Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

A POW's story unlocked fame for his wrestler son

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 [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

A POW's story unlocked fame for his wrestler son 09/14/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 13, 2017 5:55pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Florida education news: Makeup days, graduation honors, sex education and more

    Blogs

    MAKEUP DAYS: Hillsborough County schools will eliminate four early release days to meet minimum state time per course, after missing seven days because of Hurricane Irma. • Indian …

    School classrooms are back up and running after Hurricane Irma. Districts are now setting makeup schedules for time missed.
  2. Rick and Tom podcast: Bucs' Gerald McCoy frustrated with disrepectful fans

    Bucs

    Rick Stroud and Tom Jones discuss Gerald McCoy's latest comments on disrespectful fans who attack his teammates, Donald Trump, protests by Desean Jackson and Mike Evans, and his respect for the …

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) warms up before an NFL game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.
  3. Tampa heading into several tough budget years

    Local Government

    TAMPA — Less pain now, more pain later.

    The Tampa City Council will hold a final public hearing on the proposed 2018 city budget and property tax rate at 5 p.m. Thursday on the third floor of Old City Hall, 315 E Kennedy Blvd.
  4. The Daystarter: Rick vs. Rick 2.0 tonight; Bucs' McCoy says some fans cross line; Trump associate to testify; helicopter crashes onto Odessa roof

    News

    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

     

    Rescuers respond to a crash of a small helicopter on the roof of a home in the Odessa area on Monday. [Hillsborough County Fire Rescue]
  5. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals

    Transportation

    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]