The Death of David Von Erich

On February 10, 1984, the entire professional wrestling industry was rocked by the discovery of David Von Erich's body in his Tokyo hotel room.  David's death was the beginning of the end for the Von Erich dynasty -- the first in the chain of tragedies which eventually brought down the World Class promotion, and one of the most pivotal events in the history of the sport.  Many insiders have long felt that the pro wrestling landscape would be very different today if David, a highly charismatic in-ring performer with a brilliant mind for the business, had lived.

Here are a few of the stories which appeared in the mainstream news media in the days following David's passing.  All articles are presented as they appeared at the time, with the original errors and inaccuracies intact.

By Dan Noxon
From the Dallas Times Herald, February 11, 1984

David Atkisson [sic] -- better known as David Von Erich, a professional wrestler from Dallas -- died of a stroke early Friday in his Tokyo hotel room.  He was 25.

Atkisson, a member of a family of wrestlers who performed under the name of Von Erich, had flown to Tokyo Tuesday as part of an American wrestling show [sic] on a three-week tour.  David's older brother, Kevin, said the tour's public relations director called him at 4 a.m. Friday to inform him of David's death.

An autopsy, mandatory in any death in Japan, was performed late Friday and revealed that David died of a stroke, Kevin said.

"He had just finished a match, and went immediately to his hotel.  He didn't feel well in the limousine and just went upstairs (to his room)", Kevin said.  "The heat under those lights in the (Japanese) arenas is unbearable.  David is the kind that always gives 100 percent.  And if that's not enough, he gives more.  Knowing David, he probably overexerted himself.  He's that way.  He just keeps giving."

Kevin said he did not know details of how David's body was discovered.

"He was definitely in perfect health," Kevin said.  "I know he'd want his young fans to know that.  With all the talk of drugs in sports, I just can't help stressing that.  He never touched dope or any of that.  He never even took pain pills for injuries.  He would just live with the pain."

David's father, Jack Atkisson, is a former SMU and Dallas Texans football player who wrestled as Fritz Von Erich before retiring in 1980 [sic].  Three of David's brothers -- Kevin, 26, Kerry, 23, and Mike, 19 -- also wrestle professionally.

David was a football and basketball star at Lake Dallas High School in the late '70s.  He received a basketball scholarship to North Texas State, but quit school after one year to join his father as a professional wrestler.

The Atkisson family had planned to meet David in Hawaii following the tour for a vacation, Kevin said.

"I'm shocked," he said.  "I'm numb.  He has always been so concerned with young fans.  I know he's in heaven.  He's a Christian.  He's been saved.  God called him to glory, I guess."

David held the Texas and American wrestling titles and was top-ranked contender for the world title.

He is survived by his wife, Tricia, who lives in Lake Dallas.  His body is expected to be returned to Dallas this weekend.


By Jack Fischer
From the Dallas Times Herald, February 11, 1984

The rumor of death hung over the crowd like the cigarette smoke in the Sportatorium arena on Industrial Avenue [sic] Friday night.

He was killed, one said.

A drug overdose, said another.

Many dismissed it all as a wild rumor or a publicity stunt.

But it was true.  Local wrestling legend David Von Erich, 25, son of Fritz Von Erich and some say the leader of the wrestling dynasty, died Friday of a stroke while on tour in Tokyo.

For the fans in the dank Sportatorium -- many of them adolescent girls who worshipped the wrestler in a way their peers reserved for rock stars -- nothing could have been worse.

A collective moan rose from the tightly-packed crowd of 4,000 fans when referee David Manning completed "the saddest announcement I've ever made" and asked the crowd for a moment of silence.

"The poeple here have watched the Von Erichs grow up," Manning said earlier.  "For them, it's a major tragedy."

Throughout the crowd, knots of young girls -- some wearing "I Love the Von Erichs" T-shirts -- and more than a few older women clutched their companions and weeped for the death of an idol.

"I reacted worse to this than when my parents died," said a red-eyed Yvonne Henry, 23, of Fort Worth.  "I've been a Von Erich fan for 16 years.  It's the worst thing."

"It will affect all of us so much," she said.  "Just about everybody around here is a Von Erich fan."

While some fans accepted the arena's offer of a refund, more decided to stay and mourn together.

Manning said the family and arena had received calls from wrestlers across the country offering to help in any way they could.  One grappler, Brian Adias, flew in from Louisiana to replace David Von Erich's brother, Kerry, on the evening card.  Another, King "Ice Man" Parsons, agreed to wrestle twice to fill in for another brother, Kevin.

"I grew up with all of them," Adias said before going into the ring.  "I'm still in shock.  It's just too heavy to talk about right now."

Von Erich, once a well-known high school athlete at Lake Dallas who accepted a basketball scholarship at North Texas State, was said by some to be in the prime of his career.  Last week at the Sportatorium, he won the professional wrestling title of Japan, Manning said.  The tour was scheduled to follow that success.

"This is going to hurt (wrestling) some," said Wayne Ausley, 33, of Dallas.  "It's not going to be the same without David.  He was the pride of the Von Erich boys.  All the wrestlers looked up to David."

"He may not have been the prettiest, but he was the best," said Jeanna Scott, 12, of Albany, who overheard Ausley.  "It's so sad."

One of Von Erich's bodyguards, who would only identify himself as Bill, described his boss as a man "sensitive to other people's feelings."

"What can I say," he said.  "I loved him."

Back in the ring, Mac Reed [sic] had just completed a body slam on a red-hooded wrestler introduced to the crowd only as Castro.  The crowd, though still unusually subdued, warmed to the action while a security guard watched from the entry ramp.

"It's going to be a bad night," he said.

By Debra Martine
From the Dallas Morning News, February 12, 1984

David Von Erich, the 25-year-old wrestling star from a locally prominent wrestling family, died Friday of acute enteritis, an inflamation of the intestine, medical officials in Tokyo said Saturday. 

The disease, which generally attacks the large intestine and usually is not fatal, can be contracted in several ways from having a virus to eating contaminated food, officials with the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office said Saturday.

The disease can become fatal if it causes the intestine to inflame and lose its protective lining that allows water to enter the body, officials said.

Without the intestinal lining, the body cannot store water and begins to dehydrate. Complications such as irregular heartbeat and heart failure may result, medical officials said.

Von Erich, whose real name was David Adkisson, died in his hotel room in Tokyo. He was found by a wrestling referee after he failed to show up in the hotel lobby to leave for another match.

Officials said Saturday that Von Erich’s body would remain in a Tokyo hospital until Monday because the American consulate is closed until then and because Saturday is Founder’s Day, a Japanese national holiday.

Billed as "The Iron Nail" [sic], Von Erich comes from a well-known family of wrestlers. His father, Jack Adkisson, who adopted the stage name Fritz Von Erich, has coached all of his sons in the sport: Kevin, 26, Kerry, 23, Michael, 19, and Chris, 13.

Fritz Von Erich said Saturday that his son had been sick with flu-like symptoms for several weeks.

"Nobody knew what it was," he said. "He had a flu-type condition for about six weeks. But in our business, if you can walk, you go out there. You’re expected to go out there. People have paid to see you. At least in our family it’s that way.

"David was in no condition (to wrestle). I feel very guilty about it. But that’s the way it is. I’m concerned about it. I’m very upset about it."

Von Erich said the family has planned a ceremony 10:35 a.m. Monday at the First Baptist Church in Denton.

"We had at first planned a private ceremony, but I don’t have a right to close these fans out," Von Erich said. "They made us. They have a right to know and to be there."

Burial will take place at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Grove Hill Memorial Park in East Dallas.

Von Erich said David will be buried next to his oldest brother, Jack Jr., who died in an accident when he was six.

  • Japanese authorities performed an autopsy on the dead wrestler. The results were relayed to the Von Erichs by Florida promoter (and former wrestler) Duke Keomuka. "He is the connection we have in Japan," said Kerry Von Erich.

  • "We’ve been talking about it, and for about the past two months, before he’s gone into the ring, he’s been getting sick in the locker room," Kerry said. " . . . The pressure of having to win, I think that's what got him there. It made all this inside of him, the enteritis. I think it made it act up and go crazy inside him."

  • Survivors include David’s wife, Tricia, of Lake Dallas; his parents, Fritz and Doris of Corinth; his grandparents, Eron Smith and Corinne and B.R. Adkisson of Dallas; and four brothers.

  • David Manning, who worked as a referee for the touring group, discovered the body [sic]. He called Fritz Von Erich at 6 a.m. Friday (Feb. 10) to inform him of his son’s death.

  • David Von Erich, at the time of his death, was the reigning Texas heavyweight wrestling champion, having won the belt from Jimmy Garvin during the summer of 1983.

  • Mrs. B.R. Adkisson, his grandmother, said: "He had wrestled over there once or twice, and he just came in and lay across his bed. When they found him, he was dead. They said it was a heart attack." He was dressed in a knit shirt and jeans. He was staying at the Takanawa Tobu Hotel.

  • David Adkisson was a prominent high school athlete at Lake Dallas and went to North Texas State University on a basketball scholarship. He attended college only one year.

  • Jack Adkisson is a former Southern Methodist and Dallas Texans football player who wrestled as Fritz Von Erich before retiring in 1980.

By Stephen G. Bloom
From the Dallas Morning News, February 15, 1984

The City of Denton was preparing Tuesday for 3,000 to 7,000 mourners expected to attend the Wednesday funeral of David Von Erich, the 25-year-old professional wrestler found dead in a Tokyo hotel room Friday.

Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at the First Baptist Church, 1100 Malone Ave., in Denton.

"We plan to increase our manpower around the church for crowd control," said Denton Police Sgt. Clovis George. "We plan to have 18 officers there at 7:30 a.m. in case mourners arrive early."

The First Baptist Church of Denton seats about 1,500, said George, and "once the church fills up, we'll be closing it off."
To accommodate any overflow crowd, audio speakers will be set up to broadcast the funeral service. Channel 39, KXTX television, plans to tape the funeral in its entirety for later broadcast, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 26.

Graveside services will follow at Grove Hill Memorial Park, 4118 Samuell Blvd., in East Dallas.

Von Erich’s father, Jack Adkisson, a retired professional wrestler known as Fritz Von Erich, said Tuesday he expects about 100 professional wrestlers, including Harley Race, Ric Flair and Gene Kiniski, to attend the funeral.

"We may have been archenemies in the ring, but outside we all shared a common respect for each other," said the elder Von Erich.

The body of Von Erich, who died of severe inflammation of the intestine, arrived Tuesday night from Tokyo at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Since Von Erich’s death was announced Friday in Dallas, a steady procession of cars has driven past the Von Erich estate in the Denton County community of Lake Dallas.

"The phone has rung constantly ‘til about 2:30 each morning and then starts up again at 7 a.m.," said Bill DeBerry, 
director of the Schmitz-Floyd-Hamlett Funeral Home, which is handling the arrangements. "We’ve gotten more than 150 calls a day."

From the Associated Press, February 15, 1984

DENTON, Tex.- Many of the luminaries of the professional wrestling world paid their final respects to David Von Erich, 25, a ring comrade who died of a stomach ailment last week while on a wrestling tour of Japan.

An estimated 3,500 mourners came to the First Baptist Church of Denton. Many were young women whose screams for the wrestler at his matches had been likened to the devotion other girls once bestowed upon the Beatles during the 1960s.

Ric Flair, an archrival of the wrestling Von Erich family, was subdued at the services, despite the fact that he had frequently shouted insults at David and other of the Von Erichs before, during and after wrestling battles in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"The fact that we were enemies in the ring didn’t have anything to do with the tremendous amount of respect I had for him. He had unlimited guts," said Flair, whose forehead is crisscrossed with scars.

Von Erich’s real name was David Adkisson. He was a high school football and basketball star at nearby Lake Dallas before joining brothers Kevin, Kerry and Michael in prolonging the family wrestling name begun three decades earlier by their father, who wrestled under the name of Fritz Von Erich.

On either side of the closed casket were portraits of Von Erich -- one of him in wrestling gear with his Texas heavyweight championship belt draped over his shoulder, the other of him in a tan leather jacket and white cowboy hat.

One floral arrangement was in the shape of Texas. Another was in the shape of cowboy boots with a cross on top.
Among other professional wrestlers who attended the funeral were Gene Kiniski, Dory and Terry Funk, Verne Gagne, Duke Keomuka, Brian Adias, Iceman King Parsons, Chris (The Gentleman) Adams, the Super Ds and Jose Lothario.

Absent were television camera crews. Plans to film the services for later telecast were dropped when Von Erich’s father banned cameras from the church. He had considered having a closed funeral, but changed his mind.

About 1,500 fans descended upon Grove Hill Memorial Park in East Dallas for a graveside service that followed the funeral. Many of them arrived as early as 8 a.m. Despite exhortations from police, the crowd refused to disperse after the service. They milled around the casket as it was lowered into the ground.

"Fritz said the crowd is what made them, and he wanted the crowd to be a part of this. It’s a lot harder on the family this way, but the crowd loved the boys," said Sondra Adkisson, David Von Erich’s cousin.

The Rev. Gene McCombs, a family friend from Memphis, Tenn., officiated at the funeral.


From United Press International, February 15, 1984

DENTON -- Hundreds of wrestling fans, many of them weeping teenage girls clutching flowers, gathered at a church today for the funeral of David Von Erich, a 25-year-old wrestler who died last week in Japan.

Close to a thousand people were at the First Baptist Church in Denton to remember the second son of the famed Von Erich wrestling family.

Von Erich was found dead last Friday in his hotel room in Tokyo.  An autopsy showed the cause of death was acute enteritis, or an inflamed intestine.

A cloudy, windy morning gave way to bright sunshine but that did not ease the grief of Von Erich's fans.

"I just hate that he died in another country," said Sally Calvin, a 30-year-old nurse from Rhome, Texas.  "I'm a nurse.  Usually that's not that terrible a disease.  I was surprised he wasn't in the hospital."

On Tuesday, Von Erich's wife said her husband had apparently recovered from a bout of illness before he left on the wrestling tour of Japan.  She said the family is satisfied he died of natural causes and not of a ring injury.

He was the son of Fritz Von Erich, a renowned "bad guy" wrestler from the 1950s and '60s.  The elder Von Erich, whose real name is Jack Adkisson, turned good guy in the 1970s and retired about four years ago to manage the careers of his sons.

Three other sons wrestle professionally:  Kevin, 26, Kerry, 23, and Mike, 19.


Fans, family say goodbye to Von Erich
By Leslie Doolittle
From the Dallas Times Herald, February 15, 1984

DENTON -- For five years, David Von Erich climbed into smoke-filled professional wrestling rings carrying a yellow rose, which he kissed and threw to shrieking fans before turning to trounce a villain.

Wednesday morning, many of the 2,000 fans who gathered in Denton to mourn his death clutched yellow roses in tribute to the Texan who fought his way to worldwide fame.

Von Erich was 25, a born-again Christian, a master of the Iron Claw and a proud Texan.  He died Friday of acute enteritis, an inflammation of the intestine, in a hotel room in Tokyo, Japan.

Many fans said they still could not believe Von Erich, reared in Lake Dallas, was gone.  They couldn't believe the "Elvis" of wrestling -- "The King" -- was dead.

Most of the fans standing three and four deep in the line that almost encircled Denton's First Baptist Church were young girls.  They appeared to have nothing in common but red-rimmed eyes, yellow roses and an unbridled passion for a young, blond-haired athlete.

"I loved David Von Erich," said Heidi Wilhelmi, an 11-year-old from Crowley.  "He was sweet and kind and sort of a friend to me.  I just had to see him one last time."

"He was gorgeous -- fire and ice," said Justa Soehig of Arlington.  "You could feel the electricity when he stepped into the ring."

That electricity obviously touched more than wet-eyed adolescents.  The funeral drew elderly ministers and young professionals, truck drivers, welders, waitresses and Japanese journalists.  There were workers who had been laid off and others who missed work.

And there were wrestlers, scores of hulking men with pummeled features.

There was Ric Flair, with his bleached-blond hair flowing in the collar of his gray pinstripe suit.  The near-great and former greats from the ring joined him:  Gene Kiniski, Terry Funk, Dory Funk Jr., Gentleman Chris Adams, Jose Lothario, Johnny Mantell, Iceman King Parsons and Brian Adias...

Aside from an occasional cry of, "Look over there, isn't that somebody?", the spectators were restrained and solemn as they filled the sanctuary.  They dabbed their eyes with shredded tissues and quietly shared their feelings for Von Erich and the Sportatorium on South Industrial Boulevard, where he performed.

The mood was broken only once by a small boy who, at the request of another youngster, demonstrated Von Erich's famous "Iron Claw" grip on his unsuspecting baby sister.

The organist played traditional hymns, then Beethoven's "Fur Elise" as the Von Erich wrestling dynasty walked in.  They came as the Adkisson family, their real name, and a simple, tight-knit local clan:  Father Jack (alias Fritz); mother Doris; brothers Kevin, Kerry, Michael and Chris; David's wife, Tricia; and cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents.

One by one, three Baptist ministers inched through the yellow-rose bouquets around Von Erich's closed coffin to the pulpit, where family members had placed two color portraits of the wrestler wearing his cowboy hat.

The first minister quietly told the congregation of Von Erich's "match with the devil" and how he was victorious because he had reached out to Christ, as had his brothers on the tag team.

The second minister used a more fiery yea-though-I-say-unto-you approach that drew sporadic "That's right" and a few "Amens!"  The crowd was with him; it knew Von Erich had been born again.  It wanted to hear how it could meet him again someday.

The third minister squelched the mood, though, with solemn talk of death.

As the final prayer was said, many mourners began to weep.  The emotion swelled as the family filed out.  The balcony resembled a Beatles-era scene -- hundreds of sobbing, young girls clutching tissues to their faces.  As the family members passed, people gently reached out to touch and say, "God bless you."

The family, flanked by bodyguards in black cowboy hats, quickly climbed into the train of white limousines.  But as hundreds pressed toward him, Fritz Von Erich stepped out of the car, accepted sympathy cards pushed out to him and hugged the few who broke past the bodyguards.

He climbed back into the car and led the procession from north Denton to Grove Hill Cemetery in Dallas, where hundreds more people were waiting.

Thousands crushed together on grave markers of the lesser-known, straining to hear the brief graveside service.  As the family took a few last minutes alone with David Von Erich's casket, the fans formed a path to the cars, their last chance to see their heroes congregated.

"We're just overwhelmed," Fritz Von Erich told the fans after the funeral.  "We love all of you."

As the family's limousine drove away, Ron Cook, a truck driver from Dallas, slowly shook his head and said what so many seemed to be thinking:  "Rasslin' ain't never gonna be the same again."