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September 26, 2012

Madison High celebrates hometown hero Jim Myers

Stadium to be renamed in honor of former teacher, coach

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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The stadium at Madison High School will soon be renamed Jim Myers Stadium, in honor of the beloved football coach and teacher. In the past, Myers wrestled in the WWF as George “The Animal” Steele. He has struggled with a learning disability all his life, allowing students who are bright but struggling with learning to relate to him.

MADISON HEIGHTS — Jim Myers considers his dyslexia to be a blessing.

Dealing with it taught him rigor and discipline, and as a teacher, the experience helped him to understand students who struggled with learning.

“I had a very complicated life growing up in the classroom, not being able to read,” Myers said. “You start to think you’re not as bright as the others, but then you learn what others went through, and you learn many lawyers and doctors (with dyslexia) learned to think outside of the box.

“I’m not saying I’m one of them, but it’s just a different way of learning,” he said. “At my time, in my life, it wasn’t understood you can be different, but still be bright. I struggle with dyslexia, but I’m a better person for it. It’s a challenge, but it’s a gift.”

The way Myers connected with students while he was an educator in the Madison district is one of the reasons the school board unanimously voted last month to rename the stadium at Madison High in his honor. The facility will be called Jim Myers Stadium starting with Madison High’s homecoming weekend Oct. 4-6.

A special ceremony will take place in the auditorium at Madison High at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4, concluding with the unveiling of the new sign at the stadium. Former Detroit Lion Ken Dallafior and U.S. Gold Medalist Bernie Gonzalez, both MHS graduates, will read tributes to Myers. The public is invited.

Then, during Madison High’s homecoming game against East Detroit High at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5, Myers will be honored again as part of the halftime festivities.

It’s fitting that the nexus of the school’s athletic activities be dedicated in his honor, since Myers coached football there for 25 years. He also coached track and wrestling. Myers started the wrestling program in 1966 and won the state championship in 1969. Since then, he’s been inducted in both the Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame and the Michigan Football Coaches Hall of Fame.

Prior to coaching, he was an accomplished athlete himself, one of the few nationwide to have received varsity letters in four sports during each of his four years in high school — 16 varsity letters in all.

While Myers, 75, now resides in Cocoa Beach, Fla., he is a Madison Heights man at heart. He was born in the city in 1937, when it was still Royal Oak Township. He attended Madison High and graduated in January 1956.

From there he went to Michigan State University as a Spartan football player, but had his career cut short by various issues. He earned his bachelor’s degree and then got his master’s degree from Central Michigan University.

After college, he found work at Wilkinson Middle School for a couple of years and then worked at Madison High. But as a physical education teacher and coach, he wasn’t earning enough to support his growing family — he had two children and a third on the way. This is what led him to the world of professional wrestling.

Previously, he had no interest in the sport, but out of desperation, he hit the Detroit wrestling scene as a masked man called “The Student.”

In 1968, he started wrestling in the WWF — now the WWE — as an independent contractor, working two and a half months out of the year. The mask came off and he became George “The Animal” Steele, a villain in the WWF’s fantasy narrative.

An eloquent man, Myers ironically fashioned a beast of a character that savagely ripped open turnbuckles with his teeth, chewing up the stuffing and sticking out a tongue stained green from breath mints.

“I had the best breath in all of wrestling,” Myers said.

He tussled with the likes of Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, in sold-out main events at Madison Square Garden, the Boston Garden, Philadelphia Spectrum, the New Jersey Meadowlands and more. He became a beloved favorite among fans. But when the wrestling season wrapped up each year, he was back in Madison Heights for the other nine and a half months.

“I had two positions in life: one as a wrestler, and one as a teacher and coach,” Myers said. “And the one most important to me was being a teacher and a coach. It wasn’t the glow and glitter of Madison Square Garden or anywhere else. I loved football fields and wrestling mats and gym class, talking to kids. Because of my learning disabilities and problems I had, a lot of kids would come to my office, not athletes but kids, looking for counseling, to talk about their problems.”

His duties to his students, his athletes and his family kept him grounded in reality, so he always kept George the character separate from Jim the man. Other wrestlers had difficulty “separating the two parts of their soul,” he said, but for him, there was only one way in which the two sides overlapped.

“I got my confidence from George Steele,” Myers said. “That’s the only point where Jim Myers and George Steele crossed paths. Being a superstar gives you confidence.”

His fame even brought him to the silver screen alongside Johnny Depp in the 1994 Tim Burton film “Ed Wood,” in which he made his professional acting debut as Swedish wrestler/actor Tor Johnson.

By then, his own wrestling career had concluded, with Myers retiring in the late ‘80s. He would make reappearances in wrestling in the ‘90s and 2000s, but the onset of Crohn’s disease forced him to retire as a regular in the WWF. After 10 years of pain and a moment where he flat-lined on the table, Myers recovered and went church shopping with his wife. This turned Crohn’s into what he calls the second blessing in his life.

“It’s what led me to the Lord Jesus Christ,” Myers said.

Now Myers is looking forward to coming back to Madison Heights for homecoming. He said he’s deeply humbled by the decision to dedicate the stadium at Madison High in his name. For Madison Board President Al Morrison, who wrestled under Myers in the late ‘70s, it’s a joyous occasion.

“He (Myers) was caring and compassionate as a coach and a teacher,” Morrison said. “A lot of people depict him as a disciplinarian, which he was, absolutely, but by the same token, whatever actions were taken were explained, and he was compassionate toward the way you felt. I admired him as a coach and a teacher.

“To come from the roots he did and from the challenges he had, and to reach the accomplishments he has in his lifetime? Every kid in every district around this country should be able to look at that and say, ‘I can do anything.’ He is a perfect example of if you put your mind to it, it can be done.”

A special ceremony honoring Jim Myers will be held at Madison High School, 915 E. 11 Mile, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4. Myers will be honored again at halftime during Madison High’s homecoming game against East Detroit High at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5. The public is invited. For more information, call (248) 548-1800.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.