It’s a tough pill to swallow when one of your childhood heroes passes away.

It’s even tougher when that hero is one of your best friends.

Rip Hawk, who was born Harvey Maurice Evers, died Dec. 22 in Hereford, Texas. He had been in and out of hospitals for much of the past year, and had spent the last several weeks in a rehabilitation center.

Rip was 82 years old when the final bell tolled. I can only imagine what those doctors, nurses and caregivers must have thought as Rip passed through the final stages of his life.

If only they could have known the Rip Hawk I knew.

Rip’s obituary noted that he was a former professional wrestler and a personal trainer at the local YMCA.

But Rip Hawk was more than that. So much more.

The Rip Hawk I knew was one of the toughest guys to ever compete in one of the toughest sports in the world.

As the late Gordon Solie might have pontificated, Rip was the kind of guy who could fight a buzz saw and give it the first two rounds.

He was just a child when the Great Depression struck, but he vividly remembered what it was like when people had to stand in line for food. He lived on a farm in the country with an outhouse in the back and no electricity or running water in the house.

Rip’s path to the wrestling game nearly took a detour since he was raised in a baseball family. He was the son of a baseball star who played in the old Texas League. Related to Johnny Evers of the immortal Evers-to-Tinker-to-Chance trio, his father became a scout and trainer for the New York Yankees when his elbow gave out and cut short his pitching career.

“They pulled me into baseball all the time, but I couldn’t take it,” said Rip. “It wasn’t my thing. I loved wrestling.”

He broke into the sport in the late ‘40s, learning the ropes from the “freaks” of the rough-and-tumble business, whose barbaric methods made today’s training look like a cotillion.

“Those guys would come in and beat the hell out of us,” Rip would recall. “They walked on our faces and arms. They were tough men who didn’t care about anything.”

But Rip was more than up to the task. Toughness was part of his DNA, and he embraced every painful lesson he had to learn.

Rip was one of the few who persevered. He had the ability and the desire, but his mat persona was not complete until a promoter came up with a catchy ring name.

“My sister started calling me Rip when I was about 10 years old,” he said. “It was a good wrestling name. The Chicago promoter asked me my name, and I told him it was Rip Evers. He said that I had a sharp nose and I moved like a hawk. `We’re going to call you Rip Hawk,’ he said.”

The name stuck.

A five-year stint in the Marine Corps and the Korean War interrupted his ring career in the early ‘50s. But nothing else would for the next three decades while Rip was doing what he loved the most.

Rip and Swede

I first crossed paths with Rip “The Profile” Hawk nearly 50 years. Rip was a cocky, brash performer who played his role to perfection. I was a young wrestling fan who was mesmerized by his bombast and bluster and his ability to back it up in the ring. Sharp-dressed and always driving big cars, he had swag, and it was cool.

Rip was a heel, for sure, but one who would have been wildly cheered had he come along in today’s wrestling business. Back in the glory days of the profession, when the line between good and evil was sharply delineated, he was a villain of the first order.

Rip, though, was just part of the equation. The other half was Swede Hanson

Wrestling back then was a business especially designed for real men who lived their gimmicks and their lives to the fullest. It was tailor-made for guys like Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson.

Known as “The Blond Bombers” for their platinum blond flattop haircuts and rugged ring style, the duo became one of the most feared and hated teams in the business during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

They were physical opposites, but their partnership was a match made in heaven. They were a unique combination of brains and brawn.

Swede was the enforcer and the silent member of the team who, at 6-4 and nearly 300 pounds, towered over his 5-9, 240-pound partner. But it was Rip who was the unquestioned leader. He did all the talking, and he was mighty good at it.

As the silent partner, Swede would usually just nod in agreement during interviews while Rip enraged fans with his controversial rhetoric.

Outside the squared circle, the two were closer than most brothers. Spending 15 years on the road together can create that kind of bond.

Their travels took them around the world — Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and all points in between.

“When you travel all over the world and you’re with someone 24 hours a day, you get to know a guy pretty well,” Rip said.

They had great fun along the way. Sometimes too much fun.

“I guess we liked to burn the candle at both ends ... a little too much,” Rip would admit.

There was the time when Big Swede, after consuming a large quantity of sake, dove into a small pool in the lobby of a swank Japanese hotel and started chasing the goldfish.

“Swede didn’t know that goldfish are sacred over there, and the people went nuts ... It seemed like we were always in a beef,” said Rip.

The two were as formidable in bar fights and scrapes outside the ring as they were in actual wrestling matches.

“We lived it all the way. We lived it like we were supposed to. Sixteen years of fun.”

Big Swede, a former Golden Gloves boxer from New Jersey, played the perfect foil for Rip’s constant ribbing.

“I always had him on a rib,” said Rip. “I loved it, and he loved it too. But he always knew I was going to get him.”

When Swede died in 2002, a little bit of Rip died with him.

“Nobody will ever know how much that guy meant to me.”

New generation

While Rip was instrumental in Swede’s success in the business, having introduced him to Jim Crockett Sr. and convincing the longtime promoter to team them up in the early ‘60s, he would play a major role in the development of a number of stars from the next generation.

It didn’t come as a surprise when Rip, 44 years old at the time, took a 25-year-old up-and-comer named Ric Flair under his wing, groomed him as his storyline nephew and helped him win his first major title in 1974.

Rip Hawk was Ric Flair before there was Ric Flair. The Nature Boy was the logical extension of The Profile.

“I learned a lot from Rip,” said Flair. “He was a real ring general.”

The respect colleagues had for Rip stood as a testament to the many lives he touched in the business.

“I loved the man ... he got me my first break in the business and taught me how to be a complete pro,” said WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Brisco.

“Rip Hawk was a brilliant mind,” said trainer and former mat star Les Thatcher. “We got spoiled because as a babyface, when you went up against Rip, all you had to do was shut your mouth, open your ears and go along for the ride. You’d have to be an idiot to not get better in the ring with someone like Rip.

“That’s why they gave him Flair when Ric first came into the territory. Ric had been in the business a little over a year when he came to the Carolinas, and they put Rip with him as a teacher. They couldn’t have picked a better guy.”

Even the late Johnny Weaver, who became one of the biggest stars ever in Mid-Atlantic wrestling, owed a big debt of gratitude to Rip.

Rip had Weaver while working main events in St. Louis for promoter Sam Muchnick, and was instrumental in bringing him into the Carolinas to work for Crockett Promotions. Although Weaver was working on the bottom of the card, Rip recognized star potential and knew he had the perfect candidate when Jim Crockett Sr. asked him where he could get a good babyface to pair with aging veteran George Becker.

“I know of a young guy who’s out in St. Louis,” Rip told the promoter. “I’d be glad to give him a call.” “Is he good?” Crockett asked. “Hell, yeah,” Rip replied, “and he’s getting better every day.”?And the rest was history.

Leading by example?Like most old-school performers, Rip sported his scars like badges of honor.

But when the business and age began taking a toll, Rip was wise enough to sense it, hung up his boots and never looked back.

Rip spent the last 30 years of his life in what he called his little slice of heaven — the cattle town of Hereford, Texas. It was a vast departure from the big-city lights he enjoyed during his wrestling career, but he loved it with a passion.

His love of the Texas Panhandle was only surpassed by his love for his wife, daughters and grandchildren.

“I’m just a happy man. I enjoy life and I love life. That’s why I think I’m still here,” he said earlier this year.

Rip also loved teaching youngsters how to wrestle. He had started an amateur wrestling program at Charlotte Catholic High School in 1969 with David Crockett while he was wrestling in the Carolinas. For the past two decades, up until this year, he had served as a wrestling coach in Hereford and had sent several young wrestlers to the Junior Olympics and to college on athletic scholarships.

“I loved it,” said Rip. “Seeing the kids progress made it worthwhile. I’ve had kids come out of this program with scholarships from Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona State.”

Some are now doctors, some are youth ministers and some even went into the Marine Corps since they knew Rip had served in that branch.

“To know that you helped kids ... it means a lot to me.”

A life well lived

Rip knew he had packed more into one lifetime than most folks could even dream of.

Over the years he had survived scores of close calls in and outside the ring.

Early in his career an unruly crowd in St. Joseph, Mo., came close to hanging him after he had disposed of a local favorite. He also has been stabbed by fans who took things a little too seriously. He’s had more than his share of near misses flying the friendly skies.

His laundry list of injuries included eight broken noses, a split sternum, broken ribs, elbows and kneecap, along with hundreds of stitches. He sported a cauliflower ear for good measure.

“Other than that, it was pretty good,” he’d joke.

Rip and I would talk often over the years, but I never saw him as anything less than the unique character that left me in awe as a youngster.

He’d have to forgive me when I couldn’t help but utter those words that “fans” would shower him with every week: “Squawk, Squawk, Chicken Hawk!”

If they had only known that it was music to his ears.

I still pass by the old County Hall on occasion, and it never fails to bring back memories of the old marquee with the familiar bold letters: “Wrestling ... Friday night ... Hawk and Hanson.”

Before I know it, I’m back in time, waiting for The Blond Bombers to roll into the parking lot in that big Caddy, primed and ready to punish another set of opponents.

Neither of us ever forgot those days, and Rip never tired of talking about them.

I’ll always remember some of the very last words Rip spoke to me.

“The good Lord has been very good to me in my lifetime. If it ended today I’d die a happy man.”

I’m quite sure Big Swede is closer than ever in getting that hot tag from The Profile.

The Blond Bombers, says daughter Angela Van Wyk, are finally reunited.

“You just know that they’re there tearing it up up there.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook.