By Bill Murdock
Published in 1992
In the annals of wrestling lore, before there was Danny Hodge, before there was Dan Gable, there was Verne Gagne.
As with many champions Verne started wrestling early. Not grappling with opponents on the mat but wrestling with chores on his family farm in Hamel, Minn. Milking nine cows each morning along with bailing hay and other chores started Verne . As also is found with many champions Verne had to deal with adversity early. Again not with opponents on the mat but with his personal life. His mother passed away when Verne was young and he was left pretty much on his own. Living in a small apartment with his aunt and walking miles to school in the brutal Minnesota winters also helped Verne develop the physical and mental toughness for which he became famous.
As far as wrestling goes, Gagne learned the fundamentals of the mat his sophomore year at Robbinsdale High School under the watchful eye of coach Mark Woodward. Verne began his mat career at 155 pounds and led his team to two interscholastic championships that culminated with him winning the Minnesota state 180-pound title his senior year.
Wrestling was not the only sport in which Verne had excelled. Verne was also an outstanding fullback and defensive end for coach Walter “Red” Sochacki’s football team. Both coach Woodward and Sochacki not only taught Verne the fundamentals of wrestling and football, but also reached out to the young athlete by helping to provide clothing and other things that he desperately needed at the time. Among those things was the advice for Verne to continue his education after high school.
After graduating at the age of 17, Gagne received a football scholarship from the University of Minnesota. Verne joined coach George Hauser’s Golden Gophers and became the youngest man ever to start for the university’s football team. Although Gagne was enjoying tremendous success on the gridiron, he still loved wrestling. Having won a state high school championship and an AAU title, Verne decided to keep active on the mat.
Just as Gagne’s collegiate career was rolling along, so was World War II. So Verne’s college days were interrupted when he answered Uncle Sam’s call and joined the Marine Corps. Not being content with marine aviation and learning how to engage the enemy, he directed his athletic ability to teaching hand to hand combat and playing football. Verne joined Col. Dick Hanley’s nationally prominent El Toro Flying Marines football squad.
The El Toro team was comprised of All American and All Pro football players such as Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. The El Toro’s made it to the National Service Championship game in Los Angeles in 1945 but lost a close game to the Fleet City (Calif.) Sailors.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]With the war ended, Verne’s career was at a crossroads that not many 20-year-olds have to face. In 1946 the All American Football Conference was created and the newly christened Chicago Rockets came calling. Undecided between a return to the University of Minnesota, the college gridiron and the mat and pro football, Verne made his choice in an unusual way.
As Gagne recalls, “Sam Cordovano, who was recruiting for the Buffalo Bills, entertained some of us one night in Los Angeles. Sam was trying to sign some of the Marines. I really couldn’t make up my mind. Finally, I said to Sam, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll wrestle you. If I win, I go back to school, if you win, I’ll sign. Cordovano was unbelievably strong. He had played football for Georgetown and later wrestled professionally. We wrestled in his room in the Biltmore Hotel. Well anyway, as you know, I went back to school.”
So Verne returned to the University of Minnesota after an absence of three years and took up where he left off before the war. He threw himself not only into his studies wholeheartedly but onto the mat and gridiron with a new vigor and focus as well. Gagne was selected to the College All Star team in 1949 and made honorable mention to the Associated Press All American football team. During this time, Verne also increased his time on the mat. He won the Big Nine (later the Big Ten) Championship in 1944, 1947, 1948 and 1949. Gagne also took the gold twice; winning the NCAA championship.
Gagne’s first national collegiate championship came in 1948 at 191 pounds. Verne took the title at Lehigh University by defeating Chuck Gottfried of Illinois and Bob Giegel of Iowa. His second title came in 1949 by stopping the two-time defending champion and Oklahoma great Dick Hutton. Gagne’s victory not only won him the NCAA heavyweight championship but also derailed Hutton’s quest from becoming the first four-time NCAA champion (Hutton won the heavyweight title again in 1950). The victory over Hutton was especially satisfying as Dick handed Verne his only defeat in 1947 in the semifinals of the NCAA heavyweight championships as he won his first NCAA crown. Verne finished third behind Hutton and Purdue’s Ray Gunkel.
Gagne has nothing but praise for Hutton. “Both matches we wrestled were close,” Verne remembers. “We wrestled four periods back then for a total of 15 minutes (6-3-3-3). In our two heavyweight matches, Dick weighed 245 pounds and I was around 210 pounds. It was a battle of attrition. It was a matter of who could hang on the longest.”
Verne also won the AAU championship in 1948 and 1949 and international honors on the mat as he proudly represented the United States in the London Olympic Games in 1948.
Gagne’s decision to stick with wrestling was not an easy one. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Verne was drafted by the legendary George Halas’ Chicago Bears.[ad#MikeMooneyham-468×15]
An ankle injury during the All Star game against the Philadelphia Eagles caused Verne to be sent home by Halas and instructed to call when his ankle mended. As eager as ever he called Halas 10 days later saying he was ready to play, but never received word to report. “The Green Bay Packers wanted me to report to their training camp but Halas would not release me. The Los Angeles Dons were also interested in me but things didn’t work out their either.” Verne’s decision was now clear, he would return to his first love: wrestling.
Verne turned pro in May 1949. He didn’t have the luxury of honing his skills in preliminary matches in small towns, his first match was the main event in his hometown of Minneapolis in front of his family, friends and Gopher teammates. To add to his nervousness the referee for this match was Verne’s hero Jack Dempsey. Verne defeated the veteran Abe Kashey by disqualification and he was on his way.
Gagne was one of television’s first stars as wrestling grabbed the nation’s attention and imagination in the early 50s. Verne’s championships in the ring has only surpassed his titles on the mat. He has won the world junior heavyweight championship, the United States heavyweight championship, the prestigious Police Gazette belt and the AWA world heavyweight championship a record 11 times.
Gagne has also trained most of professional wrestling’s greatest talent including Ric Flair, Rick Steamboat, the late Olympian Chris Taylor and scores of others. Since leaving the ring Verne has kept busy with his family and business interests. Always the consummate sportsman, Verne also spends his time golfing, hunting and fishing.
Recently, at the opening of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa, Verne once again was in his element. Fans from all over the Midwest ( and this writer from North Carolina) flocked to meet the legendary Verne Gagne. That weekend along with Lou Thesz, Verne gave folks the thrill of a lifetime, actually getting to meet and relive their memories with their hero, Verne Gagne of Robbinsdale, Minn. A man without whom the sport of wrestling would be a lot poorer.