Cocoa Beach is "Animal’s" sanctuary
Jim Myers said he came to Cocoa Beach to die. Instead, he found new reasons to live.
Myers, 77, who rose to fame as the hairy, green-tongued, turnbuckle-chomping pro wrestling wildman George “The Animal” Steele, had been diagnosed in 1988 with Crohn’s disease, an incurable bowel ailment, and had been told by his doctors to move to the mountains to spend his last days.
Suffering from bad knees and preferring beaches to mountain peaks, Myers and his wife of 58 years, Pat, chose to move to Florida instead. They looked at residences in South and West Florida before a fellow pro wrestler, Tony Garea, invited Myers to his Cocoa Beach condominium after a wrestling show in Orlando.
“As we came across those two bridges, it was like utopia at the end of those two bridges,” Myers recalled. “It was like ‘Wow!’ ”
The couple eventually bought an oceanfront condo. There, Myers, who had spent three decades wrestling around the world, grappled with his crippling disease for 10 years. Then in 1998, Myers’ stunned doctors told him his Crohn’s had vanished.
“Just last week the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation sent one of their people from New York and a couple of photographers to do a story in their magazine about my health and my improvement,” Myers said. He spent more than a month in the hospital after his final match due to Crohn’s and once considered suicide because of his struggles with the disease. “I haven’t had any markers of Crohn’s. I’m not saying I’m in remission, but I have no markers. Things have happened that are just unbelievable.”
Myers’ career, chronicled in his 2013 memoir “Animal” by Triumph Books, similarly defies belief. Raised in Detroit, Myers struggled in school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. But his size and athleticism got the attention of top college coaches, and he earned a scholarship to play football at Michigan State.
After graduating in 1961, Myers spent the next 25 years as a teacher and coach at his old high school, Madison Heights, leading the school’s wrestling and football teams to several championships. But by 1962, Myers, a soon-to-be father of three who was making $4,300 a year as a teacher, needed some extra income. A friend recommended that Myers try pro wrestling. Myers, who thought wrestling was phony but was intrigued by wrestlers’ salaries, called a local wrestling promoter, who was impressed by his build and hired him as a novice grappler named “The Student.” The promoter agreed that Myers should wear a mask so he could teach by day and wrestle at night.
“There was a whole lot of split personality during that time,” Myers said of his double life.
Myers’ big break came when then-WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino saw him wrestle in Detroit and invited him to compete in Pittsburgh. Since he was no longer in the Detroit area, he could wrestle without a mask. He adopted the name George Steele, became known as a wild, brawling, foreign object-wielding villain that earned him his “Animal” nickname from fans, and was soon wrestling Sammartino for his title.
During the next several decades, Myers, whose in-ring alter ego had devolved into a grunting, drooling simpleton, would face some of the biggest names in pro wrestling in some of the country’s biggest arenas. His popularity hit new heights when he went from a hated “heel” to a beloved “babyface” after his six-man tag team partners Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik turned on him. “It truly was a magical moment and that was when I decided to retire from teaching and coaching and become a full-time wrestler,” Myers wrote in his book.
After retiring from the ring, Myers spent nine years as an agent for the renamed WWF, made an appearance in the Tim Burton film “Ed Wood” and was inducted into the again-renamed WWE Hall of Fame in 1995.
Myers’ recovery from Crohn’s also led to his spiritual awakening. The couple joined First Baptist Church of Merritt Island, were baptized in 2002 and are heavily involved in the church.
“Our Sunday School class has become like a second family,” Myers said. “It’s a big church, so the foundation for us is the Sunday School class. We look at the church as a place for us to give back. We have a House of Hope that other churches participate in. We feed about 1,200 to 1,500 families every week. We have a pregnancy center that is helping people with those challenges. We have a K-12 school. It’s just a great fit for what I was looking for. And we have a great young minister.”
Myers also is active with the local Michigan State alumni club and occasionally makes personal appearances and speaking engagements. He threw out the first pitch at Boston’s Fenway Park in 2012 to celebrate the stadium’s 100th birthday and also has done the same as a guest at minor league clubs across the country.
“I’ve done a lot but I’m cutting back just because travel is getting tougher and tougher,” he said.
Myers received another honor when Madison Heights named its football stadium after him.
“That is the most humbling thing that has ever happened to me,” he said. “That blew me away. It was great going into the (WWE) Hall of Fame, but my life is really built around coaching, so that was just really humbling.”
Writing a book was “a great experience,” Myers said. “What that did for me more than anything was to let me look at my life through the rear view mirror, and I can see where God was touching my life before He led me to Cocoa Beach.”
After two decades in Brevard, “The Animal” has a soft spot for his Space Coast den.
“When I moved to Cocoa Beach, I was told I had about six months to live,” Myers said. “So basically I found a whole new life and everything got so much better in Cocoa Beach it’s unbelievable. It’s like God meant for me to be there.”
Myers’ book can be found at Amazon.com.