Read an Excerpt
Ravage away, demons of sorrow
Unleash your armies, devils of pain
Your dark magic can't dim the memories
Of Superstar Billy Graham's golden reign
poem by Jeff Marshall, literature professor and wrestling fan
I wasn't supposed to be here.
By October 2002, I'd become a literal shell of the man who'd sold out Madison Square Garden nineteen times, when the world knew me not by my birth name of Eldridge Wayne Coleman, but as Superstar Billy Graham, perhaps the first modern "sports entertainer" in the pro wrestling frater-nity. Now, when I stepped out of the shower, I'd shift my back to the mirror and turn out the light to avoid glancing at my reflection, knowing that my withered body could never measure up to what it was in my glory years charismatic, bronzed and blond, a spectacle with bulging veins, twenty-two-inch "pythons," and a rap that was more responsible for my drawing power than my actual wrestling ability.
"I am the sensation of the nation. The number-one creation."
Twenty-five years had passed since 1977, the year I became heavyweight champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), the company now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Our business was divided into dozens of regional promotions, but the WWWF was the biggest, stretching from Bangor, Maine, down to the nation's capital. Of all the towns around the horn, New York was the focal point of the territory, and in my opinion the criterion for everything.
It was a city that was both terrible and wonderful. In the places where my fans came from Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx the Son of Sam, a man later exposed as a pudgy postal worker, slaughtered innocent lovers passing time in their cars, then sent taunting letters to the press, convinced that his neighbor's dog had commanded him to kill. In midtown Manhattan, people were bathing in coke-induced disco decadence at Studio 54, while downtown on the Bowery, others were rebelling against it, as punk rock went through its toddler stage at CBGB's. The Bronx was burning with landlords torching tenements that were no longer worth the bother but nowhere as brightly as in Yankee Stadium, where Reggie Jackson fought the team's owner, manager, and the rest of the American League, slamming baseballs in the direction of the number 4 train that rumbled on the tracks behind the bleachers.
The city crackled with kinetic energy, and I was part of it. From the corporate towers of Wall Street to the heroin dens off Times Square, New York venerated Superstar Billy Graham, getting down on one knee in the middle of the ring at the Garden and flexing, while my manager, the Grand Wizard, stood behind me in wraparound shades and a red, white, and blue sequined turban with a feather sticking out of the top grooming my glowing locks with a comb he reserved for just such occasions. I wrestled Bruno Sammartino, symbol of immigrant pride, and took his title away by pinning him with my feet on the ropes. I fought Andre the Giant, the "Eighth Wonder of the World." I dragged the "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes around the ring with a bullrope. And I'd stroll out of the Garden and hail a cab as cops, pretzel men, and street walkers looked on in wonder. Because I was the Superstar, and I had that patter I learned as a teenage evangelist to lift up a struggling city and fill its soul.
"I'm the man of the hour, the man with the power. Too sweet to be sour."
Back then, I thought that I was indestructible, a concept enhanced by my gluttonous consumption of anabolic steroids. But thirty years later, I was paying the devil his due in large, painful doses. Nearly three decades of ingesting reckless amounts of Delatestryl, Winstrol, and Deca Durabolin had eroded away my joints my ankle was fused with bone from my pelvic area, both of my hips had been replaced, and my spine was collapsing. Hepatitis C had decayed my liver to the point of failure. My mind was confused because of the release of ammonia into my brain. My urine was as brown as Coca-Cola.
I was going to die.
Then, on October 18, Katie Gillroy, a beautiful woman I'd never met, was riding in the passenger seat of a pickup truck on Interstate 17, near Cactus Road, just a few miles from my apartment in Phoenix, Arizona. Police think the driver might have been cut off by another car and hit the brakes too hard, skidding into the median and flipping over. Katie was ejected from the vehicle and hit the guardrail. At 3:00 A.M., she was declared brain-dead.
Katie was only twenty-six years old vibrant, healthy, funny, and caring. She volunteered at the Humane Society, raised a small son as a single mother, and when she was just a teenager showed maturity and compassion far beyond her years. She signed her donor card. With that simple, selfless act, Katie saved my life.
I don't think it's fair that Katie Gillroy died at such a promising age, and left me on this earth with her liver transplanted in my body. I never imagined that God would literally give me a second chance at life. I've asked him about this, but I haven't heard back. Yet, here I am, still alive after all my mistakes, able to bask in the sun of the Arizona desert, hear the voices of my wife and grandchildren, and tell you the unvarnished story of Superstar Billy Graham.
There weren't any pyrotechnics or entrance music when I made my debut in this world on June 7, 1943. But I never needed those kinds of gimmicks to get a pop. Even in the delivery room, there was a lot of screaming.
I was a breech baby, coming out of my mother feetfirst. As I was being delivered, my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. I was wiggling around a lot, and the doctor was scared that I'd strangle myself. So he drenched me in ether. Then he sent me home, still doused in the flammable liquid. Everybody smoked in my family my mother, my dad, my uncles and it's incredible that the house didn't blow up.
That was the first miracle in my life.
My mom, Juanita Bingaman, came from Paris, Arkansas. She had black hair and strong features and, somewhere in her past, was descended from Arkansas Cherokee. Throughout my life, I always felt an affinity toward Native Americans. I wore turquoise on wrestling interviews and incorporated it into the oil paintings I did at home aged Native American hands polishing blue stone; a warrior standing in front of his horse, his spear and shield held together with strips of leather. Part of me empathized with the outsider status forced onto the Native Americans on their own soil. Nonetheless, I'm convinced that my interest in Native American culture has less to do with my own ancestry than the fact that my parents chose to raise me in Arizona, among the Hopi, Navajo, and Apache, as well as the cacti, Painted Desert, and Joshua trees.
I was the last of Juanita's four children. I shared a father Eldridge John Coleman with my sisters Annette, six years older than me, and Joyce, two years my senior. My brother, Vance, was born in Arkansas in 1933, the product of a romance between my mother and some boy down there. I was very proud of Vance he fought in the Korean War, and became a police captain in Phoenix and have a framed photo of him in uniform next to my writing desk at home. But his presence in our household nearly split my family apart.
I have no idea what happened to that young man. But when Vance was about six years old, my mother met my father, Eldridge John Coleman. My father had bad feelings toward Vance. He never adopted our brother. So Vance's name was Bingaman, and the rest of us were Colemans. When my mother's parents moved to Arizona, she moved, too. And she told my dad, "I don't care if you come to Arizona or not. I'm going, and I'm taking my son." She was going to divorce my dad because he wouldn't accept my older brother. But my father eventually followed her to Arizona.
Joyce Coleman Sampson (Superstar Billy Graham's sister): My older brother was born out of wedlock. My grandfather chased the happy couple down before they could get married, and told my mother, "You're coming home with us." My grandfather said, "This boy will be raised in our home." He never gave the father a chance.
I have no idea what happened to that young man. But when Vance was about six years old, my mother met my father, Eldridge John Coleman. My father had bad feelings toward Vance. He never adopted our brother. So Vance's name was Bingaman, and the rest of us were Colemans.
When my mother's parents moved to Arizona, she moved, too. And she told my dad, "I don't care if you come to Arizona or not. I'm going, and I'm taking my son." She was going to divorce my dad because he wouldn't accept my older brother. But my father eventually followed her to Arizona.
I never knew that my first name was Eldridge until I wrestled in Japan and had to show my birth certificate to get a passport. Everybody called me Wayne. In fact, many of my close friends and family members still do. When you play a character for as many years as I played Superstar Billy Graham, there's going to be some overlap. But while other guys lose themselves in their personas I never stopped being Wayne Coleman.
My father came from Mississippi, raising chickens and turkeys on the family farm, while my grandfather, Tom Coleman, plowed the fields by mule. As a young man, my dad had wavy brown hair, a strong, chiseled face, and deep-set eyes. According to some relatives, at six-foot-four and more than two hundred pounds, he bore a striking resemblance to Superstar Billy Graham. As the city of Phoenix expanded, my dad drove telephone poles into the ground for the local power company, Arizona Public Service (APS). He used to wear shoes with metal hooks and clasps on the front and a belt that looked like a six-shooter, so he could climb up and wrap himself around the poles.
But I never saw that Eldridge John Coleman. By the time I was born, my father was no longer tanned or vigorous. Multiple sclerosis had driven him out of the sunlight and into a job as a shop foreman. In time, his face became puffy. The muscle between his thumb and index finger started to concave. Our backyard became overgrown, and my mother had to push him around in his wheelchair and pick him up to put him on the commode. I remember her having hernia surgery from lifting him so much.
My dad tried medicating himself with alcohol, but the intoxicants never soothed him. He gambled and always came up short. And because I was the youngest one in the house, he took out his frustrations on me.
According to my mother, I didn't walk until I was nearly three years old. There was nothing physically wrong with me. I was just afraid. Beset with his own insecurities over his body's limitations, my father expected perfection from his offspring. If I hesitated or stumbled, he beat me down. So I stayed down. The one time my mother stepped forward to protect me, she also became a victim; my father broke her arm.
Joyce Sampson: Wayne was a slow learner. He didn't learn to walk fast, he didn't learn to speak fast, and he was uncoordinated. And my father tried to shake that out of him. It was like he was saying, "Vance is not my son. You're my son. And you'll be strong and healthy!"
Arizona had been a state for only thirty-one years when I was born. The city of Phoenix was sprinkled with lettuce, cotton, and cantaloupe fields, but changing fast. Between 1940 and 1950, the city's population increased sixty-three percent between 1950 and 1960, three hundred percent. Today, there are nearly 1,400,000 people in Phoenix; in the 1990s, it trailed just New York City in U.S. population growth. It's incredible. The orange and grapefruit groves have been leveled and turned into strip malls and gated housing developments. The desert sand we couldn't give away is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre.
I grew up in a squat, stucco house, smaller than some of the hotel rooms I occupied while working for the WWWF, with a parched driveway along the side leading to a detached garage. At one point, my father had some guys from work pour cement in the backyard to create a square above-ground pool for physical therapy. Then he became really sick and never finished the project. But the empty shell remained, a symbol of frustrated hopes, for years and years.
One of the problems with my dad was that his mind never slowed down, even as his body wasted away. He was always a creative guy, using car batteries to craft an electric wheelchair for himself, with a specially designed joystick. He invented a tool for guys working for the power company a long rod for stringing wire from below and wanted to patent it. But like the pool for physical therapy, it just didn't happen.
His brother, Herb, also had a disability, but a completely different outlook. When he was a furniture builder back in Mississippi, Herb was pushing a hunk of wood through a huge saw and sliced off his arm, just below the elbow.
"If somebody ever tells you he cut his arm off and it didn't hurt," he used to joke, "don't believe him."
After the accident, Herb moved to California and built a competition hydroplane. He did all the complicated welding and repair with one arm, and went through life with a smile on his face and the attitude of a winner. But Herb's problems had ended the day he unwrapped the gauze around the stump of his arm. When my father looked into the future, there was nothing waiting for him but more hardship.
There was a little strip of sidewalk in front of our house, then a patch of grass where the city had built an irrigation culvert a circular concrete block with a metal handle on top. Sometimes it would overflow and flood the lawn. On summer nights, though, I remember sitting on top of the culvert with a kid from the block, looking at the stars and talking about whether or not God was up there.
In Sunday school my mother was Church of Christ, my father a nonobservant Baptist I developed a lifelong fascination with the story of Noah's Ark. As a child, my mind danced with images of the animals walking into the ark, two by two, while Noah's neighbors laughed and scorned him. As I grew older, I read about ancient rocks being found in places like the Grand Canyon layered on top of newer rock. I heard about fossilized fish discovered at the peaks of very high mountains. Could the glaciers have come through and created these phenomena? Or is this proof of a worldwide flood?
Today, scientists are exploring the possibility of a global deluge that would have covered the highest mountaintops. Some experts believe that this natural disaster would have required more than five times the volume of all the oceans on earth. But where would the water come from, and recede to?
How did the penguins from the South Pole and polar bears from the Arctic Circle get onto the ark? Were they even there? In the natural world, these animals would never have made it. But with divine intervention, they could have been transported.
What happened after the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey? How did the alligators and hippos make it down? Could the delicate gazelles have traveled over the cracks and crevices? It's not even close to being logical. Again, that's before you take the hand of God into account.
My interest in Noah's Ark led to other fixations. To this day, I wonder how the earth spins on its axis. What triggered that? Was there a divine plan to rotate and tilt the planet, and have seasons? There's too much mathematical complexity in the universe for everything to have started by accident in a primordial soup of mud.
When I wasn't pondering such mysteries, I'd occasionally engage in more pedestrian activities. Phoenix was not a significant wrestling town when I was a kid, but we did receive broadcasts on the old Dumont Network from the Marigold Arena in Chicago. Sky Hi Lee was a mammoth wrestler from Canada, afflicted with acromegaly or "giantism" the same disease that infiltrated Andre the Giant's body. When he appeared on the screen, I was awestruck. He took bites out of lightbulbs and chewed on razor blades. But the thing that intrigued me the most was when he pierced his pecs with a sharp steel pin, underneath the nipple, drawing no blood. There had to be bleeding right?! Unless Sky Hi Lee was satanic.
I don't remember a lot of adult supervision. In third or fourth grade, I was playing army with a little pal, and we decided to dig a foxhole on the side of his house. He had a real shovel, and I had a real pick a pick a miner would use if he wanted to smash through rocks and hunt for gold. We were turned in opposite directions from each other, and as my friend was bending over I accidentally cocked back the pick and caught the poor kid just near the spine.
He let out these ungodly screams. Then his mother came out of the house and began yelling, "My son! Oh, my God! My son!"
The pick was still in the kid's back.
I ran home, and he was rushed into surgery. Because I missed his spine, thank God, there wasn't any kind of paralysis. But my parents were from backwood country, raised to discipline their kids by beating them with switches from weeping willow trees. Unfortunately for me, somebody had transplanted weeping willows into Phoenix. Now I was told to go out to our tree, break off my own branch, peel the leaves off the switch, and bring it back in.
Needless to say, I got a pretty good lashing.
Phoenix looks a lot different today than it did when I was growing up there in the forties and fifties, so I often forget about this period of my life. But on those occasions when I pass a weeping willow tree, it all comes right back.
Once we moved to a different part of town, into a house without a weeping willow tree out front, my father found a different way to punish me taking off his belt, backing me into a corner, and whaling away. Sometimes I asked for trouble. Sometimes I didn't. Once, when I was walking home from school, I saw an old, abandoned house that was going to be gutted and renovated. So I picked up a rock and threw it through the window. One of my sisters told on me, and when I got home, off came the belt. I didn't really think this was fair because the windows were going to be taken out anyway. It's not like I vandalized Senator Goldwater's home, or anything like that.
My mother would be right in the middle of these beatings, screaming for my father to stop until one day, I didn't go into the corner. I just stood there and faced my dad as he sat in his wheelchair, looking ever more gaunt, with the strap clutched in his nicotine-stained fingers. When he swung, I caught the belt and pulled it out of his hands. Here he was, getting weaker, and I was growing stronger, right in front of his eyes. There was nothing that he could do. As relieved as I was to be putting an end to the beatings, I felt sad for my father. He was wasting away.
He was nine.
Joyce Sampson: Wayne was a big boy his whole life. The last time I hit him, I was eleven years old, and I hit him in the head with a brick because he was too big to hit with anything else. That could have caused some of his problems later on.
He was nine.
Even in elementary school, I was able to play football with high school kids. In one game, I got hit so hard that I broke my collarbone. It was sticking up through my skin as I pedaled home on my bicycle. The doctors put me in a wraparound cast, with a big, jagged piece on the inside, digging into my back. The pain and itching were excruciating. I'd rub against a spot in the house where two walls joined together, and stick a coat hanger down the plaster and scratch. Everybody said I was just experiencing normal cast itch and complaining too much. It wasn't until the cast was removed and my parents saw the three-inch indentation in my back that I was vindicated.
It was around this time that I started to become an artist, drawing and painting. I built a mobile for my fifth-grade class at the Whittier School a mobile that kind of looked like a globe, with a few abstract items hanging from it and received an A on my report card as a result. I suspended my project from the ceiling with fishing wire, and made the frame with copper wire from my dad's job; they had rolls and rolls of the stuff for telephone lines. The experience exemplifies the complexity of our relationship my dad had been giving me all these beatings, yet he offered to take me down to work to help me with my art.
I also began challenging my physical abilities. We used to play softball next to a basketball court outside our school. The cafeteria was just to the side of the third baseline. I knew there were teachers in that room, taking their breaks, and I wanted to pull a foul ball so it would crash through the cafeteria window. Utilizing both athletic skill and mental strength, I stood at home plate until I accomplished that goal. As warped as this sounds, when I drove that ball through the glass and teachers went scattering everywhere, I became a hero.
At the Boys Club near my house, I started to get involved in track and field events; at that age, the broad jump was my forte. During a visit to one of the coach's offices, I spotted a can of Bob Hoffman's Protein Pills. Bob Hoffman had a bodybuilding magazine, in which he editorialized about the fortifying powers of the supplements he just happened to market. I believed every word, and when no one was around, I stole the entire can.
But as I was walking home, I became frightened that I was going to get caught. There was only one choice hiding the evidence. There's a fight-or-flight response in everyone. And with a huge release of adrenaline, I began eating the pills by the handful. They were carob, and by the time I arrived at my house, I'd finished all 150.
I threw up as soon as I stepped through the door but my long, dark journey into the clandestine acquisition of performance-enhancing supplements was under way.
For reasons I'll never really fathom, the neighborhood bully seemed preoccupied with me. Because of my size, most of the kids my age left me alone. But this guy was in eighth grade when I was in fifth. I remember him having a lot of pimples on his face; I guess his hormones were making him aggressive. Whenever he saw me, he'd promise to "pants" me remove my Levi's and string them on the flagpole.
I didn't know what to do. So I told my brother, Vance. Vance was one of the toughest guys I ever met, but he was twenty years old at the time, ready to go over and fight in the Korean War. He wasn't about to swagger into the playground and beat up an eighth-grader.
"Look," Vance said, "you're gonna have to fight this kid on your own. It's the only way you're gonna learn to take care of yourself."
I avoided the bully for as long as I could. Then, on a scorching hot day in May, as I was shooting baskets, he saw me.
"Hey, Coleman, are you ready to get pantsed?"
He came up to me, sweating, with the pimples bursting on his face. I bounced the ball to him. "Would you like to shoot some baskets?" I asked, ignoring his previous comment.
I was trying to work him. And he went for it. We shot baskets for a while, then he moved on. He didn't exactly become my friend, but I never had to fight him. Along with my physical gifts, God had blessed me with charisma and a sharp mind and this wouldn't be the last time I used them to escape an uncomfortable encounter.
Before Vance left for the service, though, he wanted me to start working out it didn't matter to him that I was only in the fifth grade. When I came out of school one day, Vance was waiting in his car, and drove me to his gym on Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. The place was on the second floor, across the street from the historic police building where my brother would later work. The vision of these weightlifters, walking around in their black muscle shirts with their arms bulging out, just captured my imagination. I wanted to be a bodybuilder, too.
It wasn't going to be easy. Almost instantly, I got stuck with 80 pounds of weight on my chest at the bench press. I couldn't budge the bar, and someone had to come over and take the weights off me. Then I went over to the squat rack. But I didn't understand physics, and wasn't sure how to balance the weights on the bar. When I unloaded 200 or so pounds from one side, the loaded end crashed to the ground and the bar flew up out of my hands, smashing through the window like a javelin, raining shattered glass on all those people on the sidewalk below.
When the day was over, though, I asked Vance to bring me back. The seed had definitely been planted. Soon, my room was covered with magazine photos of John Grimek, Steve Reeves, and other bodybuilders.
I think I needed bodybuilding because my treatment at home caused some major self-esteem problems. As soon as I hit adolescence, I had acne. So when the whole family made ice cream together in the summertime and I did the churning for a solid hour I couldn't eat any. "You don't need any more pimples, Wayne," everyone would say. No one had a clue that my hormones had caused my acne, not sugar.
Once, we were in the family car, driving out to Los Angeles to see some of my mother's relatives, and my father looked at me in the backseat through the rearview mirror.
"Why can't you get rid of those damn pimples?" he grunted condemningly. How do you think that makes a kid feel when he's already so insecure?
While Vance was in Korea, I made my own weights screwing together metal bands from my dad's job, twisting them into a circular shape, and pouring concrete down the middle. I'd place a pipe in the center of the cement and turn it around until the concrete dried. Then I had a hole for the bar. I used this method to make six big plates, about 40 pounds apiece. I made smaller plates, too. When I wanted dumbbells, I had a similar system, filling Folger's coffee cans with cement.
At fourteen, I was playing Pony League baseball just above Little League level generally walking the two miles or so between the diamond and my home. One afternoon I was taking a shortcut, and happened to glance into some guy's front yard. He had an entire gym there: a bench press, chin-up bar, lat machine, and dumbbells all set up on the lawn. I went right up to the front door and knocked. A fairly attractive woman named Sandy answered.
"Whose gym is this?" I asked.
"My husband, Roy's. He and his friend Chester like working out."
"Even in the summer, here in Arizona?"
"Yeah. They just wait until the sun goes down and work out under the porch light."
This is cool, I thought. "I'd like to work out with these guys," I offered.
"You can come over any time you want."
I took her up on her offer. Chester worked in a welding shop, and Roy drilled water wells. He was a bodybuilder and was getting ready for a physique contest. Once he came home from work every day, Sandy cooked him a huge dinner, and he'd start pumping iron.
"How can you work out after such a big meal?" I asked him one day.
"It doesn't bother me," he said. "Let's hit it."
After a few weeks, I began to feel like part of the family. Roy would hook a little lightbulb at the top of the doorway, and we'd pose under it, like we were in some competition. One night, everyone was sitting around when Sandy mentioned, "You know, it gets so hot during the daytime that I walk around the house nude." She smiled. "No air conditioner."
I don't think I did a very good job of containing my surprise. "Really? Nude?"
"Yeah, when Roy's at work and Chester's busy in the welding shop, I just walk around nude. I can't stand the heat."
"Really?" I replied, trying to play it casual. Then, "What time of the day do you usually do this?"
She was giving me all this information in front of her husband, but he seemed oblivious. Chester was sitting there, squinting through his glasses and grinning. I'd had the impression that Chester lusted for Sandy. But she wasn't talking to Chester. She was talking to me.
"Where does Roy work, by the way?" I inquired.
"About thirty miles from here."
"Does he ever come home early?"
This seemed too good to be true, but it wasn't. When I stopped by a few days later, Sandy was more than happy to treat an inexperienced teenager to some afternoon delight a craving I indulged in for the remainder of that long, hot summer.
Soon, though, I didn't have to visit the house anymore. When I was fifteen, my father made me an offer. If I would massage his feet once a day, he'd buy me a membership at a place like the one where Vance worked out. It was heartbreaking. His circulation problems were so severe that he needed his fifteen-year-old son the kid he'd been smacking around since birth to massage his feet. Money was tight in our family, and a gym membership was a luxury. But I took it and, in the process, managed to create even more distance between myself and my dad's moods turning the garage into my bedroom.
Joe Ehlers, North High track team captain, 1957-58: No one felt comfortable visiting Wayne's home. You could tell there was a lot of disharmony. His father was in the wheelchair. There was just an eerie feeling that things weren't right. You'd come in, say hello, and just want to get away.
Our school had quite a reputation for sport. We had all these multiple athletes on the track team. When Wayne was in eighth grade, he was at the meet where Jim Brewer set a national record, clearing 15 feet in the pole vault. During Wayne's freshman year, Dallas Long set a national high school record for the shot put 69 feet and 334 inches. Dallas would compete for our coach, Vern Wolfe, at USC (University of Southern California) and win a bronze at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and a gold at the Tokyo Games in '64.
In 1959, Karl Johnstone threw the discus almost 200 feet.
Wayne was a pretty good-sized boy for his age, slender but very muscular. Outstandingly so. His specialty was the decathlon. At North High, if he'd continued at the pace he was going, he had the potential to be the greatest athlete of all of them.
From a distance, North High with its earth-tone walls and simulated adobe roof looked like any other school in the Southwest. But I'm still amazed by the quality of some of the people I met there.
It was exciting to be on the same team as guys like Joe Ehlers and Dallas Long. Joe ran the half-mile in 1:58.5 but treated me as a peer, even as a freshman. It's a lesson I never forgot. After becoming a wrestling headliner, I always remembered to make the lesser-known talent feel welcome.
After Coach Wolfe got to USC, twenty-four of his athletes set world records, and six became Olympic gold medalists. Anyone who met him knows why. When I first started at North High, we were throwing the shot put on the grass. Then I helped Coach Wolfe build a cement platform on the side of the football stadium. This was a coach who understood that the small touches meant a lot. A cement shot put ring was just one way of raising our standards.
I loved Coach Wolfe. One day he challenged me to a contest: who could walk the farthest upside down on their hands. I made it about ten yards, while my beloved coach walked the entire length of the football field one hundred yards. I congratulated him and said, "I bet you can't do that in handcuffs."
"Go get them," he replied.
I wanted to perform well for myself and our coach. And at fifteen, I was told that I was a few feet ahead of Dallas Long's freshman records in shot put and discus. I had unlimited potential.
My friends called me "Abs." I'd ask my friend Bob Calvan to hold my feet, while I did three sets of 500 sit-ups. But I believe the pronounced formation of my abdominal wall had as much to do with genetics as exercise. My calves looked better than at any other time of my life from running track. I developed my lats by doing bent-over rows curving my body forward as I pulled weights up to my chest. I was very conscious of my appearance, and enhanced it by mixing iodine with baby oil when I tanned.
Many times on the way to school, I'd pass an apartment complex and duck into it, lying out on the lounge chairs by the pool. Sometimes I'd miss the first couple of classes. But I definitely had the look. Even then, I was all about the look.
I had friends take pictures of me posing, like in the bodybuilding magazines, showing off the cuts and separation in my lat shots, turning my back to the camera to display the thickness of my delts, folding my arms behind me to emphasize my triceps. One of my ideas was having an amateur photographer I knew shoot me in my posing trunks, imitating the classic discus thrower pose with a ten-pound plate.
I was still a pimply-faced freshman, but I was running around with seniors chiseled, handsome guys. These were the Casanovas of the school, and I wasn't in their league. But they let me hang around with them and pick up their leftovers.
When my sister Joyce was studying to be a beautician, I asked her to practice her budding trade on me. She was supposed to bleach my hair blond, but it turned out orange. I went to school anyway, walking into the cafeteria with my fiery mane. Every head turned. The students let out a collective gasp. Being an exhibitionist, I didn't mind the attention. But the principal sent me home.
A generation or so later, Vince McMahon put this incident in context for me: "Superstar, you were always years ahead of your time."
Joyce Sampson: As my father got sicker, the kids had to take on more work in our family the yard, the housekeeping, the cooking. My father had been a big, muscular man, and a bit of a womanizer. He liked to have a good time. If there was a party going on, he was at the party. Now he couldn't take care of himself, and Wayne was growing bigger and bigger. And my father became even more angry and jealous.
When you come from an abusive home, you carry a lot of rage inside of you. And most likely, it isn't directed in the most intelligent way. As a pimpled-out, high-testosteroned teenager, I went out with trouble on my shoulder, always looking for a fight. So did my friends. We'd cruise up and down Central Avenue and get into fights with guys from other high schools. These fights created a pecking order that everyone knew about.
My friend Fred Hinkle was four years older than me, and loved to box; he once hit a speed bag so hard that it broke loose from its mooring. It was Fred who gave me these words of wisdom: "Wear work gloves when you fight." The thin leather would keep your hand compact, so you wouldn't break any knuckles and fingers when you were striking someone in the jaw.
It was also Fred who encouraged me to enter the 1959 Golden Gloves. I had a good right hook, and usually knocked people out in the first round. Taking note of my 210-pound frame, the newspapers described me as "The Giant" a high school shot-putting star with professional boxing potential. My father came to some of my fights, and seemed really proud of me. Ironically, I lost in the finals to one of his coworkers a really nice kid who loved my dad. I'd trained with this guy, and destroyed him in the gym. But this time, I held back a little bit because I liked him, and lost on a split decision.
Unfortunately, with all my other activities, I stopped caring about my grades. And to the disappointment of Coach Wolfe, Joe Ehlers, and some others who'd personally invested in me, I dropped out during my junior year.
Joe Ehlers: I didn't understand that at all. Wayne was surrounded by these great athletes. It was an incredible time, and he was in it. But he had so many things going on. There were the problems with his father. And he'd gotten himself involved with some young men who I felt were leading him astray. He lost his way.
I wasn't worried about making money. The city was getting bigger, and I'd already started digging ditches for an underground sprinkler system. When the workday was over, the fun started. At one point, I grew a goatee like my idol Steve Reeves, the actor who played Hercules in the movies. Every now and then, my bodybuilder friends and I amused ourselves by going to this lesbian nightclub on Van Buren Street and having fun with the clientele.
"Hey," I'd challenge, shirtless and tan and hitting a bicep pose, "don't you want some of this?"
Some of the women were appalled. Others laughed with us. And some, I was positive, thought about switching.
Yet I was extremely serious about my bodybuilding. I was now regularly entering contests, shaving my legs, chest, and arms for a better look. I still had pimples on my back. But, believe it or not, the acne scars on my face actually gave me a mature look when I competed.
Because airfare was not readily available to a lot of kids in the early sixties, Mr. Teenage America awarded East and West Coast championships. In 1961, I won the overall title for my part of the country; Frank Zane took the honors on the East Coast. Seven years after I stole that can of Bob Hoffman's Protein Pills, my photo was featured in Bob Hoffman's bodybuilding magazine Strength & Fitness. I thought that the award was tiny, so like a wrestling heel I stole the heat from the prize and made myself the focus of the picture, holding a magnifying glass to the trophy.
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