The genius behind the success of the Florida Territory was Eddie Graham.Eddie
had come to Florida after spending several years in the AmarilloTerritory.
He watched and learned from my father, Dory Funk Sr. Eddie built his territory
on a foundation of wrestling credibility and community involvement. A wrestling
promotion cannot always take from the community it serves, it must also
contribute. CWF's support of Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch was much like
the Amarillo Territory's support of Cal Farley's Boys Ranch in Texas. Eddie
knew that you must entertain the fans and give them more than their money's
worth at the arena.
Eddie Graham was a genius in the wrestling business. He was also an Instrument rated pilot, one of the best I have ever known. I first became interested in flying when Eddie flew out to Amarillo in his Cessna 182 and personally introduced me to flying. He was now flying a twin engine Beechcraft Bonanza. Even on short trips, Eddie preferred flying to thedangers of driving a car on the crowded highways.
When Eddie was on track, he was the best, as a wrestler, promoter, or a pilot, but he did have one small problem, he was an alcoholic. Some times it would be years between drinks, sometimes months. When he did drink,you never knew what to expect. Past experiences were a dressing room fight in Borger Texas with my father, shooting out the lights above the ring during a show in Orlando, Shooting off a gun in the Tampa dressing room, and substituting nair for whipped cream at a charity pie throwing event. The fellow who took the pie on the head went to the sink and washed off his hair.
In the spring of 1980 I was the booker of the Florida Territory. Terry and I drove to Ft. Meyers to work a sell out crowd at the Lee County Coliseum. Talent in the territory at that time were Jerry Lawler, Sweet Brown Sugar, Hacksaw Butch Reed, Tommy Gilbert, the BriscoBrothers, The Funks, Haru Sonoda, Masanobu Fuchi, and Bubba Douglas whoalways asked to work Ft. Meyers because there was an old pond by the coliseum where he loved to go fishing. The show was half over when Eddie walked in the dressing room. He usually didn't come to Ft. Meyers. Everyone was surprised he was there. He stood in the center of the dressing room clasping a cup filled with something that periodically, almost un-noticably went to his lips and back down to his chest. Terry said, "Eddie is on the turpentine again."
As he stood there, gazing at the talent in the room, he said, "Who would like to fly back to Tampa with me tonight?" There was silence. Finally Terry said, "Well Junior and I would love to Eddie, but we came down from Tampa in my pickup truck and we have to take it back."Eddie looked around. The room was still silent. Everyone was scared to death to fly back with Eddie but, he was the boss of this territory and no one wanted to insult him, especially not about his flying. More silence. Suddenly, Frenchy, the referee jumped out of his seat and said, "Tell you what boss, I'll drive Terry's pickup truck back to Tampa and the Funks can fly with you." Eddie smiled, turned and left the room. "I wanted to punch Frenchy in the nose that night in Ft. Meyers." I told Terry, "No way, I don't care what, I am not flying with him tonight."Terry said, "Junior, we must, Eddie is our friend. He is too bad off, you can always take over the plane and bring us back to Tampa." Stupid as I was, I said, "OK."
Warm up on a Twin Bonanza is difficult. I watched from the front seat, right side, (Pilot flies left seat) Eddie was perfect. He reassured me that he was all right. From the back seat, Terry put his hand on my shoulder and said, "It's okay." --- The tower called and said, "69 EG (Callletters for Eddie's Twin Bonanza) hold short, there is a Boeing 727 onfinal approach." Eddie said, "We don't wait for anyone, "watch this!" He gunned the engines! We were on the runway taking off with full power right in front of a landing 727. No changing things now, we had to go.
Climbing out, I wished we were back on the ground. Eddie turned on country music loud, Merl Haggard singing Okie from Muskogee among others. You could hardly hear a thing. I watched the altimeter. He didn't pick an altitude.He just merrily flew north in and out of clouds listening to the musicin the darkness of night. In my heart, I was pleading for time to hurry and pass. We were heading north at various altitudes, some dangerously low. There was never a thought of filing an IFR flight plan. (Requiredby FAA when flying in weather)
We approached Sarasota, heading north, 69EG made a gradual turn due west. OH SHIT, now we are flying west over the Gulf of Mexico into thedarkness. I looked back, the lights of Florida were getting farther away.I said, "Eddie, we've got to go back."There was no response as he continued to listen to Merle Haggard and drift between a thousand and three thousand feet of altitude with nothing but Black in front of us.
Our prospects weren't good. If I try to take the controls there will be a fight. Not likely anyone would survive. To continue west would mean fuel exhaustion and a fatal dip into the Gulf of Mexico. If we went much further, Terry was prepared to knock him out from the back seat with one blow however, chances of success would not be good. I tried one more time.I grabbed him by the arm hard, shook him and said, "Eddie, we have got to turn around. GO BACK NOW!" He looked at me eye to eye.There was nothing but blackness ahead. He turned back to the controls.69EG entered a gentle turn to the right of 180 degrees back to theEast.
What a wonderful sight to see the lights of Sarasota in front of us.69EG was now in contact with Tampa Air Traffic Control. They knew who was at the controls of 69EG. I felt better as we approached Sarasota, then turned sick over Sarasota when we turned south, back toward Ft. Meyers. Air Traffic Control came on the radio and said, "69EG What is your destination? Eddie responded, "Tampa International, I got the airport in sight." (He couldn't have the Airport in sight Tampa is north of Sarasota, not south.) ATC responded, 69EG make a left turn to 360 degrees (North toward Tampa) Eddie responded as if it was automatic. We turned back to the north.
We were still flying various altitudes including, below minimums of two thousand feet over McDill Air Force Base. I am sure all traffic was cleared out of the area to make room for 69EG. Soon we were over Tampa International runway and the landing was perfect.
I don't know what made Eddie Graham turn back that night over the Gulf of Mexico. I am thankful that he did. On January 21, 1985 Eddie Graham put a gun to his head and shot himself at the age of 54. He was one of a kind in the wrestling business, a great mind that our business sorely misses in present times. He had been a millionaire, a fabulous success, a brilliant man, and benefactor to countless people.
Shortly before his death at the old Sportatorium in Tampa Florida after working out, he came out of the shower and as he entered the dressing room said to me, "You'd think there'd be something a ten thousand hourpilot could do to make a living."
"I thought he was kidding."
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