The first time Dick Steinborn wrestled professionally, he was sure he was responsible for killing a guy.
The scene: Baltimore Coliseum, July 24, 1951. Steinborn was only 17, and he'd traveled south from Astoria, Queens, because he was just a few months too young to go pro in New York.
It was a setting he'd dreamed of — the noise, the fans, the excitement. He'd rehearsed his moves with his opponent, a 240-pound veteran named Les Ruffin, and the match was going as planned. After Ruffin put him in a headlock, the 190-pound Steinborn threw him into the ropes, then leapfrogged over the man. But then, just before he won, the scene shifted: a shoe flew over the ring in a rainbowlike arch.
Minutes later, back in the dressing room, Steinborn was basking in the congratulations from the experienced wrestlers when he heard a commotion. Suddenly a half-dozen men entered the room, carrying a man whom they laid out on the table. A still body. Dead.
"It was laying on the medicine table just 3 feet away from me," he recalls. "And I notice he had one shoe on. I say, 'Look, fellas, he's the one who threw a shoe in the ring!'
"And one of the fellas, in his old-time way of ribbing, hollered, 'You killed him!' Another one says, 'You murderer!' What they didn't understand was, I may have the strength of my father, but I had the emotions of my mother."
Guilt-stricken that a man had dropped dead because of the night's excitement, Steinborn grabbed his bag and ran out of there. He recalls the tears flowing all the way back on the train to New York.
Later he learned the man who'd died from a heart attack had been in poor health and very, very drunk. But that night Steinborn felt awful. He was determined that his first match would be his last. But it would not be so. Instead it was the opening act of a 33-year career.
"I've wrestled in 44 states and 14 different countries," Steinborn says, rapid-fire, while he ushers a guest into his gym. At age 77, he works out three times a week and retains the athletic bearing of his wrestling days.
The gym occupies much of the first floor of his house in the Fan and is brim-filled with weights and benches. Photos of wrestlers and boxers cover nearly every inch of wall that's not mirrored. It's a virtual photographic history of 20th-century ring sports: Jack Dempsey. Gorgeous George. Tommy Billington, aka the Dynamite Kid. Toshiyuki "Harold" Sakata, a wrestler who played Oddjob in "Goldfinger." Harley Race. A pre-famous Hulk Hogan. With the photos come staccato-delivered tales of the sort in which men such as Rocky casually stroll into a room.
"Flew to Hawaii. When I was in the dressing room, Rocky Marciano walks in. The promoter says, 'Rocky, you're not supposed to be here until next week,'" Steinborn recalls. "Rocky was a little punchy. He says, 'Well, I'm here tonight. Let's go to work.' So he let him referee my match."
Fifteen, maybe even 10 years ago, wrestlers weren't quite so open with their stories. A code of sorts, sometimes called kayfabe, compelled the industry to keep hidden the predetermined nature of the matches. "That's the way we were brought up," says Scott Teal, a former wrestling photographer who writes about its history. "You go to your grave telling them that it's all real. I didn't even tell my wife anything about it until we were married five years."
As a result, many stories went unrecorded or were pieced together by a network of fans, lay historians and writers. But as the industry has shifted — a change symbolized by the E in World Wrestling Entertainment — the veil has come off.
Steinborn, often credited as one of the best baby faces (good guys, in wrestling parlance) of his era, has become a storyteller of the days before wrestling became the hyper-stylized production it is today, when wrestling was a cathartic release for the fans who could regularly fill venues as big as Madison Square Garden or as small as YMCAs or armories in Lexington, N.C., and Thomaston, Ga.
"He's got so much to tell that may not see the light of day," says Rich Tate, who is a host of wrestling podcasts from Georgia. "Once these guys are gone, the stories go with them."
Steinborn contributes to Tate's podcasts, has posted on wrestling history websites and is working on a book. Other wrestlers have published books. But Steinborn is taking it a step further, moving into a new type of ring. He wants to write a play that will take audiences into a place they've almost certainly never been: the dressing room, with all its jokes and drama.
"Wrestling's been my life. It's been a love," he says. "You can't destroy the love of a passion that you have."
Steinborn's father, Henry "Milo" Steinborn, was a German immigrant whose early career as a world strongman was forged in an Australian internment camp in World War I. The elder Steinborn used those four years and 11 months in the camp to build strength that would lead him to become a weightlifting champion and later, a wrestler and wrestling promoter. He lived to age 95.
In this world, men like Jack Dempsey came over for Sunday dinner. And so when Steinborn's father told him to get back in that ring, he did. "My dad told me, 'Just think, you can go out across the world and entertain by doing something you love, that you're going to get paid for.'"
And he did go around the world — Asia, Australia, Europe. He wrestled with well-known names such as Dory Funk Jr., Gorgeous George and Verne Gagne. With boxing champ-turned-wrestler Primo Carnera, he met Pope Pius XII. He met Johnny Cash. He once picked up Stephen Stills while the musician was hitchhiking. A few weeks after Elvis died, he toured Graceland, an early witness to what millions of Elvis fans would discover in the years to come: All those millions hadn't bought the King a good decorator. "Tacky!" he recalls. But he knew his wife, Sheila, would be curious. Arriving back home in Nashville at 3 a.m., he woke her by grabbing her toe.
"Guess where I've been?" he asked.
"What color's his bedspread?" she wanted to know, barely awake.
Though Steinborn won nearly three dozen titles, including the American Wrestling Association World Tag Team Title, he never won either the sought-after AWA or the National Wrestling Alliance's world heavyweight championship.
Those titles were bestowed on only a chosen few, and Steinborn, at 5-foot-9, was a bit smaller than champions such as Funk and Lou Thesz, who both easily cleared 6 feet and then some. "Some of the historians and some wrestlers have said that he was probably one of the best wrestlers who never won a world title," Tate says.
Dirty Dutch Mantell, who in the late '70s was just getting his career started as Steinborn slowed down, says Steinborn understood well the combination of athleticism, physical contact and showmanship that a pro wrestler needed. "Dickie at one time was probably one of the greatest pro wrestlers ever, to tell you the truth," says Mantell, who's retired to Tennessee and has published two collections of stories about his years in the ring, "The World According to Dutch" and "Tales from a Dirt Road." "He was doing moves then that I haven't seen since."
The two men shared a bill for a sold-out show in Puerto Rico, drawing 16,000 fans, in 1979. "Even at 40, which is now the benchmark for most guys to stop making money," Mantell says, "he was still going strong."
Mike Mooneyham, author of "Sex, Lies and Headlocks," recalls a mid-1970s match in Savannah, Ga., between Steinborn and world heavyweight champ Dory Funk Jr. as one of the "best scientific matches" he's seen. "Dick ended up losing, but at the end of the match everyone gave him a standing ovation," says Mooneyham, also a reporter for Charleston, S.C.'s Post and Courier. "It was a great performance. ... Those guys just went toe to toe."
Between his start in 1951 until his last match in 1984, Steinborn wrestled in territories throughout the South as well as much of the west and Midwest. He was particularly popular in Georgia and Florida.
To be popular, a wrestler needed more than strength, athleticism and keen business sense. He needed to understand the psychological game that underpinned matches. He had to be able to act, to work a crowd. Teal says Steinborn could win the sympathies of the crowd with the best of them. "He had those fans right in the palm of his hand," Teal says. "He could cringe and grimace like he was dying."
Life outside the ring was as dramatic and fun-filled as the matches inside it. The wrestlers were inveterate practical jokers, pulling pranks on anyone — referees, hitchhikers, you name 'em. "Wrestlers love to rib," Steinborn says. "We're big ribbers." The wrestlers loved to play jokes and they were good at it. They'd pick up hitchhikers on the way to matches and pretend they were hospital employees transporting a psychotic man to an asylum. Another wrestler would nail a referee's shoes to the floor.
But it wasn't all good times. Steinborn's first wife, Carol, whom he'd married on her 17th birthday (he was 20) died of cancer seven years later.
When he was wrestling in Florida as part of a tag team with his father, one of their opponents, Jack Rush, dropped dead after the match. So did one of Steinborn's wrestling partners, a friend named Ray Gunkel. Gunkel, who also promoted the Atlanta territory, died after a 1972 match in Savannah. "Oh, Ray, Ray, with all our money it won't help," Steinborn recalls Gunkel's wife whispering after she leaned over her husband's body.
Ultimately, it wasn't another wrestler that tossed Steinborn out of the ring for good. A pickup truck in Montgomery, Ala., did that in 1984. Two years after the crash, X-rays showed Steinborn's spine remained twisted. The days when his opponent could pick him up and throw him down were over. Even if he looked fine on the outside, he couldn't take a slam. And if you can't take a slam, you can't wrestle.
As dramatic points go, this was a low unlike anything he'd experienced in the ring. "I lost my family, lost money, lost everything," he says.
Steinborn and third wife, Sheila, 19 years his junior, divorced. "She told me that I had nothing left," Steinborn recalls. "I said, 'I got me.'"
He toyed with moving to Montana, where he loved to fly fish, or Barbados, where the windsurfing was excellent. But a two-week visit to Richmond, where he'd lived for two years in the 1950s, convinced him this was the place.
He says the Fan reminded him of some parts of Europe and allowed him to be closer to family than another region or country would allow. (He has seven kids and 11 grandchildren, two of whom wrestle in high school.)
Retirement wasn't quite retirement — he trained clients in his gym and in 1988 was a temporary wrestling coach at Liberty Junior High School in Ashland (Steinborn also wrestled in high school). He married a fourth wife, Hazel.
And even in Richmond, drama beckoned. In 1987 he wrangled a small part as a policeman in "The Murder of Mary Phagan," a TV miniseries about Leo Frank, a man convicted of a 13-year-old girl's murder who was lynched by anti-Semites. It was to be a nonspeaking part, but when the cameras rolled, Steinborn improvised, yelling as loudly as he could, "Arrest that man!"
The ad-libbed words netted him a bigger check. He knew this from his first role: In the '70s, a Georgia promoter had managed to get Steinborn and a few other wrestlers chances to explore their acting chops. The film was "Moonrunners," a prequel to TV's "Dukes of Hazzard." Steinborn's role, as listed in the Internet Movie Database, was "obnoxious bar patron."
Steinborn knows what story he wants to tell in his play, which is his next act of sorts. He has the dramatic highs and lows. He understands how to manipulate the audience. "I used to get in that ring. I had 3,000 people. I had 38,000 people," Steinborn says. "They belonged to me."
What he doesn't have is the dialogue, he says. He wants the words that will keep people in their seats. He got in touch with Woody Eney of the Barksdale Theatre. Eney, a veteran actor whose lengthy résumé includes small parts on "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest," helps lead a scriptwriting group at the Barksdale. He invites Steinborn to attend a meeting. "What goes on in the 45 minutes before a wrestling match — you'd be surprised," the wrestler tells the group when he's introduced.
The night's scripts include a tale of a woman and her husband visiting Mexico after her mother's death. While he listens to the three actors read dialogue, Steinborn's brow furrows. The highs and lows aren't there.
"I've seen plays like that," he says afterward. "They're very dull."
Days later, he's undaunted.
"I've done a lot of things in my life, and I know that this will be a success because I can see the ending."
Back in the 1990s, Steinborn and an old friend, wrestler Johnny Heidman, went to see "Cocoanuts" at the Swift Creek Mill Theatre. The Marx Brothers gag fest delighted his buddy. At one point, a cast member ran out into the audience and plopped himself in Heidman's lap.
Heidman, who died at age 90 at a Charlotte-area nursing home in January, roared with laughter. "I never saw someone laugh so much in my life," Steinborn recalls.
As much as he loves the theater, Steinborn isn't above walking out at the end of the first act if the story doesn't capture his attention. On another night at Swift Creek, he was thinking about doing just that. The play featured a man in a wheelchair who seemed to play mute. While the other characters moved around the stage, he didn't say a word. "It wasn't too intriguing," he says.
Then, left alone onstage right before intermission, the man jerked to attention. He addressed the audience knowingly: "I wonder how the second act's going to go?"
Steinborn was hooked.
He stuck around to find out.