Saturday, November 18, 2017
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A POW's story unlocked fame for his wrestler son

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TAMPA

As a Vietnam prisoner of war, the late Richard Keirn lost out on eight years of bonding while his son, Steve, grew from a teen to a man.

Their relationship never fully blossomed because of those missing years.

Still, Keirn left a lasting impact on his son, who would become a professional wrestler, by allowing him to borrow Keirn's own dark story for his performance.

The change turned Steve Keirn from an afterthought in the industry to a main-event star across Florida.

"He tried to make up for things he missed," said Steve Keirn, 66, of Tampa. "He didn't have to do anything, yet he did everything."

During National POW/MIA Recognition Day today, Richard Keirn would enjoy a lot of local attention as one of the best-known among former prisoners of war. He is one of only two Americans captured in both World War II and Vietnam.

But the son's wrestling transformation in 1976 would endear the father to a whole different circle of fans.

On Tampa television, bad guy wrestler Bob Roop called Richard Keirn a coward, and forced the good guy son to defend his dad's honor in a series of matches that set attendance records around the state.

According to wrestling archivist Barry Rose, in an era when the industry was thought legitimate, patriotic fans threatened Roop, at times with real guns.

And when Steve Keirn finally vanquished the evildoer, he became an American hero beloved by all, launching a career that lasted 40 years.

"The angle between Keirn and Roop was responsible for propelling Steve," Rose said. "The feud was white hot."

But for Steve Keirn, the fondest memories of his father are the way he was there when he was needed most.

It was July 1965 when 13-year-old Steve Keirn learned his dad's plane had been brought down in Vietnam. Richard Keirn was declared dead. Then, a year later, he was seen in a photo of POWs marching through Hanoi to be beaten by civilians.

"Wow," is all Steve Keirn could say the day he learned the news.

Richard Keirn was in solitary during five of his eight years in confinement. He underwent torture during all eight years.

In February 1973, he returned from Vietnam.

As he stepped off the plane at an Air Force base in Alabama, his 20-year-old, 6-foot, 240-pound muscular wrestler son hugged him and carried his frail 125-pound body back to the car, crying, "Dad, it's me, Steve, your son."

They would never grow close. Richard Keirn and wife, Hazel, moved to South Carolina. Steve Keirn's job as a wrestler took him on the road too often to visit his parents as much as he would have liked.

Four years into Keirn's career, as he was struggling to connect with the fans, the pitch came to include his dad in an angle.

The idea was for dad to sit in the stands, at times as the center of attention. That was a tall task for Richard Keirn, who had retired to Melbourne rather than Tampa because the hustle of city life caused him anxiety.

Still, he agreed to partner in the scenario.

All these years later, Steve Keirn still struggles to describe his relationship with his dad, who died in 2000.

"I never let him know the whole time he was alive that I never felt like I knew him," he said.

Yet, when he came calling for help, his dad was there.

"He's an American hero. And he's my hero. He's my dad."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

     
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