This was the time I met Ric Flair at a furniture store. I talked to the first guy in line and did a story about his love of Flair. I interviewed Flair while he signed autographs, including one on a little girl’s face. This story ran on May 11, 2009.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Steve Duck stood at the front of a line nearly 300 people long that wrapped around three fourths of Schewels 35,000-square foot furniture store Saturday afternoon.
He anxiously shifted the weight of his more than 6-foot frame from foot to foot like a small child waiting for a crowded restroom. Duck, neck stretched and eyes wide, looked over the store, waiting for a glimpse of the reason he slept on an air mattress in the back of his 2003 Dodge Durango on Friday night: Ric Flair.
“I need a 12-step program,” Duck said, jokingly.
But not really.
For Duck, Flair — a professional wrestling legend, Hall of Famer and 16-time winner of various championship belts — is a religion.
When Duck — a 31-year-old father of four and heating, ventilating, and air conditioning mechanic who lives in Shenandoah — heard Tuesday that Flair would be making a promotional appearance at Schewels in conjunction with the store’s 112th anniversary, not going wasn’t an option.
“I just look up to him,” said Duck, who got to Schewels at 10 p.m. Friday and spent the night watching Flair DVDs and eating Chinese food with his wife, Kim.
A little after 2 p.m. Saturday, Flair entered to a chorus of “Woos!” (his trademark exclamation) and chants of “Thank you, Ric! ” from those in line.
Then, Duck met Flair for the first time since joining the Church of the Nature Boy at age 10, evangelized by a VHS of Starcade 1987.
“It was everything I expected,” Duck said. “Just happy. Ecstatic.”
So was Schewels.
Saturday was Flair ‘s third promotional appearance for the furniture store, which has 51 locations throughout Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.
In February, Flair — who, since retiring from wrestling in 2008, also has done promotional work for Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and NASCAR — made an appearance at the grand opening of a Schewels store in Elkin, N.C., which Schewels operations supervisor Roger Lynch said drew about 2,000 to 2,500 people.
Last fall, Flair christened a store in Roanoke, which Lynch said drew about 4,000. The store, he said, did about $140,000 in business.
“He’s just been such a tremendous drawing card,” said Lynch, who supervises 25 stores.
Flair, who is paid an appearance fee that neither Lynch nor Flair’s agent would disclose, started working with Schewels because of a connection in the company’s advertising department, Lynch said. Former NASCAR driver Ward Burton also has appeared at Schewels stores for meet-and-greets.
But Flair isn’t unfamiliar with the Shenandoah Valley. The 6-foot 60-year-old, who still maintains his rounded biceps and wrestling weight of 235, said he made numerous trips to the old Harrisonburg High School for wrestling shows during his career.
“I was here a lot — at least once a month during the ’70s and into the early ’80s,” Flair said. “It was a big market for us, and we did real well. The school held about 3,000 people, which was great for a small town. We came up here a lot, and this whole part of the country, the Shenandoah Valley, is phenomenal.”
Those shows helped hook Duck, who grew up in Keezletown and graduated from Spotswood High School in 1996. At age 13, Duck attended a show at the old HHS, where Flair wrestled Vader. Duck had what was at that point his closest brush with his idol.
A feather fell off one of Flair’s ostentatious entrance robes, and Duck grabbed it. Duck said he lost the feather about 10 years ago but has since restocked his Flair Shrine with T-shirts, action figures, books and DVDs — including a the ultimate Ric Flair three-disc set, which Duck got for Christmas about five years ago. He watched all 10 hours of material that day.
“We sat and opened gifts, while he watched Ric Flair ,” said Kim Duck, an Undertaker fan who got Flair to do his “Woo!” over her cell phone for their oldest son, Matthew.
But Duck’s devotion — manifested in a few tears that dripped down to this thick goatee while Flair signed an autograph — is deeper than memorabilia, which now includes an autographed copy of Flair’s autobiography “To Be The Man.” Duck said he plans to get a $1,000 black-and-white tattoo of a posed Flair on his back. Duck estimated the tat (his seventh to go with a grim reaper, an eyeball, a dragon and several tribal designs) would take 20, two-hour sessions.
The impetus for his Flair addiction?
“Just the way he acted,” Duck said. “Just the way he carried himself. … I just like wrestling because of Ric Flair .”
And Flair — born in Tennessee, raised in Minnesota and now residing in Charlotte, N.C. — knows that isn’t just the case with Duck, but also the crowd lined up in Flair shirts, clutching Flair paraphernalia and casting reverent gazes toward their platinum-haired totem.
“I don’t take it for granted,” Flair said after a cute, little girl asked him to sign her forehead. “I’ve worked hard over my career and I’ve earned a lot of respect. The people I wanted to meet in my lifetime, I got to meet them and when I did, it was pretty impacting, like Wilt Chamberlain, Joe Namath…
“I understand what they go through, and they’ve been fans of mine for a long, long time, and they have a lot of respect for me, and I don’t take it for granted.”
Neither does Schewels. Duck said he bought a new sofa from Schewels on Saturday, bringing the grand total of his Schewels business to somewhere in the $7,500 range.
“Ric’s fans not only show up,” Flair’s agent Nola Armstrong said with a laugh, “but they buy stuff.”