- - Sunday, February 19, 2017

This is my 40th year in the business of professional journalist — 25 years since I made the move to sports writing with The Washington Times.

Over that time, I have had the good fortune of writing and reporting on some historic events, met remarkable people and been recognized by my peers. I’ve managed to parlay this journalism career into sports talk radio, and now podcasting. I’ve had great times, and accomplished things that I am proud of.

But one of the most rewarding things I’ve done over that time is when I took George “The Animal” Steele to a Washington Nationals spring training exhibition game at Space Coast Stadium in Viera.

“The Animal” died last week at the age of 79, and his death, rightfully so, is being treated like the passing of a cultural icon. Several generations of young, impressionable minds grew up watching this wild-eyed bald man with the hairy back and green tongue chew on turnbuckles and grunt one syllable at a time.

In the business of wrestling, where no act is too bizarre or outrageous, George “The Animal” Steele stood out as an original. And his life away from the ring as Jim Myers makes his Animal persona all the more remarkable.

He was dyslexic, yet he earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and master’s degree from Central Michigan. George was a successful high school football and wrestling coach who was inducted into the Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame and the Michigan Football Coaches Hall of Fame. He is also in the WWE Hall of Fame for his remarkable career in the ring as the Animal.

If he was a specific animal, it would have had to have been a teddy bear. He had a compassionate heart and a commitment to his faith.

He gave me a gift that March 2008 day in Viera by agreeing to be my guest at a Nationals exhibition game against the team he grew up rooting for, the Detroit Tigers.

I had heard he lived in Cocoa Beach and tracked down his phone number. I called him and he told me he had already been to a few Nationals exhibition games since they arrived in 2005, but just as one of the fans in the stands. He was a long time baseball fan, and told me later he played high school baseball and was good enough to have two teams express interest in signing him — the St. Louis Browns (the future Baltimore Orioles) and, yes, the Washington Senators.

He met me at the ticket office outside Space Coast Stadium with his wife Pat. He was wearing nearly the same identical Hawaiian-style shirt I was. He had a strong physical presence, and hands that seemed powerful enough to rip any turnbuckle apart.

Before he arrived, Nationals manager Manny Acta told me to bring him down to the clubhouse so he and the players could meet him. To this day, I say he remains the biggest star to appear during Nationals spring training — far bigger than the “Duck Dynasty” guy Adam LaRoche used to bring with him.

The players acted like kids when they met George. “I used to watch you all the time,” Dmitri Young said. “You are one of the all-time greats. … I used to love watching you eat those turnbuckles, and your tongue would be all green How did you get it that way, sucking on green LifeSavers?”

As they gathered around like he was a rock star, George told the players how the “green tongue” part of his act started. “It was by accident,” he said. “I had a few drinks one time and threw a couple of Clorets [gum] in my mouth and went on live TV with a green tongue, and everyone went crazy about it. I had the best breath in wrestling.”

Paul Lo Duca asked George where his signature turnbuckle eating routine came from. “Years ago we did studio wrestling, and there were about 150 to 200 people in the studio,” he said. “We used to give out gifts to get people to come to the studio. One time they gave out these little couch pillows. So one fan threw a pillow at me. I have a pillow in the ring now, and there are about 200 other people there with pillows. So if I throw it back, I’m going to get bombed with pillows. So I started tearing it apart with my teeth. Later the guys in the locker room thought it was a good thing going, and Tony Pugliese, Bruno Sammartino’s cousin, said, ‘Maybe you could eat the turnbuckle, ha, ha, ha.’

“About two weeks later I am wrestling Chief Jay Strongbow, and the match is going nowhere,” George said. “So I quit wrestling and started eating the turnbuckle.”

We later went up in the stands and sat together to watch the game, and George regaled me with stories, like this one.

“I won Game 4 for the Tigers in the 1984 World Series against the Padres,” George told me. “I was doing a show at Cobo Hall in Detroit and had a couple of cases of beer with me. One of the wrestlers was a good friend of [Padres manager] Dick Williams. He said, ‘I have the team upstairs in the VIP room, so take them up to them.’ Then I took the manager, the pitching coach and a couple of the players out after the show in Greektown and showed them a great time. We didn’t get in until about 4 in the morning. So I take full credit for that Game 4 loss by the Padres.”

The Tigers won that game 4-2 and the series in five games.

Jim Myers was as smart and charismatic a figure as I have spent time with, and used that intelligence and charisma to create a character that with grunts and a green tongue connected with millions who remember George “The Animal” Steele fondly.

⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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