By Mike Mooneyham
April 28, 2002
“There’s only one Wahoo.”
I first penned those words 20 years ago in a front-page piece I did on one of professional sports’ most colorful and enduring characters. I repeated the same line 18 years later when I introduced him at a local wrestling show where he was making a special appearance.
Today, I can write with the same assuredness that I did two decades ago, that there will never be another Wahoo.
When Ed “Wahoo” McDaniel passed away on April 18 at the age of 63, it officially closed the chapter on an era of professional wrestling that longtime fans still talk about in reverent tones. It was an era of wrestling on which today’s baby boomers were weaned, when grapplers were judged according to their grit and toughness as opposed to their catch phrases and Q ratings. To legions of fans in the Carolinas, Mid-Atlantic Wrestling was a religion, and Wahoo McDaniel was a high priest.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Wahoo, part Choctaw, part Chickasaw, and fiercely proud of his Native American heritage, was one of those characters that you’d never forget. He didn’t even have to put his last name on the back of his pro football jersey. Just “Wahoo.” A pioneer in the early days of the American Football League, he left the gridiron when he discovered the wrestling business was far more lucrative for a star of his caliber. His exploits off the football field and outside the wrestling ring only served to enhance his image as “that wild Indian,” as his friends and even his own family affectionately knew him.
But Wahoo lived fast and lived hard, attacking each day like there was no tomorrow. That lifestyle, though, came with a receipt. Wahoo lost both of his kidneys more than four years ago, along with suffering from diabetes and other health problems that would ultimately keep him from enjoying his favorite diversions – golfing, hunting and fishing. In a conversation last year, he admitted that had he known he would have lived as long as he had, he might have taken better care of himself.
But that wasn’t Wahoo McDaniel.
The Wahoo McDaniel fans and friends knew burned the candle at both ends, partying and brawling with the best of them. His well-deserved reputation dated back to his high school and college days, when Wahoo once drank half a quart of oil on a dare, right after jumping out of a car and running all the way from Midland to Odessa, Texas, a distance of more than 20 miles, on another bet.
Wahoo took his lumps the same way he accepted life’s triumphs – with dignity and class. He admitted there were some regrets along the way, but that was the price one paid for packing as much punch into life as he did. He often wondered how things might have turned out had Johnny Valentine, whose name will forever be linked to Wahoo’s in wrestling lore, not been on that ill-fated plane that crashed in 1975, ending Valentine’s career and one of the most celebrated programs in mat history.
“John and I were always close,” Wahoo said last year after his friend’s death at the age of 72. Everywhere we went we had a big run. Just think how many more matches he and I could have had over the years … We sure had some good matches, but he liked me. That was one good thing. There were some guys he didn’t like, and he’d beat them silly.”
“Their matches were legendary,” recalled former WWWF champion Superstar Billy Graham, who enjoyed one of his greatest runs with Wahoo during the early 70s. “The building would rock when those guys pounded on one another, with Wahoo throwing those vicious chops and Valentine hitting him with those huge sledgehammer blows. I’m just thankful I wasn’t around that area at that time, or I might have been tossed in with them.”
But with all the success Wahoo enjoyed in the wrestling business over a 30-year career, the price of fame never came cheap. He was married five times to four women, and a normal family life was virtually non-existent. “It’s very hard on your home life,” he once said. “You’re constantly gone, and your wife has to stay home. You lose contact with your family. You come in one day, you leave for five, you never get to do anything together. You’re always tired when you get there. You never have any nights off to go anywhere and do things together. It’s very hard.”
Wahoo, who was once featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and was one of the biggest mainstream names in the business during the 70s, wrestled throughout the world, including more than a dozen tours of the Orient, along with trips to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Tasmania.
“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,” he told Sports Illustrated last year.
Despite the fact that Wahoo was a star all over the world, he never was offered a run in the lucrative New York market, with the exception of an off-season stint there while playing with the Jets.
“He was always bothered by the fact that he could never get into New York,” said Billy Graham. “That was because Chief Jay Strongbow was always there. (Strongbow was the resident “Indian” in the WWWF and later WWF, even though he was really an Italian named Joe Scarpa). That always bothered him. I didn’t have any answers for him, but I knew that pained him. That would have been a crowning achievement for his career back then.”
Wahoo’s athletic prowess took shape early as an all-star catcher on a Pony League baseball team coached by former President George Bush who, in later years, would visit Wahoo at wrestling shows whenever he was in Houston. He became a prep football phenom at Midland High School in Texas, where he was a two-time consensus all-state selection who earned All-Southern and All-American honors, before being wooed to the University of Oklahoma to play collegiate ball for the legendary Bud Wilkinson.
A sports editor in Midland, in reporting Wahoo’s football feats in the 1950s, wrote: “And fullback Wahoo McDaniel, winding up his career, acted as though he had the biggest grudge of them all, as he scored all four touchdowns, bruised, bulldozed and whirled his way to 281 yards on 35 terrifying rushes and tackled with primitive viciousness on defense to enjoy his greatest day – and in his two seasons as a Bulldog, the Indian has had some great ones, too.”
The 5-11, 280-pound McDaniel was just impressive at Oklahoma, where he still holds the record for longest punt return, a 92-yarder against Iowa State in 1958. He also kicked a record 91-yard punt that still stands, and boasts one of the Sooners’ longest touchdown receptions at 86 yards. The Sooners posted a 27-5 mark during Wahoo’s three years as a letterman there. His pro football career would span from 1960-68, playing for a number of teams while wrestling in the off-season to supplement his gridiron income. When he joined the New York Jets in 1964, he quickly became as colorful and controversial as his cocky teammate “Broadway” Joe Namath. A member of the original 1966 Dolphins, McDaniel, a linebacker, played three seasons at Miami and left an indelible mark on that team as well.
“Wahoo was a great practical joker who loved to laugh at himself as well as others,” former Dolphins great Larry Csonka told the Miami Herald. “He was colorful, and he was especially hard on the rookies. Whether it was (heat rub) in the jockstraps or critters in your shoes, Wahoo did it all.”
Wahoo’s greatest fame, however, came in the wrestling business, where his contemporaries hailed him as one of the most unique characters in the history of the business.
“What a great guy,” said former wrestling star and booker George Scott. “Wahoo was a helluva athlete, a helluva performer and a helluva guy. I had a lot of fun with him. There are so many stories about Wahoo, but most people would think they were fiction. Some of the things he did were unreal.”
“One time coming home from Houston,” recalled Scott, “Wahoo was doing 115 miles an hour on a four-lane highway. Instead of slowing down, he went around the right-hand side and passed all the other cars. He had a little bottle of Scotch sitting next to him. I picked it up instead and said, I need this more than you do.'”
Wahoo also was a big gambler on the golf course, said Scott, who remembers winning a $3,000 bet with Wahoo. “I later went to his apartment to make a long-distance call. I told him to knock $3,000 off what he owed me.”
Sometimes Wahoo’s ferocity and competitive spirit spilled over to the links, said Scott, who recalled a fight he had with Wahoo on the very first hole. “He hit me over the head with his golf club. I turned around and whacked him with mine. So we’re standing there looking at each other. I put my hat on because I had this big bump on my head. But we went ahead and played nine holes after that.”
(Among his favorite golfing partners were country singer Charlie Pride and football coach Mike Ditka, but he also played with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino. When he lived in Dallas, he’d play regularly with Yankees great Mickey Mantle.)
Former WWWF champ and Mid-Atlantic great Ivan Koloff called Wahoo one of the best ever in the ring.
“I even remember hearing about Wahoo in my early days of wrestling when he was playing football,” said Koloff. “(Fans chearing) Wahoo! Wahoo!’ I never was a big football fan, but I remember that. He was a great athlete and a very tough man who had a good heart. He was always out there trying to help young guys in the business, and always had a word of advice about psychology and things like that. If he liked you, he liked you. If he didn’t, you’d know it.”
“Wahoo was very special to me,” said Billy Graham. “It seems just like yesterday that we were in the ring together. After I left San Francisco in 1972 and after teaming with Pat Patterson and Ray Stevens, they really got me ready to go out and make a living. I went to Minnesota in late 72, and in early ’73 I shot that big arm-wrestling angle with Wahoo. The angle did tremendous business, and we worked it to a blow-off Indian strap match. That broke all the attendance and gate records in the AWA in that era.”
Wahoo was a perfect match for Graham: the American Indian babyface against the tie-dyed, California hippy. It was a unique clash of cultures.
“The arm-wrestling angle was Gagne’s idea. It was going to be with either Wahoo or Billy Robinson. I really didn’t want to go with Robinson because of his attitude, which everybody was aware of. I was in Calgary when he hurt some guys. He didn’t like weightlifters or bodybuilders or football players, and I was all three. I said it had to be Wahoo. Our rough-and-tough, stomp-and-kick styles worked better anyway. We did tremendous business, which really launched me into the limelight and the magazine covers for the first time. Wahoo was my springboard.”
“Out of all the major names I worked with – Bruno (Sammartino) and Dusty Rhodes included – Wahoo was the most giving wrestler during a match as far as letting you get heat on him before he would make a comeback,” said Graham. “I remember him lying there for 10 minutes letting me beat on him. He’d say, Keep going, brother, we don’t have it ready yet.’ I have nothing but fond memories of him. We had a lot of fun together. I wasn’t able to socialize with him much, because Gagne had that strong kayfabe deal up there. But I know I’ll miss him. He was one of the best.”
“We always had great relations,” said Ernie Ladd who, along with Wahoo, blazed trails in the old AFC before joining McDaniel in the pro wrestling ranks. “He was very competitive and a very good linebacker. He played hard and he wrestled hard. He was a super guy.”
“He always told a story that he blocked a field goal over me one day,” joked Ladd who, at 6-9, was one of the tallest men in football. “He told it for years and years and years. Wahoo never blocked any field goal over me. I could block people to the moon, although I played defensive tackle. He blocked a field goal against the Chargers one time, and he said he blocked it over me. But he couldn’t block a field goal over me. I was a rock in the line. But he loved to tell that story.”
“Wahoo was a true sportsman and a true athlete who really believed in his profession,” recalled longtime referee and booker Ron West. “He always stuck up for the business. There was one thing about Wahoo: If you didn’t want to know the truth, don’t ask him anything. He’d tell you in a minute.” “He hated for anybody to touch that (Indian) headdress,” recalled Ole Anderson. “For a short period of time he and I were partners, and when he’d get into the ring, I’d tug on a feather. I’d turn around real quick like I was chewing somebody out. Wahoo would come back over, and I’d have to calm him down.”
“He was always living beyond anybody’s reasonable lifestyle,” added Anderson. “He was a hard-working guy and he did some incredible things.” One of those incredible things occurred while Anderson was running Georgia Championship Wrestling in the late 70s. Prior to a Saturday TV taping, Anderson was informed that Wahoo had gone through his windshield and skidded about 100 feet down I-85 in an automobile accident.
“I asked if anything was broken and was told that it wasn’t, except that he had these tremendous abrasions on his head, his cheek, his back, his shoulders and his legs. The guy said Wahoo would be there if I wanted him to be there, so I said tell him to get down here. Wahoo showed up an hour later. I put him out there with Ernie Ladd, and when Wahoo came back in he was bleeding pretty good all over his body. I said, OK, take off tonight, go home, take care of yourself, and see you Sunday in Marietta.’
“When Wahoo arrived in Marietta on Sunday, all his cuts had started to heal over, and he could hardly walk. He struggled to get his pants over his leg. But when he got into that ring, you would have thought he was 20 years old again. Bang-bang, bang-bang, up and down and chopping like crazy. By the time he had gotten done, scabs had broken loose all over his body and he was just pouring blood. He was a sight to see. But he never took another day off. He just kept on going.”
Anderson also recalled the wild tag-team matches involving he and “brother” Gene against Wahoo and Paul Jones. “This one match Wahoo hit Gene with a chop in the mouth, and knocked Gene from eyetooth to eyetooth. Gene had all his teeth removed the next morning.”
Wahoo spent his last years hunting and golfing, when his health allowed, and raising his youngest son, Zack. In February, with his physical problems worsening, Wahoo moved from Charlotte to Houston to live with his daughter and son-in-law.
Wahoo was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant when he suffered a stroke and died 10 days later of complications from renal failure and diabetes. His body was cremated and his ashes were to be scattered over a lake near Del Rio, Texas, which had been the favorite fishing spot for Wahoo and his dad, a well-known West Texas welder and oil rigger.
And if you listen closely enough, somewhere in the distance, you’re bound to still hear the echoes of those tomahawk chops and sledgehammer blows.