Wahoo McDaniel was never one to take the passive approach. While driving to a golf course near his home in Charlotte last July, the former AFL player and pro wrestling cult figure got into a traffic altercation with another driver. Photographer Greg Foster, who was to shoot McDaniel for an SI feature (SI, July 2-July 9, 2001) that day, was also on the scene. Next thing you know, recalls Foster, "the other driver comes at me with an ax handle." At the time McDaniel was in dire need of a kidney transplant. "It was a scary moment," recalls Foster, "but Wahoo knocked the guy onto the pavement. It was an impressive act given his health at the time."
McDaniel, who died on April 18 at the age of 63 of complications from renal failure and diabetes, had always been an impressive act. A two-way football star for Oklahoma in the 1950s, McDaniel played nine years in the AFL, then later made his name as a pro wrestler. Pleased to play up his Native American heritage, Chief Wahoo spent 30 years in the ring, wrestling the likes of Ric Flair, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Jesse Ventura.
In recent years McDaniel lived in Charlotte with his now 14-year-old son, Zac. But as McDaniel's health deteriorated this winter, Zac moved to Tallahassee to live with his mother. McDaniel went to Houston to stay with his 38-year-old daughter, Nikki Rowe. "My father knew it was close to the end, but he continued to play golf and even went hog hunting with my husband," says Rowe. McDaniel was sitting in the sunshine on April 8 when he told his daughter, "My mind is going." She took him to a hospital, where he lapsed into a coma. Ten days later, he died.
"The phone hasn't stopped ringing since then," says Rowe. " Ric Flair. Sputnik Monroe. Tiger Conway, and a bunch of other wrestlers I didn't recognize because they identified themselves with their real names."
On Saturday a crowd of 200 gathered to remember McDaniel at a church in Midland, Texas, where McDaniel grew up and starred as a high school athlete. High school football teammate Tommy (Flat Top) Johnson said that McDaniel experienced "a life that a great number of men in this room fantasize living." Zac spoke at the service as well. "He was the only father I knew who would allow his kid to shoot a pellet gun inside the house," Zac said. "Y'all remember my dad."