Former NFL player and professional wrestler Leon White died at the age of 63, his son Jesse announced Wednesday morning on Twitter.
White, who wrestled under variations of the name “Big Van Vader” for promotions around the world for three decades, dealt with myriad health issues in recent years, including announcing on Twitter in 2016 that he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and that doctors informed him he had only two years to live.
Shortly after announcing his father’s death, White’s son revealed that the former world champion had been battling a severe case of pneumonia last month which ultimately led to his death.
Around a month ago my father was diagnosed with a severe case of Pneumonia. He fought extremely hard and clinically was making progress. Unfortunately, on Monday night his heart had enough and it was his time. pic.twitter.com/hJYjumvxjH
— Big Van Vader (@itsvadertime) June 20, 2018
Prior to his wrestling career, White played college football at the University of Colorado and was drafted in the third round of the 1978 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams. During his brief NFL career, White played offensive line and was a member of the 1979 team that lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.
Shortly after retiring from the NFL, White picked up professional wrestling, joining the AWA before a successful run with New Japan Pro Wrestling. During his time with NJPW, White was given the name “Big Van Vader” and wrestled in a mask, which would become staples of his character for his entire career. White would hold the IWGP world heavyweight title three times and the IWGP tag titles once.
After his run in NJPW, White wrestled in WCW and was a three-time world heavyweight champion before ultimately joining Vince McMahon’s WWF. Despite White’s successful tenures in NJPW and WCW, he failed to achieve similar status and left the company after just two years.
White’s blend of size and athleticism made him one of the most unique wrestling stars in the 80s and 90s, leading to him feuding with the likes of Ric Flair, Mick Foley, Sting, Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker.
In a 2011 interview with WWE.com, White detailed his health issues to that point which included 45 surgeries, 19 concussions and being in a coma for 33 days in Japan.
Despite battling a drinking problem and those health issues, White continued to wrestle and made appearances for several promotions, including sporadic returns to WWE, until 2017.
Earlier this year, White underwent successful open-heart surgery.
This is his son Jesse. I wanted to let everybody know that I just spoke to the Surgeon. The surgery was a success but it was worse than we had expected. Long road for recovery. Will keep you posted. Thank you for the prayers.
— Big Van Vader (@itsvadertime) March 26, 2018
Tributes from around the wrestling world poured in after news of White’s death broke.
WWE is saddened to learn that Leon White, better known to WWE audiences as Vader, passed away Monday night at the age of 63. https://t.co/UNIbdS680I
— WWE (@WWE) June 20, 2018
My prayers and thoughts go out to the family Of truly one of the greatest big men to step foot in the ring. Vader my friend May you R.I.P
— D-von Dudley (@TestifyDVon) June 20, 2018
I’m saddened to hear about the passing of Leon “Baby Bull” White aka “Big” Van Vader! My prayers of strength go out to his family at this time, I’m sorry for your loss. #RIPVADER
— Brian G. James (@WWERoadDogg) June 20, 2018
Vader in his college football days at Colorado, 1975.
He was a top-ranked prospect at center heading into the '78 NFL Draft but a knee injury suffered while jogging caused him to fall to the Rams in the 3rd round. pic.twitter.com/5uVqimlWNh
— Denny Burkholder (@DennyBurkholder) June 20, 2018
Vader’s last @WWE PPV was a match with me, he wanted me to kick out of his finish/he told me “today you get the old Vader, I want it to mean something when you win.” RIP big man, and thanks! #respect pic.twitter.com/t3FiP2jMmh
— John Layfield (@JCLayfield) June 20, 2018
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