When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be a reporter or an astronaut or a fireman. My goals were a bit loftier, or lower depending on your point of view.
I wanted to be a professional wrestler.
I used to watch “All Star Wrestling” on Sunday mornings with my dad — who now hates wrestling, but I digress — and was riveted by the guys in The American Wrestling Association out of Minneapolis. Verne Gagne, the Crusher, Billy Robinson, the Vachons; they made me want to lace up my boots and step into the ring even though I was 4 foot, 4 inches and 70 pounds dripping wet.
Wrestling fell by the wayside for me until the mid 1980s when I found the World Wrestling Federation. Again, the athleticism got to me. By now, I had finally learned it was scripted, but I also knew it wasn’t totally fake. These guys were pumped with bulging muscles and bigger-than-life personas.
That athleticism came with a price, and it’s taken a while for that debt to come due for a lot of them.
Now, those wrestlers are dying by the dozens when they’re barely 50, and usually younger. The cause of death: Invariably heart stress brought on by steroid abuse.
The latest wrestler to head off to the arena in the sky is The Ultimate Warrior, born James Hellwig before he legally changed his name to Warrior. Not to speak ill of the dead, but Hellwig was not one of the fullest enchiladas on the blue plate special. His big finishing move was running into a rope and bouncing back to throw himself on top of his opponent. The clever moniker for this move was the “big splash,” probably because “dogpile on your neighbor” was already taken.
The Warrior had a physique that was pretty much impossible to achieve without some medicinal help, and that probability looks especially likely today. Warrior was just inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame a few days before he dropped dead in the street from a heart attack at the ripe old age of 55.
The list of wrestlers who have died from heart problems due to steroid abuse is like a Who’s Who of pro wrestling. Eddie Guerrero was 38 and a fan favorite when he died in a hotel room during a tour. Randy Poffo, Macho Man Randy Savage, was 58 when a heart attack caused him to lose control of his jeep. Davey “Boy” Smith, the British Bulldog, was 39 when he dropped dead on a vacation.
Perhaps the saddest story of steroid abuse is Chris Benoit.
You’ve likely heard this one. Benoit was a small guy, but quickly became hyper-muscled after his wrestling debut. Benoit didn’t die of a heart attack, though. He committed suicide the day after appearing in a live show, which was the day after he murdered his wife and son. Due to his well-known feelings for his family, the conclusion was a bout of “roid rage,” a short temper and a possible side-effect of long-term steroid abuse.
I lay a lot of the blame for this on Vincent Kennedy McMahon, the head of World Wrestling Entertainment, who encouraged his entertainers to become bigger than life. He liked them big, and you were likely to go further if you looked like you could bench-press a truck.
There’s a lesson here. Chemicals to improve your performance have a tendency to shorten the life. The candle which burns the brightest has the shortest life. If you’re a young person who’s thinking of using steroids just to get a little better and think they’re relatively harmless, ask yourself one question: Is it worth the fame to die young?
Yeah, I’m looking at you, Mark McGwire.
Ken Schroeder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.