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Aftershock: How Lives Have Changed / Kurt Angle embraces role as U.S. icon

Sunday, October 07, 2001

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

America seems to need heroes now. And it has found them -- in firefighters, police officers and airline passengers who gave their lives to foil hijackers.

Kurt Angle with his fans in Ross: "I would go to shows wearing red, white and blue, and people used to boo. Now, I wear red, white and blue and people cheer ." (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

But it has also found one in a milk-chugging, flag-waving, broad-necked, muscular Yankee Doodle Dandy named Kurt Angle, a hometown hero who draped himself in red, white and blue long before the tragic events of Sept. 11 made it the thing to do.

Angle would be the first to acknowledge that the true heroes are the men and women who risked their lives to save others. And yet there is a place, maybe even a need for someone like the Olympic gold-medal-winner-turned-professional-wrestler, if his book-signing in Ross is any indication.

The World Wide Wrestling Federation, with its scripted performances, must have felt so, too. Just two weeks after the attacks, the Mt. Lebanon native regained his championship in a win over WWF superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin at Mellon Arena.

"I didn't want it to happen that way because of this tragedy," said Angle. But he realizes that his unabashed patriotism reflects the mood of the country right now.

"I would go to shows wearing red, white and blue, and people used to boo," Angle recalled. "Now, I wear red, white and blue and people cheer . . . People realize we're in the greatest country in the world, and they need to remember where they come from."

 
 
AFTERSHOCK
How Lives Have Changed

One in an occasional series on how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have affected ordinary Americans.


Previous Installments

He leaves his adopted country after ugly encounters

A volunteer confronts the pain at WTC

US Airways' mechanic escapes 'certain' layoff, but reprieve only prolongs uncertainty

   
 

Angle is a 6-foot-2, 220-pound reminder of that, an emotional man who has always worn his heart on his sleeve, most famously when he wept after winning the gold at Atlanta in 1996.

But the tragedy has touched the man beneath the crafted WWF image.

Like most others, he's learned to more deeply appreciate family and friends.

And as a guy who travels five days a week, he's well aware of heightened airport security.

At some airports, he's not even questioned about the championship belt in his bag. At others, he's stopped and frisked.

"I hope the country gets so secure that nothing like that could ever happen again," he said.

To some fans, Angle is symbol of that security, that strength.

Perhaps that's why grandmothers in flag T-shirts, toddlers in red, white and blue scarves, teen-age girls with Angle's slogans painted on their arms, teen-age boys with gallon jugs of milk and self-sacrificing moms and dads waited hours for an autograph and a moment of Angle's time Friday evening at the Media Play in Ross Park Mall.

A peaceful lot, they stood and sat on the sidewalk under the watchful eyes of security guards wearing shiny badges with black strips to honor those who died Sept. 11.

Angle's appearance was more than an opportunity to sign copies of his autobiography, "It's True, It's True."

It was a chance for 500 or so Americans to gather at a time when many feel the need to show their love for America.

It seemed appropriate that Eric Wallis was leading the pack. That's Army Capt. Eric Wallis, now stationed in Pittsburgh after seven years in Alaska.

"I've been in the Army for 14 years," Wallis said. "It's not like I can get more patriotic. I've been patriotic."

And patient. Wallis waited for four hours at the head of the line before a young Media Play employee signaled it was time to meet his hero, dressed all in blue this day. His face lit up in the glow of Angle's broad smile, sparkling blue eyes and warm handshake.

Seated in a navy blue leather arm chair, behind a table with vases of red, white and spray-painted blue carnations, Angle was more than accommodating.

He signed calendars as well as books. He sat for picture-takers. He stood for picture-takers.

Aiming her disposable camera, Suzanne Iaquinta was moved to tears when Angle placed his championship belt on the shoulder of her wheel-chair bound son, James, 19.

She and husband Jim had driven two hours from Bridgeport, W.Va., so James could spend 30 seconds with Angle. It was absolutely worth it, Iaquinta said.

Nicholas Zavolta, a 12-year-old from Hampton, clutched his two replica belts for the champ to sign. Using his allowance and some money from mom, Lee Ann, he scraped up the $100 apiece to buy them. Meeting Angle was the culmination of Nicholas's English project titled, "The Best Day of My Life."

Chad Lauderbaugh, a 24-year-old vet, had something to give Angle -- an American flag that flew during Operation Desert Fox, a limited operation against Iraq in 1998.

The flag was given "out of respect for Kurt Angle and what he means to the USA," Lauderbaugh said. "Especially in this time of trouble, he's a positive role model."

Angle seemed to know this.

"I am the guy people can look to uplift their spirits. They wanted Kurt Angle the Olympic hero, the red, white and blue boy to kick Stone Cold's ass," Angle said, switching to WWF mode.

"They want to see Kurt Angle come out on top because they want to see the country come out on top."



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