Sooner follows father’s steps
Peter Davis, The Oklahoma Daily
In the mythology of the Star Wars movies, the son of Vader is Luke Skywalker. Luke redeems his father and saves the galaxy from the dark side of the Force.
In the mix of reality, rehearsal and rewrites that creates the mythology of professional wrestling, the son of Vader is Jesse White, communications senior. And, instead of trying to avoid his father’s path, as Skywalker did, Jesse is trying to follow those footsteps to the top of the sports entertainment galaxy.
FROM BLOCKS TO BUMPS
Both Jesse and his father, Leon White but known in professional wrestling as Vader, became famous on the football field before stepping between the ropes. Leon earned four letters as an offensive lineman at the University of Colorado before the Los Angeles Rams selected him in the third round of the 1978 NFL Draft. He spent three years with the Rams and played with the team in Super Bowl XIV before Leon made the move to the ring.
Jesse came to OU in 2005 as a heralded recruit for the football team’s offensive line. He won Gatorade’s Player of the Year Award for Colorado as a high school senior in 2005, and was the No. 3 prep center in the country that year, according to Rivals.com.
“[Wrestling] wasn’t my initial plan growing up,” Jesse said. “Playing football was. Wrestling was always there, but I always thought football would be my sport. I came out here, it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.”
Jesse turned down scholarship offers from USC, Notre Dame, UCLA and California to attend OU, Leon said. He was joined in the 2005 recruiting class by another Coloradan — Jon Cooper.
“One of those guys would have been the center, the other guy would have been a guard,” OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “And, whoever wasn’t the starting center would have been the backup center.”
However, hip and back injuries stopped Jesse’s crimson-and-cream career almost as soon as it began. His name only appears on one official roster from the 2005 season, according to soonersports.com.
Cooper went on to start for four seasons on OU’s offensive line, while Jesse stayed involved as a student coach for the team, Wilson said.
“He helped us [with] snapping all the time,” Wilson said. “He was in the press box with us. He continued to have a positive role.”
Jesse now weighs 247 pounds, down from the 305 to 310 pounds he said he weighed as a member of the Sooners. The weight loss has taken pressure off his hip, he said. That, along with a modified training routine, has allowed Jesse to begin training as a professional wrestler.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Leon said his first-hand knowledge about the hard life of a professional wrestler wasn’t something he wanted for his son.
“It’s physically very hard, mentally very hard to be away from your family [and] friends,” Leon said. “That’s probably the biggest thing. You’ll go away at first and it’s exciting, and then you come back the first time and your friends are there. You come back the second time, your friends are there. But after three years of not being around you, those friends get used to not being with you. So, it becomes very lonely.”
Leon also said alcohol and drug use contributes to the death of some professional wrestlers while they are still young. Seven famous professional wrestlers died before their 45th birthdays between 1997 and 2007, according to an article on ESPN.com.
All but one of those wrestlers had a history of drug use and abuse, the article stated. Most recently, former professional wrestler Chris Klucsarits, 40, died in an apparent suicide Friday. Leon himself has had to change his lifestyle to get away from alcohol and late nights, he said.
“He’s definitely pointed out the lifestyle,” Jesse said. “The negative aspect of the lifestyle in wrestling and what to watch out for and the way he lived it.”
There is an upside to professional wrestling. Leon said he enjoyed consecutive years of seven-figure ($1 million or more) salaries.
However, Jesse faces greater challenges to reach the level of success his father did, said Jim Ross, former vice president of the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling.
“Leon had many more places that he could go to earn a living while today’s marketplace is limited to only a small handful of options,” Ross said by e-mail. “Although if one does succeed, the financial upside is significantly better than (in) Vader’s generation.”
Ross is perhaps best known as a commentator for World Wrestling Entertainment television shows. He also served as the executive vice president in charge of talent relations for World Wrestling Entertainment. He said he hired Leon in both companies.
So, on balance, if Jesse wanted to make the move to wrestling, Leon said he would teach him, with conditions.
“I took him seriously,” Leon said. “And I told him if ... I started spending time and money on this — I mean flying to Oklahoma (from Colorado) and training and setting up wrestling [schools] — that I would expect him to take it seriously, as we did football.”
For his part, Jesse said he breaks down film of his wrestling matches and training sessions just like he did with game film.
“Me and my dad being my hardest [critics], we watch my match after and go over every little detail,” Jesse said. “You know, ‘This was good, this was great, this was bad, you need to do this next time.’”
Jesse now trains for wrestling two days a week, outside of his routine of weight lifting and cardiovascular training. His hip has not bothered him as he takes bumps, or hard impacts, in the ring, he said.
“In my case, I’ve picked things up a lot a lot quicker than the average guy, who’s just coming into wrestling, just because I’ve been around it my whole life,” he said.
Jesse also wrestles for Midsouth Pro Wrestling, a promotion that runs shows twice a month in Midwest City. He’s also planning to appear in a tag-team match with his father April 23 in Japan.
Father and son standing side-by-side on a ring apron will make one thing quickly apparent: The pair is not cut out of the same physical mold. Vader wrestled at 400 pounds or more during much of his 1990 to 1995 run in World Championship Wrestling and his time from 1996 to 1998 in the former World Wrestling Federation, now World Wrestling Entertainment.
“Leon ... was arguably the most athletic big man ever in pro wrestling and was a huge star in Japan for years not to mention having memorable runs in the [United States],” Ross said. “Leon was a main-event level antagonist who was a monster in the ring as an agile 400 pounder who had a physical and dominating in-ring style. Athletes with Leon’s size, look and physical skill are rare.”
His bulk is now down to 345 to 350 pounds, Leon said, but even those lower numbers are about 100 pounds higher than Jesse’s wrestling weight.
“[My wrestling style] will be my style,” Jesse said. “He had his style, and I’m going to take different things of what he does ... but, it’s going to be my own style.”
And, despite the difference, Leon said he can effectively teach Jesse to wrestle a smaller man’s match. He pointed out that some of his best matches were against wrestlers like Shawn Michaels, Sting and Bret Hart, men who he said weighed between 230 and 250 pounds.
“I have encouraged [Jesse] to become fundamentally sound [and] not to emulate his father [because] their body types are too different,” Ross said.
Jesse said his current favorite wrestlers are John Cena and a trio of sons of famous wrestling fathers, known as Legacy [Randy Orton, Ted DiBiase and Cody Rhodes]. Those men weigh between 223 and 245 pounds, according to WWE.com.
Leon will continue to promote wrestling shows in Japan and North America through his company, Vader Time Promotions. He said he also plans later this year to operate a week-long wrestling camp at the Paradise City Night Club in Oklahoma City.
All while trying to help his son reach what Jesse calls his dream — a contract with World Wrestling Entertainment.
“The main thing to me is he approaches the opportunities correctly,” Leon said. “He has to leave the arrogance behind. You have to stay humble, and bring God with you on the road. That’s something I didn’t do for a long time.”
—The Associated Press contributed to this report.