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: