Years After His WWE Glory Days, Gangrel the Vampire Warrior Is Still Chasing His Wrestling Dreams – Miami New Times

With long bleach-blond hair, buggy blue eyes, and a ladder of hoop earrings hanging from his lobes, he never had an easy time blending into the crowd. But at his core, Heath — better known as Gangrel the Vampire Warrior — hates to cause a scene.

That’s still true on a recent weekday at his new Dania Beach wrestling academy, where a couple dozen students pay a couple thousand dollars in the hopes of following his path to pro-wrestling glory. Heath can barely walk after pulling a muscle in his back at practice, but other than the occasional wince on his face, he barely lets on that it’s bothering him. He lumbers over to the stereo system, where his business partner cranks “Pour Some Sugar on Me” through the speakers to test the audio for a weekend exhibition.

“Sounds good!” Heath shouts. “Might be a little muffled, but it’s fine.”

It’s been 17 years since Heath was cut loose by the World Wrestling Federation, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment. At 49, he still has the brawny build of his youth, though his blond hair is grayer now and his memory isn’t what it once was.

Wrestling has been good to him since he invented the vampire gimmick in his early 20s. He’s traveled the world, performed on national TV, been turned into an action figure, and rubbed elbows with every celebrity in the game. Requests still pour into his Facebook inbox for Gangrel appearances, and TSA guys still recognize him when flies to matches on the weekend. He sells hot sauce with his face on the bottle, and people actually buy it.

But the sport he loves has also exacted a heavy price. In 1999, he almost died in the ring during a stunt on WWE Monday Night Raw. After a separate injury, doctors found several “hot spots” on his brain and demanded he stop taking chair shots to the head. To this day, Heath has no health insurance or primary physician.

Wrestling changed him in other ways too. It brought him the love of his life — his muse, his best friend — before eventually driving them apart. Without her, Heath is certain there would be no Gangrel and, perhaps, no professional career at all.

“I’d probably still be cutting grass, running heavy equipment,” he says. “Something normal, or what the world calls normal.”

Luna Vachon had been wrestling for years when Heath slowly, reluctantly fell in love with her. They got together when he was 18 and stayed together for the next 18 years.

Vachon was seven years older, beautiful and bipolar and unlike anyone he’d ever met. In spite of his shy nature, she could get him to do anything: Stroll into a gay bar dressed in leather just to get a reaction. Jump off a cliff naked for fun. Those aren’t hypotheticals, he says — they’re actual things she made him do.

“It was the only person I think I’m ever, truly ever gonna love in that kind of way,” he says. “Not that we were good for each other, but I think we were good for each other for a while.”

Heath had a way of brushing things off, but the constant travel, hard partying, and physical demands of pro wrestling weighed more heavily on Vachon. Together, she and Heath watched as friend after friend committed suicide, drank themselves to death, or died doing stunts. In 2010, Vachon joined their ranks after an accidental drug overdose.

It’s not lost on Heath that he’s one of the lucky ones. But he insists wrestling “owes me nothing.” He’s refused to join his colleagues in class-action lawsuits against the WWE over concussions and other health issues. Even as his own body breaks down, Heath still hopelessly loves wrestling.

Though his lifestyle has calmed, his schedule has not. On weekdays, he runs drills with students at his Dania Beach school, and on weekends, he wrestles for small crowds across the country.

Over the course of his career, Heath has done hundreds of interviews. He says his mind “never stops thinking.” But even after all these years, he still struggles to explain his relationships with Luna and with the sport that made and tormented them both.

“Those 18 years were the fastest,” he says of his marriage. “I think the closest other love I had was probably wrestling. I love it. It doesn’t love me, but I just keep loving it.”

In a rundown neighborhood in Deerfield Beach, Heath’s family lived paycheck-to-paycheck. His dad was a mechanic for the City of Lighthouse Point, while his mom worked at 7-Eleven and cleaned classrooms at a private school. With six kids, money was tight, but every once in a while, Heath’s parents would take the family to a wrestling match.

“As kids, we all used to go to watch wrestling live and see guys like Blackjack Mulligan and Barry Windham,” says Heath’s younger sister, Kim Heath-Miller. “It was one of the few things that my parents could afford to take us to back then.”

Heath had long dreamed of being a professional athlete. When he was in middle school, high-school recruiters began chatting him up at Pop Warner games. But just before his freshman year, he broke his neck in the championship game, crushing his childhood ambition.

After getting his high-school girlfriend pregnant, Heath dropped out of Deerfield Beach High and moved out on his own. He was working construction jobs when he saw an ad saying he could make money fighting on the weekends. The address led him to a racquetball court, where pro wrestlers Boris Malenko and Rusty Brooks offered to train him for the Global Wrestling Alliance, a Davie-based company that put on matches in Florida and the Caribbean.

To the directionless 17-year-old, it seemed the stars had aligned: He needed money, he was a fan of wrestling, and he was positive he could kick some serious ass.

“I sized everyone up, like, I can take him, I can take him,” he remembers. “I was ready to go, and it was like three weeks in when Rusty came to me and goes, ‘I gotta ask you something: Do you think this is, uh, real?'”

For all his years of watching pro wrestling, Heath had never figured out the matches were scripted. Suddenly, the entire venture seemed like a waste of time.

“It all just kind of hit me, like, ‘Oh, no, this is bullshit,'” he says. “I just couldn’t justify paying all this money to train if they’re gonna tell you how it goes and you may never make it.”

Heath was ready to quit, but Brooks talked him into staying. “You could see that he had what it takes,” Brooks says today.

In the early days, Heath stayed afloat by bouncing at the Button South, a rock club in Hallandale Beach. After his shifts ended around 6 a.m., he’d crash at the training facility, sleeping in the ring and waking up when the other students began running drills.

“Those first years, you’re paying to wrestle. You’re paying gas. There’s no money,” he says. “You’re doing it because you love it and you’re trying to get experience.”

When Heath was a kid, the wrestling business was still divided into territories run by regional companies. Wrestlers could bounce from one city to the next, pulling off the same moves and gimmick for different crowds.

But the rise of cable TV threatened the business model. In the mid-’80s, World Wrestling Federation president Vince McMahon Jr. expanded his father’s Northeast operation into a national, televised force. In 1985, McMahon put on the first WrestleMania, a pay-per-view event that pitted stars Hulk Hogan and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper against each other for the ultimate showdown — good guy versus bad guy or, in wrestling terminology, babyface versus heel.

Heath was still breaking into the business during this tectonic shift. Just a few months after he started, he was hired for a WWF show in Florida, where he lost to Georgia wrestler Big Boss Man. But for the most part, Heath wrestled in cash-strapped regional promotions for as little as $10 a match at civic centers, high schools, and small arenas. Although he had two young sons with his high-school girlfriend, he says he rarely saw them.

He was backstage at a Florida Championship Wrestling show in Tampa when he met Luna Vachon for the first time. With blood dripping from her broken nose, she swung open the dressing-room door, took one look at him, and growled, “Frrresshhh meeeatttttttt!”

“I was like, The hell is that?” he remembers. “I go, Whatever Luna is, I don’t wanna know it. I was scared of her.”

Born Gertrude Elizabeth Wilkerson, she came from a wrestling dynasty, the Vachon family of Montreal, Canada. Her adoptive father, Paul “the Butcher” Vachon, married her mother when Gertrude was 5 and raised her as his own. She grew up watching her uncle Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon and her godfather Andre the Giant, but her idol was her aunt Vivian Vachon, a glamorous but tough champion known as “the Wrestling Queen.”

Vachon came to Florida in her early 20s to manage Kevin Sullivan, who ran a satanic clan of wrestlers called the Army of Darkness. At a match in 1985, she was introduced as a reporter with the wrestling magazine Sports Review and then knocked out by Sullivan during a ringside interview. As her debut story line unfolded, she was kidnapped by his band of occultists, who brainwashed her and shaved the side of her head. From then on, she wrestled as Luna, short for “Lunatic,” a wild woman with veins painted on the side of her face.

“I hated her,” Heath says. “But then it turns out, I think she was my soul mate.”

When Global Wrestling Alliance shuttered in the fall of 1988, Brooks moved the operation to his backyard in Hollywood and trained students in a makeshift ring under an old oak tree. Heath began wrestling in a tag team called the Blackhearts, wearing a long black robe and creepy white face mask. His partner, Tom Nash, was the first to take an interest in Vachon, even though she was dating another wrestler, “Dirty” Dick Slater, at the time.

She’d been drinking margaritas one day when she called the Blackhearts for a ride to Brooks’ house. As they headed south on I-95, Vachon climbed into the front seat and punched Heath in the face.

“Why don’t you like me?” she shrieked.

Heath was pissed. When they got to Hollywood, he hopped into the ring to shake it off. But from out of nowhere, he felt a sharp pain in his back.

“I don’t know if she came off the ropes or just jumped through the ropes or something, but she latched down in the middle of my back like a pit bull and bit me,” he says.

He dragged her out of the ring and pushed her against the tree, but Brooks intervened. Heath let her go, then went out front and kicked out the mirrors on her car. But before the scar on his back healed, they somehow became best friends.

“She helped me understand how to be myself and accept who I am as a person,” Heath says. “She goes, ‘If they think you’re ugly in wrestling, you be the ugliest wrestler you are to make money… You take your weaknesses and make them your strengths.'”

At first, they were just friends — Heath was getting ready to marry his high-school girlfriend, and Vachon and Nash suddenly announced they’d gotten hitched.

But Vachon’s marriage lasted less than a year. Not long after the wedding, the Blackhearts got booked for a months-long gig in Japan. While they were there, Nash called home to Vachon in Florida and said he didn’t want to be married anymore.

When they returned from Japan, Heath broke things off with his girlfriend, and his friendship with Vachon eventually turned into a love he’d never felt before.

“When people always say, ‘Oh, you’re one of the first vampires,’ I say, ‘No, she was. She bit me and turned me,'” Heath says. “I couldn’t stand her until she bit me.”

David Heath debuted as Gangrel the Vampire Warrior on WWE in 1998.

David Heath debuted as Gangrel the Vampire Warrior on WWE in 1998.

David McLain / WWE

Heath and Vachon were eating junk food and watching The Lost Boys one night when he had a crazy idea: Wouldn’t it be cool to wrestle as a vampire?

For Heath, it was just a passing thought. Back then, characters were macho men, not monsters. But Vachon was already envisioning the entire gimmick.

“She was always pushing to do it,” Heath says.

In an alternate timeline, that conversation might have been the end of the story. But while Heath was cutting grass for his uncle’s landscaping business one day, a Puerto Rican wrestling promoter came up and introduced himself.

“He goes, ‘Hey, you look like you could wrestle.’ And I go, ‘I do,'” Heath remembers. The promoter asked what his character was. “I’m a vampire,” Heath said.

That night, Heath ran to the store and bought a set of Lee press-on nails. He painted them the color of his teeth and superglued two of them to his incisors to look like fangs. He took a few headshots, sent the photos off, and got booked in San Juan two weeks later.

He was still wrestling in Puerto Rico as Lestat, the protagonist from an Anne Rice vampire novel, when Vachon sent his tapes to the WWF. They phoned back almost immediately — but they were interested in her, not him. In April 1993, Heath left the Caribbean island and flew to Vegas to watch Vachon perform in WrestleMania IX, where she debuted at Caesars Palace for a crowd of 16,000.

“There was a little animosity,” he says. “You’re happy, but at the same time you’re jealous.”

As Vachon’s career took off, she and Heath married in character at her Pompano Beach condo after a steel-cage match on Halloween 1994. Instead of wearing wedding bands, they got matching bite marks inked on their necks by the best man, a tattoo artist who attended in costume as a werewolf.

While his wife took on rivals such as “Sensational” Sherri and Alundra Blayze, Heath worked for the WWF as a “jobber,” a wrestler paid to lose matches. Appearing as the Black Phantom beginning in 1993, he wore a tight black singlet and a spandex mask that obscured his entire face.

In November 1994, Vachon became the first woman to appear in a WWF videogame as a playable character. But by the end of the year, she had disappeared from the company’s roster. Fans didn’t get an explanation for her absence until years later.

“They put me in rehab because I was drinking, and then when I got to rehab, they fired me,” Vachon explained to RF Video, which produced interviews with wrestlers.

After her treatment, the WWF brought Vachon back in 1997. And in 1998, the company finally offered Heath a contract too.

By then, Heath was 29 and had been wrestling for more than a decade. Since Puerto Rico, he’d been traveling the world as the Vampire Warrior and wowing audiences with his real-life fangs, which he’d paid a dentist to bond to his teeth. But despite Heath’s numerous tryouts for the WWF, McMahon never believed in the vampire gimmick. After years of rejection, Heath had the fangs removed and began thinking of new characters.

So when he got the call that WWF wanted him to debut on its new show, Sunday Night Heat, he was surprised to hear that the creative team wanted to roll with the vampire act. The show’s writers and musicians came up with theme music, an entrance, and even his new name: Gangrel.

While his menacingly catchy song blared from the speakers, Gangrel emerged from an elevator engulfed in flames on the big stage August 16, 1998. Dressed in a puffy white shirt and leather jacket, he took a swig of stage blood and sprayed a mouthful at the crowd. Then he slid into the ring at the Omaha Civic Auditorium and defeated his clean-cut opponent, Scott Taylor.

“They wanted me to be all angry, but I couldn’t,” Heath would say in a later interview. “Halfway up in the elevator, I’d just start smiling.”

As he joined forces with Edge and Christian to form a vampire clan called the Brood, he became an unexpected crowd pleaser. Fans set up tribute pages on old-school sites such as Geocities and Angelfire, declaring his theme song and entrance the greatest of all time. Like his wife, Heath became a WWF videogame character, and in 1999 the company even issued a Gangrel action figure. At matches, his devotees would rush to the ring like it was the splash zone at SeaWorld.

“People would wear white shirts so they could get the blood on them,” he says.

One of Heath’s most memorable shows came in 2000, when he was booked as a last-minute addition to a match at Madison Square Garden. As usual, he took a big gulp of blood from his chalice and shot out the mist. The crowd went nuts. On his way out of the ring, the crew stopped to high-five him.

“You spit on Donald Trump!” one guy said excitedly.

Heath was nervous, though. McMahon, a personal friend of Trump’s, demanded a meeting but then made Heath sweat for three days. When Heath arrived at the boss’ office, McMahon gave him a stern look, then cracked a smile.

“It all came to me, that he set it up,” Heath says. “He ribbed Donald Trump, and he ribbed me.”

But amid his rise to fame, Heath kept getting seriously injured. At one match in February 1999, his opponents wrapped a noose around his neck and pushed him out of the ring. Heath thought he’d be able to grab the rope with his hands, but instead, he began to suffocate. After several seconds, one of the guys realized just in time what was happening and pushed him back into the ring.

In early 2000, Heath missed a month with an ear injury and then six more weeks after hurting his shoulder. Later that year, he broke his neck again, though he wrestled for a week before telling anyone.

While Heath kept getting sidelined, his wife was going through her own career crisis. By the late ’90s, female wrestlers had become “divas” who participated in swimsuit contests and Playboy spreads, and Vachon wanted no part of it. She began beefing with her hot young rival Sable. On the way to a match in Denver in February 2000, Vachon got a call that she’d been fired for playing a prank on a producer, something she believed was an excuse to get rid of her.

Just as Heath watched his wife rise to fame in the early ’90s, now it was Vachon who was benched at the height of her husband’s career. At their home north of Tampa, he watched her confront her insecurities in the usual way: “Depression, anger, drink, lash out, drink, abuse herself, drinking, drugs.”

He thought of her as Hurricane Luna. She’d blow in like a whirlwind and do some damage, and then everything would be peaceful while the eye passed over. The rest of the storm would move on and he’d look up, and somehow the weather was beautiful.

At Gangrel's Wrestling Asylum, Heath teaches students lessons he learned from his 30 years of experience in the ring.

At Gangrel’s Wrestling Asylum, Heath teaches students lessons he learned from his 30 years of experience in the ring.

After Heath’s release from the WWF in 2001, he and Vachon flew to Australia to face off in a pay-per-view match at the Sydney Super Dome.

Five days before their seventh anniversary, their fight for the newly minted World Wrestling All-Stars was billed as the “Black Wedding Match.” The crowd roared as legendary wrestling commentator Jerry Lawler made his introductions.

“You know, the Vampire Warrior and Luna, they put the word ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional,'” Lawler announced. “They’re about the most dysfunctional family I’ve ever seen in my life!”

Ringside, the organizers had left buckets of cheesy household props. Heath pushed Vachon into a fake wedding cake, and she grabbed him by the balls with a pair of kitchen tongs. She smacked him over the head five times with a baking sheet and tossed off her wedding ring. He wrapped his arm around her neck and threw her to the ground.

Despite being one of his fakest-looking matches, Heath remembers it feeling a little too real. “I was getting waylaid,” he says. “She doesn’t hit like a lady or an average woman, or even an average dude. She hits like a grown-ass, angry man.”

After their WWF careers ended, Heath and Vachon continued to travel the world, wrestling for independent promotions. But in private, the sport was taking its toll on them. They were using cocaine and pills, then arguing about all the money they were wasting. Vachon threatened to leave, and Heath thought about it sometimes too, though he never considered it all that seriously.

“I could always walk away from anything. Her, I couldn’t,” Heath says. “She was my addiction.”

In their business, couples rarely made it. But then again, single wrestlers also had trouble staying sane. Physically, Vachon described wrestling as “the equivalent of being in a car accident every night.” In their generation, drug use was still rampant and brain injuries went largely undiagnosed.

For Heath and Vachon, their marriage became a perfect storm of jealousy, mental illness, and substance abuse. After a tour in Dubai in 2004, Vachon flew home to Florida and filed for a restraining order. Heath, who has no criminal history in Florida, denies the relationship ever grew physically violent but admits there were days they wanted to kill each other.

“We were fighting a lot; it was just the drugs. I was done with it,” Heath says. “You’re not a babyface by no means, but at the same time, enough’s enough.”

A judge ordered Heath to stay away, but he says Vachon began calling him after a few months had passed, sometimes hanging up, sometimes whispering, “I love you.” He eventually moved back in with her, but they soon settled into old patterns.

“The drugs were still there,” Heath says. “A lot of bad things happened.”

In 2005, at Vachon’s insistence, he flew with her to Phoenix for a Christian athletes conference, where they were baptized together in a swimming pool. They got saved, but it didn’t save them — in 2006, after 18 years together, Heath finally told Vachon he needed to leave.

“I know if I stayed there, where we were emotionally, it was never gonna end good,” he says. “We knew. But we just loved each other.”

Heath moved to California and married another wrestler — his way of ensuring he wouldn’t go back to Vachon. He and his ex still spoke on the phone a few times a month, but after his wedding, she stopped talking about them getting together again.

Out in L.A., Heath wrestled in independent promotions and made a brief return to the WWE in a 15-man anniversary match in 2007. Alongside California wrestler Rikishi, Heath ran Knokx Pro, a wrestling school where he trained up-and-comers such as Bulgarian sensation Rusev.

In August 2010, Heath got a call from a family friend, who said police cars were outside Vachon’s house in Port Richey. Within hours, he learned she had accidentally overdosed on drugs. Police reported crushed pills and snorting straws in her house, and a medical examiner found oxycodone and benzos in her system.

When they were still together, Heath had worried about what it would be like if he left. He worried about something awful happening to her and worried about the guilt he’d feel if something did. But when the time came and Vachon left this world, Heath didn’t feel there was any unfinished business between them.

“Between us, I know we were OK with each other no matter what, no matter what we might have said to other people,” he says. “It was a peace with each other, just an acceptance that we knew we couldn’t be together, even though we love each other and still loved each other.”

Years After His WWE Glory Days, Gangrel the Vampire Warrior Is Still Chasing His Wrestling Dreams

When he thinks back on his life, Heath sees parallels to movies. The vampire gimmick came from The Lost Boys, while his marriage to Vachon seemed at times like Sid and Nancy. Now in his older years, the 2008 film The Wrestler resonates.

In that movie, Randy “the Ram,” a middle-aged wrestler living in a trailer, refuses to retire even as his body gives out. His love interest, an aging stripper, still dances for tips but can’t compete with her younger co-workers.

As Heath nurses his back injury in Dania Beach, he can relate.

“You’re basically a prostitute,” he says. “You’re selling your body. You’re abusing your body. You’re out there selling your soul, your body, and you’re beating it up until it’s either not pretty anymore or it’s not capable of doing what it physically used to. Nobody wants you. You get pushed aside. You slowly lower your price. You go from like a $300 hand job or something to $5, but it’s the only way you know how to make a living. You ride it out till it’s done, and how do you cope with it? Unfortunately, a lot of people panic.”

After Vachon’s death, Heath tried to work things out in California but never stopped thinking about his eventual move back to Florida. His second wife was less decided: When he began looking at houses, she told him she thought their time was up. They split amicably in 2013.

Back home in Broward, Heath feels like he’s finally where he’s supposed to be. He’s grown closer to the two sons he had with his high-school girlfriend, one of whom is a father himself now. Heath’s Instagram feed is filled with pictures of outings with his grandkids and mornings at the beach.

He opened up Gangrel’s Wrestling Asylum last Halloween, a day that was once his wedding anniversary. He’s still sentimental about old times and young love.

“I’m still in love with Luna,” he admitted in an interview with a Canadian YouTuber last fall. “I’ve never felt for anyone what I felt for Luna.”

Heath doesn’t watch much wrestling anymore, but for WrestleMania this year, he took some students and their parents to the Hollywood Ale House to see the show. They watched guys Heath used to wrestle, like the Undertaker, and guys he trained, like Rusev.

Heath says he’s not bitter about seeing others take his place. He says he has no regrets about his life, not about his childhood football injury or being cut by the WWE or never having a “real job.”

It’s easier to accept everything because, in a way, it felt predestined. Wrestling chose him, and now he just waits to see whom it chooses next.

“You’ll come and you’ll try, and it either sucks you in and you’re all in, or you’re not. You can’t help it,” he says. “Everyone could come in here and do one line of cocaine; there’s gonna be one that’s gonna keep doing it. Same thing with wrestling. They either come in, they’re totally head-over-heels or they’re not.”

Heath was never able to wean himself off the addiction. Even today, with a gnarly back injury, he’s adamant about keeping his weekend commitment.

“What are you gonna do? Prostitute,” he says. “Just keep going.”

Two days later, Heath woke up while it was still dark and headed to the airport. A little after 5 a.m., he boarded a plane and flew to Buffalo. At a 4-H fairground in upstate New York, he snapped his fangs on and said a little prayer.

Then he climbed into the ring and gave a little more.

Ben Ryan: 'I felt no joy in my last final with England … I was completely flat' – The Guardian

“I much preferred Fiji – even with a dictator in charge, a boss who was convicted for manslaughter, my phone being bugged, the bankruptcy and black magic – than my last year at the RFU,” says Ben Ryan, as he sips on a double espresso and reminisces about an extraordinary journey that culminated in him guiding Fiji’s sevens side to Olympic gold in Rio.

We are in a cafe not far from Twickenham, where Ryan worked for six years as the England sevens coach before falling foul of what he calls the Rugby Football Union’s “machiavellian” struggles for power and influence, “with people above you who can only be trusted never to be trustworthy”.

Ryan applied to become Fiji coach after a friend texted him to say he had seen it advertised on Twitter. One 3am interview by Skype later he was offered the job – and on a whim he accepted. “It was scary and risky,” he admits. “But it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Initially he wondered whether he had made the biggest mistake of his life. It did not help that when he took his first training session there was no kit or water and only a couple of balls to practise with – or that he was not paid for six months.

There were other challenges, too. At his first tournament he passed a player who had built a tower of 10 pains au chocolat each with a fried egg on top for breakfast – a meal the player considered healthy because he was getting plenty of protein. And just before the 2016 Olympics one of his players, Pio Tuwai, was convulsing in his room saying he had been possessed by a witchdoctor. “His eyes were rolling – it was very bizarre,” Ryan says.

Many players were also very poor. Jerry Tuwai lived with his family in a one-room shack with corrugated-iron walls, no running water, gas or electricity, but was moulded by Ryan into one of the heartbeats of the team.

But whatever clouds he faced always evaporated on the pitch. “It was absolutely joyful,” he says, beaming at the memories. “We weren’t chucking GPS units on. I wasn’t getting my boss telling me they’re only allowed 10 minutes’ contact a week. It was the purest form of rugby and I loved it.”

Yet Ryan says the culture of the squad was just as important to Fiji’s success. Of all the stories he tells, one stands out: in 2015 the squad were on a plane when two passengers collapsed with suspected heart attacks. While the stewards revived them, his team got to their feet and took over the job of serving lunch and drinks to the rest of the plane. “They went down the aisles, handing out napkins and asking passengers whether they wanted chicken or fish,” Ryan says. “It wasn’t a stunt and they weren’t prompted. It was just a natural thing to do for them – to be nice. But that’s what we had as a group. Of course we worked hard. But none of the senior management team ever shouted at the players. And we had fun.”

Never was that more evident than in August 2016 when Fiji’s 43-7 destruction of Great Britain in the final earned the country the first Olympic medal in its history. After what he had seen from his players in the tunnel, Ryan knew his team were going to win.

“I can think of dozens of occasions where I’ve been more nervous than that Olympic final,” he says. “Honestly, hand on heart, there wasn’t any of that feeling – we were so relaxed beforehand I knew we were going to win.

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“My captain, Osea Kolinisau, once said to me: ‘If you’re ever in a tunnel and you’re opposite a Fijian that’s smiling, you’d really better watch out.’ It’s their perfect state, they’re relaxed but ruthless. They are the loveliest people off the field but they can switch to being ultimately very ruthless on the field.”

But life was not always perfect. Ryan moved to Fiji having not done due diligence and only later discovered the Fijileaks website, with its tales of corruption, bribery and prisons stacked with political opponents.

He is unusually guarded when it comes to talking about Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a military coup in 2006, had a keen interest in rugby – as well as his brother-in-law Francis Kean, the president of the Fiji Rugby Union who served time in jail for kicking a man to death. He soon understood not to make eye contact with Bainimarama in meetings and let him dominate the grip when the pair shook hands.

“But at least you knew where you stood with him,” Ryan says. That was not the case with the RFU which, he claims, failed to support fully his vision for the England sevens team. “My last tournament with England was the Sevens World Cup in Moscow in 2013,” he says. “We got to the final but I felt no joy. I was completely flat.”

Would he go ever back to Twickenham? “It’s something I’ve thought about a lot,” he says. “Not on the performance side but I would seriously consider a role that involved getting more state school kids to play rugby.”

Ryan is increasingly animated as he points out how the 80% of children who go to state schools should provide the talent pool for the national team. “But there is no one at the RFU in charge of state school rugby,” he says. “My old school down the road is the biggest boys’ comprehensive in the country but we haven’t produced any professional rugby players since me in 1997.”

Ben Ryan waves to the cheering crowd in Suva upon their arrival from Brazil. Tens of thousands of Fijians cheered and some openly wept as they braved heavy rain to attend the victory ceremony in the capital.

Ben Ryan (centre) waves to the cheering crowd in Suva upon their arrival from Brazil. Tens of thousands of Fijians cheered and some openly wept as they braved heavy rain to attend the victory ceremony in the capital. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

For now Ryan is happy doing consultancy work with French Rugby, World Rugby and UK Sport. And while he will not comment directly on speculation he is on a shortlist for the head coach role at Harlequins, he does admit part of him would love to apply his philosophy to the 15-man game.

“I would like to prove that with 15s you can succeed by playing a style of rugby that empowers the players, isn’t overly attritional and where everyone in the squad is treated with kindness and respect,” he says.

Meanwhile, despite Fiji’s gold medal, he wonders how much has really changed. “The Fijian boys are paid only about £4,000-£6,000 a year,” he says. “Sadly they don’t want to pay the boys the same money as a government minister, say, because they feel there’s so many people waiting to take a player’s place. They can be thrown away and discarded.

“It’s very sad,” he adds, the pain evident, “but there’s no legacy in Fiji. Only another day and another struggle.”

Sevens Heaven, The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream by Ben Ryan, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 31 May, priced £20

David Tepper expected to become new Panthers owner –

The sale of the Carolina Panthers to hedge fund manager David Tepper is expected to be executed soon.

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported the sale of the Panthers from Jerry Richardson to Tepper is moving along and a deal could get done Tuesday, per sources informed of the process.

According to Rapoport, an agreement is expected to happen which would allow for a vote on the sale by NFL owners at the Spring League Meeting in Atlanta, May 21-23.

Tepper has long been the favorite to buy the Panthers. The sale is expected to come in just above $2 billion. As a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2009, league owners are familiar with Tepper. Also key to the purchase is the hedge fund manager’s plan to keep the Panthers in Charlotte.

The next step for the billionaire investor is to sell his minority stake in the Steelers and get approved by NFL owners. After being vetted, however, the sale is assumed to proceed without hitches.

In order for the sale to become official, three-fourths of NFL team owners (24) must approve the team’s purchase.

The 60-year-old Tepper was born in Pittsburgh, attended the University of Pittsburgh and earned an MBA from Carnegie Mellon in 1982 — the business school now dons his name. Tepper founded Appaloosa Management, a hedge fund company based in Miami Beach, Florida, and is worth an estimated $11 billion.

Richardson, 81, announced he was selling the team in December after the league took over an investigation looking into allegations of workplace misconduct. The NFL investigation remains ongoing. The Panthers officially went up for sale following the team’s wild-card loss in January. Richardson, the franchise founder, ceded day-to-day control of the team in December to Tina Becker, a 20-year employee of the team who was promoted to chief operating officer.

Spectacular day for Tennis on Saturday – Kozi Radio

[5/14/18] Spectacular day for Tennis on Saturday

Chelan Tennis had a spectacular day at the CTL Tourney on Saturday, May 12.  They played excellent tennis, and secured several berths into the district tournament next week.

 The purpose of the tournament was as an individual qualifier, the first of three levels of the tennis post-season.  The top four finishers in each bracket (girls singles, girls doubles, boys singles, boys doubles) advance to the district tournament next week, which is the qualifier for the state tournament on Memorial Day weekend.

 In girls singles, sophomore #3 seed Emma McLaren began the day in the semifinals vs #2 seed Skylar Larson of Cashmere, looking to avenge a close loss from May 4th in the regular season finale.  Emma opened up the match in great form, winning the first set 6-3.  However, Emma would then lose the next 11 games in a row, dropping the 2nd set 0-6, and going down 0-5 in the third set.  And then…Emma staged the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen in girls tennis.  In the heat, she fought off several match points over the course of several games, went on her own 6 game win streak, and eventually won the match in a 3rd set tiebreaker 7-4.  That win placed her in the championship match, where she faced #1 seed and state medalist Aleah Kert of Cashmere.  Emma lost to Aleah in straight sets, but will move on to the district tournament as the #2 seed out of the CTL.

 In girls doubles, Chelan had an historic day.  We opened Saturday with all three of our doubles teams in the semifinals, possibly a CTL first ever occurrence.  Junior Sierra Rothlisberger and senior Madeline Peebles were the #1 seed, and in the semifinals defeated Evans/Vandel of Cascade 6-3, 6-3 to earn a spot in the championship match.  The other semifinal featured the two Chelan doubles teams of junior Abby Martin and senior Sydney Hawkins vs freshmen Elle Rothlisberger and Bella Gatzemeier.  That Chelan vs Chelan semfinal was closely fought, with Rothlisberger and Gatzemeier winning 6-3, 7-6.

 This set up an all Chelan girls doubles championship match that pitted sister vs sister.  Sierra and Madeline defeated Elle and Bella 6-2, 6-4 in a closely contested affair to win the CTL girls doubles championship.  As a coach and father, that match was a special memory, and definitely a career coaching highlight.

 The Chelan girls doubles team of Hawkins and Martin now needed to fight through the consolation bracket, and did so by defeating Hannah Smith and Sarah Dixon of Okanogan 7-6, 7-5.  That win clinched a district berth.  With a subsequent forfeit by Cascade, Hawkins and Martin earned the #3 seed.  So, the three Chelan girls doubles teams took the top three placings in the CTL tourney – once again, possibly a first ever occurrence!


In boys singles, senior Micah Larson opened the day in the semifinals vs Chase Grillo of Omak.  Micah shook off early rust in each set to win 6-2, 6-3, placing him in the finals.  In the CTL championship, Micah was defeated by state tourney 2nd place finisher Tyler Kert of Cashmere, but Micah will move on to the district tourney in Omak as the #2 seed from the CTL.

 Senior Alex Gavin, facing elimination, opened his Saturday in a do-or-die match vs Cascade, and he soundly defeated his opponent 6-1, 6-1.  Unfortunately, in his 2nd match of the day, Alex lost to Grillo of Omak.  In his final match on Saturday, Alex claimed 5th place and the alternate spot to districts with a revenge win over Sam Keziah of Cascade 7-5, 6-2 (Alex had lost to Sam earlier in the tourney on Thursday).

 In boys doubles, junior Wyatt Habich and sophomore Tobin Wier began their day in the semifinals, but were defeated by the #2 seed from Cashmere in straight sets.  That forced Habich and Wier to fight through the consolation bracket.  In their next do-or-die match, Wyatt and Tobin lost a heartbreaker in three sets.  Habich and Wier placed 5th in the tournament, claiming the alternate spot to districts.

 Next up: the first day of the District 6 tennis tournament (the state tournament qualifier) is Wednesday, May 16 at Omak HS and North Cascades Athletic Club.  Day 2 will be next Saturday.


Attached is a pic of the seven Chelan girls moving on to the district tournament, left to right:  Abby Martin, Sierra Rothlisberger, Madeline Peebles, Coach Rothlisberger, Elle Rothlisberger, Emma McLaren, Abby Martin.  In front:  Bella Gatzemeier.  Micah Larson is also moving on from the boys squad.

DeAngelo Hall '95 percent sure' he's done with football –

DeAngelo Hall is probably done pestering quarterbacks. Probably.

The longtime Washington Redskins corner told reporters Monday morning he was retiring from the NFL. Hall is mulling a possible move into television or a front office position.

“I’m not playing. That’s for damn sure. But yeah, all the other stuff is still on the table,” he said, via the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Hours after Hall’s comments were published, the Redskins said Monday evening on Twitter that the cornerback has not “officially decided to retire” yet.

Hall called into 106.7 The Fan to clarify his earlier comments, saying, “I don’t think I meant to say it that way.”

“Am I done playing football? I’m probably 95 percent sure I’m done playing football but I wanted to do it the right way,” Hall said Monday night. “I wanted to give the Redskins organization the respect it deserved and obviously do it with them when the time was right. I wanted to wait until at least I signed my national deal with the network before I made that official announcement, and I wanted to do it at a press conference.”

Hall added, among other things, that he was considering announcing his retirement on NFL Network last week, but didn’t want to get in the way of Cowboys tight end Jason Witten’s retirement announcement.

The cornerback also said that if the Los Angeles Rams, coached by former Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay, had successfully traded for Odell Beckham, he would’ve considered joining the Super Bowl-contending Rams. Instead, L.A. acquired Brandin Cooks, who Hall said was “not as dynamic” as OBJ. Hall is currently a free agent.

“I had some opportunities to go other places but they weren’t in the roles I’d like to see myself in. It was more like leadership, locker room guy. It wasn’t going to be a role where I felt like I could try to get that coveted 50 [career interceptions],” Hall explained. “Why waste another year playing football in that kind of role when I felt like I could be just as big a name or star or personality in the realm of TV or radio and so why not go ahead and start that? That’s the dilemma I kind of wrestle with in my mind. Do I want to play another year where I’m just not quite there?

“Rather than try to just get some sloppy leftovers I might as well just hang it up.”

A first-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2004, Hall spent the past nine-and-a-half seasons with the Redskins. Hall was traded from the Falcons to the Raiders in March 2008. He lasted just eight games in Oakland before being cut. Hall signed in Washington three days later to a one-year contract. He quickly became a staple in the Redskins secondary, first as a corner, then making the transition to safety.

The 34-year-old ball-hawk compiled 811 career tackles, 132 passes defended, and 43 interceptions — tied for 63rd in NFL history. Injuries curtailed the end of his career, as he played in 22 of a possible 64 games the past four seasons. He participated in just five tilts in 2017.

“I had a vision of a gold jacket, but the injuries the last couple years have been very hard on me,” he said earlier Monday. “So that’s kind of out of the question now. But who’s to say I can’t get in there some other way? That’s kind of my focus. I still want a gold jacket, whether I can get one as an exec, a coach — I’m going to get me a damn gold jacket, believe that.”

In 2010, his second full season in Washington, Hall famously intercepted then-Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler four times, tying an NFL record. Cutler is also expected to retire this year. Without Smokin’ Jay around to pick on, it’s as good a time as any for Hall to transition into his next career. Perhaps Cutler and Hall could end up at the same TV network, so the corner can continue to pick off the QB — this time verbally.

Mamedyarov's Unstoppable Pawns –

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s result in the last Candidates’ tournament has cemented his position as one of the world’s very best players.

In a year-old article, we already discussed what makes his chess so sparkling and powerful. Today I would like to talk about one of his favorite chess patterns, which perfectly fits the description from the above-mentioned article: “he uses a well-known classical concept as an inspiration and then produces a much more sophisticated and beautiful gem.”

chess pawns

The following masterpiece by GM Bronstein is one of those games that a proverbial “Russian schoolboy must know.”

White’s daring piece sacrifice allowed him to create a powerful pawn center, which simply steamrolled Black’s position. Yes, Black’s play could be improved on many occasions (like his dubious move 10…c5?! that only made White’s center pawns stronger), but it is White’s brilliant concept that really matters here. In many positions it is absolutely worth it to sacrifice a minor piece for a couple of pawns that are going to push your opponent off the board!

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

We can find this pattern in many games by GM Mamedyarov!

Looks pretty easy, right? Now try to play like Mamedyarov in the following position:

And here finish the game in style just like Shakhriyar did!

Since Mamedyarov is a very aggressive attacking player, it is quite common in his games that such far advanced pawns help him to checkmate the opponent’s king.

Now that you know how dangerous Mamedyarov’s passed pawns can be, you’ll appreciate the following game. To some extent this was one of the biggest achievements of Fabiano Caruana in the tournament of his life where he won the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen. When I saw the position where Mamedyarov had three passed pawns, I thought that Caruana was doomed.

Fortunately, he managed to do the impossible: stop Shakhriyar’s pawns! And that eventually sealed the tournament.