Sports Illustrated – July 2-9, 2001
By Mike Shropshire
Wahoo McDaniel staggers as he attempts to negotiate the step up from the dining room into his kitchen. An inner-ear infection, caused by an antibiotic he took for a chest infection, has thrown off his balance. Endowed with the legs and hindquarters of a grizzly bear, the 6’1″, 270-pound McDaniel steadies himself. He’s 63, he needs a new kidney, and he’s frustrated. “It’s not like I’m flopping around in this house getting ready to die,” he says. “The Medication makes me dizzy, and that keeps me off the golf course. It also keeps me out of my bass boat, because I can’t swim. What if I fell out and drowned? Imagine that headline.”
The man knows a thing or two about making news. In a prime that lasted more than 40 years, McDaniel was a figure larger than life and scarier than death. He was a pro linebacker and a world-renowned wrestler with a resume that included more than 10,000 matches and, by his estimation, 2,000 to 3,000 stitches.
These days he’s the single parent of a 12-year-old son, Zac. Wahoo and Zac must cope with the communication challenge of a gap of not one generation but two. Who is limp Bizkit, and how does he get away with using that language on his CDs? “I finally had to kick a couple of Zac’s friends out of the house,” says Wahoo, whose given name is Edward. “Zac says one of ‘em likes to look at girls on the Internet. I said, ‘Let him look at ‘em on his own Internet.’ This is my house, and there are certain things I won’t put up with.”
Father and son resides in a two-story brick home in a gentrified neighborhood in northwest Charlotte. The interior, arranged more for the tastes of Daniel Boone than Ralph Lauren, is cluttered with stuffed fish, outdoor gear and golf clubs. McDaniel, who retired from pro wrestling in 1995, drives a ‘95 Dodge Ram pickup with a feather arrangement dangling from the rearview mirror, a symbol of his Native American heritage, and a sticker on the bumper that reads SURE, YOU CAN TRUST THE U.S. GOVERNMENT. JUST ASK AN INDIAN.
McDaniel has been married five times (to four women), and Zac is the product of his last union. “Fact is, when you wrestle for a living, you’re never home, and that’s hard on relationships, and, well, I never pretended to be an angel,” says McDaniel, who was divorced from Zack’s mother, Karen McDaniel, when the boy was two. “She remarried, had two more children, and I got legal custody of Zac four or five years ago. It was all right with me, with her and with Zac, so why not? He still sees his mother (who lives in Tallahassee, Fla.), but I think Zac would rather go deer hunting with me.”
McDaniel doesn’t do as much hunting as he used to because he’s waiting for a kidney transplant that should restore his health. Zac’s mother volunteered a kidney, says McDaniel, but she was the wrong blood type. “They had a kidney for me a few times,” he says. “The first time it was too small. Then they had another one available, but I had an infection from the shunt they use for my dialysis. I couldn’t have the transplant because of the infection. But they tell me I’m at the top of the list now. Hopefully I’ll get one soon.
Says Zack, “I know that Dad will get the kidney he needs.”
Zac’s devotion to his father seems absolute. “He cares a lot, he puts his foot down when I go too far,” says the boy. “He lets me listen to my music when we’re driving. I know that he doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t say anything. And his cooking is great. Steak. Taco soup.”
The devotion is mutual, and for the father there is a clear sense of duty. That kidney is more for Zac than it is for him. Says McDaniel, “I want to be with Zac until he’s at least 20.”
If Wahoo McDaniel’s ultimate ambition, as he says, is to lie beneath a gravestone inscribed PROUD FATHER AND ROLE MODEL, his many fans will insist on other engravings. BIGFOOT WITH CLEATS is what some will demand. Or PAUL BUNYAN IN A WAR BONNET, or perhaps THE JIM THORPE OF THE OIL PATCH.
The origins of the McDaniel folklore can be traced to Midland, Texas, in the early 1950s. Little Wahoo, as he was then nicknamed (his father, Hugh, a welding contractor, went by Big Wahoo), was the star catcher on a Pony League team that advanced to the state tournament in San Antonio. The Pony League coach was a Midland oilman named George Herbert Walker Bush. “I remember Wahoo McDaniel well,” says the former president. “He was a good kid and a pretty fair baseball player. He has had his ups and downs, but I’ll always remember him as a wonderful kid who captured the imagination of West Texas in the 1950s. He was idolized by everyone who knew him.”
“Yeah, Bush was my baseball coach, and in high school Nixon coached me in track,” McDaniel says. That was Ed Nixon, who wanted to transform Little Wahoo into a decathlete who could evoke memories of Jim Thorpe. Certainly, McDaniel looked the part. “My father was one-sixteenth Choctaw and one-sixteenth Chickasaw,” he says. “My mother was German. So you can do the math and determine what that makes me.
“I could run and jump, finished second in the state in the shot put with a toss of 58-plus feet and was third in the discus,” he continues. “I never met Jim Thorpe, but his times and distances in the 1912 Olympics were scarcely better than mine in high school. But Coach Nixon simply could not teach me to pole vault.” In truth, McDaniel was never fond of heights.
He was fond of football, and that’s the sport in which he first made a name for himself. In 1955, after starring as a fullback for Midland High, he was recruited by big-time colleges. McDaniel declined a scholarship offer from Texas A&M and Bear Bryant but accepted Bud Wilkinson’s invitation to play for Oklahoma. Upon joining the Sooners, who were rich in swift-as-the-prairie-wind split T running backs, McDaniel was moved from the backfield to offensive and defensive end.
McDaniel did not enjoy a close relationship with Wilkinson. “He was kind of distant, and after some newspaper reported that I was drinking in a private club, he kicked me off the team,” says McDaniel. “Then Bud allowed the team to vote me back.”
Despite his prowess on both defense and offense – he was a three-year letterman for a program that went 27-5 from 1957 through ‘59 – the legend of Wahoo McDaniel was cultivated off the field, where his eccentricities begat many a tale. “I’d been running 10 miles a day, training for the wrestling team, and I accepted a challenge from some people in the athletic dorm,” he says. “The bet was that I could run from the front steps of the dorm in Norman to the city limits of Chickasha without stopping. So I put on shorts and a T-shirt and took off at noon. They followed me in a car to make sure I didn’t stop. It was brutal. Finally, I reached the top of a hill, and below there was Chickasha. Thirty-six miles in exactly six hours. I collected $185 for that.”
He was not the type to turn down a wager, no matter how outlandish. When someone suggested that Wahoo could not drink a quart of motor oil, he drank, albeit only a few tablespoons. “That oil made me sick,” says McDaniel. “For months every time I’d sweat, I could feel the stuff oozing out. I smelled like an old pickup truck. In those days I’d do anything on a bet. Eat a gallon can of jalapeno peppers. Didn’t matter.”
McDaniel’s graduation from Oklahoma coincided with a seminal year in pro football: 1960, the inaugural season of the American Football League. McDaniel caught on with the Houston Oilers. “Their defense was already intact, but they had an opening at offensive guard,” McDaniel says. He weighed less than 220 pounds, but he started for the Oilers in their win over the Los Angeles Chargers in the first AFL title game. The next season McDaniel transferred his talents to the Denver Broncos, for whom he played linebacker. His career would span all but the final season of the decade.
In 1964 Denver dealt him to the New York Jets in a nine-player trade. “Happiest years of my life,” he says of his time in the Big Apple. “They take care of their athletes in New York.” McDaniel, who was on the field for the debut of Joe Namath in 1965, drew plenty of attention himself. Soon the Shea Stadium fans were chanting, “Wa-HOO! Wa-HOO!”
By then, McDaniel was immersed in his off-season hobby: pro wrestling. “After that rookie year in Houston, somebody approached me and said that a wrestling promoter in Oklahoma City needed an Indian and wondered if I was interested,” says McDaniel. “So I put on the trunks and had an audition. They were more interested in what I looked like than if I could wrestle.”
Six weeks before the start of the 1961 season he entered a ring in Indianapolis. Thus began Chief Wahoo’s reign of mayhem, death matches, cage matches and Indian Strap matches that extended into the 1990s against the likes of Ric Flair, Blackjack Mulligan, Harley Race, Sergeant Slaughter and Jesse Ventura (who, McDaniel says, went to any length to avoid meeting Wahoo in the ring). After five years McDaniel experienced a career role reversal: His football income ($45,000 a year at its peak) was now only a supplement to his wrestling earnings (between $50,000 and $70,000 annually). “People can believe what they want,” he says, “but what I experienced in the ring was as tough or tougher than anything I encountered on a football field. Rougher still was what wrestlers had to put up with outside the ring. I’ve been burned, stabbed.”
Once, he says, while defending himself against a fan wielding a baseball bat in a parking lot in Atlanta, he pistol-whipped the guy. The 9-mm weapon accidentally discharged, and the bullet passed through the thigh of wrestler Dirty Dick Slater. “I had to pay Dick’s salary for six weeks,” McDaniel says.
There are those who say that McDaniel was even more talented at golf than at football or wrestling. He often played friendly matches for money against Lee Trevino. “Old Wahoo used a hickory-shafted putter,” Trevino says. “One time he missed a high-dollar putt and smashed the thing against a fence post near the green. The putter snapped back and the clubhead split his lip open. That was the angriest man I have ever seen on a golf course.”
A set of weights sits on a covered porch in the rear of McDaniel’s house. Like his dad, Zac has shown an interest in wrestling. Sometimes, on the weight room floor, Wahoo teaches the boy basic college-style holds and maneuvers. “Zac’s like all kids – he has his defiant moments,” Wahoo says. “One time, I offered to teach him moves that he hadn’t seen before, involving body slams and metal chairs. He said that if I did that, he’d call the police. All I could do was laugh.
“I started spending a lot of time driving Zac to these wrestling tournaments,” adds Wahoo. “Fayetteville. Roanoke. He struggled for a while, then scored three pins in one day, and that seemed to light his fire.”
Zac anticipates the next question. “Am I going to try to become another Wahoo McDaniel? Probably. Of course, I’ll never be half the” – he looks at his father – “I mean, I’ll be twice the wrestler he was.”
Wahoo II? Let’s hope so. The American original is in short supply these days.