When Sylvester Ritter, also known as Junkyard Dog, died on June 1, 1998, in a single-car accident while returning home from his daughter’s high school graduation in North Carolina, it led to an outpouring of support for his grieving family from both fans and fellow wrestlers.
The 300-pound wrestler was only 45 when he lost his life in the car crash on Interstate 20 near Forest, Mississippi. The man, known for wearing a dog collar complete with a heavy silver chain, first made a name for himself during the 1970s and 80s but prior to wrestling, he was a footballer.
Ritter was a standout college football player, twice earning Honorable Mention All-American honors at Fayetteville (NC) State University. He was even drafted by the Green Bay Packers but decided on a career in sports-entertainment in the mid-1970s.
After graduating from Fayetteville State University with a political science degree, he enrolled at the Hart family’s wrestling school, becoming a professional wrestler making his debut in Tennessee in 1977.
He won the Mid-South Wrestling Association Championship 15 times. Ritter was quick on his feet given his frame and extremely durable while he connected with the fans almost instantly. His rivalries with Ted DiBiase, The Fabulous Freebirds and Butch Reed were some of Mid-South’s most legendary.
Junkyard Dog’s success continued after leaving WWE, as he moved to the NWA (later WCW) in the late-1980s and also held the WCW Six-Man Tag Team Championship in 1991 before retiring from the ring in 1993. After retirement, the Junkyard Dog continued to contribute to wrestling by appearing at events and serving as a manager.
Ritter’s contemporaries in the ring included Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, Roddy Piper, Randy Savage and Nikolai Volkoff.
In 2004, the Junkyard Dog was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Ritter’s daughter, LaToya, was present at the event to accept the award on his behalf.
Sadly for the man who wore size 15 shoes and famous for his growls, on October 19, 2011, his daughter, LaToya, was talking to her friend on the phone when she suddenly stopped responding. She died aged 31. The Ritter family never shared the cause of LaToya’s death publicly.
On why the Junkyard Dog name, Ritter claimed he earned the nickname while working in an auto junkyard.
“The way that I worked as hard as I did, and the way that I stood my ground for what I believed in, well, my boss said to me, just like the song, ‘You are meaner than a junkyard dog,”‘ he once said.