Examining Undertaker's Journey from College Hoops to Pro Wrestling

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterMarch 29, 2016

Credit: WWE.com

Long before he walked out to the ring in front of thousands of WWE fans through smoke bathed in blue light with a wide-brimmed hat obscuring his face, Undertaker was Mark Calaway, a redheaded powerhouse in the paint.

Calaway drained bank shots and protected the rim for Texas Wesleyan University. When a European scout offered him a shot to play professional basketball in France, he instead chose to chase a career in the squared circle. Calaway pursued pro wrestling over hoops, a move that surprised his coach and teammates.

There were signs during his days as a basketball big man, though, that he was born to be a wrestler.

First of all, at 6'9", Calaway had the size to join the grappling gang. There was a presence beyond that which foreshadowed the path he ultimately took. A cold stare or a beastly sneer from the young man was enough to inspire one to back away.

In 1983, Calaway graduated from Houston's Waltrip High School, where he played well enough to attract attention from Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas.

Calaway would then play for Tommy Collins at St. Thomas in Houston. That school, however, dropped its hoops program before the 1985-86 season. Collins told scouts and coaches to come see his kids play.

Texas Wesleyan coach Richard Hoogendoorn accepted the invitation.

Hoogendoorn needed a post man, and Calaway's strength, physique and touch on the ball impressed him enough to recruit the kid. Calaway started for the NCAA Division II school, wearing No. 33 as he patrolled the paint.

 

Big Man Running

Before every season, Coach Hoogendoorn had his players undergo a conditioning test. The rules were simple: Complete a two-mile run in 12 minutes or less.

Calaway and some of his fellow post men couldn't pull off that time. As athletic as he was, Calaway was carrying a 6'9" frame that was ideal for plugging up the paint, but not for running.

As Hoogendoorn described him, Calaway was simply "a large human being."

The price for failing the test was to wake up before the sun rose, running in front of the coach's car at a local park. Headlights pointed at Calaway as he jogged, the vehicle urging him along. Coach Hoogendoorn remembered that Calaway wasn't the least bit happy about this arrangement.

"He was not a morning person," Hoogendoorn said.

Calaway worked and worked until he sufficiently trimmed down his time. His coach at TWU remembers he was a hard worker overall. When he wasn't running laps at dawn, he was putting in the work to collect rebounds or shake off defenders.

He was no statue down by the basket.

Teammate Dan Mikals recalled him as "very athletic." Victor Spencer, a guard for the Rams during Calaway's year at the school, noted that Calaway was quick to get the ball out after each possession. Strong footwork, good coordination and power helped him make an impact on the court.

Working against the other Division II forwards and centers, Calaway often had his way in the middle.

Mark Calaway in action for Texas Wesleyan.
Mark Calaway in action for Texas Wesleyan.Courtesy of Texas Wesleyan University

He would later bulk up plenty for his stint as a wrestler but was working out often at this age, already a beefy, solid mass who was hard to move from his spot.

Mikals said the team's enforcer was a "giant among boys out there."

Calaway was an intimidating presence and, in Spencer's words, "a hell of a power player." This was about more than his build. The toughness that would later serve him well in his next career helped him in basketball. "He didn't back down from anybody," Mikals said.

The man who would become the Deadman could shoot too.

Coach Hoogendoorn remembered he had a nice touch on the ball. Calaway was more of a forward than a back-to-the-basket center, relying on a bank shot and a consistent 15-footer.

Even when he broke a finger on his dominant hand, he continued to make buckets. The injury forced him to use his left hand more. He ended up being more productive as a result.

As Spencer put it, "That just made him even better."

Calaway endeared himself to his teammates through his work in the post. Off the court, he was a jokester. That could either mean issuing witty one-liners or smacking someone in the back of the head. He was a key part of what Spencer called a "tight-knit, family-type team."

Hearing that, it's not surprising to learn Calaway sometimes got in trouble with the coaches.

In February of 1986, the Rams waited at a hotel, preparing to face Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, the next day. Snow smothered the ground outside. Coach Hoogendoorn set what he described as a "reasonable" curfew.

When he went to check on his boys, however, he found Calaway's room empty. The big man was quickly discovered fully clothed hiding behind a shower curtain in the bathroom.

The team was in the midst of a state tournament, with a berth in the national tourney on the line. Still, Coach Hoogendoorn decided to teach Calaway a lesson.

In a flashback to the beginning of the season, No. 33 was out running in the early morning again.

This time, his feet stabbed freshly fallen snow. The coach waited in the hotel lobby, watching his player circle the building after each lap.

The night clerk noticed Calaway and his fellow curfew-breakers. She went up to the coach and, as he recalls, said to him, "Your kids are so dedicated. They played last night, and here two of them are running in the snow."

 

Flashes of Ferocity

During practice one day, Calaway collided with another player in the trenches. The crowded paint brought the Rams center and Nick Lackovich uncomfortably close to each other. An errant elbow nailed Lackovich.

Spencer recalled the blow angered Lackovich to the point that he struck Calaway. His courage quickly dissipated, however, as the smaller player then darted away.

To protect himself, Lackovich picked up a folding chair. Every time Calaway drew near, Lackovich would hold up the chair, as if to signal he wasn't afraid to wield it as a weapon.

A No Disqualification match was about to break out on the hardwood.

But nothing came of it. These kinds of scuffles happened from time to time, but they didn't turn into much.

"Everybody had their own moment with him," Spencer said.

Coach Hoogendoorn remembered one such moment, one that ended in a striking image of Calaway pinning prey to the floor. The forwards and centers worked at one end of the court while the coach instructed the guards at the other.

Hoogendoorn heard a commotion at one point and turned around to see Calaway atop another post player, one 6'9" beast towering over another. Calaway stood over his fellow big man with his foot pressed to his teammate's neck. The coaches pulled the young men off each other before it escalated further.

Coach Hoogendoorn didn't remember what the catalyst for that explosion was, but he can't shake that picture from his memory, even 30-plus years later.

For Mikals, his own story of Calaway's aggressive side came off the court.

The two friends were traveling together, Mikals driving Calaway's car down a country road. The right turn signal wasn't working, but Mikals didn't realize that when he tried to signal a move into the right lane.

As a result, the man in the car behind him swerved off the road. In the aftermath of the near-accident, the driver emerged from his vehicle enraged. His cursing quickly died down, though.

Calaway stepped out of the car, stared him down and, as Mikals remembered it, said something to the effect of, "Buddy, you better get back in your car." The man hurriedly did as he was told. He scurried away in an instant.

Not every Calaway story is one where he scares the hell out of somebody.

By all accounts, he was a fun-loving guy. He danced at nightclubs with friends. He chatted with girls on the beach.

When the team briefly traveled to Hawaii, finding women to talk to wasn't hard. Coach Hoogendoorn said, "Everywhere he went, the girls were just all over him."

In quieter times, he and Mikals went fishing together. The two friends took a momentary break from college life, having a great time on the water.

The fishing rod was tiny in Calaway's hands. Manufacturers don't have men his size in mind when crafting them. Calaway managed to reel in a fish anyway.

"He would get so tickled just catching a small little perch," Mikals said.

They didn't talk about wrestling out there, even though Calaway had it in his mind to do that for a living. Little did Mikals know, his teammate had dreams of strapping on a pair of wrestling boots and entertaining an arena full of fans.

 

Wrestling Fan to Wrestling School to Wrestling Legend

Matches filled the TV screen in the dormitory game room. Spencer would join Calaway there to catch the action.

A fan of Hulk Hogan and the Von Erichs, Spencer had long been an admirer of the art. He wasn't nearly as invested as Calaway, though.

The big man didn't just watch the wrestling; he tried to recreate it. Spencer remembered his teammate flopping to the ground to mimic the falls they saw on TV. He would mirror many of the moves the wrestlers performed.

To anyone unlucky enough to be within reach, that meant suffering an amateur headlock or armbar as Calaway applied holds on his buddies. He once knocked the wind out of Spencer with an overzealous recreation of a wrestling bout.

"He could beat all of us up," Spencer said.

Calaway talked about doing what the Hulkster and Roddy Piper and the Iron Sheik did for a living.

But Spencer didn't take him seriously. "Never thought he would take it to that level," he said. Calaway did—even when an offer to play pro ball came his way.

A European scout contacted Coach Hoogendoorn about signing Calaway to play for a team in France. They worked out a deal and, as Hoogendoorn put it, "basically had him a contract" for $80,000 a year.

When the coach approached his post player with the news, Calaway countered with something entirely unexpected: The young man had his mind set on going to wrestling school.

"I thought he was crazy," Hoogendoorn said.

Wrestling wasn't the global enterprise it is today. WrestleMania was in its infancy. Vince McMahon had yet to take his company public.

To enter that world rather than take an offer to make good money in Europe was certainly an off-the-beaten-path move. Hoogendoorn tried to convince Calaway to change his mind.

He couldn't understand what Calaway was thinking. "I didn't even know what wrestling school was," the coach said.

When word of Calaway's decision made the rounds, it surprised Mikals. Looking back, though, it made sense. Mikals said Calaway "never shied away from the spotlight."

Calaway's junior year was his last. He dove headfirst into the world of wrestling.

He spent his early years with the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling promotion before moving on to the United States Wrestling Association in Tennessee, competing as the Master of Pain. A brief stint in World Championship Wrestling followed.

Each time, he stepped into a more high-profile situation. His exposure increased. Buzz began to build. In 1990, that translated to signing with the sports entertainment giant that is WWE.

Gone were his old gimmicks of Mean Mark Callous and the Punisher. He now donned a long, black coat and purple gloves that stretched up his forearms.

Calaway had transformed into an undead, cold-eyed predator of the ring—Undertaker.

After just one year with the company, he knocked off Hulk Hogan for the world title. This was an emphatic announcement of his arrival. WWE thrust him into the spotlight. That would become a familiar place for Calaway.

He has since competed at 23 WrestleManias, a testament to his longevity as a performer and a character.

The Hall of Fame awaits him when he finally decides to officially retire. He has been a champion, a centerpiece of the company and an icon. The discussion of the greatest pro wrestler ever inevitably includes his name.

No one could have seen all that coming.

Calaway was a talented basketball player, but legendary status on the hardwood wasn't in his destiny. As Coach Hoogendoorn pointed out, "He obviously made the right choice."

Calaway's teammates watched in awe as he rose up the wrestling ranks. Here was the man who once toiled in the trenches for rebounds with them, who stood behind them in layup lines, morphing into a larger-than-life figure.

That journey impressed Spencer. "He believed in his dream, and I admired him for that," he said of Calaway. Mikals shared a similar sentiment, saying he was "happy to see someone make it."

Luckily for wrestling fans, Calaway dreamed of climbing between the ropes and mystifying an audience. That dream won out over aspirations of playing basketball.

It's hard to imagine how different the WWE timeline would have been had Calaway never become the Deadman—if he had traveled to France to do his battles at the basket rather than on the mat.

 

Ryan Dilbert is the WWE Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.

Special thanks to Victor Spencer, Dan Mikals and Richard Hoogendoorn for sharing their memories of Mark Calaway.

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