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From the Ring to the Diamond, ‘Hacksaw’ Still Has a Bear Hug on Fans

by on August 23, 2017 5:00 AM

Minor league baseball suits “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.

For a guy who made his mark in an industry that presents itself as sports entertainment, the professional wrestler makes frequent appearances for teams with names like the Flying Squirrels and Crawdads in an atmosphere that’s like a “party and a baseball game breaks out.”

On Friday, as the State College Spikes host the Williamsport Crosscutters at Medlar Field, Duggan will throw the first pitch, sign autographs and join in the other fun that makes for a night at a minor league ballpark. The game starts at 7:05 p.m. and will be followed by fireworks.

“It’s great after this many years from my heyday to be remembered,” he said in a phone interview. “How many bands and football players can you remember from back then? … I’ll be walking through the airport, I’ll hear the ‘Hoooooo!’”

The 63-year-old Glens Falls, N.Y., native has come a long way since he visited Penn State on a football recruiting trip in the 1970s. (He chose Southern Methodist University in Dallas before brief stints in the NFL and Canadian Football League.) A fixture of the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) in the 1980s boom years, he remains in-demand for indie wrestling groups, comic conventions, minor league ball clubs and even stand-up gigs where he shares humorous stories from a life in wrestling.

The good guy who’d come to the ring yelling “Hoooooo!,” waving an American flag and leading chants of “U.S.A.!” put smiles on a lot of faces. In wrestling parlance, he was a “babyface” who was majorly “over.” But it took a few years for him to kick and punch his way into fans’ hearts.

After two knee surgeries put him on the injured reserve for his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons in 1977, he “messed around” with the Toronto Argonauts in 1978 before entertaining an offer from Texas-based wrestler/promoter Fritz Von Erich, who originally approached Duggan when he was still playing at SMU.

“He suggested I might try it,” Duggan said, “and I’m like ‘Man, not a chance in hell. I’m going to be playing in the NFL for 10 years.”

Even at 6-feet, 3-inches tall and 300 pounds, the former offensive guard entered wrestling as a “medium-sized guy,” adopting various personas such as Big Jim Duggan, The Convict and Wildman Duggan before embodying “Hacksaw.” That character would clash with Andre the Giant, spawn several different action figures and even earn “U.S.A” chants from a packed Wembley Stadium when the WWF brought the SummerSlam 1992 event to London.

“As most great characters in wrestling,” he said, “I tell people it’s just really an extension of your own personality. … There was no way that I was going to be Handsome Jimmy Duggan, you know. You got to find what works, that’s a part of you. Because if you’re out there trying to be something you’re not, the people see it.” 

While in World Championship Wrestling in the late 1990s, Duggan further endeared himself to fans by overcoming kidney cancer, a real-life battle reflected in his TV storyline. “By the grace of God and early detection, they saved my life. I used to do a lot of work with the American Cancer Society just to tell folks, ‘If there’s something wrong, get it checked out.’”

According to Duggan, who now lives in South Carolina, wrestling took him to every state, every Canadian province and 30 countries. He once wrestled 54 straight days.

“Even after a long trip -- your plane’s late, you’ve been on the road for weeks, and you’re in the back, you’re tired, you haven’t had a good meal in a couple days, you’re lacing up your boots, like ‘Oh, this is the last thing I want to do.’ But all of sudden, you come through that curtain, there’s thousands of people (yelling) ‘Hoooooo!’ ‘U.S.A!’ It’s like a huge shot of adrenaline.”

Traveling with WWF in the ’80s resembled being in a rock band, Duggan said, with vices plentiful on the road. He credits his upbringing and his wife of more than 30 years with keeping him from being a casualty of the lifestyle.

“I was as bad as anyone back then,” he said. “I met my wife and she kind of has kept me on the straight and narrow.” 

Duggan’s reflections on what he calls wrestling’s golden age can now be heard each Wednesday on his podcast, "Primetime with Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Sean Mooney.” Launched in June with the former WWF announcer Mooney, Duggan said it’s a positive look at wrestling that gives a nod to the success stories, the guys who live normal lives outside of wrestling, raise families and give back to their communities.

“What really contributed to my longevity … just being me,” he said. “That’s just who I am. I enjoy being with people. I really enjoy being in the ring, and I think that comes across to the folks.”

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