Sunday, February 01, 2015

Wrestlers recall plane crash off Tampa that changed their careers

Buddy Colt poses for a photograph along with one of his championship wrestling belts at his home in Tampa. CHRIS URSO/STAFF

TAMPA — Dennis McCord remembers minute details of the plane crash.

The time was 1 a.m. Safety was a 300-yard swim away. The light they stroked toward hung from the back porch of a home owned by Emelia Martinez.

But today, 40 years later, McCord’s strongest memory from that February morning was the silence of the Cessna 182 cabin as he and the three other men on board realized they were lost in a blur of rain and clouds off the shore of Davis Islands.

The four were professional wrestlers. Silence was not in their nature. They knew something bad was about to happen.

“The silence was eerie. Then we heard a loud boom,” said McCord, 65, of Greeneville, S.C., a graduate of Robinson High School who was known in professional wrestling as “Austin Idol. “The next thing I remember are the white caps.”

McCord was the first to free himself from the plane and swim to the surface, he said.

Gary Williams, known as wrestling manager Gary Hart, was next.

Then came Ronald Reed, aka Buddy Colt, who was piloting the plane.

Robert Schoenberger, the wrestler Bobby Shane, never made it out of the plane. He drowned in his seat at age 29.

The accident happened during a time when Tampa had no professional football, hockey or baseball.

Professional wrestling, operating then under the guise of legitimate competition, was the city’s top attraction. The performers were Tampa’s most famous residents.

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The four in the crash were considered “bad guys” in the industry, willing to cheat and maim to win.

In a testament to how convincing they were, some people in Tampa actually cheered the news of the crash, said Bruce Mitchell, a professional wrestling historian and columnist with Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter.

Schoenberger was a rising star in the ring and was considered a future creative force for the industry.

When wrestling fans today hear the nickname “The King,” Mitchell said, they think of WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler of Memphis. But the crown gimmick was created by Schoenberger.

The crash Feb. 20, 1975, was a turning point in the lives of the victims.

McCord was able to continue his career, despite a crushed foot.

Williams, who died in 2008 at 66, is remembered as a manager but also had performed as a wrestler on occasion. Not after the crash, though. He suffered lingering pain from a broken wrist and injured back.

Reed, Florida’s first top villain, the man the fans paid top dollar to see as he got his comeuppance, never wrestled again. He snapped both ankles in the crash. His feet dangled to the side as he swam.

“It changed my life,” said Reed, 79, who still lives in Tampa. “But it’s not something that I constantly think about.”

McCord agreed.

“You can’t live in the rearview mirror. Every morning you have to move on to that day.”

Reed and McCord rarely communicated in the decades after the accident and have not spoken at all in years.

“We never really knew each other,” McCord said. “We had just met maybe a few weeks before the crash.”

Still, they acknowledge they are forever linked by that day.

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Reed was discovered by a professional wrestling promoter in Houston while training for a power lifting competition.

He was a natural with his immense physique, Marine toughness and background in amateur wrestling and martial arts.

Less than a year later, he was headlining a show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden against “Killer” Kowalski, real name Edward Spulnik — one of the industry’s biggest stars at the time.

Professional wrestling was different then. The big name today, WWE, did not dominate the landscape.

Instead, each area of the country had its own local promotions and champion that came under the umbrella of networks such as the National Wrestling Alliance, the American Wrestling Alliance or the World Wide Wrestling Federation, which later became the WWE.

The regional stars would travel the country to build their national fame in hopes of garnering enough fame to earn one of the major promotions’ world titles and the money that came with it.

That’s where Reed was headed, he said, when the plane crash dashed his ascent.

“I was promised a world title run with the NWA,” he said.

Reed wrestled many of the greats of the era, including Lou Thesz and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.

He won eight different titles along the way, including the North American Heavyweight Championship.

And he was one of the era’s most hated wrestlers.

Bleach-blonde baddy Reed was infamous for jabbing his thumb into his opponents’ neck to cut off their breathing.

Fans didn’t just want to boo him, they wanted a hand in ending his career.

One time, after he bloodied beloved Danny Hodge, more than two dozen fans rushed the ring to get at him.

“I started slinging a chain around to protect myself,” he said. “It was intense.”

Then there was the time a fan fired a gun at him. The bullet missed but skimmed the neck of another fan.

“He seemed very real,” historian Mitchell said. “He gave great tough guy interviews that gave the impression he would have torn your head off if he wanted to. And he had that type of style in the ring. He was real good.”

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In 1972, Reed competed in Championship Wrestling from Florida, headquartered at Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, wrestling’s Madison Square Garden of the South.

In 1973, he won the Florida heavyweight title and held it through 1974.

McCord began wrestling in Tampa a year later.

He grew up in Tampa but had no interest in wrestling until he heard how much the performers earned.

He was a close friend of the late Mike Gossett, better known as professional wrestler Mike Graham and son of Eddie “Graham” Gossett, head promoter for Championship Wrestling from Florida.

While hanging at the Gossett home, McCord overheard the father on the phone making a $1,000 deal for a wrestler. He decided he wanted paydays like that.

McCord was trained by Tampa professional wrestling legends: Jack Brisco, the wrestling name of Fred Brisco; Yasuhiro Kojima otherwise known as Hiro Matsuda and Bob Roop, who used his real name in the ring

Eleven months after getting started, in 1972, McCord found steady wrestling work in Nashville performing as tough muscle man “Iron Mike” McCord, Mike being his real middle name.

His first paycheck was $160 for six days of work per week

“I thought, ‘Where is my $1,000?’” he said. “I was starving.”

But he made the big bucks soon enough.

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Like Reed, McCord was a natural. He was a three-sport athlete at Robinson — baseball, football and basketball — and competed in power lifting after graduation.

He left Nashville and worked in Carolina and Australia, then spent a year with the WWWF in New York and returned to Tampa.

Just before McCord came back, Reed received his pilot’s license and bought a plane.

That was normal for successful wrestlers at that time, Reed said.

Tampa was the heart of Florida wrestling but performers had gigs in cities up and down the state and across the Southeast.

A plane allowed them to make it to more shows and earn more wages and make it home each night, saving money on hotels.

A plane paid for itself in the long haul, especially if others flew along and kicked in gas money. That was the deal on the day of the crash.

The wrestlers enjoyed a smooth flight to Miami, performed there, then boarded the plane for the trip back to Tampa.

The weather forecast, according to archived reports of the incident, was clear in Tampa until 4 a.m.

The sky in Miami was full of stars at takeoff, McCord recalled.

But when they neared Sarasota, they learned Tampa International Airport was closed to traffic due to a storm.

Pilot Reed said he wanted to land in Sarasota to wait out the bad weather but was instead rerouted to the small Peter O’Knight airport near the tip of Davis Islands.

Reed figured that meant storm had missed that area. By the time they reached Tampa, and learned otherwise, it was too late to turn back.

“It was raining like hell,” Reed said. “I banked into a cloud and couldn’t see. When that happens, you get vertigo. You can’t tell up from down or left from right. I was trying to find the landing mark and then bang.”

They were engulfed in darkness in wintery cold water.

If not for that back porch light, Reed said, they would not have known which way to swim.

“You don’t think about your pain or how hard it is to swim,” he said. “You think about surviving. And three of us did.”

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Once they made it to shore, Reed and McCord hoisted Williams onto the dock of the home.

The residents called police and helped the injured wrestlers to safety.

“It was a shocker. Huge names in the wrestling business had gone down in a plane crash,” said local radio personality Tedd Webb, who was a friend of the performers. “I hung out with McCord and Gary a lot during those dark days. They fought hard as hell to come back.”

Williams kept the “Gary Hart” stage name and spent most of his career in Texas after that.

McCord reinvented himself as “Austin Idol” — a flamboyant man who dubbed himself the “universal heartthrob” and spent most of his time in Memphis.

“What an amazing talent,” historian Mitchell said. “Before Hulkamania, there was Idolmania in Memphis”

Reed remained in the industry for a few years, as a wrestling manager and commentator in Florida, but it wasn’t the same.

“It was like going from being a brain surgeon to a hospital orderly,” he said. “I wanted to be in the ring.”

He went into hardware supply sales and found that his wrestling fame helped business.

“People knew me so were willing to listen to me,” he said.

As for flying, he took to the air as soon as he was medically cleared.

“I’ve never been nervous about crashing again,” Reed said. “It was an accident. A tragic one, but still an accident.”

Story, photo gallery and comments:

NTSB Identification: MIA75AM061

14 CFR Part 91 General Aviation
Aircraft: CESSNA 182J, registration: N456BC
 FILE    DATE          LOCATION          AIRCRAFT DATA       INJURIES       FLIGHT                        PILOT DATA
                                                               F  S M/N     PURPOSE
3-0770  75/2/20    TAMPA,FL            CESSNA 182J         CR-  0  1  0  NONCOMMERCIAL             PRIVATE, AGE 39, 105
        TIME - 0120                    N456BC              PX-  1  2  0  BUSINESS                  TOTAL HOURS, 55 IN TYPE,
                                       DAMAGE-DESTROYED    OT-  0  0  0                            NOT INSTRUMENT RATED.
          MIAMI,FL                    TAMPA,FL
        TYPE OF ACCIDENT                                         PHASE OF OPERATION

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