A serious car accident nearly 33 years ago ended one of the most heralded careers in wrestling history.

But it didn't come close to ending the still-unfolding legacy of Danny Hodge.

Hodge, who suffered a broken neck but miraculously survived the near-death experience, notes that he can't look backwards anymore due to the injuries.

"I have to turn around to look back."

But that's no problem, the easy-going Oklahoman explains. "I've already seen it."

What Hodge has seen from the rear-view mirror of life is the American Dream. A small-town boy who grew up in Depression-era Oklahoma survived the hardships and rigors of the time to become one of the greatest wrestlers to ever live.

As a youth Hodge, the son of an alcoholic father and a mother who dealt with severe depression, picked cotton and plucked chickens to help ends meet. His home burned down when he was 9, and his mother suffered severe burns over 70 percent of her body, necessitating blood transfusions, a number of skin grafts and lengthy hospital stays.

A product of a splintered family, he was raised in later years by a grandfather described by Hodge as "always drinking, always mad," and was the recipient of numerous beatings.

The hardscrabble upbringing was influential in Hodge becoming a fearless fighter who never backed down from anyone.

"A little farm boy getting to travel the world," says the soft-spoken Hodge, who turns 77 on Wednesday.

Hodge may be the master of understatement.

Unparalleled record

A list of Hodge's achievements would take a book. And that's exactly what wrestling historian Mike Chapman has done with "Oklahoma Shooter: The Dan Hodge Story" ($22.95; Culture House Books), a definitive autobiography that chronicles Hodge's amazing career.

Chapman, who years ago was in charge of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla., is a longtime friend of Hodge with extensive knowledge of the wrestler's career.

Now the curator of the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, Chapman met Hodge in 1975 while working on his book, "Two Guys Named Dan," about Hodge and amateur wrestling great Dan Gable.

"He knew my life," says Hodge. "He's a wonderful person."

Hodge, the only man to ever win national titles in both boxing and wrestling, holds records that most likely never will be broken.

During the 1950s, Hodge won three NCAA championships at 177 pounds for the University of Oklahoma, never losing a match or even taken down from a standing position, and also won three national titles in freestyle wrestling and one in Greco-Roman. He pinned all his opponents in the Big 10 tournament every year he wrestled - and with an average time of one minute and 33 seconds.

He competed on two Olympic teams. He made the 1952 team as a 19-year-old, at that time the youngest wrestler ever to make an Olympic squad, and in 1956 won the silver medal in the 174-pound class in Melbourne, Australia.

On April 1, 1957, Hodge was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, the only amateur wrestler ever accorded such an honor.

The Dan Hodge Trophy, named after him, is the amateur wrestling equivalent of college football's Heisman Trophy.

He even has his own day - on March 28.

"As a kid growing up a sports fan in Oklahoma," says WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross, "I admired three athletes - Jim Thorpe, Mickey Mantle and Dan Hodge. I still do."

"Dan Hodge has lived a truly amazing life," says Chapman. "He has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in sports history - from Jack Dempsey to Rocky Marciano, from Ed 'Strangler' Lewis to Lou Thesz."

And he's done most of that living in the small Oklahoma town of Perry where he grew up, settled down and raised a family with Dolores Hodge, his wife of 57 years.

"There's no theaters here anymore. There used to be two theaters and a drive-in in town. But they're all gone," he says matter-of-factly.

"There are a lot of shopping areas," he quickly adds, noting that Stillwater, the home of Oklahoma State University, is only 24 miles away. He also points out other larger surrounding cities. "There's Enid 40 miles northwest, Guthrie 30 miles south, Oklahoma City 70 miles south and Tulsa 100 miles east."

But the mild-mannered hometown boy never wanted to live anywhere but Perry.

"It's a small, small city, between five and six thousand people. My wife and her cousin built our home here. We finished it in '63 and it's still standing. They know every nail that's gone in there. What a great place. The carpet's been replaced a couple of times. You can tell the home has been lived in."

His entire family has grown up in Perry. It's a wrestling town, thanks in large part to Hodge, with a proud tradition. It once was voted the national wrestling capital of the world, and for good reason. The school has won nearly three dozen state championships and has produced well over 100 state champions -more than any other place in the country.

Three generations of Hodge boys have wrestled for Perry High.

"The family has all grown up here," Hodge says proudly. "Our children are all here and they all have good jobs. I got so see my grandkids compete, and now it's the great-grands," says Hodge, who has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

For a man of such stature, one who has been on the cover of the Perry phone book, Hodge is just your average citizen in a small town. Except for the fact that he's regarded as one of the greatest sports heroes in Oklahoma history.

An accomplished woodcrafter, Hodge drives a wheat truck for a friend in the summer.

"I have three or four weeks of harvest in June. I get to help him no matter what happens. What a pleasure. I have keys to their ponds to go fishing. I have the best of all lives."

Hodge loves the life he has lived. There's never a stranger at the Hodge home.

"All the kids come and go. When friends come in to see my plaques and medals and trophies or bottle-openers ... I want them to feel at home. You don't have to kick your shoes off at the front door. It's home."

Regrets? There are none.

"God's made it good for me."

Ahead of his time

Dan Hodge and his easygoing demeanor is in stark contrast to the fierce competitor he was on the mat and in the ring for so many years. He was universally considered to be the toughest man in the sport. He was the Mid-South territory's "policeman" who would accept challenges from naysayers and make them believers. If an athlete came in thinking it would be an easy path to becoming a "rassler," he'd have to get his baptism by fire from the feared Hodge.

"I went into wrestling, and I was the officer. If you challenged any of the matches, I'd be the first one you'd see. To get through me, you'd have to squeal."

There was even a popular saying throughout the pro wrestling community" "You don't mess with Hodge."

And for good reason.

Hodge, who had a muscular and powerful 220-pound frame, was incredibly strong. He could rip telephone directories and decks of cards in two, crush apples into pulp and mash pliers into scrap metal. His grip and hand strength is legend.

Hodge also have may have been decades ahead of his time, as he most certainly would have excelled in today's popular and lucrative martial arts and Ultimate Fighting genre. The combination of boxing and wrestling, he says, would have been right up his alley.

"As far as skills, toughness and the ability to totally dominate an opponent, no human being that ever earned a living in pro wrestling could have ever tied Danny Hodge's boots," says Ross. "I shudder to think how Dan would dominate MMA if he was in his prime today."

Hodge went undefeated in wrestling throughout college. He scored pins in 36 out of 46 matches - including 24 in a row.

Hodge also found success while serving the U.S. Navy during the early '50s. He went through boot camp and arm-wrestled everyone who challenged him. Stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago for two years, he tried to join the boxing team, but it was full. So he started a wrestling team. His undefeated wrestling mark remained unblemished.

It was there that he first experienced what he described as "a supernatural type of strength." He felt a strange sensation that gave him a surge of power and rippled throughout his body. He would experience it again on two more occasions.

"I felt like I had been gifted. How do you explain it? I think it was God-given."

And, with little formal boxing training, Hodge went 17-0 as an amateur and on March 24, 1958, won the national Golden Gloves heavyweight title with a dramatic knockout victory at Madison Square Garden.

Hodge would eventually sign a 28-page contract to fight professionally. But he soon found that dealing with the darker side of pro boxing wasn't to his liking. Nor were the shady, greedy promoters and power brokers who ruled the business.

Relocating from Wichita, Kan., to New York, Hodge moved to a house on Long Island, and worked out at a camp in Middletown, N.Y., about 80 miles north of New City.

"Meanwhile I'm paying rent and everything, and they were going to reimburse me," says Hodge.

His boxing handlers, however, cheated him out of money, says Hodge, who was never paid a dime. He was told about fixes in boxing and wanted no part of it. Boxing promoters tried to blackball him.

Hodge, who at one time had been considered for a world title shot against champion Floyd Patterson, had a record of 8-2, but he retired on July 9, 1959. Boxing's loss was wrestling's gain.

Conquering the mat

Trained by Leroy McGuirk and Ed "Strangler" Ed Lewis, whom he had met on his first trip to Oregon, Hodge made his debut as a professional wrestler on Oct. 9, 1959.

McGuirk was the man Hodge called after walking away from boxing. The veteran promoter had been a 1931 wrestling champ at Oklahoma State and knew the business inside and out.

McGuirk, who was blind, had attended all of Hodge's matches at OU.

"I didn't know he knew more of what was going on than I did watching," says Hodge. "He wanted me to come right out of college and wrestle. But I had a good job in Wichita and they started me boxing. Everybody kept saying wrestlers couldn't fight. They're too muscle-bound. And the flags came out. I think I proved to the world you could do both."

He didn't even let his wife know he was wrestling professionally.

In nine months he was world junior heavyweight champion - a title he held on eight different occasions - and the top headliner for McGuirk. Hodge spent most of his career working the Mid-South circuit where he was a perennial champion and held the title longer than anyone else in history.

Hodge made numerous trips to Japan during his career and, as world's junior heavyweight champion, was a sought-after commodity throughout the country. But he never liked straying too far from home. That, in itself, constituted traveling thousands of miles each week on a normal loop that consisted of Tulsa on Monday, Little Rock on Tuesday, Springfield on Wednesday, Wichita Falls on Thursday, Oklahoma City on Friday and Alexandria, which was 500 miles from home, on Saturday.

It was a far-reaching territory that included Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas.

"Sure, it would have been a lot more economical for to have flown out of Tulsa or Oklahoma City when I was wrestling, but my wife's family was here and the kids were in school. I think that's why I have still a home," he says.

Hodge was bound to maintain as stable and normal a family life as the business would allow. He sometimes would drive all night from a wrestling show and get back home at six o'clock in the morning. His kids, he says, would wake him up around noon, and they'd all go fishing, golfing or just sharing time together.

At six 'clock that evening he'd be back on the road to Shreveport and other towns on the circuit.

"But I had a few hours home. The wife also made it work," he points out.

A wrestler's wrestler

Hodge prided himself in his condition and hard-fought matches against many of the top workers in the business.

"I stayed in shape for the fans," he says.

He once worked at a carnival's "athletic show" where the locals had their chance to win a cash reward if they could defeat the carnival's strongman by a pin or a submission. Hodge was given a hundred dollars to take on all comers.

"I was ready for anyone," he says, but not surprisingly never got any more challenges after breaking an opponent's arm.

Hodge would be backstage jumping rope before his unlucky foe could get out of the ring.

Hodge was considered one of the best "shooters" (legitimate wrestlers) in the sport. He didn't need any flashy gimmick or high spots to get over. He was a wrestler's wrestler.

"Hodge was a no-gimmick wrestler," says Chapman. "He went into the ring and wrestled."

"I never changed," says Hodge. "They knew that I could fight if I had to."

Hodge found himself the target of every contender who wanted to test his mettle.

"Everyone wrestled me harder than anyone else. I was the kingpin. My matches would always be different than when they wrestled somebody else."

One of his favorite programs was with Hiro Matsuda, another technical wrestling wizard, and the two would test one another in a series of 60- and 90-minute battles that spanned a decade. He considers Matsuda, who died in 1999 at the age of 62, one of the greatest wrestlers ever.

"He was a super athlete. Every night I faced Hiro. We'd go to 60- and 90-minute draws. What an athlete. He was a wrestler and was always in great condition."

Hodge also points to matches he had with the great Lou Thesz.

"I had a lot of great matches with Lou. Lou was super. They don't make them like that anymore."

Hodge also went up against a young Jack Brisco, an NCAA heavyweight champ and two-time All-American at Oklahoma State who later would become NWA heavyweight champion.

"I wrestled Jack down in Monroe at the fairgrounds," recalls Hodge. "Before the match got started, there was a girl on the north side hollering for him and one on the west side hollering for me. It wasn't long before we met over in the corner. His girl already had gotten her blouse torn off. I told him your fan lost and you're going to lose too."

The last time Hodge won the belt was three months before a career-ending car wreck.

End of the road

Hodge's 17-year pro wrestling career came to a screeching halt in the early morning hours of March 15, 1976.

Hodge, exhausted from a particularly rigorous schedule, was in between shows in Louisiana, He had wrestled in Homa, that evening and was headed to Monroe. It was a particularly cold night, recalls Hodge, who talked on his CB radio to try and stay awake and turned on his heater on to keep warm.

"That heat hit me and I just went to sleep."

The next thing Hodge knew was that his Volkswagen station wagon hit the railing of a bridge. The vehicle flipped twice, and went upside-down into a nearby creek that had flooded.

"My teeth were broken, and the pain was excruciating," says Hodge, who was trapped into the car. "I asked God how much more can I take? The hurting never quit. This is so real that I can hear it today as good as I could then. Next thing I know my car went down in the water."

Hodge says he stuck his hand over his head and thought to himself: "This is an awful way to go."

"There was no air or anything," he says. "But there was a voice. And three words: ''Hold your neck.'"

With a broken neck and only one hand, Hodge miraculously was able to pull himself through the cracked windshield, swim to shore while keeping his head upright with one hand, and escape the clutches of death.

"Now how I was able to hold my neck and get out of there ... only God knows. But I was able to swim out. Mama says I was kind of rough on my angels," he jokes.

"I don't know how I got out because there was no room to get out. My CB was smashed flat and was later found 200 yards down the creek. I thank God I wasn't paralyzed," he says.

One chapter of his life had ended. Another was beginning.

A great ride

Hodge believes he could have competed for possibly 25 more years, but he's thankful he's been able to live a full and productive life.

"God gave me the opportunity to travel all over the world," says Hodge, who was in Tokyo last November to be honored. "What a ride I've had."

Honors have been rolling in since Hodge's exit from the sport.

The tradition-rich Japanese still consider Hodge a worldwide treasure.

"Lou Thesz was the last one to beat Rikidozan in Japan. So he became God," explains Hodge. "Well, I was the last one to beat Lou Thesz at the sumo palace in Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, and nobody beat me. Everyone still wants to squeeze my hand."

Hodge was an early inductee into the wrestling hall of fame in Waterloo, Iowa. He's a Wrestling Institute Hall of Fame member and a charter member of the Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater. He's also a member of the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.

Hodge was recognized in 2005 by Oklahoma state lawmakers as an "Oklahoma Sports Hero." He serves as chairman of the Oklahoma Professional Boxing Commission, which regulates professional boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts in Oklahoma.

Hodge was on the cover of Sports Illustrated on April 1, 1957, his senior year at OU. He won the nationals later that week in Pittsburgh. When he asked the magazine years later why he was accorded such an honor, they gave him a straight but simple answer. "Nobody's ever done what you've done."

Jim Ross, who also grew up in Oklahoma, credits Hodge with helping him get his start in the business.

"I learned the art of storytelling listening to Gordon Solie narrate a Danny Hodge vs. Hiro Matsuda NWA world junior heavyweight title bout from Tampa recorded with one camera on film," Ross said last week. "By the way, no wrestler ever called Dan 'Junior,' but many called him 'Mister.'"

"I didn't let people run over him (Ross)," says Hodge. "And he respected that."

"For someone who could strike fear into any man, and I do mean any man, the true spirit of Dan Hodge is that of a gentle soul with a wonderful spirit," Ross wrote in the foreword of "Oklahoma Shooter: The Dan Hodge Story."

"The Good Lord blessed generations of wrestling fans when He created Dan Hodge," Ross said.

Hodge recently held a book signing at one of Ross's barbecue restaurants in Moore, Okla.

"It's great barbecue," says Hodge. "Just beautiful. He makes a great sauce. Jim's done very well in the business. He came up the hard side, but he's a great announcer, a great friend."

Goodwill ambassador

Dan Hodge has been a hero and inspiration to generations of sports fans.

He also has become an ambassador for amateur wrestling.

"From a teenager who first represented America in the 1952 Olympic Games, totally dominating collegiate wrestling at Oklahoma University winning three national titles, to being embroiled in a global controversy at the 1956 Olympic Games, no pro wrestler I have ever met in over 30 years in the business has had the legit skills that remotely compare to those of my beloved fellow Okie," says Ross.

"When one factors in Hodge winning the national Golden Gloves Boxing title with no, extensive formal training, it's easy for anyone to see the indescribable, athletic skills possessed by Hodge. If Dan had lived in our multimedia age, he would be talked of in the same light as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Phelps, etc., that dot our sports consciousness. If Dan had come along in the age of cable TV and the Internet, mainstream sports fans would revere Dan's accomplishments and humility."

Hodge, who recognizes that the business has "changed worldwide," still keeps up with the current product and says he usually watches WWE on Monday nights.

And he keeps a close eye on ECW star and Perry High product Jack Swagger (Jacob Hager).

"Jacob Hager is a state champion from Perry," says Hodge. "He's got the talent now. I talk to Jacob. We signed autographs for some of the kids down here in Perry. I told him to see the world and do your best. Jacob is doing that. He's got the background, and that's what you need."

Hodge pauses and thinks about the early days when he was an aspiring young grappler.

"I had several chances to go any way in life that I wanted. But through wrestling it kept me in school and kept me working. What a pleasure it was for me to be able to wrestle for Perry. I tell the kids today that I want them break my records while I'm still living. My intensity is still high."

It also afforded him the opportunity to see what was out there - beyond the plains and beyond Perry.

"I wanted to see what the world had to offer. What a great time I've had. I've enjoyed every minute of it. I'm here with my family. I'm looking forward to the rest of it."

Hodge enjoys his life, and he regularly attends wrestling reunions and get-togethers.

"My wife shared me with the world. She says she's still sharing me. But she gets to go with me now. They treat me so wonderfully. They spoil me. The wife says she has to spoil me here because they spoil me everywhere else. But she's beautiful."

Hodge says he's also thankful for the success he's enjoyed in sports, but emphasizes that his success hasn't come without hard work and dedication.

He recalls breaking out before every tournament and before every final exam. And he maintained good grades.

"I'm just so highly strung. Everybody wants to beat you or take you down. Their purpose was to not be pinned. They would go out there just to not get pinned. How do you keep it up?"

But Hodge always found a way.

"I'm glad that I went into sports. I never knew that I'd have the success I did. The hard work didn't deter me. I knew you couldn't outwork me. Everybody would run five miles, and I'd run four more. I put more in and got more out."

That, he says, is the essence of athletics.

"I tell the kids today to pin someone and make something happen. You can't make something happen until you get in shape. It's what I do. The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Hodge laughs and says he's still lucky.

"Thirty minutes you can be anywhere. Twenty minutes to the pond where I can fish. Everyone lives here. I have lived the American Dream."

"Oklahoma Shooter: The Dan Hodge Story," published by Culture House Books, sells for $22.95, with $5 shipping and handling costs. Individuals can order the book by calling Culture House Books at (641) 791-3072.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at (843) 937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com. For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at (843) 937-6000, ext. 3090.