Last week the wrestling world lost one of its early innovators and most memorable characters, George “The Animal” Steele. Steele was a mainstay throughout professional wresting from the 1960s- 80s and even made a few guest appearances throughout the 1990s. As a child, I remember watching him savagely tear into a turnbuckle with his teeth, his thick back hair contrasting vividly with his bald head, and thinking, “There’s no way this guy can be human,” and shivers went down my spine at the thought. I watched as he blinded and bit his opponents; there was seemingly no low that he would not stoop to, no heel turn he wouldn’t take. It scared me; my Grandfather loved every minute. He was a fan of Steele’s going back decades, and when he had the chance to get us tickets to see him at an event my grandfather could not pass up the chance.
The two of us went into Boston on a Saturday afternoon, and had lunch at McDonalds (my favorite at the time, I still have the Happy Meal toy from that day) before we headed over to the old Boston Garden, dashing across the street as the T rattled above us. We had seats towards the back of the arena, and I had to stand on the seat of my chair to see much of the action, which included some of my favorite wrestlers of the era, Junk Yard Dog, Andre the Giant, and Macho Man Randy Savage all made appearances. I loved it! I drank waaay too much soda and got to stay up waaay past my bedtime (as is the case with many, my Grandfather had a lot of fun breaking the rules with me).
We had gotten a motel room just outside of the city and the next morning after checking out we went to the nearby Howard Johnson for some sausage and pancakes. We sat at the counter so I could look back into the kitchen and see what was going on. I was watching the grill cook scramble eggs when someone sat on the other side of my Grandfather. The waitress came over with her pot of coffee and poured the new comer a cup. “Morning Jim.” She greeted him as she poured. The newcomer reached over in front of my grandfather for the sugar, which just so happened to be the exact moment that I looked over. Our eyes locked and I realized I was face to face with The Animal. I must have shrunk back in fear, because he instantly sat back and asked my grandfather if I was ok. My grandfather took one look at me and laughed. He brought me around his stool where The Animal had stood up to shake my hand. I was cautious at first, but he gave me wink and a smile, offering me a high five instead, which I quickly took. I sat back down, but still cautiously eyed The Animal as I munched on my pancakes and listened to him recount old matches that my grandfather had seen, and reminiscing about “the Good Ole Days” of wrestling.
I finished my meal, my grandfather paid our check (he bought The Animal’s breakfast as well), and the two of them shook hands as they finished their coffee. For a child of my age, the entire experience was surreal. Here was someone that I saw on TV on a weekly basis, who mainly spoke in grunts and groans, talking with my Grandfather and I over a cup of coffee! The Animal got a corn muffin to go and headed toward the HoJo’s exit. When he got to the door, The Animal stopped just outside and called back, “Hey, Nutter!” I turned with my grandfather in his direction, and watched as he tore into the muffin, paper bag and all, as he would a turnbuckle in the ring. My jaw dropped, and he chuckled as he brushed crumbs off of his chest and walked away.
That was the day I learned that not everything you see on TV is real, and that George “The Animal” Steele was actually a very nice, even affable guy. That’s why it was no surprise when I learned that outside of the ring, The Animal was a teacher and a wrestling coach, who was inducted into the State of Michigan Coaching Hall of Fame (along with his Pro Wrestling HoF induction in 2005). He was a loving husband who was married to his Wife for over 60 years. The Animal was a loving father, who only got into wrestling to boost his income to provide for his growing family. Most importantly (to this guy anyway) William James Myers was a guy who took the time to brighten a young (and rather scared) wrestling fan’s day with a friendly hello.