Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area in the ‘70s, I’d hear a rumor from fellow pro wrestling fans whenever we discussed George “The Animal” Steele, who died last night at 79, which held that he was a college math professor.
This was in the days before the internet, a time when good wrestling intelligence was nonexistent, but I never felt that bio was plausible. Partly because the guy who had shag carpeting for back hair and a green tongue ripping apart the ring turnbuckle with his teeth and weaponizing the stuffing to disable opponents sure didn’t look like an academic. But mostly because he was on my TV every Saturday morning on pre-cable TV broadcasts of Vince McMahon’s WWWF, which back then was based in D.C., my home market, and I figured that there just wasn’t the time to lead those two lives.
But like every fan, I was far more interested in the ring character than I was about the real life of the guy playing him. His WWWF persona, of the mostly benevolent ogre, was perfect combo of fairy tale and horror story, and made for great bait to get youngsters like me into the sport, or whatever you want to call it. His antics with the turnbuckle kept me chuckling and helped keep me watching weekend after weekend through adolescence and beyond.
Because his promos never went much beyond grunts, Steele was rarely a top-of-the-card character—his only real time in the spotlight in a decades-long career came with the beauty and the beast storyline with Miss Elizabeth in the mid-1980s. But he might well be the most memorable and beloved performer in pro wrestling history to never wear a belt.
I never saw George “The Animal” Steele out of character. Still haven’t. And I never checked out his actual resume until this morning. Reading his obituaries, I learned that he was a teacher outside the ring after all, a high school phys-ed instructor in Michigan to be exact. Not quite a college math professor, but closer than I would’ve guessed back in the day.