Del “The Patriot” Wilkes Overcomes Struggles Before Death

Del “The Patriot” Wilkes, who sadly passed away on July 1st, 2021, at the age of 59, was a standout All-American college offensive lineman who had a short stint in the NFL before turning to professional wrestling.

In an interview we had with him on July 19th, 2015 — our first-ever interview as a website — Wilkes graciously opened up about being taught how to wrestle by The Fabulous Moolah, wrestling for Mid-South Wrestling, AWA, GWF, All Japan, WCW, and his feud with Bret Hart for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship.

Del also candidly revealed how his life spiraled out of control to the point of taking 200-pills a day. He would spend ten months in prison before having the wake-up call he so desperately needed.

This is the story of Del “The Patriot” Wilkes, in his own words.

Del "The Patriot" Wilkes
Del “The Patriot” Wilkes

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Del Wilkes – Early Years

JP Zarka of Pro Wrestling Stories: Del, it’s an absolute pleasure talking to you today. You have a storied career spanning over ten years and quite an inspiring story to share. Thanks for taking the time to speak with Pro Wrestling Stories.

Del Wilkes: Well, I appreciate you having me. 

JP: Let’s go back. You played college football in South Carolina for four years from 1980-1984 as a dominant lineman, had a short stint in the NFL, and then turned to professional wrestling. What inspired you to train to become a wrestler, and what was it like training under the tutelage of The Fabulous Moolah?

Del: I grew up a wrestling fan here in Columbia, South Carolina. I watched every Saturday as a kid growing up in Columbia, and I just fell in love with wrestling. In my freshman year at South Carolina, I determined that whenever football was over for me, I was going to pursue a career in professional wrestling.

Football Card of Del Wilkes at South Carolina
Del Wilkes during his South Carolina football days, 1984

The Atlanta Falcons released me before the 1986 football season, so I came back to Columbia, and I gathered up my money. I think it cost me $1800 to get through Moolah’s school. Of course, it was neat meeting and getting to know Moolah.

Obviously, as a wrestling fan, I knew of her. I knew all about her but never met her. I knew she was from my hometown, but just to have the opportunity to sit around and talk with Moolah, hear some of the stories about her years in the business, and who she was. That was really one of the huge iconic woman figures of all time.

Back when she broke into the business, there weren’t many women in the business, so she was somewhat of a trailblazer. She was tough!

She had to be tough then to make a living in a business dominated by men, especially when she broke in back in the ’50s. So, it was really neat to be around her and get to know her. She was tough.

She had a tough reputation, and she was. She was a tough businesswoman as well, but she had a sweetness about her. I enjoyed her friendship up until the day she died.

JP: The first territory you began wrestling for was with Jerry Jarrett’s Mid-South Wrestling. You wrestled under the name ‘Del Wilkes’ and became the ‘Dream Weaver’ soon later.

You were then put under a white hood and paired with Scott Steiner to become ‘The Wrestling Machine.’ Steiner has always been a favorite amongst fans online due to the unorthodox way he’s conducted interviews over the years.

What was it like working with him, and do you have any stories to share about Steiner?

Del: I enjoyed working with Scott. Scott and I have always been good friends, and I still see him at many the personal appearances we do. I’ve always had a good relationship with Scott and a real good friendship with him.

It was interesting being out on the road with him back then. Working for [Mid-South Wrestling] back then, there was a lot of good talent there. There was Scott, me, Tracy Smothers, Brian Lee, Mark [Callaway], and this was way before the Undertaker days, Sid Vicious.

And I don’t know if this was by necessity or if it was just Scott’s nature, but we weren’t making much money, hardly any money at all. It was interesting to watch Scott function out on the road.

All of us would go in to get a buffet because we knew we could eat an awful lot for just a few bucks, and Scott never would pay for the buffet. He would just eat off our plates!

He would just let us pay for the buffet and put things on our plates, so he was good at stretching a dollar and making a dollar go a long way.

"Scott Steiner never would pay for the buffet. He would just eat off our plates!"

Heck, we were all starving then, making very little money and doing an awful lot of driving to make that little money. But it was fun. We didn’t know any better. We had a dream, and we were chasing the dream together. It was fun being out on the road and making those necessary sacrifices.

Del Wilkes as 'The Trooper' in AWA, 1990
Del Wilkes wrestled as ‘The Trooper’ in AWA, 1990

JP: You later wrestled in the AWA as ‘The Trooper’ and in 1991 moved on to the Global Wrestling Federation, where you unveiled ‘The Patriot’ persona for the first time. Where did you get the idea for becoming ‘The Patriot,’ and what was it like working under a mask for the first time?

Del: I can’t take credit for the idea myself. I wish I could! For our first TV taping for the Global Wrestling Federation, we would use the Sportatorium in Dallas, an iconic wrestling auditorium – an iconic auditorium, period. That was going to be our home. That was going to be the ‘GlobalDome.’ We did all of our TV tapings there.

I had flown out with all of my Trooper gear in my bag because I hadn’t been told anything different. They sent me a ticket telling me they wanted me on a plane to Dallas to be part of the first TV taping that Global would ever do.

Literally, a few hours before we were to head to the Sportatorium to tape our first show, I got a call from Joe Pedecino (then owner of GWF) and Bill Eadie. They were in charge of running the Global Wrestling Federation and were in charge of creativity and talent and things of that nature. Joe said, "Come to my room; I want to talk to you."

So I walked over to Joe’s room, and there was Joe and his wife Boni Blackstone and a few other people sitting there, and they presented me with the idea of ‘The Patriot.’ It was a time when patriotism was really at a high level in our country.

We had just gone in to run Iraq out of Kuwait. Iraq had gone in and had occupied Kuwait, and our military had gone in to liberate Kuwait. So patriotism was really at a fever pitch.

They had a costume box sitting there in Joe’s room, and they opened it up and pulled out a red, white, and blue mask and a red, white, and blue vest, red, white, and blue trunks and red, white, and blue tights. They said, "We have an idea. Patriotism is at a high level, and here’s a character called ‘The Patriot.’"

I said, "I’m in." I thought it would be a good idea as well.

That night when I walked down the aisle at the Sportatorium, that building erupted. Those people let me know that we were on to something good.

You asked what it was like working in a mask. As you had mentioned before, I had worked under a hood as ‘The Dream Weaver’ and as ‘The Wrestling Machines’, so it wasn’t necessarily foreign to me. But I hadn’t done it in a while, so it took a little getting used to.

You had some limitations on your vision, especially your peripheral vision, but after a few times of doing it, other than it being extremely hot, I got used to it.

JP: The Sportatorium was quite the storied venue. It’s a shame it’s not around anymore!

THE PATRIOT: Yeah. You know, not only from a wrestling standpoint but when you think of all the musical stars that went through there. Elvis, when he first hit the road back in the mid to late ’50s, he frequented the Sportatorium. If those walls could have talked, man, they had stories to tell.

Del Wilkes as The Patriot
The Patriot is born.

JP: You wrestled many years overseas, including a few stints over at All Japan. How was your All-American, fan-favorite ‘The Patriot’ persona received overseas?

Del: It was received very well! Working for Baba’s company, All Japan, there wasn’t a heel/babyface angle or anything.

There were Japanese guys that the Japanese fans would boo, and there were American guys that Japanese fans would applaud. But our style of work was different.

There were no heels. There were no babyfaces. There were no double count-outs. There were no disqualifications.

Every night, there would be somebody who would get their hand raised. There was a 1-2-3. That style of work.

It doesn’t lend itself to a babyface/heel [dynamic], so the Japanese fans greatly received me. They were some of the most intelligent wrestling fans that there are. It was a privilege and a pleasure to work in front of them. They were phenomenal.

JP: You hear interviews of wrestlers who fought out in Japan talking about how Japanese fans watch the matches. Their silence.

Del: There were moments of silence, especially early in matches. You could put a series of moves together, come up from it, square off with each other and think, "Wow, we have something great here!" and you get no response or just a few scattered claps throughout the arena.

But where they really get involved from the vocal standpoint, from stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and jumping up and down, was the most important part of the match, and that was the finishes.

Our finishes were long. You know, we could have a 15-20 minute finish. So long as you can get them near the end, near the finish, that was the main thing and the most important thing.

The Patriot as part of the team of 'Stars N Stripes' against Booker T and Harlem Heat, WCW
Del Wilkes and Buff Bagwell as part of ‘Stars N Stripes’ team up against Booker T and Harlem Heat in WCW, January ’95

JP: In ’94, you signed with WCW and formed a team with Buff Bagwell called ‘Stars and Stripes’. Tell me about your time in WCW. What was the pulse like in the locker room before you went over to WWF in ’97?

Del: I was at a point and time in my life with my children and my family where I wanted to get back home. I wanted to work in the States.

Bischoff was now running WCW, and I knew him from my AWA days. He was our TV guy that did our TV show. He was the voice of our TV show.

Greg Gagne was also now working in WCW. He was one of the booking committee members, and of course, he was very viable in the AWA. I knew those guys from my AWA days, which opened the door for me to get into WCW.

I signed a three-year deal with [WCW]. At first, I enjoyed my time there, and I enjoyed working with Marcus [Bagwell]. Marcus was a great talent and is a very good friend to this day. You know, just a good guy. Hard-working. It was a very good time that we had, and we won the belts twice. So we had success there, but it wasn’t, I don’t know.

WCW was a very cliquish company, especially after they brought Hogan and Savage in from the WWF. There were the friends of Hogan. There were the friends of Savage. There were the friends of Flair, and there were the friends of ‘so and so.’

It seemed like if you didn’t fit into one of those categories, you weren’t going to get pushed. When Hogan and Savage came in, the whole focus of the company changed. It was all about them. It was no longer about the guys that were there before then.

I was ready for a change. I did not complete my three-year contract there. I walked out with about a year left to go. I actually went back to Japan before I went to the WWF.

JP: It’s such a shame that a lot of great wrestlers in WCW at the time got lost in the shuffle amongst the likes of Hogan, Savage, and Flair, who were pulling a bit of strings in the back. It must not have been the most enjoyable time.

Del: No, no, it wasn’t. I had already been in negotiations with Baba about going back to Japan, and I went to Eric [Bischoff] and asked if he would let me out of the last year of my contract as I had a chance to go back to Japan.

I told him that I would not be in direct competition with him. I would be working halfway around the world, and nobody would see me except those in Japan.

He wouldn’t let me out of the deal, so I just walked out and left.

JP: When you later got to WWF, you wrestled alongside Vader against the anti-American Hart Foundation. You also went on to have a feud with Bret Hart for the WWF title at the Ground Zero: In Your House pay per view. What was it like working with Bret Hart and Vader?

Del: It was a lot like what I was accustomed to in Japan. Both guys worked very snug and had a lot stiffer style of work.

Their work rate was certainly dictated upon the believability of what they did in the ring. They both were very serious about their work and to make it look as believable as possible.

This lent itself to a little bit more of a snugger style of work, but I was accustomed to that being in Japan all those years. It worked perfectly for me.

I had worked with Vader one time in WCW, and now I was working with him in WWF. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed spending time with Leon [Vader] on the road and traveling with him.

Then, of course, that segued into my program with Bret, and the timing couldn’t have been better for it because he was on his anti-American campaign. And of course, here comes The Patriot dressed in red, white, and blue waving a red, white, and blue flag. It coupled up very well.

JP: It loaned itself up to that storyline perfectly.

The Patriot on the top rope in a battle with Bret Hart
The Patriot measures up against then-champion Bret Hart at WWF In Your House: Ground Zero, September 1997

JP: Many of our readers have always been interested in hearing about the guys in the back. With the likes of Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, and Curt Hennig around, there must have been many hijinks happening behind the curtain!

Do you have any good road or rib stories from your time in WWF? And who were your favorite guys to be around?

Del: I had been around Hennig before back in the early ’90s when I worked several weeks’ worth of shots for Vince. I had spent time with Curt on the road and John Nord [The Barbarian].

Those guys were always funny and up to something no good. They were good ribbers, as was Owen. It was a good group of guys, and it was a different atmosphere than it was in WCW.

But, there was that growing division between Bret, Owen, Davey Boy, and Neidhart with Shawn Michaels and his group of friends. That gulf was growing between Bret and Shawn, and of course, it eventually leads to what it did lead to [with the Montreal Screwjob].

There was a lot of uneasiness in the locker room because of the growing heat between those two guys and their difference in philosophies. But, for the most part, things were good there, and I enjoyed my time there.

JP: After an unfortunate string of injuries to your triceps and knee, your time with WWF was cut short, and you were released in early ‘98. Do you think the WWF had something more for you other than the handful of matches you had with them?

Del: I do. When I first met with Vince about coming to work for him, he wasn’t convinced that a masked guy could get over at that time in the wrestling industry.

He didn’t mind expressing that to me, and I didn’t mind expressing back to him that I disagreed with him. I did have allies in Jim Cornette, Jim Ross, and Bruce Prichard. We had this character that could get over in Global, Japan, WCW, and Vince had talked about maybe taking [The Patriot] mask off of me.

But shortly thereafter, when he saw the kind of reactions that I was getting night after night and the wrestling fans no matter what city you were in, I think you convinced him that that character could and would get over.

I think I could have had a long successful career there. But unfortunately, even before I got there, I had major, major injury issues. I knew- Nobody knows your body as you do.

I knew because of the injuries and the limitations that I had in the ring, and the pain I was dealing with. I knew that I probably had very little chance of making it through the entire three-year contract I had with them.

Theme Song for The Patriot

YouTube video

JP: You popularized the entrance song ‘Medals’ during your tenure as The Patriot with WWF. Before your release, Sgt Slaughter used the song at December 1997’s ‘D-Generation X: In Your House’ pay-per-view.

Kurt Angle, following his debut in ’99, popularized the song again. Did it bother you that they used your entrance song on two guys before and soon after your release, or did you take it as somewhat of a compliment?

Del: No, I take it as a compliment that they would use it again. I had no problem with them using it! I was done. I was no longer able to work. I was no longer a part of the company. You know, I’m just not wired that way. I took it as the exact opposite.

Instead of it bothering me, I thought it to be a compliment that they used it for those guys.

Del Wilkes on his Struggle Leading to Time in Prison

JP: You have never been one to shy away from talking about past mistakes and the tough road you’ve been down, which is admirable and provides a lesson to those out there who might be struggling with the same addictions you once had.

Before, during, and after your wrestling career, drugs, steroids, and prescription pain pills played a big role in your life. In interviews, you mentioned that there was a time you were taking over 100 prescription pills a day.

And from 2002, you spent more than ten months in prison. How did it get to this point, and what was your wake-up call?

Del: It started innocently enough with just an elbow injury that would later require surgery. This wasn’t the one that ended my career. I would later have other elbow problems.

I was on the road with John Nord and Curt Hennig, and I had an elbow that swelled up like a softball. I could hardly move it. It was very painful. I couldn’t sleep at night.

I was just sort of complaining aloud. Nord, Curt, and I were in a rental car heading down the road when Curt asked me what I was taking for it. Basically, aspirin ground up into powder. Just over-the-counter stuff.

He said, "Man, you have to have something stronger than that!"

I had no knowledge of prescription pain medication at that point. But he sort of smartened me up on it, gave me a handful, and said, "Look, try these before your match." And I did, and the pain went away.

Now the injury didn’t go away, but the pain went away.

I could go out and do what I was paid a lot of money to do, go out and work and provide for my family. This was my living. This paid my mortgage. It provided for my kids. It put a roof over our heads. So I’ve got to go out despite the injury, despite pain and work.

Innocently enough, like I think it happened with many the guys, you take [the pills] to work. You do what you’re paid to do.

Over the course of the years, it grew into something much bigger, something that I could not control and something that literally took over my life.

Those two pills before a match one night eventually lead to 100 and 120 pain pills in a day. Now, that didn’t include the other types of medication I was taking- sleeping pills, muscle relaxers, Xanax.

So, when you add those two together, 120 pain pills in a day to the other pills I was taking, I was approaching 200 pills a day at this point. It had complete control of me. My life was just spiraling out of control.

JP: You’re lucky to be alive, especially with the number of wrestlers who sadly lost their lives because of similar types of addiction.

Del: No doubt.

JP: But the beautiful thing, though, is that you’re telling your story. People can hear this. Others are going down the same road you’ve been on. You’re a testament to how to turn it around.

Wrestling Accolaides Del Wilkes Was Most Proud

JP: You’ve wrestled for Mid-South, AWA, Global Wrestling Federation, All Japan, WCW, and WWF, feuding with and alongside Bagwell, Kenta Kobashi, Paul Orndoff, Stan Hansen, Harlem Heat, ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams, Vader, Bret Hart, and many, many others.

You’ve held over seven belts across your career, including the GWF North American Heavyweight Championship and the World Tag Team Championship with AWA and WCW. What is the accomplishment of your career that you are most proud of?

Del: To me, the highlight of my career- working with Bret in the WWF means a great deal to me, but to me, the crowning achievement of my career was to be able to work on that roster that Mr. Baba had in Japan because he had an absolute hall-of-fame lineup of talent.

For him to think enough of me to include me in that talent, that had Dr. Death Steve Williams, Terry Gordy, Abdullah The Butcher, Dory Funk Jr., Stan Hansen, Johnny Ace [John Laurinaitis], Doug Furnas, Danny Kroffat, The Fantastics [Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers], a guy that I partnered with for a while, Jackie Fulton.

And then you go to the Japanese bus, and there’s Baba, Jumbo Tsuruta, Kawada, Taue, Misawa, Akiyama, and the greatest of all, Kobashi. To be a part of that lineup… it was a feather in your hat to be able to work for Baba full time.

Del with his wife Cathy
Del with his wife, Cathy. [Photo courtesy of The Post and Courier]

Del “The Patriot” Wilkes – His Life After Wrestling

JP: So, what are you up to these days?

Del: I’m still in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. I’ve been in the automobile industry for the last ten years. I’ve had a wonderful time doing that and a very good career. I’m enjoying my family, my mom, my sister, my children. Just living life and enjoying my family, living a life of sobriety, and being clean.

JP: Good for you. You deserve this rest now, being able to sit back and be with your family in your hometown.

Do you watch the current product?

Del: I watch it, but not a lot of it. I tip my hat to the men and women who make a living in that industry. I know what they’ve been through. I know the hard work, the sacrifices, and the dedication that it takes. So, I’m a big fan of those individuals. I’m just not a big fan of the product.

And I know that they have very little to do with that. That’s going through the people who work on the business’s creative side and through Vince and stuff like that. But, just not a big fan of the current product.

I do watch it a little bit, but not an awful lot. If I want to see what I consider really good stuff, I just pull out some of the DVDs I have throughout my career and even stuff before my career. Just some of the old stuff I really enjoy watching.

JP: What advice do you have for young wrestlers coming up in the business right now?

Del: It can be done the right way. There was a large number that did get involved in prescription and other recreational drugs and alcohol. There was also a number that did not do that, so it can be done the right way.

This is your body. It’s what makes you a living. It’s what provides you the opportunity to live out your dream and to live it out on a high level, on a stage where the world’s watching. So take care of that body. Just taking the bumps night after night and the travel schedule, you don’t need to be putting anything into your body.

You don’t need to be putting anything into your body that will make it tougher, so it can be done the right way. If one guy can do it the right way, then everyone can do it the right way. I saw enough of them do it that way, that did not fall victim to that cycle of drugs and prescription medication. Your body is your moneymaker; take care of it. Preserve it.

JP: That is the standard to achieve and to follow.

Del, I want to thank you for spending some time with Pro Wrestling Stories today. It has been an absolute pleasure. I hope that your story will continue to inspire others.

Del: I appreciate you having me. Thank you for the opportunity. I also want to thank all the wrestling fans.

JP: You take care of yourself.

Del: You too, thanks for having me.

Del “The Patriot” Wilkes Passes Away

We were saddened to learn that Del "The Patriot" Del Wilkes passed away on July 1st, 2021. According to The Charleston Post & Courier, Wilkes had passed away from a heart attack. He was just 59 years old.

Wilkes leaves behind Cathy, his wife of 40+ years.

Before his passing, he was able to overcome his struggles in life and he became an inspiration to many.

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JP Zarka founded Pro Wrestling Stories in 2015 and is the creative force behind the website as editor-in-chief. From 2018-19, he was the podcast host and producer for The Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo, brother of WWE legend Macho Man Randy Savage. His diverse career includes work as an elementary school teacher, assistant principal, and musician, notably as a singer-songwriter with the London-based band Sterling Avenue. Zarka has appeared on TV programs like “Autopsy: The Last Hours of” on Reelz (U.S.) and Channel 5 (U.K.) and has contributed research for programming on ITV and BBC.