After first capturing a world championship wrestling belt at Madison Square Garden, the time has come for Princeton native Bob
Backlund to make a return visit to that famed setting in the heart ofNew York.
Having won that mat title in that venue on Feb. 20, 1978, by defeating “Superstar” Billy Graham, Backlund managed to hold onto the championship belt for six years, thanks to his famous Cross-face Chicken-wing.
It was in that same arena he lost the championship belt to the Iron Sheik, while trapped in the Camel Clutch.
Backlund’s successful career in the ring spanned three decades, before advancing on to another stage of his life.
His return visit to the Garden will be rather special. On April 6 he will be among the 2013 class of inductees into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Fame.
Now, at the age of 63, Backlund makes his home in Glastonbury, Conn., where he operates a one-man home heating oil business.
“I feel like a spring rooster,” Backlund said in reference to his age, during a recent telephone interview from his home.
But let’s go back a few years.
The road to the Hall of Fame began for Backlund more than 40 years ago, following graduation from Princeton High School in 1968.
A very talented, all-around athlete, Backlund first opted to attend junior college in Forest City, Iowa, where he played football, wrestled and competed in track and field.
His success on the junior college level at Waldorf advanced him to the Division II stage, as he proved himself as a two-sport athlete, competing in football and wrestling.
Being recruited to play at the higher level saw him lending his talent to North Dakota State University in Fargo.
While at NDSU, he proved to be a standout member of the Bison grid team, while becoming a national champion on the wrestling mat.
In 1970, he was a member of the Bison football team that defeated the University of Montana in the Camellia Bowl.
Sanford Qvale, a member of that team who now lives in Williston, N.D., credited Backlund with being “one superb athlete.”
Success at that level propelled him into the next phase of his career.
In the meantime, his academics were put on hold, as he was three credits short, and waited until 1983 to take care of his diploma.
You see, professional wrestling, along with a year of semipro football as a guard in Chicago, took precedence.
It was 1973, when Backlund was signed to a professional wrestling contract by Eddie Sharkey, with his workouts taking place at the 7th Street Gym in Minneapolis.
“I would drive down there every day,” Backlund, said.
In order to prepare himself for his pro ring debut, Backlund was put through the ropes for some six to eight months.
His first match
The time finally came and his first wrestling match as a professional was scheduled for Baton Rouge, La.
“I drove there with my Chevy Impala and 20 dollars in my pocket,” Backlund said.
Little did he know, when it came time for pay, he received only five dollars.
As a result of his earnings, the trunk of his Impala served as the place to rest his body that evening.
“On the way down, I made a reservation at the Sheraton, thinking I would do very well,” Backlund said.
The five dollars was saved for gas, to allow him transportation to the “next town,” while he dined on tuna fish, using his fingers for the fork.
Glad it happened
In looking back, Backlund confided, “I’m glad those days happened.”
He went on to say, “I had to figure out how bad I wanted to get into the wrestling business.”
Backlund recalled other “friends,” who earned a $1,000 check their first night, and “now they don’t have a dime.”
“I learned a good lesson and it was well worth it.”
While pleased with the fact he was selected for induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, he was somewhat cautious by saying, “it is something that is pretty good.”
He quickly added, “there are some things I have to straighten out yet to make it really good.”
Backlund countered by saying, “my fans have been waiting for me to do that for a long, long time and it was good to make it. At some point I will be excited.”
When asked if he had been back to Madison Square Garden in some time he said, “I was down there this summer, as Chet Stevens, a great athlete from Princeton, was here and we went down there to show him around.”
Backlund noted that Stevens was “doing a function,” in Providence, R.I., and the two friends spent some time together.
Prior to the Hall
While Backlund was made aware of the honor prior to the public announcement, he still is working to square some things “on paper.”
“You never want to give up, but when I left home I never questioned and never had a doubt in my mind to be successful,” said Backlund.
He went on to say, “my goal was to get to Madison Square Garden.”
At the same time, when he left the ring, he “didn’t wonder from day-to-day,” whether he would be selected to the Hall some day.
Along the way, and to this day, Backlund always believed in “going the extra mile.”
He hinted he would be having a book deal with that coming out “in the next year or so.”
His life goes on
Recently Backlund was back in the Princeton area and while exercising, met up with a high school athletic coach, and was asked to speak to some Princeton athletes.
Being more than happy to do that, it allowed him an opportunity to share some of his success.
Not one to brag about his career and entry into the Hall, instead Backlund likes to talk fitness.
He is especially proud about the fact he remains “old school,” while touting his product Gym in the Box.
This simple setup is made up of exercises that he claims to have been doing for 30 years, keeping him fit still today.
More about that and further details on Backlund can be found at his website http://www.backlundenergy.com/.
Just being able to share his journey is a big part of what Backlund does these days, and he will be the featured guest at the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Clinic on April 4-5.
As it turns out, he was also scheduled to be on hand April 6, but it just so happens he had something come up with a request for him to be on hand at Madison Square Garden.
Former Princeton football coach Ron Stolski, who is now in northern Minnesota, heads up that clinic.
“A highlight of my life is when I get a chance to be a good influence on young people,” Backlund, said
Not wanting to center on his own wrestling career, Backlund has a different approach.
He reminds youngsters, “we don’t want to go down to their level,” when speaking of those who might want to lead them astray.
“We make them come to our level, that means, if your friends want you to smoke marijuana, say no and let them come up to your level.”
Today, much like his wrestling career relying on only himself in the ring, Backlund operates a home heating oil business wrestling instead with hoses.
Covering a 10-mile range, he operates as the “only person in the company.”
That means, on a given day, he can be found out and about making deliveries.
On the day we caught up with him, he had just returned from a delivery, taking time out to place a phone call.
While crediting wrestling with having “changed my life,” Backlund doesn’t look at himself as being a “hero.”
He pointed to being at a recent MMA and UFC martial arts demonstration and was seated by former Olympic boxer Ray Mercer.
Mercer told Backlund, “it was a pleasure for me to sit next to you.”
With that, Backlund simply returned the compliment.
“I feel like I’m just a kid, not a star, being a kid on the street from Princeton, Minnesota,” said Backlund.
Folks back home
Back home in Princeton, Backlund still has a number of proud relatives in his brother Norval, and two nephews Tim and Jeff, along with his sister Mary (Kunkel) and her husband Dan.
Back in Connecticut, Backlund resides with his wife Corki, who was born in Staples but spent her youth growing up in Jamestown, N.D.
The couple met while in college at NDSU and have one daughter Carrie, who lives and works in Marathon, Fla.
There Carrie works for the United States Navy as a marine biologist.
“There’s no place like the place you grew up,” Backlund said.
Recalling his early days, he pointed to the day he wrestled Mad Dog Vachon, at his old high school before a crowd of some 2,500 cheering him on.
Bring on Sammartino
While Backlund got the call for this induction class, he learned another longtime veteran of the ring, Bruno Sammartino, would be joining him.
Reportedly Sammartino had turned down previous offers to enter the Hall, due to an ongoing feud with WWE Chairman Vince McMahon over what was termed as a “wide range of issues.”
Once Sammartino learned of changes, including no more profanity, along with drug testing, he gave in and accepted the invitation to be on hand April 6 at MSG.
That acceptance led a lot of fans to respond on the Internet, also giving credit to Backlund for his success in the ring and upcoming induction.
With the announcement of Backlund’s selection back on Jan. 21, fans are hoping it won’t be long before Backlund gets those issues he talked about “straightened out,” and things will be what he termed as “good.”
The pair will then join fellow wrestler Mick Foley, as the WWE legends for enshrinement, designating them as being among the best of the best ever to put on a pair of trunks.
That combination will make for an excellent 1-2-3 count.