Fans remember 'Flyboy,' others mourn Ted Petty

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

Theodore Petty was a man of contrasts.

As Petty, he was a former coach with a master's degree in education who worked in the family business, building homes and installing fireplaces.

As "Flyboy" Rocco Rock, he earned fame in the pratfall- and nickname-laden business of professional wrestling by throwing opponents through tables and banging them over the head with trash cans.

Petty, 50, of Middlesex Borough, died over the weekend of an apparent heart attack soon after performing in front of 1,500 spectators at a wrestling event at the Pershing Field Ice Rink in Jersey City.

"I couldn't believe it. Teddy looked in great shape," said Joe "Smokin Joe" Napolitano Jr., recreation supervisor in Jersey City and a former pro wrestler, who organized Saturday night's event.

Petty was stricken while in a car en route to another wrestling event in Philadelphia.

When Petty's girlfriend, a pro wrestler known as "Sweet Destiny," got news about her boyfriend's death to Jersey City, those on hand were shocked.

"Sweet Destiny called Hillbilly Cousin Luke, who was running the locker room. I was at ringside and they told me. I thought somebody got some misinformation," Napolitano said. "Teddy's going to be missed."

Petty took part in a 10-match wrestling event held to benefit Jersey City youth recreation programs.

He wrestled an opponent called "Crowbar" and put on a great show, Napolitano said. "They went back and forth. They hit each other with the trash can. They went out there and entertained the crowd, I'd say for 20 minutes," Napolitano said. "Teddy, he was a performer."

Before the match, Petty had spent time shaking hands and signing autographs for kids.

Napolitano said the wrestler left the arena with "Sweet Destiny" and a friend to go to Philadelphia. Petty's girlfriend was driving when Petty reportedly told her he didn't feel well, that he was having difficulty breathing, according to Napolitano. She called 911; the wrestler was taken to Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth.

He was pronounced dead at 9:35 p.m., authorities said.

As the loss of the wrestler who pioneered moves like the "table bomb" filtered out yesterday, chatter filled Internet sites devoted to pro wrestling.

"As a fan said on a wrestling message board shortly after the news was announced, it seemed that 'heaven needed a hoodie,'" read a message posted on one on-line 'zine, "As I See It," by Bob Magee. "But a lot of us wish he hadn't been needed quite so soon."

Petty grew up in Middlesex Borough and was an outstanding athlete in wrestling, football and baseball at Middlesex High School, said his oldest sister, Vita Dworkin of Oceanport.

At Rutgers University, he was an All-American wrestler, she said. He graduated in 1977, then earned a master's degree in health and physical education at the College of New Jersey, where he also worked for a year as a wrestling coach, his sister said.

"He really knew how to motivate kids," said Dave Icenhower, wrestling coach and assistant athletic director at the college. Petty was his assistant for a year.

He also worked in the family construction company, and even studied shoeing horses, Vita Dworkin, and her husband, Darryl, said.

Wrestling was a passion, said Jeanne Durso, also known as "Sweet Destiny," Petty's life partner, but so were boxing, amateur wrestling, working out at the gym, barbecuing on his grill, the beach, boating and most especially his motorcycle.

"He loved Harley-Davidsons, but he had a custom bike built, powerful with a Corvette tire in the back. Our favorite thing was to ride to New Hope (Pa.) to spend the day," Durso said.

As a professional wrestler, Petty racked up victories as the "Cheetah Kid," wearing a cheetah mask. He was one of the first pro wrestlers to pioneer a move called the "table bomb," in which he dropped his opponent through a table.

He trained for a time at a pro-wrestling school in South Jersey called the Monster Factory, and wrestled for about six months for the World Wrestling Federation, now called World Wrestling Entertainment.

He had also wrestled for the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling. Most recently, he was an independent pro wrestler, wrestling as half of a tag team known as "Public Enemy." In his final match, however, he wrestled solo.

Napolitano, who knew Petty for 14 years, said the wrestler was known to avoid alcohol and drugs, and did not use steroids.

On another wrestling Web site, Petty's family indicated they wanted it known that there is a history of heart disease in the family.

John Sacchi, head wrestling coach at Rutgers University, coached Petty when the wrestler was a star at Middlesex County College in the mid-1970s. He was saddened when he learned of his death.

"I was shocked because he was a fortress. They didn't come any tougher than Ted Petty," he said. "He was a rock."

Services for Petty will be tomorrow at the Middlesex Funeral Home, 528 Bound Brook Road, Middlesex.

Staff writer Patrick Jenkins contributed to this report.

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