked, very congenial. The teachers tended to like him, and he was very respectful of his teachers. He carried himself very well. He was his own ambassador.
"As a junior and senior, he was always in and out of my house," Richardson said. "My kids were younger than him, but I trusted him with my kids. That's a mark of how much I liked him. One day my son, Frank Jr., had to walk to school, and he was having trouble crossing the highway. He was scared of crossing the highway. Well, Sylvester, he must have gotten himself a car his senior year, because all of a sudden here comes Sylvester in this car. He sees Frank Jr. on the side of the road upset, and he pulled over, put him in the car, and gave him a lift to school. That was the kind of guy he was. He had a heart, and he loved kids."
It was a trait that would serve him well in wrestling. Much like his later friends in the business, Ritter's school friends and coaches describe him as witty and funny, and even back then he had a tendency to the pro wrestling tradition of ribbing, or playing practical jokes. However, according to Coach Richardson, Ritter's teasing of other kids backfired at least once. "We were in track season, and he got to jawing with another kid he knew from football," Richardson said. "Sylvester must have really gotten under his skin, because I had to break it up, and I ended up sending the other kid to my office to get them away from one another. Well, this kid took the starter's pistol from my office and came back on the field. He pointed it at Sylvester and fired it right at his chest. Of course it fired a blank, but Sylvester hit the ground like he'd been shot. When he found out he wasn't, it took five or six football players to hold him back. We dragged him to my office to try to calm him down. We never could. The only thing that calmed him down was when we called for his mother to come get him."
The experience didn't dim Ritter's enthusiasm for jokes, or for enjoying himself, but he worked hard as an athlete, too. He was an all-state senior football player and an all-conference wrestler. His grades were so-so, which hurt his potential for big-time football. "He was excellent at football," Emory said. "He was a four-year starter. He certainly could have played at a Division I school if he had not had trouble with his grades."
Instead, Ritter followed his friend Johnson to Fayetteville State University (FSU), a storied black college an hour east in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he again excelled at football, playing for the FSU Broncos. He started all four years, playing all over the offensive line. His coach, Raymond McDougal, still coaches golf at Fayetteville, and remembers going to recruit Ritter personally. "I made up my mind while coaching that I was only going to recruit quality guys," McDougal said. "That was Sylvester. He did anything that he could to help the team. He played every position short of punting that we asked him to play. In his senior year, he was one of my captains. I tell you what, you don't necessarily pick the captain based on athletic ability. The captain of our golf team now isn't our best golfer. You pick the best guy. You have to pick someone the team is going to respect. That was Sylvester. He came in and did well from the beginning. He was at home here. We didn't have a wrestling program at Fayetteville, but a lot of the players knew him from wrestling. They knew he could take care of himself. It wasn't a big adjustment for him."
Ritter started for the Broncos for four years, and was one of the top players in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) every year. In his junior and senior years, he made all-American for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA). He wasn't drafted into the NFL, contrary to pro wrestling lore, but he did pave the way for one of only three Broncos to play big-league football in the school's history. Running back James Godwin had the benefit of playing three years behind Ritter. Godwin ranks as one of the all-time FSU greats, and was drafted by the New York Jets in 1976.
Going into his senior year, Ritter had no idea that he wanted to be a professional wrestler. He had his sights set on professional football, instead, although he seemed to be realistic about his skills. In a campus newspaper interview from the summer before his senior year, he mentioned his training, noting that he had been timed at 5.0 seconds in the 40-yard dash — a decent time for a lineman. Ritter named the World Football League and Canadian Football League as pro options, but he eventually aimed higher. The NFL's Houston Oilers sent him an invitation to their training camp in 1975. Pro wrestling legend and even his Wadesboro obituary have stretched the truth into him being drafted, but there is no evidence to support this. There is also no record of him playing for any team, even in preseason. Ritter did try out with Houston in 1975, but was cut because of knee problems. A year later, he had a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, but injury cut that short, too.
His football dreams dashed, Ritter returned home to North Carolina and took a job as a deputy sheriff for Mecklenburg County, in the greater Charlotte area, not far from Wadesboro. The department held an event where officers got involved in a wrestling tournament. Ritter, with his size and amateur skills, surprised everyone with his dominance. A coworker had some experience as a pro wrestling referee, and suggested Ritter give it a try.
"He used to come by the house all the time," said Richard Johnson, who was pursuing a career in teaching in nearby Hickory. "He told me, 'I'm going to Charlotte to become a wrestler.' He said he was working out with the wrestlers, and had gotten Sonny King to train him. He asked me if I wanted to be his manager. I told him I didn't know anything about wrestling. I was trying to be a coach and a teacher. Years later, he came back when he had left Mid South and signed with the WWF. He said he had signed a million-dollar contract. I asked him, 'Do you still need me to be your manager?'" Johnson's father, John Wilson Johnson, who had kindled the boys' love of wrestling, didn't live long enough to see Ritter become a star, a fact Richard laments. "I wish he could have seen Sylvester wrestle. He would have liked that."
Through the highs and lows of his career, Ritter remained Ritter to his friends. Sometimes he had money; at the end he had less, but he never big-timed his way back home. "He'd come by the house, and we'd have all kinds of conversations," Johnson said. "When he was going through his [first] divorce ... when I had my own troubles ... he was more like a brother than a friend." At times, Ritter had to defend his chosen profession, much as all wrestlers did in the era of kayfabe. "I remember asking him if it was fake," Johnson said. "He pulled out a pouch filled with money and began counting hundred-dollar bills. 'You can tell me to stop counting when it looks fake to you,' he said."
Excerpted from The King of New Orleans by Greg Klein. Copyright © 2012 Greg Klein. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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