Darren Drozdov, a football player turned pro wrestler, who was paralyzed during a match in October 1999, has died. He was 54. His story is one of injury after injury.
Before he was known for the in-ring injury, Drozdov was known for his unique ability to throw up, and earned the nickname “Puke.”
“I guess I’ve had this problem all through high school and college and at Denver,” Drozdov explained to the Courier-Post in 1998. “I even went to a shrink. No one could find out what was the matter and why I got sick, I guess it is just something with my body. It is something I learned to deal with.”
Infamously, he was caught tossing his cookies during a Monday Night Football game. It was preseason, Broncos against the Dolphins, on August 20, 1993, at Mile High Stadium. He actually vomited on the football, and Miami’s center didn’t snap the ball. Drozdov got a delay of game penalty. “It happened naturally, it just came out,” he said.
Darren Adrian Drozdov was born on April 7, 1969, in Mays Landing, New Jersey. He was into athletics from the start, and, at age six, made it into the Press of Atlantic City:
Darren Drozdov, 6, studies acrobatics because “I just wanted to.” He likes doing cartwheels and thinks the hardest trick is “getting up from a backbend.”
His father Olaf — known as Butch — was the football coach at West Deptford High School and then Atlantic County Community College.
At Oakcrest High School, Drozdov was originally a quarterback, getting plenty of attention. A November 1985 preview of a game noted that “The Falcon offense is built around the running and passing of quarterback Darren Drozdov.”
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Drozdov delivered well in 1986, his junior season: 577 yards rushing (6.4 yards per attempt), 350 yards passing and 12 touchdown throws.
As a senior, the Oakcrest team lacked players, and Drozdov added defensive end to his arsenal.
He was nothing if not confident in the new role. “I think I should be playing Division I ball,” Drozdov told the Courier-Post after the New Jersey High School All-Star Football Classic in June 1987.
His coach for the game, Vince McAneney, praised Drozdov: “Drozdov plays with a lot of spirit, plays hard, has nice size and is very coachable.”
Drozdov didn’t get to Division I ball right away — he’d been labelled as someone with a “poor attitude”, so he attended Fork Union Military Academy first. Then it was off to the University of Maryland. Academically, he earned a B.S. in criminal justice.
By second year, Drozdov wanted to stand out, and cut his hair, as reporter Mike Preston describe in the Baltimore Sun: “Drozdov’s hair looked as if Pac-Man had eaten through the middle”. He had to red-shirt in his third season, though, after rupturing a disc in his back. In 1991, he struggled to get back to form, but did for the 1992 season, starting all 11 games for the Terps. He was also one of the team captains.
“I think some pro teams may have been a little leery because of my back,” Drozdov noted before the draft.
The now 6-foot-3, 280-pound Drozdov was hopeful going into the 1993 NFL Draft. “I don’t think I’ll be picked in the first four rounds on Sunday, but I’m hoping something will happen on Monday,” Drozdov told the Press of Atlantic City. “My only goal is to get into a camp and have a chance to show what I can do. I have no doubts about my ability. Once I get into camp, it will basically be time to put up or shut up and I think I can put it up. I just want to get the opportunity.”
He was a long shot, especially after a slow time in the 40 — 5.1 seconds. Further workouts with NFL scouts were intriguing (with a better time in the 40), but he went undrafted.
He’d be a part of three NFL teams — the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and the Denver Broncos. He only ever saw game action with Denver. As a rookie with the Broncos, Drozdov only got into six games, with coach Wade Phillips hyping him in September 1993: “We have confidence in Darren and he’ll start … He knows the defense and he’s played pretty well.” He was also briefly on the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes squad in 1996, though apparently not getting into game action.
Drozdov was hurt in Denver, suffering a compression leg fracture during a preseason game. Rehab was really tough, the Broncos cut him and he bounced around until heading to Canada.
“I didn’t want to go out with an injury and not play football again,” he said. While in Montreal, Drozdov’s agent, Cliff Stein, started asking around about how he could get into pro wrestling.
The world got to see Drozdov’s pitch to Vince McMahon, as it was filmed for the documentary Beyond the Mat. McMahon was fascinated by Drozdov’s ability to hurl on cue.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Droz said of his wrestling training in the Courier-Post. “I looked at it when I was younger and I thought it was cool. I always had it in the back of my mind to do it. But once I got in there, the first couple of weeks I was crawling into my bed after the workout to eat my food.
“I was in shock how physical it was. It was more physical than football. My first couple of weeks, I gained the greatest respect for anyone in the business.”
Drozdov made his debut for the WWF in 1998. He performed under the ring names Puke and Droz.
His early stages with the WWF saw him being a part of the Legion of Doom, replacing Road Warrior Hawk.
As his association with the Legion of Doom ended, he was involved in the segment Droz’s World, where he would share moments regarding his career. He started to make a name for himself, becoming an upper-midcarder. He started competing and feuding with some of the prominent names in the business.
Apart from the feuds, he was in a few notable storylines, one such being his alliance with Prince Albert as his personal body piercing artist.
All the potential for Droz as a wrestler ended on October 5, 1999.
During a taped match on Smackdown against D’Lo Brown, Droz suffered a serious spinal injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. The injury occurred due to a powerbomb from Brown. He was taken to the hospital to try and stabilize his condition, but the injury was too severe. He went through three hours of surgery to relieve pressure on the damaged neck, and the two dislocated and fractured discs. A piece of his pelvis was removed to replace the injured discs, and a plate and screw was inserted into his neck.
Droz stated many times that the injury was an accident and that he held no ill will towards Brown.
It haunted Brown.
“It was a really down part, not only of my career, but of my life. My career, professionally, not winning and losing, but just me, was never the same. I played competitive sports my whole life and I’ve seen injuries and I’ve seen severe injury, but I’d never been part of one and it was in Nassau Long Island Coliseum and I can remember it like it’s happening right now,” Brown told WGD Weekly in June 2014. “We did the running powerbomb, something we’d done a thousand times leading up to that. Honestly, we had done it on every house show for at least a month before that, at least twice a night and on that night, he and I have talked about it, we just don’t know what happened. Still to this day, I have no clue and if I try to think about it, it will drive me crazy. I just remember standing there and looking at him after it happened, and going, ‘man, come on dog, just get up.’ When he didn’t, we went to the back and went off to the hospital, I was sitting at the hospital all night…I didn’t want to leave, but we had a show the next night in Trenton.”
The taping of the match and botch was never aired, though there are some stills online that fans are able to see.
Initially a quadriplegic with next to no movement below his neck, Drozdov battled back to get some movement back in his upper body and arms.
After knowing that he would never be able to walk again, Drozdov became a motivational speaker. Being an advocate for spinal cord injury related charities and research, he appeared at WWE events and programs to teach wrestlers the risks involved with the business. He was a regular on the WWE reality show Tough Enough and has been featured as a part of the WWE’s wellness program.
In a 2014 interview with Fox Sports, Drozdov summed up his situation: “No matter what puts you down, in my eyes and in my mind, there is always another day. Just because I’m paralyzed and stuck in a wheel chair, doesn’t mean my life is over. I’ve learned to live again and my life is far from over.”
News of Drozdov’s death broke on June 30, 2023, though no cause of death was initially known.
— with files from Sanjeevan Kandasamy
TOP PHOTO: Droz in a WWE promo photo.