Pro wrestling legend George (the Animal) Steele dies at 79

Steele's pro wrestling stardom grew during the 1980s, but is also a Hall-of-Fame football coach who was at Madison Heights Madison for 28 years.

Steele’s pro wrestling stardom grew during the 1980s, but is also a Hall-of-Fame football coach who was at Madison Heights Madison for 28 years.

Longtime Michigan State football coach George Perles knew him as Moose Myers.

Former NFL player Ken Dallafior knew him as Coach Myers.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of students who took his classes over nearly 30 years at Madison High School in Madison Heights, knew him simply as their teacher, Mr. Myers.

The rest of the world knew Jim Myers as George (the Animal) Steele, a stupid, hulking, hairy brute with a green tongue who became famous in a professional wrestling career that spanned three decades in the WWF and WWE. Myers had recently suffered from several health issues and died in Florida, the WWE announced today. He was 79.

Myers, who grew up in the Detroit area, was supposed to play football as an offensive and defensive linemen alongside Perles in the mid-1950s. But Myers never lettered in football and decided to concentrate on becoming a pro wrestler.

Perles marveled at the success Myers encountered in a lengthy wrestling career that and made him a television star during the sport’s explosion in the 1980s. He played a key role in the iconic Wrestlemania III event in 1987 before more than 90,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome, when he helped Ricky (the Dragon) Steamboat win the Intercontinental Championship by thwarting Randy (Macho Man) Savage.

“He was great, a great athlete and a great wrestler and a good person,” Perles said. “Everybody liked him. He was always a positive guy.”

Dallafior played football and wrestled for Myers at Madison High before embarking on an eight-year NFL career, and he always got a kick out of the disparate nature of Myers’ personalities. Myers was a turnbuckle-chewing brute in the ring and one of the first so-called “monster heels” of pro wrestling. But he also earned a bachelor’s degree from MSU and a master’s degree from Central Michigan. In the 1994 film “Ed Wood,” Myers shared the screen with Johnny Depp and played Swedish pro wrestler Tor Johnson.

“You had the bald head with a green tongue and the guy who couldn’t speak or talk right, George the Animal,” said Dallafior, a 1977 Madison High graduate. “And then you had this educated, really well-spoken individual on the other side. It was just such a contrast between the two.”

George (the Animal) Steele

George (the Animal) Steele

How about this for a contrast? In 1995, Myers was presented by Doink the Clown for induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. The next year, he was inducted into the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame after a 28-year career coaching football, wrestling and track at Madison.

“I would say one is Jim Myers as a coach, a teacher, a father to his kids and a father figure to many others. Just tough, hold the line. Made you accountable. What you think great coaches and teachers do, and fathers.”

One of Dallafior’s favorite memories of Myers came during his junior year of football, when he was exhausted and threatened to quit the team on a scorching summer’s day of practice. Myers grabbed Dallafior and dragged him through the drill — then threatened to drag him out of his home and return him to practice if he quit the team.

Dallafior was glad he changed his mind. He reached the NFL and played in 1985-88 for the San Diego Chargers, then for the Detroit Lions in 1989-92. The Lions have never been to a Super Bowl, but they came closer than ever in 1991, when they suffered a crushing loss to the Washington Redskins in the NFC championship game.

Dallafior walked to the locker room moments after the game.

“I remember I was sitting there,” Dallafior said, his voice cracking. “I’m lacing my shoes and I looked up and here’s Jim Myers standing at my locker.”

Dallafior had no idea Myers would be at the game. His old coach had not asked for tickets. Myers had not disturbed his former player before the biggest game of his life. But there he was.

“And here he is standing at my locker and it was just one of those moments,” Dallafior said. “You know, you asked what kind of guy he was but he touched a lot of people. And I asked him, ‘Jim, how did you get in here?’ And he said, ‘Aw, security. They like George. So they let George come into the locker room.’ ”

Jim Myers. George (the Animal) Steele. Always different but somehow loved all the same.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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