By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 27, 2002
Superstar Billy Graham finally got the call that he had been waiting and praying for. It was delivered on a recent Friday afternoon and came, as he now admits, “just in the nick of time.”
Graham (real name Wayne Coleman), one of pro wrestling’s biggest stars during the 70s and once considered one of the strongest men in the world, has been plagued by health problems for the past 15 years. His latest bout – with the deadly hepatitis C virus- led to cirrhosis and threatened to take his life. Doctors listed Graham’s condition as “end-stage liver disease” and gave him less than a year to live.
But at noon on Oct. 18 Graham, who only a week earlier had been placed atop a liver transplant list, got a new lease on life when he received news that an organ had become available from a 26-year-old woman who had died in an automobile accident in Tucson, Ariz.
Valerie Coleman, Graham’s wife of 25 years and a devout Christian who never doubted that her husband would survive his ordeal, was “a bit tongue-tied” when the transplant coordinator asked the couple to head to the hospital to begin prepping for surgery.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“She turned white as a sheet,” says Graham. “Neither one of us had time to think. We were running in circles. It came so fast with that phone call. I knew my day had arrived.”
The organ was transported by helicopter to the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, where the 59-year-old underwent the delicate operation. Surgery began at 9 p.m. and was over by midnight. It was “textbook,” taking two hours less than the normal transplant procedure and without complications. “It couldn’t have gone more perfectly,” the former WWWF world champion said from his hospital room on Thursday. “My first conscious reaction after the anesthesia had worn off was that I’m alive and I have a new liver. Thank God for sparing me. It was an overwhelming spiritual release. I was delivered with a new liver.”
The recovery thus far has been going equally as well. Valerie Coleman can’t help but marvel at the handiwork.
“They had him off the respirator before I even saw him in ICU,” she said. “He was supposed to be on it for 24 hours after surgery. I saw him two hours after surgery, and it was already out. They said he just flew through that surgery. He was so stable and his vitals were so strong. He didn’t sleep for almost 36 hours.”
His desire to stay awake wasn’t from just knowing that he was alive, she added, but also due to an instant energy that boosted his entire system. “He had been sick for so many years that we just didn’t know about,” said Valerie. “Going back 15 years, it had affected his physical state of well-being. This new liver was functioning so perfectly that he had this physiological rush and feeling of life. He said he felt too good to sleep. He said he didn’t even remember feeling like that in his life. It’s incredible.”
“I couldn’t get to sleep after my surgery,” Graham concurred. “I was just so enthralled that I had a new lease on life. I started physically feeling better. Almost zero poison in your system is fabulous. It happened so fast.”
Graham was quick to acknowledge that the world title or “any other earthly title you can gain” paled in comparison with what he received.
“I’ve been given the gift of life. It really puts wrestling and bodybuilding and everything else you do into perspective. It’s a matter of living. I’m very appreciative and grateful for the accomplishments I’ve done in wrestling and weightlifting, but all that’s trivial compared to having your life on Earth extended.”
He couldn’t have survived any of it, though, without the support of his wife, said Graham.
“Valerie has been a rock. She never gave up. She’s like Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale all wrapped into one. She’s like the Rock of Gibraltar. Her faith is unwavering. Now she feels like she has her husband back, she has her life back. We have a life ahead of us.”
“It’s phenomenal. It’s miraculous. But I was never going to give up,” said Valerie. “Not ever.”
Graham is also grateful to fellow wrestlers and bodybuilders who have held him up in prayer and who have called him. His former Mr. Olympia training partner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has kept in touch, as has Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Terry Taylor, who got a job with the WWE the same day Graham received his new liver, has been in constant contact (he had even attempted to be a living donor, but his blood type didn’t work out). Sting (Steve Borden) called Graham last week, as did Road Warriors Hawk and Animal.
“It was so wonderful to know that I had so many in my corner pulling for me and praying for me. I tell everybody that this liver will never see any anabolic steroids or any drugs or substances associated with pro wrestling or bodybuilding. This will be the cleanest liver that a pro wrestler has ever had,” laughed Graham.
Ironically, the most comforting and unexpected call came from Vince McMahon, whose recent past with Graham had been clouded by a decade-old dispute. Graham, whose steroid-enhanced physique had served as a prototype for future stars such as Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Hulk Hogan, was once described by McMahon as “the innovator of steroids,” the man who bridged the gap from relatively normal looking big men to cut-up, bodybuilder physiques. But comments Graham made in the midst of the steroid controversy during the early 90s soured relations between the two. Graham would later renounce the charges, admitting that he made the claims as a result of bitterness over being released by McMahon several years earlier. Dealing with his own failing health, Graham now admits it wasn’t until he got back on his feet spiritually that he was able to write McMahon a letter of apology in 1996. He had not received a reply until several months ago when McMahon contacted Graham prior to a Raw being held in Phoenix.
“Vince gave me a call, we talked and had a great visit,” said Graham. “I asked him to forgive me for all the false statements that I had made. Everything was a result of bitterness. We really came to a great new friendship. I told him that I’d love to come see him at the America West Arena here in Phoenix, but I just wasn’t feeling up to it. He said, Well, if you came down here, I’d have to put you in the main event.’ That was nice to hear. I told him maybe I’d be back in the ring for him someday making an appearance, but I joked that I wasn’t doing a (three-minute) squash job for The Samoans. No, no, no. I’m not getting near that deal. He just laughed.”
McMahon later asked Valerie Coleman to keep him informed of her husband’s health.
“Vince told him how much he loved him,” said Valerie. “He asked me to keep him updated.”
McMahon was one of the last people Graham talked to before undergoing his transplant surgery.
“He told me that all of that (bitterness) was so far behind us, it wasn’t even on the chart anymore,” Graham said. “(Before the surgery) he told me that We’re going in for the main event now.’ Everything we do is obviously showbiz and a work, but this was like the main event. This was winner-take-all.”
Graham said that even though he doesn’t agree “with a lot of the mechanics of what we see and the (WWE) crossing the line,” he is thankful that their relationship has been restored.
“Jesse (Ventura) gave me a call the other day and I was mentioning my relationship with Vince, and he said his relationship had gotten better as well. It was friendlier. He said that Triple H was a big mark for me. I told Vince and he said, Superstar, I’ve always been the No. 1 mark for you.’ I really appreciated that. I’m very grateful that we’ve mended our fences and rebuilt our relationship. I don’t have that cloud hanging over me. You only get one run-through in this life.”
Doctors had told Graham that they were almost certain the genesis of his hepatitis C condition had occurred during one of the many times Graham was exposed to the blood of his opponents during his 20-year wrestling career. “What the doctors concur at the Mayo is that all the co-mingling of blood caused this,” said Graham. “The hepatitis C virus can lay dormant for 25 years in your system before it activates and becomes a disease. They found out about all the bloodbaths I had in the 70s. You’re laying down and a guy’s on top of you choking you and he’s bleeding in you eyes, dropping blood in your mouth and your ears. They’re almost certain I never had a blood transfusion prior to my illness. It was definitely the co-mingling of other wrestlers’ blood.”
At his peak, Graham bench-pressed 600 pounds and trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger during the heyday of Gold’s Gym in Santa Monica, Calif. Graham, however, has suffered from an assortment of other health-related problems in recent years. His steroid abuse, which lasted two decades, resulted in Graham needing both of his hips replaced and one of his ankle joints to be fused. The other ankle joint is well on its way to fusing by itself, making it a chore to get up from a chair or bed, and he has lost four inches from his once 6-foot-4 frame because of a collapsing lower spine. He also became sterile, causing his wife to pay a heavy price because the couple couldn’t have children.
The last few months, in particular, have been a nightmare for Graham, who admits he grew despondent after receiving news that his liver was deteriorating and that he had less than a year. Earlier he had been informed that he could survive roughly five years in his current condition, but a liver transplant would be needed to survive beyond that period.
“It was a very surreal time in my life,” Graham recalled. “Doctors informed me that I had less than a year to live at the rate my liver was deteriorating. Originally I had a five-year window. Then they told me that my numbers in the lab work were deteriorating before their eyes. I wasn’t doing well, and they needed to get me a liver right then. They told me that I had a year or less that I would be able to hang on without a liver transplant. That was a very sobering statement.”
“It was crunch time when you have a time limit put on you, and that time limit is moved up,” added Graham. “A year goes by pretty fast. It was a very frightful awakening. Now it’s so miraculous. They take you into surgery, and in three hours your old liver is taken out and a new one is put in.”
“Little things” mean a lot to Graham now. Describing his urine as being a “Coke color” for a year-and-a-half, Graham exudes that it’s a natural color now with a normal liver.
“My liver was a really ugly sight – an ulcerated, cauliflower-looking growth, with cirrhosis with pits all in it and very hard-looking and very used-up,” said Graham. “It was an incredible realization now that I’m walking around with a normal kidney and liver functions, and seeing the manifestations of that healing in the normal urine colorization. That became such a huge thing because it became so depressing seeing discolored urine. It had become depressing and was an ominous sign.”
Graham describes his journey as being surreal.
“Every day is a gift, and what it brings it brings. I just thank God that I’ve been given an extended stay. I’ve been given a gift of life. The car wreck was going to happen whether I had a bad liver or I had a good liver. It’s a very odd feeling having this liver in me and knowing it’s someone else’s liver. I’m functioning, and this other person is deceased. It’s very sobering.”
Graham said he plans to send a letter to the family of the donor. He will not know their identity due to a confidentiality clause, but he plans to write the donor’s loved ones and tell them how appreciative he is. He says he will leave it open to the family to decide if they want to correspond with him.
Graham is now looking forward to getting the following six months of recovery behind him.
“I really don’t have any plans except getting well and staying well … and then it’s off to the races.”
– The WWE finally signed Scott Steiner to a long-term contract on Tuesday. There has been no word yet on whether he’ll be a Raw or Smackdown performer.
– Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday for the Nov. 25 Raw at the North Charleston Coliseum. Those hunting choice seats would be well advised to get in line early, as fans amazingly enough have already taken their positions.
“There are two tents set up right now, with a group of about five or six who have been taking shifts, ever since Tuesday night,” Coliseum marketing director Alan Coker said Friday, adding that it was a new record for a Coliseum event.
“We’ve had folks camp out five or six days before, but not 11 days out. That’s definitely a record. It blows away any other show we’ve ever had.” Tickets also will be available at Ticketmaster outlets (including all Publix Grocery stores), charge by phone (843) 554-6060 or www.ticketmaster.com.
Smackdown will invade the new Carolina Center in Columbia on Nov. 26 for a show that will be aired on Thanksgiving night. Tickets for that event went on sale Saturday and can be purchased via www.ticketmaster.com, Ticketmaster charge by phone, (803) 783-2222, the Williams-Brice Stadium box office and all Ticketmaster outlets (including Publix).
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected]. He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown. For more wrestling news, check out www.mikemooneyham.com.