An article by Mike Mooneyham
For nearly two decades Superstar Billy Graham was one of the most sought-after performers in the profession. His unique name, charisma and bodybuilder frame packed arenas from coast to coast.
Aspiring pro wrestlers patterned their styles after Graham. He was the prototype for such future stars as Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Hulk Hogan. They considered Billy Graham their idol.
But Graham’s life outside the ring was a wreck. Plagued by emotional and physical problems that led to severe depression, his existence was far from the flamboyant character he portrayed in the squared circle. Steroids, uppers, downers and pain-killers all played a part in literally taking the former Mr. America to his knees.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Graham was born Wayne Coleman 51 years ago in Phoenix, Ariz. A track and field star at North High School in Phoenix, he set the state record in the shot put and the discus as a freshman. One of the top decathletes in that part of the country, he had hoped for a possible shot in the 1968 Olympics. But Graham fell in with the “wrong crowd” and began missing school his junior year. By his senior year he had become ineligible, and his Olympic aspirations were dashed.
Graham concentrated on bodybuilding after graduating from high school and later progressed to powerlifting. But his circuitous route to the wrestling business took a slight detour when Graham became heavily involved in the church.
“I went into the ministry when I was 19 years old,” says Graham. “I had become a Christian and accepted Christ into my life. I studied the Bible, wrote sermons and started touring the country in tent revivals and at small churches. I’d preach in front of 30 people and be excited about it. I’ve come full circle.”
Graham was quite effective in spreading the message, especially among a younger audience, due to the fact that he had won the West Coast division of a Mr. America contest in 1961. Graham, who was steroid-free at the time, says he was popular among the local religious community and was even ordained by a local Assembly of God church.
“I went across the country and used my influence on kids because I won a teen-age Mr. America contest. I used that as a tool to attract young people. I used Mr. America as my calling card. I had a tremendous conversion into Christianity and went to youth camps and church services.”
Graham preached throughout the country, particularly in the South and Southwest, for nearly four years. During this time, however, he was introduced to steroids. It was the beginning of the end.
“The ministry was a wonderful part of my life,” says Graham. “Being a former Mr. America and bodybuilder with my older brother since the sixth grade, I started working out again. Lo and behold, someone introduced me to steroids. Steroids began the initial fall of my evangelistic career as a young man, and the steroids opened the gate and I sort of fell away. I never fell away from my faith and belief in God and Christ, but I certainly fell away from living the testimony.
“I was very committed to serving the Lord but got away from it and went into wrestling. It degenerated downward from that point. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have gone into wrestling. I would have stayed in the ministry.”
Graham, who dethroned the legendary Bruno Sammartino for the world heavyweight championship in 1977, says little was known about the dangers of steroid use when he began lifting weights and building his body.
“I started taking steroids in the late ’60s. It was a totally new thing that was really starting to catch on in the early ’70s. We were totally ignorant, we knew nothing about steroids, and they were easily accessible. Even the doctors had no clues. It was like a wonder drug.”
Graham broke into wrestling while playing for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League in 1969. He learned the ropes from trainer Stu Hart, spending several months in Hart’s basement, known affectionately among Hart trainees as “the dungeon.”
After wrestling for nearly six months in Calgary, where he managed and teamed with Abdullah The Butcher, Graham returned to Phoenix and worked as a bouncer at area nightclubs. One of his customers was the late Dr. Jerry Graham of the renowned Graham Brothers. The good doctor, known as much for his drinking binges as his rugged style in the ring, enlisted Billy Graham as the newest member of his infamous wrestling “family.”
“I was bouncing at area nightclubs and I was consistently throwing Dr. Jerry Graham out of these clubs,” Graham recalls. “We became friends, and he encouraged me to become the youngest Graham `brother.’ I thought of the Rev. Billy Graham and thought it would be a real catchy name. At that time the rock opera `Jesus Christ Superstar’ was very popular, so I later took the `Superstar’ and put it in front of my new name.”
Graham, regarded as one of the strongest men in wrestling during that era, made an immediate impact. He had all the tools necessary to make it in the business – ability, size, strength and charisma. He was able to bench-press close to 600 pounds and even trained with Arnold Schwarzeneggar in Los Angeles during the early ’70s.
But his massive physique, he admits, was created with the help of anabolic steroids – muscle-enhancing drugs that would ultimately ravage his body.
Before there was the Hulk, there was the Superstar. Superstar Billy Graham, after all, was the man Hulk Hogan patterned his ring persona after. The Hulkster copied Graham’s style to the letter – from the bleached blond hair to the outspoken interviews, from the massive muscles and bulging biceps to the steroids.
Graham, a major star for two decades, burst upon the scene in the early ’70s as one of the strongest men in the business. He left the sport in 1988 – not as he had come in, but instead hobbled with a body ravaged by 20 years of steroid abuse.
The first sign of the devastating toll the muscle-enhancing drug had apparently taken came in October 1986 when Graham had his hip removed. His doctors said it was unique because they had never seen a hip joint decay from steroids.
Graham’s psychological addiction to steroids was so strong, however, that he wanted a new hip so he could get back into wrestling. Graham received a complete left-hip replacement, but he continued his steroid abuse after the operation. The former Mr. America returned to the World Wrestling Federation 10 months later, but his comeback was short-lived as ankle problems forced him to retire for good in February 1988.
“Steroids impair your judgment,” said Graham. “I thought I could last forever. You just don’t think rationally. So I made that comeback in 1987. And ironically, even with all the trauma and bumps, my hip held up. But my ankles started going on me and finally prevented me from wrestling.”
Graham, 53, had his right ankle fused in February 1990 due to what doctors termed avascular necrosis – a disease that degenerates the joints. The destruction in his ankles and hip, he says, “looked like someone had taken a hammer and chisel and beaten away.”
Graham, who watched bone disintegration knock several inches from his hulking 6-4 frame, was advised to fuse his left ankle as well. He later had his artificial hip replaced because the bumps and bruises sustained in his wrestling comeback loosened it.
Graham readily admits that steroids not only ended his career, but came close to ending his life.
Graham, whose body for 20 years had been synthetically driven, experienced loss of appetite, loss of sexual function and loss of motivation to train when he went off steroids. Graham, who had been a training partner of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early ’70s, spent much of the year following his surgery in traction, braces and casts. He suffered a partially collapsed lung, pneumonia and lost great amounts of blood as a result of the hip operations to replace his artificial hip.
“It’s was an unbelievable price to pay,” Graham says of his steroid abuse. “It was the most pain and agony I’d been in my life. It’s been a major, major battle. It’s not worth the price. I would have never done it had I known. It’s too much to pay.”
Graham’s spirit began dropping along with his physical state. His finances were in shambles, and he even contemplated suicide.
“When you go off steroids, that plateau is never reached again,” says Graham. “When you do go off, especially if you don’t cycle down and taper off, a tremendous depression sets in. Along with that depression comes a preoccupation of taking steroids again and how to obtain them.
“I had contemplated suicide in California after my ankle surgery in 1990,” says Graham. “I had surgery on my hip and it kept dislocating. My ankle was gone, my hips were gone and my health was pretty bad. I wasn’t wise with my finances. I was getting really close to considering suicide, to getting out, but I knew that wouldn’t work, being a Christian. I had come to my wit’s end, and I had to turn back to where I should have been all along. That led me to rededicating my life to the Lord and committing myself to go with the Lord from here on out.”
Graham also credits the unwavering support of wife Valerie. The two met in 1977 in Florida during a celebrated feud between Graham and Dusty Rhodes that packed arenas throughout the state.
“I was reading many Christian books at the time,” says Graham. “She was quite impressed, with her being a Christian. But I didn’t go out to party with these drugs. I would always take the drugs back to my hotel room and kind of escape whatever I was trying to escape. I really wasn’t happy at all. I was taking great amounts of tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pain pills. I began to sink into that, with the root reason being not serving the Lord.
“Valerie has been a Christian since she was 13 years old. She’s prayed for me all those years, stayed with me through all the drug overdoses and everything that has happened to me. She’s a rock. It’s phenomenal what she has put up with and stayed there like a rock. It’s been an unbelievable blessing to have her in my life.”
“We’ve been married 17 years on July 1,” he adds. “That’s a pretty good number considering the age we live in, the things I’ve been through and being a wrestler. That’s a pretty good record.”
Superstar Billy Graham doesn’t look back much anymore. The forces that drove him for most of his life – a desire for stardom in the wrestling business and an insatiable appetite for physical power – no longer apply. Graham has been at both ends of the spectrum – as the world heavyweight wrestling champion and one of the biggest draws in the business, and as a man fighting simply to survive.
And, somewhere in the middle, Graham was torn apart by forces he was unable to control – until recently.
Superstar Billy Graham, who retired in 1988 from a profession that left his body ravaged after 20 years of steroid abuse, made new headlines in the early ’90s as one of the main figures involved in a much-publicized investigation into the World Wrestling Federation.
While many current and former wrestlers alleged the WWF hierarchy indirectly encouraged its performers to take steroids, it was Graham who came to the forefront and charged that WWF owner Vince McMahon openly pushed the illegal muscle-enhancing drug. McMahon was eventually acquitted.
Graham, at the same time, was fighting another battle. His health was deteriorating rapidly due to a number of operations linked to steroid abuse. Along with the decline in his physical health came a decline in his emotional well-being. At one point he even contemplated suicide.
“I rededicated my life to the Lord a little more than two years ago after I had undergone a series of health and financial and drug problems,” says Graham. “I had come to my wit’s end, and I had to turn back to where I should have been all along. After all my surgeries, drug abuse and everything that happened to me, I was always convicted in my heart that I wasn’t doing the right thing. I looked up to the Lord for help and stability, and he allowed me to live through the drug overdoses. I reached a point in my life in which it was absolutely crucial that I return to the fold and try to make as much impact as I could with my testimony.”
Graham, indeed, has come full circle. He first became involved in the ministry at 19 years of age, and as a former teen-age Mr. America, he traveled across the country converting many young people at youth camps, tent revivals and church services. But an introduction to steroids, set in the fast-lane life of professional wrestling, put him on a detour that lasted 20 years.
Graham, however, has returned to the fold. Like water and oil, being a pro wrestler and being involved in the ministry don’t mix, he now admits.
“Wrestling is not conducive to keeping your testimony intact. It’s pretty tough. You can’t do both. Even being a babyface (good guy), the deception is still there. That is the key issue. You are deceiving the public. I personally couldn’t do it. But this is where I’m supposed to be. I’m very happy serving the Lord.”
Despite his break from the profession, Graham says there are still issues in the wrestling business that he would like to resolve. Foremost is the critical and outspoken approach Graham took during the WWF steroid scandal.
“One of my biggest regrets is the way I handled the situation with Hulk Hogan,” says Graham, who in a 1992 interview claimed that Hogan was a heavy steroid user from the late 1970s throughout the ’80s and even claimed to have personally injected Hogan with steroids. “I wrote him a personal letter apologizing for the pain I caused his family through all of my steroid stuff. I was also very sorry for trashing the WWF, and Vince in particular. In my early days there, in the mid-’70s, he was a very good friend of mine. We were very close and had a good relationship. Vince was always mesmerized by me. When I was relieved of my position with the WWF, and being away from God’s will, coupled with a little animosity because I felt I had been unjustly released, I fell on that media bandwagon. Even though there was a lot of justification, I do regret it to this day.”
Graham points to an appearance on the Donehue Show four years ago in which he and McMahon were among a panel of guests discussing the issue of steroids in wrestling.
“I had said something to Vince about steroids, and Vince said, `Superstar, you know that’s not true.’ And the way he said `Superstar’ was like he always said it. It was like a term of endearment to me the way he said it, like he was so disappointed that I was saying the things I was saying. I picked up on his tone of voice, but I was not thinking logically at the time. My wife and I could both tell it was not a good thing that I was doing.
“I know this will really turn a lot of heads against me, but I have to be honest. I can’t predicate my convictions and feelings about other people. The way I treated them (Hogan and McMahon) was not good, and I’ve repented. You reap what you sew. The letter I wrote to Hulk I use in many of my church speaking engagements about asking people to forgive you for things, like Christ forgave us. I ridiculed him in the public and abused his name in the public, so I can apologize to him in the public also.”
Graham, who spent 20 years on the road as part of a grueling mat schedule, is back on the road again – this time at a more leisurely pace, and with a different message to spread – at schools, churches and even prisons.
“I would like to speak every weekend at least at a church somewhere, and maybe even Wednesday night services. I’m hoping and praying that I can give my testimony at more services. I’m going to continue in the ministry regardless. I’m not a preacher, but everywhere I’ve been it’s been a real blessing.”
“I’ve also given my testimony to a lot of prisons,” says Graham. “The most memorable was being on death row in Texas. There were seven women on death row. I visited with these ladies and talked about the Lord. A lot of them totally converted to Christianity and serving Christ on death row. That was the most memorable thing for me, and it was a real blessing.”
Graham, who three years ago moved from his California home to his native Phoenix, says his message is a simple one. “I would offer everyone the chance to accept Christ as their personal savior and make a commitment to him because he would be the answer to all the drug problems, psychological and emotional problems. A personal relationship with Christ really is the answer to mankind. That’s just my simple message.
“Turn to Christ and put all your burdens on him. Give Christ a real chance to give you not only eternal life, but stability and peace of mind in this life.”
“All the things I’ve done never gave me a real peace, especially when I was a young kid starting out,” says Graham, who turns 54 in June 1997. “Just like this horrible thing in Oklahoma. All the people they were interviewing – the family members of the victims – were talking about the Lord. You have to be prepared because you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Life is really nothing but a vapor. You have to be prepared for eternity. It was a tragic lesson reaffirming that our life is like grass that is green today and withered away tomorrow. Prepare yourself for eternal life through Christ. Pick up your cross.”
Graham is a member of Phoenix First Assembly of Gods, which he says is the largest in the country with a total attendance of more than 10,000 and seating of more than 7,500, and is also involved in Athletes International, one of 180 different sub-ministries of the church.
Graham, in addition to his speaking engagements, is an accomplished artist who keeps busy honing his painting skills.
“I hope in a year from now to be showing my work,” Graham says. “I do Southwest Indian portraits and desert landscapes. Scottsdale (Ariz.) is a hub of Southwest art. I’ve met several outstanding artists who are helping me, so I hope to exhibit my work in about a year and have it stand on its own merit, not because I’m Superstar Billy Graham. I just want to honor the Lord through my art also.”
Graham also hopes to influence young athletes who might be tempted into taking shortcuts to achieve their goals. A graphic video that includes footage from one of his operations is part of his presentation.
“I show a 23-minute anti-steroid video that I originally made for schools as an educational tool. It tells a story of how steroids took me up and then took me down. It’s very high impact. It’s a great way of letting people know who I really am, and it sets a good stage for my personal testimony. It shows the rise and fall of Billy Graham.”