Had it not been for a knee injury, professional wrestling fans would never have been blessed to come to know Jim Myers, better known by his legendary alter ego, George (The Animal) Steele.
Myers, now 77, had only one passion as a youngster, and it was not wrestling.
“I was a football guy all the way,” Myers said in a telephone interview ahead of his appearance this weekend at the Hamilton Comic Con.
As a youngster, Myers was a gifted athlete, finding success in a number of sports, particularly football.
Academically, it was a different story.
“I was very dyslexic in high school,” Myers said, adding that in those days, teachers would just send him to the gym rather than helping him with his learning disability. It was in that gym that Myers became a superior athlete.
So athletically talented was he that he was recruited by Michigan State to play football.
“While I was there, they found out a little bit more about dyslexia and what my problem was. They had no clue when they accepted me,” he said.
His football career, however, was cut short by a knee injury, leaving question marks surrounding his future.
“I graduated in 1961 with a wife and two children, a third one on the way, and my knee was pretty well blown (out),” Myers said.
The proud Myers was never one to let his learning disability define him.
He landed a job as a teacher, where he was also able to stay involved with his passion by coaching. It was while struggling to make ends meet in those early days that fate would intervene.
“I started teaching and coaching for $4,300 a year,” Myers recalled. “Well, you can do the math; with two children and a third on the way, that was not good.”
While seeking a job through a friend as a bouncer at a bar, that friend, a huge wrestling fanatic, talked him into calling up a local promoter by the name of Bert Ruby to ask about a career as a wrestler.
“That was a blessing,” Myers said, adding that in all the excitement, he even went so far as to call Ruby at 1:30 a.m.
“He invited me over the next day,” Myers said.
It was love at first sight from where Ruby stood.
“He took one look at me and said ‘beautiful,’ ” Myers recalled.
“He took me in his office and started telling me a little bit about the wrestling business. He asked me to take my jacket and shirt off, just to see what I looked like physically. And when he saw the hair on my body, he went kind of bananas, like, ‘Oooohhh, this is great.’ I didn’t get it. Then he started explaining it more to me, and he said that because of the size and the thickness of my shoulders and chest and so on, that he could really do something with me in wrestling.”
But long before he would chew turnbuckles or flash his trademark hairy body, bald head, and green tongue as the lovable George (The Animal) Steele, Myers wrestled in a mask, as he wanted to protect his identity, for obvious reasons.
“Because I was a teacher, and coaching, I didn’t want to use my real name. And I didn’t want the kids to recognize me so we decided to put a mask on me. I wrestled around Michigan, Indiana and Ohio for about six years as The Student. I was learning how to wrestle so we decided to call me The Student, and I would go to the ring in a cap and gown, it was all red and with a mask. And that’s how it got started.”
Myers was eventually discovered by a man universally considered one of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time, hall of famer Bruno Sammartino.
“Bruno came in to the Detroit area, to the Cobo Arena, to wrestle Bulldog Brower. While he was there, they spotted me,” Myers said.
Sammartino, then a star with the World Wide Wrestling Federation, told his potential recruit that the company was looking for someone to work with Bruno, the champ at the time, in the Pittsburgh area, which Sammartino ran with a local promoter named Ace Freeman.
“I took my cap and gown and my red stuff and went in,” Myers said.
It was there that he began his transformation to the character he would make a legend.
“(Freeman) said, ‘No, no, no, no, we don’t want a masked man, we want you.’ ”
Still conscientious about keeping his real identity a secret, Myers insisted he not use his real name.
“One of the guys there, Johnny DeFazio, said, ‘Well this is the Steel City, let’s call him Jim Steel.’ I said, ‘No, no, I don’t like the Jim.’ Somebody else said George. So that’s how that got started. I (began wrestling) as George Steele.”
The early incarnation of George Steele was very different from the one who would become a household name years later in the World Wrestling Federation.
“At that time, I didn’t have a manager, I did all of my own interviews, and actually I could talk, which is kind of strange,” Myers said. “I had four or five matches with Bruno in Pittsburgh and they were all huge sellouts.”
After juggling wrestling and teaching, Myers eventually got the call from Sammartino informing him that the WWWF, based out of New York City, was interested in bringing him in. There, Myers crossed paths with the influential and legendary Vince McMahon Sr., with whom he would build a close relationship.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“From then on, I would go in there almost every summer and wrestle in the northeast, then I’d come back home and wrestle as The Student around home during the school year, not doing a whole lot during the school year because I didn’t need to now, because I was making a pretty good income in the two-and-a-half months in the northeast.”
As for keeping his identity secret, Myers was pretty good at that, too.
“I’m always asked, ‘Well, once you got on TV and took the mask off, did the kids recognize you?’” Myers said. “Back then it was different territories and we had different televisions and Detroit television was nothing like the northeast television. We would never cross paths.”
It wasn’t until young fans from the northeast territory moved into the area that Myers began to field questions about his possible secret identity.
“The kids would move into the area from the northeast and they’d have wrestling magazines and programs,” Myers remembered. “I’d see them with a bunch of my students and they’d be buzzing and talking and they would come up to me and say, ‘OK, that’s you.’ And I would look at it and kind of roll my eyes and say, ‘Well, do you really think I’m that ugly?’ ” Myers said with a chuckle. “And I’d say, ‘Well he looks kind of familiar, but he’s George Steele and I’m Coach Myers’ and kind of blow it off. It was kind of tongue-in-cheek on their part, too. It was never really an issue.”
For some two decades, Myers kept his alter ego mostly under wraps.
“In 1984, cable wrestling from New York came into Michigan,” he said. “I was caught. And the big Detroit paper come down and said, ‘OK, we’re going to do an article on this.’ I said, ‘Please don’t.’ They said, ‘We’re going to whether you’re going to take part or not.’ So my cover was blown.”
By the time his wrestling alter ego was outed, Myers’ career was in full flight.
“I went full-time wrestling at age 50, in January of ’86, so I went from ’86 to ’89 wrestling full-time and I quit teaching.”
Myers did the unthinkable by finding mainstream wrestling success at an advanced age.
“The timing was perfect for me,” Myers said, referring to his rise to fame during the wrestling boom of the 1980s. “I was an old man. My career was over. In fact, I had had a conversation with Vince McMahon Sr. the last time I saw him, at (Madison Square) Garden. He called me in the office. I think he liked me because I was a coach and teacher and not just a wrestler. He told me that my run was nearly over in the northeast, that we’d had a great run, 19 years or whatever it was and with all these main events and so on. He didn’t want to see me just be a hanger-on and slide down that ladder for a few bucks. So we shook hands, we both had a tear in our eye, and kind of hugged and that was the end of that. He died the following year, right after I left.”
What should have been the end of his career turned out, in fact, was in many ways just the beginning for Myers.
“I got a call from (McMahon Sr.’s) son (Vince), they wanted me to come back in,” Myers said. “I really thought it was all over with, (but) that’s when we did the Randy crazy thing,” he said, referencing his most famous feud, which was a long run involving himself and the late greats Randy (Macho Man) Savage and his then-wife and valet, Elizabeth. That storyline played out over a long period of time and catapulted Myers’ career to new heights.
“You probably remember me more as a cartoon character,” he said, referring to his character during that run, during which he portrayed a dimwitted but lovable character. “Prior to that, I was a vicious, rotten, nasty heel that everybody hated. When I went to the cartoon thing, that was after Vince McMahon Sr. passed away. Junior was changing this whole business in a different way, and I’m always asked, ‘What did you think about changing your character?’ Well, nobody really told me to do that. I saw what was happening, I figured, ‘Heck, bad guys aren’t going to make any money selling lunch buckets and action figures. I’d better be a good guy.’ ”
Myers fondly recalled his now legendary storyline with Savage and Elizabeth, both of whom died young.
“It’s so sad,” he said, before turning the focus to the man known as Macho Man.
“I knew Randy when he was a little boy,” Myers said. “Randy’s dad used to wrestle, Angelo Poffo, around the Detroit area when I was still The Student. And Randy would come around. He was a young baseball player, and I knew some people in the Tigers’ organization and I helped his dad get a hold of a batting machine and just talked to some people about Randy. Later on, he started wrestling.”
While wrestling, Myers would get to know Randy Poffo very well. To this day, Myers is fiercely protective of his former protégé.
“You hear a lot of different things about Randy,” Myers said. “Let me clear that up right now. Randy was one of the ultimate professionals in our business. He wanted everything done right and he was very hyper about that really. But he was also very jealous with his wife, Elizabeth. So that played into our thing really perfect. I would use that to get him all fired up.”
From the get-go, Myers and Poffo had an understanding, Myers said.
“The first we were going to wrestle was the first match on a Saturday Night’s Main Event. Randy came up to me with about seven pages of a match he had written up and how he wanted it. I was old school. I never pre-called anything. Everything was called in the ring. So Randy’s going through this whole thing and I’d read one page and I’d take it. I was kind of irritated because I was the veteran, I’d been around a long time, and here’s this young pup trying to tell me how to wrestle. So I read the first page and I wrinkled it up and threw it in the garbage. The next page, I threw it out. Boom, boom, boom. I went through what he had written out and I said, ‘Randy, just listen to me and we’ll have a great match.’ By this time, he’s hyper,” Myers recalled, pride still evident in his voice.
“As it worked out and we went on, a lot of the things he had written, we did along the way for that two and a half, three years. Not in the same order he might have had it. It was good stuff, it just didn’t fit into the psychology that I liked to use. So that was always a little bit of a problem, but not a big problem because it was going to be my way and I think he respected me enough to do that, although we did have our times.”
Ever the cagey veteran, Myers knew exactly how to push the young superstar’s buttons.
“If I’d look at Elizabeth just with a cross eye, he’d want to fight. That made it nice. I said to him a few times, ‘You know, Elizabeth is younger than my daughter.’ But then I said, ‘Remember, I’ve had some wild runs with some of these young broads around’ and he would go absolutely (crazy). I would do that just as he was going to the ring exactly like I wanted him.”
While Myers’ George Steele character is fondly recalled for that run, he is universally remembered for his trademark hairy body, bald head, his green tongue and his affinity for eating turnbuckles.
That’s right, eating turnbuckles.
The turnbuckle eating came by accident rather than by design, Myers said.
“My whole career, nobody had an idea, no one had a clue,” what to do with his character, Myers said. “They didn’t want to spend a lot of time on me when I first went to the northeast because I was a schoolteacher. I was only going to be there three months and they never thought I’d come back the next year. I didn’t either.”
But it was during a giveaway promotion that one of the most memorable bits in pro wrestling history was born.
“I was in Pittsburgh and fans got real mad at me,” Myers recalled. “Back then, they used to give away little gifts. For TV, they’d give a little gift of some sort to get the crowd to come to TV because that was strictly a promotion time. And they had given away these little couch pillows this one particular time,” he said, adding that the pillows were akin to couch pillows from the 1950s or 1960s.
“A lady got mad at me and threw her satin pillow at me,” Myers said, adding he knew he had to respond. “She threw this at me and I’m looking at this and I know if I spit on it it’s going to be a boring match; if I throw it back, there are about 300 pillows out there I’m going to get bombed with. ‘So what are you going to do with this stupid pillow?’ ” he remembered asking himself.
Myers’ animal instincts kicked in.
“I took a bite out of it,” he said. “And it exploded. I mean it was packed so tight it really exploded. I started throwing the stuffing in air and it was lighter than air. It was kind of filtering down like snow, sticking in my hairy body, I looked like the abominable snowman. This little pillow … I couldn’t believe how much stuffing came out of it.”
Myers wasn’t done there.
“Then I thought, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ So I put it over my opponent’s head, and I’m choking him,” he said. “And it’s great TV. I mean I’m choking him and I’ve got the cameras going, the people are going nuts … it’s great TV.”
So good, in fact, that Myers got caught up in the moment.
“I take it off, and he’s blue,” he said, referring to his opponent. “The stuffing was lighter than air, so every time he took a breath in, the stuffing went down his throat. I almost killed him.”
Upon returning to the locker room, some of the other wrestlers were having some fun razzing Myers about his impromptu pillow biting.
“One of them says, ‘Well, maybe if you get somebody to throw a pillow at you every night, you’d have something wild.’ ” Myers said. “And Tony Pugliese, who was from Niagara Falls, Canada, said, ‘Maybe you could eat the turnbuckles.’ He was always a smart aleck. And we all laughed.
“About three weeks later, I was wrestling (Chief) Jay Strongbow, who was a great worker, and it just wasn’t getting done. It was a flat match. So I looked at the turnbuckle and I thought, ‘I wonder?’ So I went over and took a bite out of it and it tore open easy. I ripped that off and started rubbing it in his face. From a boring match, we had a riot.”
The hairy body, the bald head, the turnbuckle attacks. The “Animal” persona was nearly complete. But what of his legendary green tongue?
Myers said he came by that honestly enough, too.
“This is right after black and white TV, around 1967, ’68,” he explained. “I’m in Pittsburgh, it’s either the first or second run in there, and I’d had a drink and I didn’t want the promoter to know about it. Colour TV is just coming out, some homes have it, some don’t.”
Desperate to cover up the smell of booze on his breath, Myers found a solution.
“I put a couple of Clorets in my mouth, so they (wouldn’t) smell the liquor, and I go out and wrestle,” he said. During the match, he stuck his tongue out at his opponent.
“The place went nuts with the green tongue,” Myers said. “I kind of laughed at that. About three months later, just for my own entertainment on TV, I said, ‘I’m going to do that green tongue thing again for laughs.’ So I did it again, and from that time on, because of the reaction, I had the best breath in wrestling.”
Myers is nostalgic when reflecting on his career.
“Looking back at all this stuff, I told you I wasn’t a wrestling fan, don’t take that that I don’t respect wrestling now,” he said. “I love wrestling. The business has been really good to me and my family. It’s unbelievable how far I went in it.”
Myers is grateful for everything he has experience, both the good times and the challenges.
“I wrote this book,” he said, referring to his autobiography, Animal. “The important thing about the book is I look back … through the rear-view mirror of life and I see where God was touching me way before I knew him. He put my wife in my position when I was in high school. She’s my angel. With my learning disability, she was so helpful, raising my children. And just on and on and on. I had the learning disability and that worked out to an advantage while I was teaching and coaching. I had a great run with some great kids. In fact, two years ago, it was really humbling, but they named the stadium that I coached in for 25 years after me. That’s humbling. When they called me to tell me they wanted to do that, I said, ‘No, no, no, wait till I’m dead.’ They said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Everybody can screw up. Let’s not go too far with this until my screwing up days are over.’ So they did that.
“Then I had Crohn’s disease. There is no cure for Crohn’s. I was deathly ill for nine years, deathly ill. And that’s what led me to the Lord. When you look at it through the rear-view mirror, it makes sense. As I’m talking to you about it now, eating a Cloret, throwing a pillow at me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but when you look back at it, it’s like, ‘Whoa, what happened here?’ ”
Thanks to rise in popularity of comic conventions in recent years, former wrestling stars like Myers have been able to reconnect with fans, which is exactly what Myers will do Saturday in Hamilton.
Unfortunately, he revealed, this may be the final opportunity for fans to mingle with the legend.
“You’re bringing tears to my eyes, and I’ll tell you why,” he said when asked how nice it is to still be able to connect with his fans. “I’m 77. Physically I’m really starting to struggle. And I love, I love going and talking with the fans. It gives me a chance to talk about my faith, along with wrestling and everything else and I love doing that, but it’s getting very, very difficult. In the last six weeks, I had to cancel two of my appearances just because it’s getting too hard. When I talked to (Hamilton Comic Con organizer) I told him my situation and I said, ‘I’m coming in, but I can’t have any wrinkles.’ I can’t handle it anymore. I love talking to the fans. What I’m telling you is this might be my last one. I knew that when I wrote my book, I knew that because I thought, ‘Well, I love the fans and I’ll get this out there and that’ll be it.’ When I go to the airport, I’ve got to do a wheelchair. As a man, that’s humbling and it hurts. This might be my last appearance ever. If I feel better I might do some more next summer, but in the cold weather, I’m not going to do them. I live in Florida. I’m not going to get cold anymore.”
Myers is approaching this appearance as though it will his final.
“This one right here is probably the most important one I’ve ever done because it’ll probably be my last. That’s just the way it is.”
Myers is a master of storytelling, an inspiration for anyone who ever struggled with a learning disability and one of the most gentle and thoughtful people in his business. He’s a true ambassador. But he struggles when asked about what he would like his legacy to be, shying away from the subject. The most important legacy anyone can leave, legendary wrestler or not, is one of integrity, he said.
“Even before I knew the Lord, I always had integrity,” he said. “I’m not worried about a legacy. Wherever it falls, fine. If I touched somebody’s life in a positive way, great. As a coach, I probably hurt a few guys on the way too, and that’s sad. But that’s all part of living a life. You do the best that you can do. However it falls after I’m gone, if they even remember my green tongue, that would be good,” he said with a laugh. “That’s a hard question and I don’t know really how to answer it. When I was a heel before I become the lovable character, I was a true heel. I was a tough guy. As a coach, I was a tough guy and I made a lot of tough decisions. But they were always for the right reason, I think. At least I believed they were at the time. The integrity… that’s the most important thing I think that you have in your life after you’re gone.”