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'Animal' retraces journey as Road Warrior

Joe Laurinaitis, right, aka "Animal" from 1980s and

Joe Laurinaitis, right, aka "Animal" from 1980s and '90s pro wrestling tag team "The Road Warriors," poses with his son, James, then a linebacker for Ohio State. (Dec. 14, 2008) Credit: AP

Joe "Animal" Laurinaitis has one regret about his new autobiography, "The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Pro Wrestling."

His tag-team partner isn't alive to read it.

During a golden era for tag-team wrestling in the 1980s, there was no duo hotter than Laurinaitis and the late Mike "Hawk" Hegstrand. They headlined for pro-wrestling companies worldwide while launching a slew of imitators who copied their face paint, Mad Max-inspired attire, jacked-up physiques and take-no-prisoners approach both in the ring and during television interviews.

"It was an age of believability (in wrestling)," Laurinaitis said in a recent telephone interview. "We were two behemoths coming to the ring, but we weren't muscle-bound guys. We could move and were never afraid to try anything new."

One of grappling's greatest rags-to-riches stories began in the early 1980s when a pro-wrestling trainer-turned-bartender (Eddie Sharkey) recruited four rough-and-tumble bouncers from the Minneapolis club where they all worked. All four of Sharkey's students -- Laurinaitis, Hegstrand, Barry Darsow and the late Rick Rood -- became stars.

But such success didn't come easy for Laurinaitis or Hegstrand. Both initially struggled as undercard singles performers in the Southeastern U.S. Laurinaitis had even quit the business and returned to Minneapolis, where he worked such jobs as loading UPS trucks and assembling high-tech machine parts.

Laurinaitis, though, gave pro wrestling another chance in June 1983, when he and Hegstrand were promised a big push by Georgia Championship Wrestling promoter Ole Anderson. Hawk and Animal were crowned tag-team champions even before their GCW debut.

Paired with stage and real-life manager "Precious" Paul Ellering, Laurinaitis and Hegstrand grew as both wrestlers and larger-than-life characters. Along with the massively muscled Hulk Hogan, Hawk and Animal changed the perception of what a pro wrestler should look like physically as the steroid craze hit the industry (Laurinaitis said he stopped using them in 1991).

One of the most memorable Road Warrior storylines came in 1986 with a series of scaffold matches against the Midnight Express ("Beautiful" Bobby Eaton and "Loverboy" Dennis Condrey). All four would fight on a narrow wooden platform high above the ring.

The Road Warriors never lost, with Eaton or Condrey always taking the match-ending fall into the ring.

"Those scaffolds were probably the most dangerous thing we ever did," Laurinaitis said.

But as the Road Warriors were riding high, Hegstrand began the downward spiral that would lead to his premature death in 2003 from a heart attack at age 46. Laurinaitis chronicled incidents of Hegstrand's extensive substance abuse that led to the Road Warriors breaking up in the early 1990s. When Hawk and Animal did reunite in the late 1990s, World Wrestling Entertainment incorporated Hegstrand's drug problems into a storyline that clearly crossed the boundaries of good taste.

"It was pretty tough to write about him," Laurinaitis admits. "We were like brothers for 22 years. I don't even get into half the problems he had because I didn't want to demean his character."

Asked whether he could have done more to help Hegstrand, Laurinaitis said, "It's almost like trying to tell a family member, 'Hey, listen; you've got a problem you need to clean up.' You can only do that so many times before it crosses over from love to someone becoming a pain in the rear end. I could only tell Hawk so many times what this was doing to my family, and if he got a six-month vacation (i.e. suspension) without pay that he was making me dig into my savings."

As his wrestling career wound down, Laurinaitis was able to spend extensive time with his family and enjoy the football exploits of his son James, who is now a starting linebacker for the St. Louis Rams. Laurinaitis also became a born-again Christian, which he said taught him "that you can conquer anything and nothing is ever too difficult. After what I went through with Hawk,

Christianity was a big part of that because it provided a calmness and security."

Now 51, Laurinaitis will be on hand April 2 when WWE inducts Hawk and Animal into its Hall of Fame during "Wrestlemania 27" weekend.

While he would like to become involved with the business once again as a trainer, Laurinaitis also knows the Road Warriors' legacy will always live on.

"We transcended through three decades of wrestling," Laurinaitis said. "Even today on WWE's 24/7 (nostalgia channel), our matches are being shown in China, the (United Kingdom) and all these different countries."

New York Sports