The wrestling profession is a different kind of animal.
Heated meetings take place in a ring rather than a conference room, and chairs are often used for smacking down opponents rather than for sitting down on.
Former pro wrestler George “The Animal” Steele, 77, is perhaps the most famous hirsute grappler of all time. Besides his extra-hairy torso, he was known for his green tongue, odd mannerisms in the ring that he used to intimidate opponents, crude vocabulary on the mic and especially his turnbuckle-chewing. Nonwrestling fans might remember him from his role in the Tim Burton movie “Ed Wood” where he played wrestler Tor Johnson.
Outside of the ring, he was — is — Jim Myers, a now-retired high school teacher and coach of football and wrestling who has wrestled with dyslexia his whole life. At a time when dyslexia wasn’t well-understood, his learning disability caused him to be “written off as dumb” at a young age as he tells it in his autobiography, “Animal.” Things turned around for Myers when a mentor at Michigan State University, Roy Niemeyer, talked Myers’ professors into letting him take oral rather than written exams. Myers got a second chance at an education. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State and later a master’s degree from Central Michigan University. He also inspired countless young people to lead better lives through his teaching and coaching. Myers has been married to his wife, Pat, for almost six decades, and they have three children.
Myers, believe it or not, was not a fan of wrestling when he entered the profession. He simply wanted a second job to supplement his income. In the early 1960s he was paid $4,300 a year to teach and coach. He remained a part-time wrestler until he turned 48 when wrestling became much more lucrative thanks to Vince McMahon’s big gamble on creating a pay-per-view event called WrestleMania, which turned a once-niche, territorial industry into an entertainment behemoth. At that time, “The Animal” changed from a hated heel (bad guy) to a beloved baby face (good guy) in a storyline that eventually led him to do battle with Randy “Macho Man” Savage to win the “heart” of Miss Elizabeth. When he started his ring career, Myers made about $25 per match but he was pulling in about $250,000 per year in the mid-’80s.
Myers details his battles with Crohn’s disease in his book. He became a deeply religious man after he hit his lowest point in the mid-’90s and nearly committed suicide to relieve the pain from the inflammatory bowel disease, which ultimately led to him having to have his colon removed.
So what lessons can employers possibly learn from an ex-wrestler’s story? Turns out plenty — about leverage, teamwork, communication and more.
Workforce: I think some people might be surprised to find out about your early career and how you had sort of a double career. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Jim Myers: In 1962, I just graduated from college and [had] a teaching job. I was making $4,300 a year with two children, a third one on the way. The value of the dollar was different back then, but with those prices, I still was not going to survive. So my wife was giving me that look, you know, the cupboard’s empty, and I went out looking for a job to be a bouncer in a bar to make ends meet. And I found out one thing, I took a friend with me, Dave Pierce, and they don’t hire you if you’re drinking and you got a buddy with you. So that was a blessing. Dave was a huge wrestling fan; I never watched it. I was a football guy, so about 1 o’clock in the morning he talked me into calling up the local [Detroit-area] wrestling promoter, Bert Ruby.
WF: At 1 o’clock in the morning?
Myers: I woke him up, and surprisingly [Ruby] invited me over the next day. When I went over to meet with him, he took one look at me when he opened the door and said, ‘Beautiful.’ And I know what I look like, so I didn’t know how to take that, but I was invited in to meet his wife and his mother-in-law and his children. And then we went into his office and he started to ask me a lot of questions, and then I was giving the answers, and eventually he asked me to take off my jacket and my shirt. Now I had no clue about wrestling, so I take off my jacket and shirt and he sees the hairy body and he goes, ‘Oh,’ and he kind of goes crazy on that, and I still didn’t understand what was going on. … But he started talking to me about wrestling, and he thought that it might work big time. And I told him that I was a coach and teacher, and I didn’t want to be seen on television as a wrestler at that time. So he decided that I would wrestle as a ‘Student.’
WF: So when you called him at 1 in the morning, what exactly did you say to him that he didn’t tell you to get lost?
Myers: God was in control, I guess. ‘I want to be a wrestler,’ and they were looking for new wrestlers. So he invited me over. It kind of blew my mind also, but I guess it was meant to be. And then once I got all my stuff together … he started booking me. Now prior to that, they sent me to a gym across the river from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario — a Catholic church that had a gym underneath it to meet a bunch of wrestlers to train me to be a wrestler. I was in good shape, I loved to fight, and these guys gave me calisthenics to get me really tired, and then they took me to the ring and tried to beat me up. That’s the way they did things back then. … I responded to that, and before long they were telling me about how to wrestle professionally but not to tell Bert Ruby because they were not supposed to smarten me up. I thought wrestling was real when I went in there. I didn’t know what was going on. I never really watched it. I kind of looked at it as a joke, but anyhow, I didn’t really like that. I thought the integrity of me being an athlete was being challenged by ‘working’ a match. I really resented wrestling, but I needed the money. That was the hook. And I was making, once I got started wrestling, I was making $25, $30, $40 a night, and when you look at that as six nights a week, when you’re only making $4,300, that extra $25 a night, really did help.
WF: Was that typical back then for wrestlers to have other jobs on the side?
Myers: Some of them did. This is back in the territories, and some of them did have part-time jobs. … One of the guys in Detroit that was a huge heel was ‘Crusher’ Cortez, and he worked at the Chrysler factory, and then drove somewhere to wrestle at night. And he was a pure, outstanding performer.
WF: Wrestlers are all independent contractors, is that correct?
WF: So you’re not really employees, per se, of the organization?
Myers: Never signed a contract. In all the years I was with the WWF [Editor’s note: The World Wrestling Federation changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002], and I’m talking the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, until Vince McMahon Jr. came in, all my matches were on a handshake. No contract signed. Jumping ahead, that’s why I was able to do so well is I was only available in the summertime because I continued to teach and coach until 1985, which gave me leverage. See what I’m saying? I got over big time in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, they wanted to use me all the time. I was going back to teach for a lot less money, but it gave me the bargaining leverage.
WF: So I think people might be surprised about this, but there really are no health care benefits in the wrestling industry. Is that correct?
Myers: There wasn’t. I don’t know about now. I know they’re under contracts now. Back then, no. In fact, I had a fella’, Bob Woolf, he’s passed away, but Bob was the organizer of baseball, football and basketball. He had a lot to do with organizing those sports. And I met with Bob in Hollywood Beach, Florida, about 1972, and he was talking to me about organizing professional wrestling. I told him, ‘I don’t think that would ever work because there was such a difference in pay.’
WF: You have dyslexia. If you were talking to a room of employers about how to get the best out of their workers who have learning disabilities or some other disability, what would you say to them?
Myers: I truly believe that when you have a handicap or a challenge, it can be a learning disability or a different kind of handicap, that God has made us in such a way that when you have a challenge, it’s really hard for other people to understand. He also gives you a gift in the other direction that other people might not have. And dyslexia, you have a hard time reading or writing, but the studies they’ve found dyslexia is most people that have that challenge have tremendous memories. I can remember way back when. My wife who was a math teacher, a high IQ gal, is blown away with the things that I can remember from the past. So I think every handicap, there’s a gift somewhere in there if you look for it to find it. And if you use it in the right direction, you can re-create a whole ’nother package for almost any business. For any business.
Myers: Ooo. Ooo. Ooo. You know, no. Not for the business itself; for me as an individual. I was in Hollywood at the time making a movie, ‘Ed Wood.’ And I was called back I think it was ’94, I was called back into New York. They flew me back, picked me up with a limousine and took me right to the federal grand jury building. I sat in the same seat that [John] Gotti had sat in defending a business that I had learned to love. Now I told you at first I resented wrestling because I thought it was a challenge to my integrity as an athlete, as I learned the art of ‘working,’ which is a lost art, and putting on a performance without a script and getting people so mad they wanted to kill you, but bringing them down before they did kill you, which was pretty important, too. When I got into that frame of things, I learned to love the business. And I’m sitting in this chair [for the grand jury] and I’m defending the business, which was all very much political, I think, but I can’t prove that. They were asking me questions — a lot of the people, and I was an ‘agent’ at the time — the high-end business part of it. And a lot of the guys that was in there, were in there for two-and-a-half, three hours. The federal grand jury people got me out of there in about 45 minutes. But I had people roaring, laughing. They asked me if Andre the Giant took the steroids test. I said, ‘Well, not always. Do you think I’m going to take Andre by the pee-pee and make him pee in a cup?’ <Laughs> And I said, ‘Ya look at Andre and think well maybe he don’t need steroids. He’s already 7-foot-2 and massive and those kinds of things.’ So I had a lot of fun with it. I don’t guess I was too helpful to them, but I was angry about it, too, to be honest with you. They were challenging a business that had been very good to me and my family, and really I didn’t feel that I belonged in there, that we belonged in court.
WF: You mention Andre the Giant. Do you have any good stories about him?
Myers: Oh yeah. Andre and I traveled a lot together. Andre was great. One of my all-time most memorable matches was with Andre. We were in Albany [New York] wrestling … and the baby faces were on one side and I was on the other side with the heels. And Andre had been eating garlic and washing it down with wine. He told the boys over there, <Andre voice> ‘I have fun with George tonight.’ I didn’t know it. So I go in the ring, I go to lock up with him and he pushes me to the corner. <Adds an Andre laugh> ‘Heh, heh, heh.’ He puts his big hands around my head like a gas mask and goes <makes a heavy exhale sounds>, and not only the breath but the garlic and chunks of garlic are coming out in my face like I needed a facemask or something to protect myself. And I grabbed his thumb and I jerked on it and got loose from him, and he laughed. He pushed me to the other corner, put the hands up again and give me the gas mask again. I got his thumb and I rolled out of the ring, gave him the Italian salute and left. Left him standing there by himself, so he got a big kick out of that.
But another time, later on, Andre was sick and he said things like, you know, he was very honest about it. He said, ‘I’m nothing but a big freak, and I have no family, I have nothing. Wrestling is my family.’ And he’s in the process of dying, but he’s still traveling with the wrestlers just to be in the locker room with us. That was his family. And he said to me one night — this is kind of funny but it put a tear in my eye, too. Andre said, <Andre voice> ‘You know, for years, how many times they going to ask me, “How’s the air up there?’ ” ’ He said, ‘Now eat garlic, pass gas, and say, “How is the air down there?’ ” ’ That was kind of where he was at towards the end. He loved to sit in the locker room, play cards with the guys. Just a great guy. Just a really great guy. But just not much of a life outside of wrestling.