An article by Mike Mooneyham
Johnny Valentine will never forget Oct. 10, 1975. It was a day that would change the course of pro wrestling history. It was certainly a day that would forever change his life.
Valentine, at that time a 27-year veteran and the biggest star in the booming Mid-Atlantic area, was aboard a twin-engine Cessna 310 along with a group of other wrestlers, en route to Wilmington, N.C. Accompanying Valentine on the 200-mile trip were David Crockett, Tim Woods (the original Mr. Wrestling), Bob Bruggers and a 26-year-old rising star named Ric Flair.
The fateful trip ended in tragedy. Just miles away from destination, the plane ran out of gas and crashed, killing the pilot and injuring its passengers, with Valentine suffering an injury that would end the career of one of the greatest performers in the history of the sport. As fate would have it, Valentine initially had taken a seat in the back of the plane, but moved to the front next to the pilot at the request of Flair.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]”I was in the back playing chess with Tim Woods,” recalls Valentine. “Ric Flair talked me into the front seat. Flair absolutely didn’t want to sit up front with the pilot. Something must have told him. I said, `What the hell, we’ll play later.’ Otherwise he could have been in my condition.”
Valentine, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, says the crash was caused by pilot error.
“We were almost there – just a few minutes away. I remember looking at this big gas gauge right in front of me showing empty. I asked the pilot about it, and he said we had a main wing tank full. Ric Flair started looking at that gauge, too, and he began hollering like a banshee. I sort of built it up and said, `We’re out of gas, we’re out of gas,’ but I was just joking, or so I thought.
“The pilot changed over to the wing tank, and both engines started. One quit, and then the other quit. He had forgotten, though, that one of the engines was still running on the main tank. Had he switched back, we would have made it in on one engine, because we were not very far. But it was a mistake that ruined us. He was a military pilot, but he panicked.”
The plane plunged four thousand feet and landed on top of a tree.
“That put us in a nosedive position. Just before we hit the ground, our tail hit a wire and that kind of straightened us out. Otherwise we would have gone nose in. That saved most of us.”
Valentine and Bruggers both suffered broken backs. After spending 10 days in a North Carolina hospital, a plane was chartered to take the injured grapplers to a hospital in Houston, where the two underwent back operations in which their spines were attached with clamps.
Bruggers, walking out of the hospital in only three weeks, was the more fortunate of the two. A piece of bone had lodged itself into Valentine’s spinal column and caused major damage.
“The amazing thing is that he (Bruggers) walked out. He could have wrestled again had he wanted, but he quit.”
Valentine still believes to this day that a lack of care and expertise contributed to the paralysis that prematurely ended his ring career.
“They didn’t know what to do with us at that hospital in North Carolina. They were constantly rolling me around, because they were worried about my skin. They were turning me and rolling me around with my broken back. They used a cleanup crew to turn me clear over on my stomach. It was crazy. It was like a story out of the past. I’m just fortunate that I found out about Houston, or I might have died.”
Valentine spent six weeks in the Houston hospital and a couple more months in rehab until he was able to maneuver on crutches. “I never did use a wheelchair once I got home. Once in a while when I go the store, my wife will get one of those electric carts, but not very often. I hate to get into them. I work out a couple days a week. I use one leg and believe it or not, I’m getting new feeling and new action in the other leg.”
Valentine, who was the U.S. heavyweight champion at the time of the crash, said he probably could have wrestled for another 10 or 15 years had it not been for his career-ending injury. Remembered as one of the greatest heels in the history of the business and most noted in this area for his torrid feud with Wahoo McDaniel, Valentine says his greatest triumphs in life were his first small steps after the accident.
Valentine, who admits he never threw an easy punch, will go down in wrestling history as one of the greatest ever to step into the squared circle. He earned his respect the hard way – with blood, sweat and tears. And he insisted that promoters call him “The Champ.” Valentine, who stood 6-3 and weighed 245 in his prime, was the biggest box-office attraction in the Carolinas during the early ’70s as he successfully defended his 1,000 silver dollars against the best the area had to offer. With his trademark sledgehammer blow, he never was defeated for the silver dollars.