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Paralyzed pro wrestler now relies on inner strength
Lex Luger lives across from Shepherd Center, encourages other patients

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/17/08

Lex Luger was "The Total Package," a buff 6-foot-4, 270-lb. professional wrestler who made $5 million a year while helping to fill arenas throughout the world.

These days, he can barely walk, tips the scales around 185 lbs. and lives in a one-bedroom apartment across the street from the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where's he undergoing therapy.

Joey Ivansco/AJC
Lex Luger (right) visits Steve Collins in his room at the Shepherd Center. Collins, 23, suffered a spinal cord injury from a jeep accident.
Joey Ivansco/AJC
Luger, a former pro wrestler known as 'The Total Package, ' is now in rehab at the Shepherd Center to regain use of his limbs -- unable to even lift a 1-pound barbell -- after a spinal injury last fall that paralyzed him.

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A severe spinal injury from 30 years of football and wrestling struck down Luger while on a cross-country flight last fall. He spent two weeks in intensive care at Stanford University Hospital in California before transferring to Shepherd in November. He's also still hobbled by double hip replacement surgery in February.

"I was one of the strongest guys on the planet," Luger said recently. "I was freaky strong before. I was bench-pressing 450 pounds my senior year of high school. I was a freak. Now I can't lift a one-pound dumbbell.

"But God tells me that mind, body and spirit and what we are as a man is measured not by our physical strength, but our inner strength."

Luger, whose real name is Lawrence Pfohl, now takes great pride in each day's small victories. Things like getting showered and shaved on his own in only 30 minutes or standing a little bit more each day. Things like trying to gradually make full amends with estranged family members he took for granted over the years, including his 17- and 21-year-old children.

The new and humbled Lex Luger is a man of strong religious conviction whose faith has helped him remain mostly upbeat.

Luger has taken it upon himself to minister to young patients at the Shepherd Center, often telling them his story of widespread abuse of drugs, steroids and alcohol at the expense of his family and health.

Luger believes he was meant to lift their spirits and give personal testimony to the importance of doing things the right way.

Life hasn't been easy for MaryAnn Collins and her family from Alabama since Steve, her 23-year-old son, broke his neck during an automobile accident in March and became a quadriplegic. But getting to know the former professional wrestler has helped.

"No matter what," MaryAnn Collins said, "when Lex comes, he makes him laugh. Just his visits brighten his day. We're lucky to have a friend like Lex."

Luger once known as 'The Narcissist'

It's a role never envisioned by those who knew Luger before.

"He used to be on the other end of the scale, as far as helping people," said close friend Steve Borden, the professional wrestler better known as "Sting."

"He was known as 'The Narcissist.' His comfort was first and foremost. If he had still been that way when this happened, he'd probably be dead right now because he probably would have just given up."

Luger, 50, was on a flight to San Francisco in late October when he began having difficulty moving his neck. Thinking it was simply a case of having sat in an awkward position for too much of the cross-country flight, he tried to jar his neck back into place, only to make his predicament worse.

Luger arrived in San Francisco in considerable pain, but was still able to function. He awoke the next morning, however, paralyzed from the neck down and unable to even call for help. A desperate Luger maneuvered onto the hotel room floor, where he remained for more than four hours.

Doctors at Stanford University Hospital noted massive swelling of his spine from the C6 to T5 vertebrae, attributing the damage to the many disc injuries and bone spurs he'd collected during three decades of football and professional wrestling.

Doctors have told Luger that previous substance abuse problems had nothing to do with his spinal trauma.

Luger remained a complete quadriplegic for more than two months, without as much as bladder or bowel control when he was transferred to the Shepherd Center in early November.

Doctors have told him the swelling usually takes about six months to recede, but it's unclear how much function he will regain. Luger has gradually improved. He can now stand on his own for brief periods and uses a walker at times.

Motor and other finger skills are usually the last functions to come back with his particular injuries. A complete recovery is a "long shot," said Dr. Gerald Bilsky, Luger's physician and Sheperd's medical director for outpatient services.

In the meantime, Luger has had to re-learn even the most elementary functions, such as going to the bathroom and how to feed and dress himself.

"You just have to rehab every day and take great blessings with what you do have back," Luger said. "Rehab and try to make what you have stronger. It's up to the Lord to do the rest."

Luger has improved enough to be released from the Shepherd Center in mid-March, but he can be found at the facility every day.

He hopes that recounting his story to patients and their families will help spare others his mistakes.

Luger's self-destructive lifestyle played a role in the death of Elizabeth Hulette, his girlfriend and former wrestling personality known as "Miss Elizabeth." Hulette died of an accidental drug overdose in 2003 in the Cobb County home the two shared.

Luger was charged with 13 counts of felony drug possession after authorities searched the home and found steroids and other body-building drugs, as well as pain medication and anti-anxiety drugs. He later served two months in the Cobb County jail starting in late 2005 after violating probation.

It was while incarcerated that he gave his life to Christ.

Luger now lives in a one-bedroom apartment across the street from the Shepherd Center, complete with a couple of air mattresses for guests.

And he's OK with it.

"I've never been stronger or richer in spirit or as a man as I am right now," Luger said.

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