Eight years ago, Chad Lail was serving his country in Iraq as a Marine gunner.

Today, Lail, one of the top young talents in the country, is known as “Gunner” and is one half of the TNA tag-team champions.

The 6-2, 245-pounder broke into the wrestling business in 2001 in his hometown of Hickory, N.C., training for about eight months before he was ready to get into the ring.

“I didn’t train long,” he said. “I caught on relatively quick. I got my start doing shows and experiencing a different side of it.”

It was a dream come true when Lail first stepped into a wrestling ring.

“This is what I wanted to do since I was 4 or 5 years old. It’s something my mom and dad can vouch on for sure.”

Lail, who turned 31 in June, grew up watching mostly WWE, but says he has a deep appreciation for Mid-Atlantic wrestling.

“I’ve got beaucoups of tapes. I didn’t get to really enjoy it as a kid because I grew up on the tail end of it (NWA/Mid-Atlantic). I talk to Tully (Blanchard) and guys like that who have amazing stories of the way they worked and the stuff that they went through.”

A humble upbringing prevented Lail from participating in many sports as a youngster.

“Sports really wasn’t important to me. I started working at the age of 14. We weren’t a wealthy family. My dad always told me that if you want something, you have to work for it.”

Lail graduated in 2000, and two years later enlisted in the Marines. He was working at a cable plant near his hometown, and any type of upward job mobility seemed virtually non-existent.

“Jobs were scarce, and they started laying people off. I had wanted to serve in the military at one time because of my family background, so I decided to join the Marine Corps.”

Lail went to boot camp at Parris Island and served a four-year military stint that included deployment in Europe and the Middle East, followed by four years of inactive duty.

He spent seven months in Iraq and Kuwait.

“You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. I was a truck driver and a machine gunner. It’s one of those things where you have to be constantly aware of roadside bombs. It was a scary situation, but thank God I came home alive.”

While stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, Lail would use his weekend off-time to work for independent promotions in the Carolinas and Georgia. He says he would work as many weekend wrestling dates as he could get.

“Out of the whole time I was in the military, the only time I took off was 2002-03 for boot camp. I started back in 2003 when I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, which was about five hours from home. I’d leave every Friday night from base and do a show on Saturday. Then I’d go back on Sunday to get ready for work on Monday. Every weekend unless I was deployed, I was driving 20-hour round trips to do indy shows.”

Lail, wrestling under the name “Universal Soldier” Phill Shatter, signed with the Georgia-based NWA Anarchy after finishing his military duty.

His star continued to rise as he drew rave reviews on the independent circuit, and he was rewarded with a lengthy NWA National heavyweight title run from Jan. 17, 2009, to Feb. 19, 2011.

By 2008, many wrestling fans knew about Chad Lail, aka Phill Shatter. He was a proven commodity. Bigger things, however, were in store for him.

A chain of events landed him in TNA.

Chasing his dream with even greater resolve, Lail made biweekly 1,200-mile round-trip drives from Winston-Salem, N.C., to Orlando, Fla., to work at TNA tapings as an unamed “security guard” before finally landing on TNA Impact’s main talent roster in June 2010.

That drive, he says, wasn’t even close to the drive that he had in his heart.

“I’ve always had a drive to make it, and always knew that I would. It’s just something that I always wanted to do,” says Lail.

“When I started with TNA in 2008 as a security guard, just to get my foot in the door, Terry Taylor had come to NWA Anarchy in Cornelia, Ga., to see some guys. He has helped since Day 1. He got my foot in the door with the security spot. D’Lo Brown hooked me up with dark matches. That’s when they noticed that this guy really is a wrestler.”

At the time, said Lail, he was being considered for a possible NWA world title run.

“I think they were going to have me win the world title from Adam (Pearce), but TNA signed me and that never happened. I felt like I had established my name quite well. I got to wrestle Davey Richards, which opened a lot of eyes in Charlotte. A lot of people followed me in the Charlotte area, which was pretty cool.”

Lail signed a two-year contract with TNA in February 2011 when he moved from his role as an on-air security guard onto the active roster.

“When I came to TNA, they wanted to play off my real-life scenario. They took the name ‘Gunner,’ and we ran with it.”

Lail has nothing but good things to say about the TNA product.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities, and a lot of people really believed in me. With some companies, it’s like walking on eggshells. Here in TNA, we’re a big family. Everybody tries to get along and have a better product. That’s our main goal. Now that we’re out of the Impact Zone and going around doing TV tapings elsewhere, it’s made the product look a lot better. And everyone’s working harder.”

Since joining TNA, said Lail, he has had an opportunity to work with some of the best talent in the business.

“I’ve got no complaints about my career at all. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest. I’ve worked with (Ric) Flair, I’ve worked with Sting, and I get to work alongside Hulk (Hogan) and Kurt Angle and A.J. Styles. Just to get in the ring and be able to share a locker room with these guys ... it’s been great.

“I’m only 31, so I’m still young. Some of these guys are going into their 50s. I hope my body holds up. I’ve got a chance to do some really good stuff with TNA.”

Fanfest-bound

Lail has performed three times at Fanfest — twice in Charlotte and once in Atlanta.

He feels that the annual event has been a springboard for a number of budding stars — including himself — to bigger and better things.

“There’s a variety of fans. You have your old NWA fans and you have your Ring of Honor spotfest-type guys. It’s a diverse crowd, they love to see different things and they respect what you’re doing in the ring.”

That was no better exemplified than when he defeated Chase Stevens, and then Ring of Honor’s Richards in the finals of the inaugural NWA Future Legends Cup competition at the 2010 Fanfest in Charlotte.

“It was really cool that year I worked Davey. We had about a 30-minute match. The crowd was just intense. It was all about respect. We got an applause at the end of the match. That was probably the first time I had gotten a standing ovation. It was a respect factor, and that was really cool with fans. You’re busting your tail for them, and they respect that.”

Lail is looking forward to this year’s Fanfest, where he will be signing autographs and taking photos with fans, as well as wrestling on both the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon cards. He is scheduled to battle Aces and Eights “Director of Chaos” DOC.

“It really is cool because it’s near my hometown, and a lot of the people that supported me then and support me now come out to say hello. It’s cool to meet a lot of the legends there. To hold a conversation with men like Terry Funk, Flair and Ole (Anderson), it’s pretty cool. It’s good for me as a fan.”

Fanfest organizer Greg Price is one of Lail’s biggest boosters.

“Gunner is at the top of the list of recent Carolinas’ wrestling products,” says Price. “Even though he’s had much success in a relatively short period of time, it’s all well deserved. No one trains harder or prepares more than him. This young man has a tremendous future ahead of him. Our weekend is about all the former greats from the Carolinas territory, and Gunner is certainly carrying on that tradition in exemplary fashion.”

As for future stars, Lail says two independent standouts immediately come to mind.

“John Skyler and Steven Walters are two guys that I’ve worked with plenty of times. We’re honestly best friends. They’re two guys that really try to think outside the box of wrestling and do different things to make the fans appreciate it more. They work hard. No matter where they go and how many people are there, they still work hard. That’s why I think we get along so well.”

Lail says he’s not sure where the next step for Skyler or Walters will be, but he’s certain that it will be with an organization that can utilize their talent and skill.

“Those are two guys that should and will have a job in the near future. Whether it be with a Japanese company or somewhere else, they’re going to make some money. They’re making a name for themselves now.”

Lail took time off earlier this year to revamp his character, but has rapidly worked his way up the pecking order. “I’ve come back as the good guy/babyface. I’m excited,” he said.

“The TNA TV title was great, but I didn’t carry it for long. They really didn’t use it much. But to be a TNA world tag-team champion is something that I consider a great privilege. James (Storm) has been with two great tag teams — America’s Most Wanted and Beer Money. I couldn’t ask for a better spot right now.”

Lail has worked hard to get there, and said he will continue to work even harder to achieve his goals.

“I have two years left on my contract with TNA. I’m very happy with my position and very happy with the company and the people I work with. All the guys on the roster are wanting to give 110 percent. Nobody’s bitter or disgruntled, which is rare in professional wrestling. It’s a really good company to work for. I’m having a blast. As far as the future, I don’t know what happens in the future. For now, though, I’m very happy where I am.”

There’s still a major goal on the table for Chad Lail.

The first day his trainer met him, he asked Lail what he wanted to do in professional wrestling.

“He was looking for an answer that he had always heard ... make money,” recalls Lail. “Of course everybody wants to make money. I wanted to be a world champion. That was a main goal of mine. To be a Hall of Famer. I want to be remembered in professional wrestling as somebody who gave it all and cared about the business, the fans, just everything. Also to hopefully stay healthy and be a world champion.”

Lail and his wife, who wrestles as Jayme Jameson, were married last August. He has a 5-year-old stepson.

“I’m living my dream,” he says.

Fabulous Jackie Fargo

Pro wrestling lost one of its true legends, the original “King of Memphis,” Jackie Fargo, who died last Monday near China Grove, N.C.

Known for his “Fargo Strut,” the colorful grappler passed away two days shy of his 83rd birthday.

WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler called Fargo a “father figure” and one of the most influential people in his life.

“Without the Fabulous Jackie Fargo, there would never have been a King Jerry Lawler,” he said.

Matt Borne

Matt Borne (Osbourne), a second-generation grappler who achieved his greatest success as Doink The Clown during the ‘90s in WWE, passed away Friday at the age of 55.

Borne, son of the late legendary Oregon-based heel “Tough” Tony Borne, was found dead by his girlfriend in their Plano, Texas, home.

OSCW returns

Former WWE star David Hart Smith, son of the legendary “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, will meet Jesse Windham in the main event of an Old School Championship Wrestling show July 7 at the Hanahan Rec Center.

Bell time is 5 p.m. Doors open at 4:30. Adult admission (cash at door) is $10; kids (12 and under) $5. For more information, call (843) 743-4800 or visit www.oscwonline.com.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at (843) 937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.