Looking back at the names that were lost from the world of pro wrestling in 2012, most lists omit the name Don Joyce. Perhaps that is because he was far better known as a football player than a wrestler, but, like a lot of gridiron stars, he found pro wrestling a great way to stay in shape — and make money — in the off-season.
Joyce’s death back on February 26, 2012 was covered as a football story, including a long piece on the Indianapolis Colts website — he’d been a big star with the team in Baltimore.
But there were mentions of his wrestling days.
Joyce was born October 8, 1929 in Steubenville, Ohio, to James and Frances Joyce, and grew into a 6-foot-3, 253-pound man in the rough mill town on the Ohio River, 35 miles west of Pittsburgh. He suited up for the Big Red team at Steubenville High School before heading off to Tulane University, where the defensive end lettered in 1949 and 1950, and is in the school’s Hall of Fame.
Picked 18th overall by the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals in the 1951 draft, Joyce played three seasons in the Windy City before being traded to Baltimore.
With the Colts, Joyce lined up with great players like Gino Marchetti, Art Donovan, Dick Szymanski, and Gene Lipscomb, creating one of the greatest defenses in football lore. Marchetti and Donovan are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Those Colts would be champions in 1958 and 1959, and Joyce was named to the Pro Bowl in 1958.
In an article at colts.com, Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry talked about the importance of the defense.
“I know he would be remembered well in Baltimore. He was such a popular player, very well known,” said Berry. “He was a big part of our defense. In our championship years, the offensive players were aware that there was so much talk about our offense, but we knew the defense was always going to get us the ball. If we didn’t get any first downs or scores, we knew the defense would get the ball back to us. Our defense was the backbone of our team. That’s what we all knew. Don was one of our toughest guys.”
Helmethut.com has a great story about Joyce’s huge appetite. “[Art] Donovan has often told the story of Joyce besting Gino Marchetti in a chicken-eating contest, downing thirty-eight pieces of chicken to Marchetti’s twenty-six, but because he ‘was still hungry,’ also polishing off the mashed potatoes with gravy, vegetables, and everything else that was served with the full dinner. He washed the entire mass of food down with iced tea sweetened with saccharin, careful to avoid a teaspoon of sugar as he ‘was watching his weight!'”
Big and strong, especially for the era, Joyce was difficult to block, forcing opponents to go around him.
Joyce started wrestling in 1956, part-time, in the off-season, not extending himself too far away from his Baltimore home. One obituary mentions that he worked for the World Wrestling Federation, which is obviously incorrect, but it would be fair to say that Vince McMahon Sr., who was the promoter in Washington and Baltimore, would have been a promoter he worked for.
“He could only be one of the ‘good guys,'” said Joyce’s daughter, Carrin Mahmood, in The Times-Picayune. “The NFL contract stated that any player wresting in the offseason couldn’t be a ‘bad guy.’ I have a fun picture of him holding the (championship) belt that wouldn’t go around his waist because he was so big.”
Joyce eventually convinced his buddy, “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, to join the grappling ranks. In December 1959, a news story made the rounds about Lipscomb and Joyce applying for wrestling licenses in California.
“I’ve learned a lot from Don Joyce. I just go out there and do my best,” said after his debut in March 1960. (For more on the Big Daddy’s wrestling days, see the 2005 story: The brief career of “Big Daddy” Lipscomb.)
For the 1961 season, Joyce suited up for the Minnesota Vikings, an expansion team. The wrestling promoter in St. Paul, Minn., Eddie Williams, addressed Joyce’s move in Wrestling Facts, the program for the promotion.
“Eddie is a football fan, in fact a follower of all sports, but he had a special reason for being glad Joyce is coming out this way,” reads the March 18, 1961 issue, headlined Viking’s Don Joyce Will Take Matches. “Joyce is a star wrestler who has established a winning record in the East around his home area of Baltimore. Williams had inquired of him whether he’d continue his mat career out here and received an affirmative reply — ‘If I sign a Vikings’ contract.'”
Joyce closed out his pro football days with the AFL’s Denver Broncos in 1962, getting into only six games.
Post-football and wrestling, Joyce became a coach at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis. He was also a football scout, including a seven-season stint with the Colts, departing the team after the 1995 season.
The Star Tribune in Minneapolis shared a disturbing story which also speaks to Joyce’s toughness in its obituary: “In 1983, when Joyce was 53, he was shot twice at a Missouri motel, when a robber broke into his room and tried to rape his wife, Sharon. Joyce, whose hands had been bound, became so enraged he managed to work his hands free and attack the robber.”
Joyce was 82 years old when he passed away peacefully in Mahtomedi, Minn. The funeral service was held on March 2nd. He was survived by his wife, Sharon; children Cathy, Don and Carrin; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.