Grappling with addiction
The glare convinced Karen Angle that her husband was going to survive.
That glare -- the one that helped Kurt Angle intimidate opponents at Mt. Lebanon High School, at Clarion University, at the Olympic Games and for World Wrestling Entertainment -- told her everything she needed to know.
That glare was going to get Kurt Angle past a two-year addiction to painkillers.
"I was a junkie," said Kurt Angle, who was hooked on pain-killing pills such as Percocet, Vicodin, Norco and Lorcet. He popped as many as 65 pills a day.
Angle said he has been clean for more than a year, clean from drugs he thought he needed to pay the heavy toll caused by his livelihood.
Angle parted ways with WWE on Aug. 25 -- ending a relationship of nearly eight years that earned him millions of dollars and devoted fans.
He is now the centerpiece for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, a fledgling organization attempting to challenge the domination of Vince McMahon's WWE empire. Angle's first TNA match will air on cable's Spike network toward the end of a two-hour broadcast that starts at 9 p.m. Thursday.
Last week, at his spacious home in Moon, a quick glance at his 4-year-old daughter, Kyra, and month-old son, Kody, provided all the inspiration Angle needed to stay sober. Yet continuing his career will mean pain. It is part of the job description.
"It tore my soul apart. I missed the first two years of my daughter's life," said Angle, 37.
"Painkillers are like heroin. When you get caught up in it, you start taking 10 or 20. I was up to 65 a day. I had to take 18 to get out of bed. I went to the pharmacy every other day. I found a way to get 10 different doctors to get my prescriptions. It worked out perfectly; every other day I got 120 pills. My first priority was to get to the pharmacy."
Angle's obsession with giving fans his best effort led to his addiction.
"Leave everything on the mat" is what Angle's best friend, Dave Schultz, the late amateur wrestling icon, had always preached.
Angle would do just that. To do it again the next night, his body needed some help.
"Call it stupidity or bravery ... I'm not going to rob the fans," said Angle. "People expect to see Kurt Angle, and they don't expect me to take it easy. I treat (professional wrestling) the same way as the Olympics. I don't know any other way."
Angle knew no other way during a match Aug. 13 against Rob Van Dam at an Extreme Championship Wrestling event -- a WWE subsidiary -- in White Plains, N.Y.
The first part of Angle's body to surrender was a groin muscle, which he pulled. Not a problem, really, as Angle had worked through similar predicaments previously.
Next, Angle said he detached an abdominal muscle from the pelvic bone. Slight problem, considering his core was now weakened. However, the crowd was into the match, and Angle did not wish to disappoint them by orchestrating a premature finish.
Finally, Angle blew out his hamstring. Big problem, as Angle could barely stand.
Still, he and Van Dam finished their match.
The crowd roared with approval.
Angle soaked in the sounds as he lay on the ring apron.
"I knew that was my last match (for WWE)," he said.
The man billed as "The Wrestling Machine" could not walk without assistance two days after the match. His leg was a sickening shade of black.
Angle's cell phone rang Aug. 15. On the line was an agent from the WWE. Angle was needed for another match.
Angle, via his personal manager, Dave Hawk, refused.
Following the match with Van Dam, an enlightened Angle knew there was no way he could step into a wrestling ring and perform up to his lofty expectations -- let alone meet those of his fans.
The pain would have proven too great. There would have been only one way to cope with such hurt.
"And I'm never going near those things again," said Angle. "I have too much at stake -- my wife, my children, my family, myself."
During one of many doctor-supervised drug rehab sessions at his home last year, Angle made some promises -- to his wife, to his children, to his mother, to his four brothers, to the memories of Schultz, his dead father and sister and to those within his inner circle.
Angle promised he would never again pop a painkiller.
On Aug. 15, those promises weighed heavily on Angle.
Ten days later, he spoke with McMahon at WWE headquarters. During the meeting, Angle said his former boss told him that "a gold medal and a cup of coffee don't mean (anything)."
Minutes before that comment, Angle said an agreement had been reached to part ways amicably.
Angle said McMahon agreed to pay him during his time away from the company and even offered to draw up a new contract when Angle's health returned.
"There were many reasons I wanted to leave," said Angle.
But he said McMahon's remarks left a wound that has yet to heal.
"I love Vince. He's a great guy. But he treated me like a superhero. He wanted me to rehab on the road instead of at home. My doctor said I couldn't do that. Vince said that I was an Olympic goal medalist and I could overcome anything. ...
"Then, one day, my Olympic medal didn't mean (anything)."
McMahon would not comment. He referred questions to attorney Jerry McDevitt, of the Pittsburgh-based law firm Kirkpatrick, Lockhart, Nicholson and Graham. McDevitt has served as outside general counsel to the WWE for 20 years.
"The WWE cares greatly about Kurt Angle the person and Kurt Angle the performer," McDevitt said. "It is our hope that he applies that huge and creative heart of his in the right direction so that we can all see that happen."
The WWE suspended Angle last summer after he failed a drug test that wrestlers are randomly subjected to under the company's wellness policy.
Angle said he failed the test because he was receiving cortisone shots in his neck. The pain was the result of four severe neck injuries he had suffered -- the first at the 1996 Olympic trials.
Dixie Carter, president of TNA, said she had "very honest conversations (with Angle) from the beginning" about the drug abuse.
According to Carter, TNA consulted with Angle's physicians about his injuries and addiction. Carter said TNA received clearances "on all levels" for Angle to compete.
"TNA has a strict drug policy and does not tolerate illegal drugs or substance abuse on any level," Carter said.
Angle's battles with addiction and against his industry's most powerful man -- McMahon -- have not cost him that famously intense glare.
Without it, a piece of him is missing -- just as a piece is missing from the gold medal that he won for freestyle wrestling in Atlanta at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Sometime since then, during a speaking engagement at an area school, a 6-year-old flung that prized possession against a wall and chipped it.
Angle can appreciate the symbolism of his gold medal not being whole.
Until recently, neither was he.
"The gold medal is just a piece of gold," Angle said. "It's not what I did; it's just a symbol. Dave taught me that the gold medal is not me. Just like the character isn't me. It's not who I am."
Karen Angle never did buy into her husband's wrestling personna. If she had, Kurt Angle might not be helping to raise the couple's two children.
"You know he's serious when he gets that glare," Karen Angle said. "When he started looking at dealing with the problems with that glare, that's how I knew he was going to make it."
Kurt Angle credited his wife with "saving (his) life."
"There is no doubt in my mind that she is the reason I am still alive," he said. "She was trying to teach me things and get me help. I wouldn't listen."
Angle's bond with his wife is stronger than speculation that has surrounded the couple of almost eight years.
"All the rumors were untrue," Angle said. "I heard that I was getting a divorce because I beat her, that she was cheating on me, everything. It was ridiculous. We're fine."
"I'm fine," he said. "I know a lot of people in Pittsburgh were worried. They thought Kurt Angle wasn't going to make it.
"I'm not going anywhere."
Intentionally or not, that glare returned.