I got the fever as a young boy growing up in the long shadows of a big man in Austin, Texas.
The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes, is my dad. As a young boy, all I knew was that my dad was gone all the time. For the most part, my mother, my sister Kristin, and I were left to fend for ourselves. I can remember being five or six years old and seeing my dad come home after a long trip. I was like any other small boy. I wanted to crawl all over my dad when he finally walked through the front door. But he was too tired and his body too sore.
Back then, wrestlers worked territories, and they were gone for months at a time. He might spend two or three weeks in one place, come home, then head off to Japan for a month or more. He would take us places and we would get time with him, but it was always cut short by his schedule. My dad was naturally charismatic and very smart. I certainly didn’t understand how smart he was about his career then, but as a little boy all I wanted was more time with him. He was larger than life to me.
Then, one day, he was gone for good. My parents divorced right around the time I entered first grade at a private Christian school in Austin. I didn’t get the chance to know him the way a young boy wants to know his father. I was seven years old when my parents divorced. I remember crying for hours at a time during the days, weeks, and months that followed his departure. Even though he was gone a lot before the divorce, I always knew he’d come walking into the house in his cowboy boots and hat. Divorce meant the exact opposite. My father was gone and he wasn’t ever coming back. In those days, his life was rolling along at one hundred miles an hour, and being home with family was the slowest part of his existence.
As his stature grew in the business, the shadow became larger and more difficult for me. I don’t know if I have ever wanted anything as much as I wanted to leave Austin and go live with my dad. My mother married three times over the next eight years. Like everyone else, she made some bad decisions. The first two stepfathers beat the hell out of my mother. Kristin and I would crouch in the hallway just off the living room. I wasn’t old enough to do anything to them physically. We’d just sit there with our backs against the wall listening to the violence. No child should have to live through that. We watched one man after another come into her life, and each one of them did the same thing.
My mother protected herself as best she could. Incredibly, she took care of us and made sure we never endured what she did. In every other way, my mom took care of us and never complained. She worked as many as three jobs and held together what little we had. She was a great mom, but sometimes stuff happens. Everybody makes bad decisions here and there. That’s life. My mom was a hairdresser and she’d put in as many hours as possible, sometimes working at two different salons. When she wasn’t doing hair, my mom cleaned houses and did whatever it took to make ends meet.
I’m sure all those men beating up my mother contributed to my desire to leave, but all I remember is crying a lot. It was just one incident after another. I don’t know how we became so dysfunctional that we allowed bad people into our lives. Maybe we attracted them in some way we didn’t realize. Maybe my mother had so much guilt about one thing or another that she felt like she didn’t deserve anything better. I remember one time, my mom and second stepdad came home, and both of them were getting out of the truck fighting. Jack and my mother were screaming and yelling at each other. She swung at him and he was shoving my mother into the cab of the truck. She got out and took a swing at him and he grabbed her hand and yanked it backward and broke her finger. Her wedding ring flew off her finger out into the grass near the front of the house. She came inside the house crying. Her finger was bent to one side. It’s hard for a child to process that kind of scene. But as soon as he left I went outside. I must have spent four or five hours combing through the grass looking for that ring. Finally around nine or ten o’clock at night, I found the ring. I walked back inside and gave it to her. I was probably eight or nine years old, and the only comfort I could provide my mother was to find that ring.
Looking back, it seems strange that I was trying to find a symbol of a busted marriage that had just led to a broken finger. I didn’t know what else to do or how else to help. I don’t know whether my father knew what was happening to my mother. I don’t know whether he cared one way or another at the time. My father never failed to send us child support, but he was young and I really don’t know whether he gave a damn. Like I said, his life was rolling and on the upswing. He was hell-bent on making a name in the business, which he most certainly did.
After they divorced, my dad would roll into town from time to time and we would go to the events. Still, it wasn’t until I was eleven or twelve that I really understood he was famous, or that he did something different from all the other dads. That’s about the time I started watching the World Class Championship Wrestling out of Texas with the Von Erichs. Kerry Von Erich, the Modern Day Warrior, was big at that time. The Freebirds were big, too. I remember going to the Coliseum in downtown Austin to see my dad wrestle. I was probably about nine years old, and it was the first time I saw my dad perform live. I was running around the floor as the show was going on. I was so excited to see my dad, and there were all these people jumping up and down cheering for him. It was really cool seeing people react to my dad that way. It was the way I felt about him, too.
After the show ended, I walked up to the ring. I jumped up onto the apron and grabbed the ropes. That’s when I heard my dad’s booming voice. He was in the back behind the curtain. He came running out into the arena and started yelling. “Don’t you ever get into that wrestling ring again.” He was mad, and it was scary for a young boy. I mean, that was my dad. He scared me so much that I didn’t get back into a ring until I got my start a decade later. To this day I don’t know whether he was concerned about my safety, or he just didn’t want me ever to become comfortable with the idea of one day being in the business. I know one thing: I’ve never forgotten that experience. All I wanted was to be with my dad. It was as if all these people, all the fans in that arena and in cities all over the territories he worked, had more of him than I did. He was always good to us, but I wanted to be a larger part of his life. Many years later my daughter, Dakota, would come with her mother and me on the road. I always let her climb into the ring and bounce around with Hunter and Edge and just have fun.
As the years rolled on, my sister and I didn’t see a whole lot of our father. During Christmas, he would fly us to Tampa on Braniff Airlines. In the summer, we’d make the same trip again, this time staying for a month. That’s all we really saw of him. Even then he was gone working all the time. Once in a while we talked to him on the phone, but otherwise he was somewhere out in the world. When we did see him, the time passed so quickly that it seemed like within moments of our arrival it was time to turn around and go home. At Christmas we’d open our presents and, boom
, a couple days would pass and we were headed back to the airport. He was never really there for us. Then again, this lifestyle comes with the territory. It’s more demanding than most people can imagine. He was a father when it came to child support and generally doing the right thing in terms of his responsibilities to us, but it was more of a formality. His life was so much bigger, and there wasn’t a whole lot of room left for us.
I don’t know why my dad chose his path, but he knew how to make just about everyone love him. It is awesome to see. As soon as I became conscious of it, I wanted to be a part of it all. I didn’t recognize the fact that sometimes the life is far from glamorous, or that the travel and physical toll can wear you down. Dusty Rhodes was my dad, and I was drawn to him in the same way a fan is. Meanwhile, his career just kept rising. It was like he could do no wrong, and all I saw was the wonder of it all. Everything was going for him and I wanted a life just like his. I wanted that experience. In some ways we were growing up together, though we remained far apart. It seemed like the older I got the bigger he became.
After my sophomore year at Lanier High School in Austin, my mother finally agreed to let me go live with my father. I’m sure she thought, “Okay, go find out for yourself what it’s really all about.” I was a tight end on my high school football team and I had a lot of friends, but I never stopped wanting to be with my dad.
He had a new family by then, and they were living in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had started to come into my own as a football player around that time, though football was more of my father’s idea than my own. I became a pretty good defensive tackle at East Mecklenburg High School, where I was known as Dusty Runnels. Everyone knew who my dad was, in part because longtime professional wrestler Gene Anderson’s son, Brad, was in the same school and played football, too. Both of us were far more passionate about wrestling than football or pretty much anything else outside of girls.
Prior to our junior season, we shaved our heads like the Road Warriors, Hawk and Animal. Every chance we had, Brad and I would do trampoline wrestling. We’d put on an entire show from start to finish. My girlfriend would videotape me pulling up to the house in my dad’s Mercedes as if I were arriving at the ...