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Mehno: ‘The Animal’ was good man and character

Commentary

PITTSBURGH — Jim Myers died the other day. George “The Animal” Steele did, too.

Even though they were the same person, Myers was just short of his 80th birthday, while Steele had just turned 50.

It was all part of a fascinating and profitable double life that ended for one of pro wrestling’s top bad guys.

Jim Myers was working as a teacher and football coach in the Detroit suburbs in the early 1960s. With two kids and another on the way, his teaching salary of just under $5,000 was strained.

A buddy suggested that Myers, a former Michigan State football player, might give wrestling a try. Myers had never paid any attention to wrestling, but soon found himself learning the basics of wrestling’s timeless illusion.

In order to conceal his identity from school administrators, he put on a mask and called himself The Student. His wrestling income quickly doubled what he made teaching.

In the fall of 1966, Bruno Sammartino purchased the local wrestling promotion in Pittsburgh. He and two aides headed to Detroit. While Sammartino wrestled on the card, his real purpose was a scouting mission for fresh wrestlers to bring to Pittsburgh. That trip changed Jim Myers’ life.

Sammartino saw The Student work, and offered him a shot in Pittsburgh. He didn’t want a masked man, though.

Jim Myers still didn’t want to use his real name. So he invented the name George Steele for his Pittsburgh debut, his first wrestling without a mask.

“George Steele” made his debut in January of 1967 as a merciless rule breaker, a “heel” in wrestling parlance. Balding and bulky, he looked the part. He did witty interviews that insulted Sammartino in a faux-beatnik argot that included addressing people as “Daddy-O.”

Steele and Sammartino were soon clashing in main events. The matches drew good crowds, so Sammartino took Steele to New York to meet wrestling chief Vince McMahon Sr.

McMahon was unimpressed until Steele removed his shirt. When he saw the fur matting Steele’s chest and back, he knew he had a heel people would love to hate.

Soon, Sammartino vs. Steele was headlining cards through the East, turning into a very lucrative summer job for Jim Myers, who continued teaching and coaching the rest of the year.

Steele’s style became more outrageous and his habit of biting opponents earned him “The Animal” nickname. He was rough, and he was mean. Away from the ring, the accidental wrestler was a party animal who enjoyed the perks that came with fame.

He shredded turnbuckle pads to add to the mayhem. His famous green tongue developed by accident — he was trying to cover boozy breath with Clorets after a bad night. When the fans noticed the green tongue, it became part of his persona.

Steele loved to scare people. Most heel wrestlers would try to get back to the locker room as quickly as possible, Steele would stop to challenge people. Once in Philadelphia, he chased a guy all the way onto the street outside the arena.

At the Civic Arena one night, a fan bopped Steele on the head with a paper cup filled with ice. The security guards — off-duty Pittsburgh police officers — grabbed the offender and dragged him away.

Instead of hauling him outside, they took him backstage. The two cops held the man against a wall. A minute later, an angry George Steele was inches away from the man, cursing and threatening him while the trembling fan was being sprayed with Steele’s spit and sweat. If the man ever attended another wrestling show, it’s a safe bet that he never threw a loaded cup at a wrestler again.

In later years, Myers had a religious epiphany after being stricken with Crohn’s Disease. He attended fanfests and posed for selfies with his hands playfully wrapped around the fan’s neck.

The high school where he taught, Madison Heights, named its football stadium after him in 2012. The baddest, meanest guy to stomp around a wrestling ring turned into a kindly old man with bad knees who lived out his days doing the things retirees do in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Unlike some old-timers, he had no problem admitting wrestling was staged, and he loved to tell inside stories.

At the end, George Steele went back to being Jim Myers. It was an interesting life. A couple of them, actually.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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