2017-03-27
Megan Elice Meadows/Wikimedia

When Ted DiBiase called his wife in the morning to check in, he hadn't bothered to sleep the night before.

After he and Irwin R. Schyster clashed with two mammoth opponents known as The Natural Disasters at WrestleMania VIII in 1992, The Million Dollar Man did as one would expect that character to do. He bounced around Indianapolis' hot spots in a high-priced suit. He lounged in the back of a limousine. A pair of pretty girls nestled under his arms through much of it all.

When he picked up the hotel lobby phone and dialed his home number, reality tore into that fantasy world.

His wife, Melanie, confronted him about his ongoing adultery. She had discovered that her husband had been bedding other women while he was on the road for the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE). When DiBiase tried to console her, saying he wanted to wait until he got back home to discuss this, she pushed back.

She told him he didn't live there anymore.

That moment ended up triggering a monumental change for the wrestler. It woke him up to the fact that he had only been a Christian on a superficial level. It inspired him to cleanse himself, to fully embrace his relationship with God and eventually serve as a minister.

For wrestling fans who watched DiBiase on TV in the late '80s and early '90s, that is a hard transition to imagine.

The Million Dollar Man was a greedy, heartless, wealthy heel with a trademark maniacal laugh fit for a supervillain. In 1988, DiBiase paid off Andre the Giant and an evil twin referee in a plot to buy the WWE world title. He once told a young boy he would give him $500 if he could bounce a basketball 15 straight times, only to kick the ball away on his 14th try.

"The character The Million Dollar Man is all about everything we shouldn't be about. Total worldliness. His God would be money," DiBiase told Bleacher Report.

And even though DiBiase had never turned into his character, he had turned into something he didn't like. Standing by the phone, knowing his wife was hurting miles away and that he had risked everything he loved, he felt foolish.

It's that kind of jolt that forces self-reflection. "You see yourself for who you really are, and it's really ugly," DiBiase said.

It was only a matter of time until she found out, his second life bound to bleed into his first.

DiBiase explained, "The Bible says, 'Whatever's done in darkness will be revealed in the light.' It's not if, it's when. It will be revealed."

Now that his unfaithfulness had been exposed, DiBiase reached out to a man of faith—Hal Santos.

Santos is a pastor based out of Fairview Heights, Illinois. The Hall of Fame wrestler had known Hal since they met in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1982. The two men met before DiBiase had entered the WWE. Santos met him at a gym, later asked him what his greatest spiritual need was, and eventually, a friendship bloomed.

Even though DiBiase lived the vagabond life of a wrestler, he and Santos had remained connected.

"The last thing you want to do is give your phone number because I will bug you," Santos said.

Santos often called to check in on DiBiase in the years to follow. The wrestler didn't see it as bugging him in the least. "He kept in touch with me. He didn't beat me up with religious questions. What he demonstrated to me was the unconditional love of Christ," DiBiase said of Santos.

Santos set up a meeting between DiBiase and Melanie in St. Louis. He was to play the peacemaker between the splintered couple.

The first attempt to reach her ended quickly. "She hung up the phone on me. I think she thought it was Ted," Santos remembered.

He eventually got her to speak with him and listened to her grievances.

The pastor picked up both husband and wife from the airport separately. As Santos drove DiBiase to meet with Melanie, the wrestler knew that the road ahead would be steep. "Hal took me on the longest 30-minute drive of my life, knowing what I had to face in front of me," DiBiase said.

A Father's Influence

DiBiase didn't find God in 1992; he rediscovered him. Christianity had been in his life long before he turned to the ministry.

"I had a very strong faith as a young man," he explained.

He attributes much of that to his late adoptive father. "Iron" Mike DiBiase was a wrestler himself, first a star at the collegiate level for the University of Nebraska, where he lettered eight times. Mike later succeeded as a pro, wrestling in rings across the U.S. in the '50s and '60s.

As both an athlete and a man, Mike inspired his son.

DiBiase remembered his father telling him about growing up in a poor Italian neighborhood in New York where many of his peers' lives were rich with alcohol and jail time. Mike sought a cleaner path, set on making an impact as an athlete.

"It takes no courage to do what everybody else is doing," Ted remembered his father telling him.

He never forgot how "Iron" Mike worked diligently to become one of the most accomplished sportsmen in Nebraska school history. He held onto the idea that those around his father mocked him for dreaming.

And DiBiase embraced the lesson his father taught him about how much one controlled one's own life path.

"We can't choose the circumstances of our lives. We can't choose our parents. We can't choose whether we are black or white, whether we are born in America or some other country," DiBiase said. "What we all choose is what we do with the cards we've been dealt."

In 1969, Mike died without warning. The barrel-chested grappler suffered a heart attack in the ring.

Mike was 45. His son was just 15.

His passing hit DiBiase hard. Tearful and torn up, the young man turned to the divine.

"Faith in God carried me through his sudden death," he said. "The thing that held me, the thing that kept me focused was my dad's words and wanting so desperately to make him proud, and my faith."

Like his father, DiBiase excelled in the athletic realm, thriving on the gridiron as a teenager.

He took after his dad in terms of discipline, too. Through his high school years, DiBiase lived a straight-laced life. He didn't smoke; he didn't drink.

That changed in college.

DiBiase attended West Texas State University, a school famous for a football program that saw an astounding number of players go on to great careers as wrestlers: Dusty Rhodes, Tito Santana, Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, Tully Blanchard.

During his stint as an offensive lineman for the West Texas Buffaloes, an internal shift occurred. "When I got to college, pride of life took over," he explained.

A part of that was him beginning to drink, but his relationship with God changed, as well. He had prayed for the success he had achieved, earning a football scholarship and eventually wrestling as a pro between semesters in the summer.

As he put it, rather than thank God for his accomplishments, he began to credit himself. Look what I did, he told himself.

Injured, struggling to match the speed of his opponents on the football field and pining for the industry where his father thrived, DiBiase left school before graduating to pursue a career in the squared circle. After working for promoter Bill Watt's Mid-South Wrestling territory, he fell in love with wrestling enough to leave football and West Texas behind.

Fame and Temptation

Success came flooding in.

DiBiase became one of Mid-South Wrestling's biggest stars, wrestling in famous matches with Junkyard Dog, "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan and Tommy Rich. He was a champion in the singles and tag team divisions.

Ted DiBiase in action for Mid-South Wrestling.

He traveled to the Far East and wrestled for All Japan Pro Wrestling, where he often teamed up with fellow West Texas State alum Stan Hansen.

Religion remained present in his life at this point. In fact, after meeting Melanie, he visited her church in Mississippi to get baptized.

Dr. Ken Alford, a pastor who now lives in Valdosta, Georgia, christened DiBiase. Alford didn't realize at first that he was initiating a star. "I wasn't really into wrestling. I didn't know who he was," the pastor remembered.

Other church-goers recognized him, though. Alford said, "All the youth choir members were going by and getting his autograph and shaking his hand."

He and DiBiase became friends, and Alford was often reminded of the wrestler's celebrity status. When the men and their wives were out to dinner, fans hovered around him, asking for autographs and photos.

It took a long while for Alford to get used to that. "It was kind of amazing to me those first years because I just knew him as a great guy in my church, a neighbor who lived a few streets over," he said.

Ted DiBiase takes on a young Shawn Michaels.

But as DiBiase's stardom grew, so did the level of temptation. Alcohol and women lured him at every corner. He came to know intimately why his father had warned him about the business.

"I loved being in the ring. I loved entertaining people. But the environment, the lifestyle, that's the reason my dad didn't want me to wrestle," DiBiase said.

Santos offered him precautionary advice, too. The pastor told him to be wary of those who would take advantage of him and to stay true to himself, to his family and God. He warned him of the dangers of pride, as well.

He told DiBiase, "You read your own press clippings, you're going to think you're something that you're not."

At this stage, DiBiase only had an "intellectual relationship with God," as he put it, but he hadn't given his whole heart to his faith. The process of his fully embracing a connection with the gospel wouldn't happen until years later, when Melanie's phone call shined a light on his infidelities.

Before that, DiBiase's biggest in-ring success was on its way. He would find the role that truly made him famous.

In the midst of WWE's growth into a global powerhouse in the '80s, owner Vince McMahon dreamed up a character driven by greed and powered by wealth. He chose DiBiase for that role, banking on the wrestler's interview prowess to make the act work.

As a devout Christian now looking back, the irony of that choice is not lost on him. "God's got a sense of humor. Of all the guys that could have been this character, it was me," DiBiase laughed.

McMahon went to great lengths to convince the audience that the man and the gimmick were one and the same. As DiBiase put it, "Vince was trying to market a character, and he wanted people to believe that I really was that guy."

That meant DiBiase flying from town to town in a Learjet, riding in limos and the company providing him stacks of cash to spend everywhere he went. DiBiase picked up tabs at restaurants and bars, slapping down hundred-dollar bills.

On TV, he stuffed money in his opponents' mouths when they were out cold. He abused his personal assistant, Virgil. DiBiase donned the Million Dollar Championship, a vanity title emblazoned with oversized dollar signs and encrusted with diamonds. Wearing this symbol of greed, he promised he could buy anyone and anything.

"Everybody has a price," he would proclaim.

But even as convincing as this all was, there remained a distance between DiBiase and The Million Dollar man. "In real life, I wasn't that guy," he explained.

It was money that ruled the character's heart. Pride was the man's vice.

Wrestling is a demanding business, on the body, on the mind, on one's family. The business forced DiBiase to be away from home often. Temptation marked his travels.

He was neck-deep in a culture rife with excess.

Reflecting on what his life was like at that point, DiBiase said, "Drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll. The booze, the pills and the broads. I did my share of drinking, but I never had an addiction. I guess my biggest problem was women."

And he didn't have to pursue them, either. Not only was he a major wrestling star at a time when the industry was red-hot, but he was a handsome athlete paid to live the life of a man of means.

"We all are tempted in many ways. But when you're a celebrity, and you have a measure of fame, you don't have to look for trouble. It will literally come knock on your door," DiBiase said.

It did, and he answered. Doing so nearly wrecked his second marriage beyond repair.

Revelation

DiBiase told his wife everything during that meeting in St. Louis. Tears and heartache marked the conversation. The process was gut-wrenching.

The wrestler needed to rebuild not only a crumbling marriage, but his connection with God.

He felt he had to surrender to Christ and trust in God the way he did when his father died and when his mother started drinking. He strove to revert back to a child-like faith. None of it would be easy.

Santos told him as much. He told DiBiase, "The Bible says that the truth will set you free. Jesus never said it was painless."

DiBiase understands that now. He's been through the fire and has the burns to prove it.

He and Melanie stayed with Santos' family in a two-bedroom apartment near their church for weeks. The pastor offered counsel and friendship as the couple arduously pieced their marriage back together.

The pastor talked to DiBiase about what was coming to him once he emerged from this storm. Clinging to the cross, his friend told him, would allow him to experience a profound peace.

"I can tell you with all assurance that I walk with that peace today," DiBiase said.

That didn't come until he attended a congregation with Santos and gave of himself in front of everyone. With hundreds in attendance, DiBiase walked from his chair, knelt, pressed his face into the floor and wept.

He was ready for real change.

"God finally had Ted DiBiase in a place where he wants everyone, to run to him to reckless abandon," DiBiase explained.

That place he described was one where he didn't care what this moment meant for his career, whether he hurt the aura of his famous character. He would do whatever it took to complete this journey. He told himself, "I never want to be that man again."

After making this fortified connection to God, he didn't jump directly into sharing his story with congregations and audiences. Santos suggested DiBiase wait a few years before he began speaking. As the pastor put it, he was a baby Christian in a way, and a baby poops its pants.

"So many times somebody makes a change in their life, and right away we press them into some kind of marketer for Christ. You have tounderstand what Christ is about first," Santos said.

There would be no pressing here. Instead, DiBiase let his relationship with God grow over time.

He had his Bible and devotional next to him as he drank his morning coffee every morning. He led his family in prayer. He proved he was a new man rather than promise that he had become one.

DiBiase eventually spoke at a church, relaying his fall and how he gave himself to Christ afterward. He had a simple message, one that clearly resonated.

Invitation followed invitation after that.

Studying the Bible and gaining experience at the pulpit, DiBiase found a new calling. He became an ordained minister in February 2000.

DiBiase's experience talking in front of large crowds gave him an edge in this role. The wrestler's name and charm aided him, too, but he didn't have the ministry in mind at first. "That wasn't the plan. The goal was for him to live for Christ," Santos recalled. That's the road he traveled regardless.

Dr. Alford preached at DiBiase's ordination service, formally ushering him into the new plane where he would now stand. Alford would later ask his old friend to speak at his church in Valdosta, Georgia. He recalled inviting DiBiase to an event dubbed B.I.G. (Bring in Guests) Sunday.

The wrestler's presence brought an added buzz, and wrestling fans helped fill the church.

"We had a packed house," Alford said. "When he speaks at a church, he's such a natural draw."

After sharing his story to the congregation, DiBiase sat a table and signed autographs, sometimes writing a scripture-filled message in a copy of his autobiography. More of this life soon came once he pulled himself away from the wrestling world.

DiBiase held a job for WWE as a creative consultant and backstage producer in the mid-2000s, but it wasn't a good fit. Not only did he struggle to transfer his knowledge of the mat game to young wrestlers, but his focus was elsewhere.

"The God in my life was me, was my career, my obsession to be a big star in wrestling," DiBiase said, talking about his past. That has changed. He's since transferred that obsession to spreading the message of the gospel.

WWE released him from his producer gig in 2006, which freed him up to work more with the Heart of David ministry he founded.

When he speaks at schools or churches, he folds his wrestling career into his words. It's what he knows, and it's a platform from which he can better attract attention to what he's saying.

In his words, he is "using the fame to serve, not my purpose, but God's."

His sermons are raw and personal. He opens up about his past, retelling the tale of his wife nearly leaving him, shining a light on the man he once was.

"No matter where I preach or where I am, there is some aspect of my life in the message," DiBiase said. "The one thing that people can't argue with is what God has done in your personal life. It's your story."

It's a story that resonates in part because of his authenticity on the pulpit. Alford said of DiBiase's sermons, "He's very candid. He's very open. And people know he's real."

He has now opened himself up in that way and bared his past in the Bronx and Honduras, London and Merrillville, Indiana. DiBiase has spoken at men's conferences and conducted weddings. He travels and engages audiences, much as he did as a wrestler, but this is a new life, one of a wholly different purpose.

The Million Dollar Man is a memory. A faithful messenger stands in his place.