WWE Hall of Famer Gerry Brisco knows a lot about hunger from the times he had to make weight as an amateur wrestling champion. But he had a choice in that matter. At this point in his life, he's more about preventing those kind of hunger pangs for children who don't have that choice.
This issue also hits close to home for Brisco, because his wife is a schoolteacher who sees childhood hunger on a daily basis in her class.
"It's heartbreaking" Brisco says, of hearing about kids coming into class having not eaten before school. "She will feed these kids no matter what. She will buy them lunch or be sure that they go on the school lunch programs. Once these kids start eating -- once they get breakfast -- they start behaving in classes and doing their homework, and move from being problems in the classroom to being contributors."
Experiences like these drove Brisco to want to more actively work toward stopping childhood hunger. An opportunity presented itself when Bill Murdock, who cowrote Brisco's brother Jack's autobiography, contacted Gerry Brisco about his post-wrestling plans.
This discussion changed Brisco's life and helped lead to the foundation of Headlock on Hunger, a nonprofit organization based in North Carolina. The group's mantra is, "When you're hungry, nothing else matters."
The central aim of "Headlock for Hunger" is to achieve its goals of food collection and public education via high-visibility events, such as the food drive it held on June 21 at an Ingles Market in Asheville, North Carolina.
The drive had a few main event headliners, as WWE Hall of Famers Jim Ross, Adam "Edge" Copeland and Beth Copeland (aka Beth Phoenix) all joined the day's efforts.
Ross serves as Headlock on Hunger's national chair because of his own personal passion for this cause.
"I'm a big advocate of that people should volunteer more." Ross said. "We'd have a lot less problems in this country if we all did a lot more volunteer work. If we all did good things for those in need. Because we'd have a lot more self-esteem and we'd feel better about ourselves and help the community.
"When I found out and verified that 25 percent of school-age children, when they are not in school, don't eat, I was embarrassed that we live in a country that we could allow that to happen," Ross continued. "We allow it to happen because there aren't a lot of people breaking doors down to help any charity."
As all who've involved themselves in the cause thus far have discovered, the best way to bring a dream into reality is to become the change you want to see.
"I thought maybe somebody will see me rolling my sleeves up and paying my own way to come to these charity affairs, and get some encouragement by seeing that JR, with the year I've had losing my wife in March and dealing with a district attorney and lawyers and all of that stuff, is still out there trying to do things for those that need it, and will figure that maybe, 'I can do the same thing,'" Ross said.
Ross did note that today's wrestling world is very tuned in to civic duty.
"I find that today's generation of wrestlers is a lot more aware of things like this than previous generations, in my view. I think that the WWE is so civic-oriented that the younger wrestlers get caught up in the rush of helping others."
The WWE connection with Headlock on Hunger continued to evolve with the involvement of the Copelands, who moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2009.
"We got involved with an Eblen Charities turkey drive at Thanksgiving and saw that a lot of families rely on the school lunch program during the year," said Beth Copeland. "That leaves the issue of, 'How do we bridge the gap for these kids when they are on break during summertime, Christmastime or Thanksgiving?' Some of them go hungry on those breaks from school because they don't have that lunch program. We thought that initially we could get some sports figures together and use our wrestling names and try to get some notoriety and attention on this cause and do something about it."
Adam noted that the objective is to expand well beyond the local impact.
"I have a vision for this that you could take it national. We already have Heath Shuler, Brad Johnson, Brad Daugherty, Jim Ross, Gerry Brisco, myself and Beth. But the way I envision this thing going is that when I run into Dave Grohl and say, 'Hey, do you want to hop on board with this and try to feed some kids?' we have a structure in place where he can join the fight.
"I want to turn this thing into Heroes Against Hunger, and really let the people who donate know that they are the heroes for their donation. We're already distributed half a million meals in 2½ years. I would love to see it be 10 million meals. I always try to think where could we push this to so that kids across the country are getting the benefits of this. It's snowballed each year, and I would love to turn it into an avalanche."
For the time being, the group's current local efforts continue to be quite successful. In last week's drive, Beth , who serves as Headlock on Hunger's vice chair, indicated they collected 3,000 pounds of food -- a 33 percent increase over last year's total for the June event.
Beth said that while it might not seem that Asheville would have issues of this nature, childhood hunger hits roughly one in five children in the area. This is nearly par for the course for most communities, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website indicates that 12.7 percent of households had "food insecurity" at least one time during 2015, and that 5 percent of households had "very low food security".
The nationwide scope of this issue could make it difficult to pin down, but Beth says that "this initiative is very portable. If you're in Portland, Oregon, and you find this cause to be something that is affecting your community, Eblen Charities can assist to bring Headlock on Hunger to your city. That's what we're hoping, that we can start sending out satellites to help get other cities set up to fight this problem, because it is widespread, sadly, across our country."
The good news is that the efforts of Brisco, Ross, Murdock (who also serves as the executive director of Eblen Charities), the Copelands and many others have already helped expand Headlock on Hunger past its North Carolina base and into South Carolina and Florida. Its next big event will be held next month at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame's Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, further spreading the reach of the cause.
By catching the eyes of some more potentially like-minded folks, the hope is that Headlock on Hunger will continue to spread its message until it becomes a nation-wide effort.
"What better place to hold a Headlock on Hunger event than at a wrestling museum?" asked Brisco. "Our slogan as wrestlers is that we are hungry by choice because we are trying to make weight. Some of these kids have no choice, it's just a way of life. They wake up hungry and they go to bed hungry and that's a shame. The message we want to get out is hunger is year round."