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WRESTLING MURDER-SUICIDE: THIS WASN'T IN THE SCRIPT

The Chris Benoit at 2002's SummerSlam at Nassau

Coliseum was quite simply "the best," said Rob Van Dam, Benoit's opponent that

night.

"He was a role model to those of us who were considered role models," said

Van Dam, who is still struggling to come to grips with charges that Benoit

strangled his wife, choked his son to death, then hanged himself. "I can't

think of him as a monster. It just doesn't make sense to me."

No one knows what caused Benoit to kill his family and himself. He did have

a rocky marriage, friends report. His son may have struggled with a mental

handicap, according to wrestling officials. Although Benoit recently tested

negative for steroids, they were found at his house and his doctor prescribed

massive amounts of them to him, authorities said.

On top of all that, wrestling insiders say he - like many full-time pro

wrestlers - lived in a world of near-constant stress, with no offseason and a

grinding schedule that offered him few opportunities to deal with any issues at

home.

"Everyone is searching desperately to put some perspective into this," said

former WWE employee and wrestling promoter Paul Heyman, who gave Benoit his

first big break in the United States. "It's incomprehensible to think that he

did something so heinous."

In a good week, World Wrestling Entertainment performers are home for two

days. WWE puts on shows more than 250 nights a year and the perception that a

wrestler isn't totally committed can put him out of the spotlight and out of a

job.

"You've always got this in the back of your mind, behind every decision you

make: If you don't want to be there, there are probably a million guys who

will jump at the chance to be there," Van Dam said.

Although Heyman said he saw "up close the loving relationship this man had

with his son," Benoit's work schedule left him little time to spend with

Daniel, 7, who reportedly suffered from fragile X - a form of mental

retardation often mistaken for autism. Benoit kept the illness from most of his

colleagues, but fellow wrestlers said such a condition would have added to the

pressure on Benoit to spend more time at home.

And awaiting Benoit each week when he would return from his usual four-day

road trip was a marriage that, according to records, was unraveling in 2003.

Nancy Benoit had accused him of abusing her.

"I have no problem saying that being a full-time wrestler and living on the

road absolutely, 100 percent added some stress to Chris' life," said Van Dam,

a former WWE champion. "Whether that had anything to do with what happened or

not, none of us know at this point."

In a statement to Newsday, WWE said last week that it has "worked to reduce

talent travel and time away from home" and will "provide time off for talent

to address personal issues, as we did for Chris Benoit when he took time off

from May to October in 2006."

Even when they are hurt, many pro wrestlers, who are classified as

independent contractors and don't get insurance, choose to work through

agonizing pain out of fear of losing their place in the cards or their jobs

altogether.

With no unions or pensions and no viable competitor to WWE, losing your job

can mean losing your career, wrestlers say. Many wrestlers make six-figure

salaries.

"Any time wrestlers think they can all take a stand, they're all

replaceable," Van Dam said.

WWE did not respond to specific questions about wrestlers' employment

status and their lack of benefits.

For wrestlers, working can be as hazardous as not working. To function on

the road, some wrestlers rely on prescription pain pills, and some get

addicted, they said.

"People think, 'It's fake. It's so easy' ... That mat is a lot harder than

most people would ever imagine," said former WWE star Chris "Kanyon"

Klucsarits, a Sunnyside native. "And when you love it as much as Chris did, you

make it look real."

A pro wrestler is likely to suffer dozens of injuries during a career.

During his brief, three-year wrestling career, former WWE star Christopher

Nowinski suffered four concussions, he told Newsday. In his book, "Head Games,"

Nowinski and medical researchers found links between pro athletes'

post-concussion syndrome and various mental disorders, including dementia and

depression.

In a business with an alarmingly high mortality rate, the Benoits had also

recently been dealing with the recent deaths of several close friends,

including Benoit's former tag team partner Shane Bower, who died days before

Benoit at the age of 42, and former wrestler and manager Sherri Martel, who

died a week earlier at 49. There is not yet a cause of death for either.

During the previous 20 months, Benoit lost two other of his closest

friends, wrestlers Eddie Guerrero and Mike Durham - both in drug-related deaths.

Wrestlers and experts say the answer to what set Benoit on his path

probably will not be found in any toxicology findings.

Wrestling journalist Dave Scherer, editor of PWInsider.com, said he

believes steroid use remains prevalent in wrestling, as performers continue to

feel pressure to look like stars.

"I agree that WWE has culpability, and they're going to the be the ones

that have to set the culture," Scherer said. "They sure as hell don't want

another of these tragedies to happen."

In a statement, WWE spokesman Gary Davis said Benoit's actions can't be

regarded as typical for wrestlers and added that officials "look forward to

engaging in the debate on the root causes of the ... problem" of

performance-enhancing drugs.

Many wrestlers and insiders say things are getting better. Recreational

drug use has largely subsided since its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, they say.

Van Dam said he knows firsthand that WWE's drug policy has saved some lives.

But Klucsarits wondered whether the Benoit tragedy would open some eyes

into the lives of pro wrestlers when the full story is known, or only further

tarnish an already troubled industry.

"The ironic part is that Chris loved wrestling more than anyone. And he may

end up being the one that saves it," Klucsarits said. "Or he may end up being

the one that hurts it more than anyone."

Seeking changes

Observers of the pro wrestling industry have suggested several changes that

could improve quality of life for performers. Here are a few:

MANDATORY TIME OFF. Wade Keller, editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch

newsletter, has pushed for a rotation system in which every wrestler would get

six weeks off, twice a year. Dave Scherer, editor of PWInsider.com, has

proposed a WWE offseason, during which WWE would shut down all performances for

three weeks to a month in December.

STRICTER DRUG TESTING. Some critics have said WWE's wellness policy, instituted

last year, may be well intended, but falls short by allowing wrestlers to

justify the use of steroids and other drugs with a doctor's permission and

giving wrestlers an hour's notice before a drug test.

OUTLAWING DANGEROUS WRESTLING MOVES. WWE has restricted certain moves that

could result in spinal compression, but some critics say more has to be done.

LESS EMPHASIS ON PHYSIQUES. Many wrestlers and critics have advocated

reinventing the model of a pro wrestler, and have emphasized that some of the

most talented and athletic performers are often the smallest.

A PRO WRESTLERS' UNION. Organized wrestlers could demand health insurance for

them and their families and create a pension system for retired stars, who

sometimes become destitute after leaving the ring.

PSYCHOLOGICAL SCREENING AND COUNSELING. Letting wrestlers open up about

their stresses could uncover serious problems that wouldn't show up in a drug

test, some observers say.

New York Sports