|Sunday, August 20, 2000
By MATT CHITTUM
THE ROANOKE TIMES
It's been 25 years since Tony Atlas, then Tony White, left Roanoke. Friday he returned to a hero's welcome, forgiven for past troubles.
Tony Atlas came home last week, and he was forgiven.
He left Roanoke 25 years ago as Tony White, headed for the big leagues of professional wrestling. He reached the pinnacle of his profession and made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, only to squander it all and bottom out broke, homeless, suicidal and addicted to crack.
He lives in Maine now, and hadn't been to Roanoke in 13 years because he was just too embarrassed to face all the people who expected so much of him. But Friday, he came home to wrestle in a match, tour his old haunts and meet
people he hadn't seen in years.
"They forgive me," Atlas said. "I feel like the prodigal son."
"You got people here that love you. Don't you ever be ashamed to come home," Bill Cunningham Sr. told Atlas in the parking lot of Chuck's Seafood on Patterson Avenue, where Atlas held a street-corner autograph session Friday afternoon. As a teen-ager, Atlas spent more time at Cunningham's house with classmate Bill Cunningham Jr. and his brother Richard than he did at his own home.
A crowd of old neighborhood friends and children followed Atlas wherever he went Friday. He gave away 200 autographed pictures he usually sells for $3 apiece, and waxed nostalgic all through the day.
He used to catch the bus to Patrick Henry High School at the intersection where he signed autographs Friday. After working out at the YMCA on Church Avenue, he would stop at the convenience store at that same corner and buy a quart of chocolate milk every day.
Years later, when he was in the prime of his career, he handed out money to friends on that corner and bought ice cream for a whole busload of kids there.
Today, at 46, Atlas still makes most of his money from wrestling, but at small independent shows in the Northeast. He has no medical insurance, a few thousand dollars in the bank when he's doing well, and lives alone in a three-room apartment.
His return to Roanoke came on the heels of a July 16 story in The Roanoke Times that told of his turbulent fortunes.
The National Guard Armory was packed with about 500 fans Friday night, many of whom came just to see Atlas and his tag-team partner, Roanoke wrestler Rolling Thunder, whose real name is Mike Staples.
In the crowd were two of Atlas' brothers, Charles and Walter White.
Before the match, the three compared biceps. Atlas taunted his big brother Charles into an arm-wrestling match that ended abruptly when Atlas kissed his brother on the cheek.
It was the first time the three had been in the same room in 20 years.
"I don't know why I don't come back down here," Atlas said. "It's nothing in Maine for me."
When Atlas and Rolling Thunder entered the auditorium for their match, the crowd leapt to its feet with a roar. Atlas circled the room, slapping every hand he could reach.
"He's still holding up. He's still keeping that manly physique and all," said R.E. Patterson, who, like many, was proud to say he knew Atlas way back when.
"It's like a dream come true," said Ben Martin, whose grandfather used to take him to see Atlas wrestle in the 1970s. He presented Atlas a pristine copy of a 1981 edition of Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine. It featured a cover picture of Atlas getting the better of Hulk Hogan and the headline, "The war between wrestling's supermen."
During the match, whenever Atlas' turn came to enter the ring, the crowd found its feet again and filled the hall with noise. When an opponent had Atlas on the brink of submission, his fans boomed his name in rhythm - "Tony! Tony! Tony!" - and Atlas' strength was resurrected.
The match ended on a disqualification when Eclipso, who is really American Championship Wrestling promoter Mike Weddle, brought a chair into the ring. Rolling Thunder stripped the chair from him and used it to clear the ring.
Atlas and Rolling Thunder, the "Roanoke Connection," were the victors.
"I feel like a million dollars," Atlas said after the match.
He was shocked by his own reception. After all he'd done to let down everyone who had helped him find fame and fortune, he expected less.
"That's what I can't understand," he said. "I'm still a hero."
Matt Chittum can be reached at 981-3331 or firstname.lastname@example.org