Uncovering details about Jim Hellwig’s early years was a difficult task. He provided little information about his time growing up in Indiana, and made little effort to return there in his adult years. Searching for clues to his past led to two men from his youth who could provide valuable insight: Gary Pate and Kenny Corey. Gary Pate was a young teacher at Jim’s high school, Fountain Central High, who not only became his first weight lifting partner, but also let Jim live with him for a few months in 1977. Kenny Corey met Jim sometime around the eighth grade and they became good friends through high school. Kenny and Jim continued to visit one another and stay in contact through their ten year class reunion, which was the same year Hellwig made his WWF debut. After the reunion, the two men lost touch with one another. Both Pate and Corey were pleasant, gracious, and agreed to do interviews. Their independent accounts were were very consistent, and aligned well with other records from the time.
James Brian Hellwig was born on June 16, 1959 in Williamsport, Indiana to Thomas and Donna Hellwig of Crawfordsville. Jim was a large, 9lb. 1/2oz, 22 inch long baby, and the first born of what would eventually be five kids. Hellwig's siblings included included two brothers (Jeff, Jay), and two sisters (Brenda, Becky). There was little information to be found about the family prior to 1971, other than the fact that their household rapidly grew during that twelve year period. Things changed around 1971 when Thomas Hellwig abandoned his family and went to Florida. Donna Hellwig, a young mother of five, suddenly found herself divorced and raising five children with no financial support from their father.
Donna moved the family to the east side of Hillsboro, Indiana, a small town whose population was in the hundreds, not thousands. The recently abandoned family of six lived in a mobile home with a closed off porch. Both Pate and Corey remember that the family was poor and struggled to make ends meet. According to Corey, Donna worked at a factory after her husband abandoned them. She appears to have worked multiple jobs at a time to provide for five young kids all in school. The resources were so limited that if Jim wanted any money to spend on the normal things a teenager might want, he had to get a job of his own. Corey remembers Jim working at Marty K, a burger joint where he found himself as a cook. Pate also remembers this and recalls conversations where Hellwig expressed youthful angst about wearing the goofy paper hat required for employees.
Pate was a new high school teacher at Fountain Central when he met 15-year-old Jim Hellwig during a meeting for football tryouts. Looking back at that time, Pate remembers that there were a number of young men he thought were physically impressive: Jim Hellwig was not one of those. “The essence of a 98-pound weakling” was Gary Pate’s first impression of the future bodybuilding champion. The young man did not make a lot of eye contact, nor was he particularly outgoing or talkative. Jim Hellwig was just about three years removed from being abandoned by his father and in desperate need of community and belonging. Both Pate and Corey recall that Hellwig was picked on a lot growing up. Sports was something Jim had not shown a previous interest in, and Pate recalls worrying that the diminutive sophomore was going to get hurt. Hellwig played football for Pate during his sophomore and junior years, attempting to play on the defensive line, but making no memorable contribution. What did emerge from this experiment was a new interest in weightlifting.
Gary Pate would work out in the school’s less than impressive facilities on a Universal Gym. The shy Hellwig bonded with Pate, who was himself new to the area, making both of them outsiders in their unique ways. Hellwig asked Pate if he could lift with him, which gave birth to his passion for physical fitness. For three years, between 1975 and 1977, the two regularly worked out together as the “98 pound weakling” slowly began to transform his less than impressive physique. During his senior year, Hellwig came out for football and was by then getting to the size where Pate thought he may have been able to reasonably contribute. However, during two-a-day practices he approached Pate and told him he wanted to go a different direction and not play. During this conversation he asked if Pate would still work out with him if he no longer played football. Gary assured Jim he would continue working out with him. Pate was not much older than Hellwig, but he was as much of a father figure as Jim had in his life.
Lifting weights was an escape for Hellwig from the feeling that his community viewed him with a stigma. Both Dillon and Pate felt that people looked down on Jim, and possibly the family, for their economic challenges. According to Hellwig, when he was thirteen or fourteen he ran away with a woman who was twenty-eight years old that had seduced him. Likewise, his mother has acknowledged he was a troubled kid, suspecting that he had gotten involved with drugs. Corey believes many people in the community believed Jim was a "hood".
Hellwig was not part of the "in-crowd" in school and faced the jeers of classmates who mocked him for flipping burgers. As he approached his graduation year of 1977, his physique began to change and people noticed his increased size. He was turning into a good-looking young man, but this did not matter to some in the community.
Both Dillon and Pate independently told a story about Jim having a girlfriend in his junior or senior year; one of the popular girls at Fountain Central. Her association with him did not seem to help his social status as her friends would make comments like, “why are you with him”. Jim and Kenny had started hanging out together during their junior year and became strong friends. Corey was a popular athlete with multiple offers to play college sports. He also came from a good family and did not differentiate between people because they were rich or poor, popular or unpopular. While Kenny believed that some in town looked down on the Hellwigs for being poor, he liked Jim for the person he was.
Hellwig’s association to Corey on a social level was not enough to remove the stigma from Jim. Corey remembered that Hellwig’s girlfriend was very fond of him, but he also believed her parents harassed her about dating Jim. “Why are you with Jim Hellwig? You shouldn’t be with him”, seemed to be their attitude towards their relationship. She broke off their relationship in yet another moment that would be burned into young Jim Hellwig's memory.
“One of these days, these people will respect me.” Pate vividly remembers how a teenage Jim Hellwig took note of the way people looked down on him. “One of these days I’ll show these people.” These were the words of a frustrated teenager on the verge of graduating high school, struggling in his social life, and at home. Hellwig rarely talked about his home life to anybody, but during this time tensions had grown at home. Pate believed that Hellwig was frustrated with his step father, though Hellwig would later speak fondly of him. Donna Hellwig believed that her decision to move back to Crawfordsville frustrated Jim, who did not have a car. Whatever the reason, he contacted Pate, late in his senior year, and asked if he could stay with him in his apartment for a few days. Pate eventually agreed to let Jim stay with him through the summer before leaving for college.
Hellwig continued lifting weights and worked a summer job at the RR Donnelly factory. Pate fondly recalls that Jim loved working out to Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic”. “I was sick of listening to that album” he said laughing, “I could have probably sung the songs backwards”. Hellwig’s upper body continued to get more and more impressive, but he was not fond of working out his legs, and Pate consistently teased him about having “bird legs". The two would joke about Superintendent Harold Huff, who occasionally came in and worked out in the small high school facility alongside the young duo. Huff was a portly 5’8”, 300 pound man who never washed his workout clothes, but critiqued the way Gary and Jim conducted their workouts. Pate laughed as he remembered Hellwig trying to stay as far away from the smelly superintendent as possible, and would make comments like, “if we’re doing it wrong we definitely don’t want to be doing it like he is.”
After the summer of ’77 Hellwig left to attend Indiana State University (ISU), and his relationship with Pate drifted as the two men went in different directions. Pate had a visit from Hellwig sometime around the August of 1979, during which time Hellwig’s physique was becoming really impressive. Gary Pate remembers Jim Hellwig fondly as a teenager who did not have an easy life. Pate says Jim was a “smart cookie”, but perhaps did not apply himself. The young man he took under his wing liked peanut and butter and jelly sandwiches, bodybuilding magazines, and he was driven to make his mark on this world. Several years later, Gary Pate was watching World Class Championship Wrestling one night and saw a massive wrestler with face paint called “The Dingo Warrior”. He smiled as he realized it was Jim. Sometime later, Pate was watching WCCW with a classmate of Hellwig’s who had picked on him in grade school. As the Dingo Warrior came out, Pate turned to the other man with a smile and said, “Want to pick on him now?”
Kenny Corey stayed in touch with Hellwig for many years after high school, even visiting him in Florida after he had left ISU. Corey knew some of Hellwig’s siblings, and remembers Jim speaking fondly of his mother. However, he never mentioned his father and Corey never went to Hellwig’s home, as was the case with Gary Pate. Hellwig was very guarded when it came to speaking of his father, and life at home, a pattern that largely remained consistent throughout his life. There was so little said about Thomas Hellwig that Corey could not even confirm if he felt it was a sensitive subject for Jim. This made it all the more surprising when, during spring break in the early 1980's, Corey went to visit Hellwig in Florida and discovered he was sharing an apartment with his dad. Corey stayed there for three days, and during that time he only saw Thomas Hellwig once or twice. Jim did not talk about him and Corey did not press the subject, but he remembers Thomas also being a big man. The two had come to some living arrangement, though this did not repair their relationship.
Corey said on multiple occasions during the interview that he always knew Jim would be successful and that his fame was no surprise. “Jim is very intelligent”, Corey said. Jim told Corey at one point that he wanted to win Mr. Olympia, and Corey did not doubt he could if he so desired. Kenny was not a wrestling fan so he did not watch, but one night his wife woke up him telling him to look at the television, “I think your buddy is on.” There was Jim Hellwig on WCCW as the Dingo Warrior, and Corey delighted in seeing his friend's success.
The last time Corey saw Hellwig was in 1987 during their class reunion. Jim had recently transitioned to WWF, and Donna Hellwig called Corey to tell him Jim would be wrestling in Indianapolis. He was still the Dingo Warrior at this time, and Corey took his family to Indianapolis for the show. Hellwig was so amped up for his performance that he did not realize he had slapped Corey’s hand as he was walking down the aisle to ring, despite Corey yelling, “Jim, Jim”! A few days later, Hellwig and his then wife Shari came to Corey’s home before their ten-year reunion. Corey says his wife’s jaw hit the floor when Jim walked in, and the two men (Corey being a big man himself) sat on the couch and filled the whole thing by themselves. They had a pleasant visit and Jim told Kenny to make sure they sat with them at the class reunion before the two left.
Hellwig had succeeded, and now he intended to do exactly what he said he would do: “show these people.” A couple of years prior to the reunion, during his time at WCCW, some of Hellwig's classmates who had snubbed him in high school came to the show. They passed a note to Jim through a security officer asking to come backstage and see him. Hellwig responded saying, “You found me boring in high school, you’d just find me boring now” and refused to meet with them. Hellwig brought the same attitude to his ten year reunion. Corey recalls that a number of people who would have nothing to do with Jim tried become friends with him at the reunion and Hellwig would have none of it.
Jim had a core group of high school friends. and those were the people he spent the weekend with. Corey felt honored by the fact that Jim Hellwig, now a professional wrestler, never forgot his friends. To this day, Corey speaks Jim Hellwig in glowing terms. Hellwig would take time out of his wrestling schedule to send Corey’s daughter autographed photos. Mostly Corey remembers a teenage friend who he knew would do bigger things with his life.