Mick Foley – the WWE Hall of Fame wrestler, social activist and author turned stand-up comedian – was finishing his show at the Funny Bone Comedy Club in The Greene last November when he called a special guest to the stage for a question and answer session with the audience.
You’d think Foley – at 6-foot-2, 287 pounds and with such a weighty resume – would have dwarfed the compact, 5-foot-5 Jeremy Ganger, but on this night it quickly became evident who was the towering figure for this crowd.
A woman in the audience stood and directed her attention to Ganger, the former Troy High School and Urbana University running back who became a pro wrestler on mostly area circuits and now is best known as a bouncer and the front doorman at Ned Peppers bar in the Oregon District.
>PHOTOS: Jeremy Ganger, Oregon District hero
“The lady had given me a hug on my way to the stage,” Ganger recalled quietly. “And when Mick called on her, she said ‘I don’t really have a question. I just want to tell Jeremy: Thank you for saving my daughter’s life. Now I have a grandchild because of you!’
“We both ended up crying like babies and finally I looked at Mick and said, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’”
Realizing no bigger exclamation point could be put on the night, Foley agreed and said: “This show is over.”
And that – without actually being said – is exactly what Ganger had imparted to the guy dressed in black body armor and rapid-firing an AR-15 like rifle in a deadly attack along Fifth Street in Oregon District just past 1 a.m. on Aug. 4.
In just 32 seconds, the killer – 24-year-old Connor Betts from Bellbrook – murdered nine people, injured 27 more, terrified a neighborhood and numbed an entire city.
When the killer began his rampage just a few yards across the street from Ned Peppers, panic ensued and people began screaming and running in all directions.
Ganger, who said he saw some of his friends get shot and fall in the street, began ushering and sometimes shoving people though the bar’s front door to get them out of the line of fire. And when frightened people inside tried to run back out, he slammed them down to keep them safe.
In the process he was wounded in the right leg by shrapnel. Although he’d felt a burning sensation, he never looked down to see the blood and soon, he said, adrenaline and fear had completely washed away those thoughts.
He saw the gunman – who had been in Ned’s earlier with his sister and would kill her in his rampage – was quickly making his way back to the bar.
“I don’t know why, but he was there to hurt us,” Ganger said. “With him it was pure hate. That’s what he had in his heart and in his body.”
And that’s when Ganger stationed himself in the doorway, a wounded but unyielding barrier with what he’s been told may have been as many as 250 people in the bar behind him:
“I stood there and I was like, ‘I guess I’m gonna die, but you’re not coming in here.’
“I’m there to protect the customers and everybody who works there. And I didn’t want any more parents not having their children come home this night.”
The killer was just a stride from the front door when he seemed to momentarily focus on Ganger and hesitate.
“He looked me straight in the eye – like he was thinking ‘What’s this guy doing here?’ — and that’s when the police shot him,” Ganger said. “I hope I’m the last thing he saw.”
»PHOTOS: Jeremy Ganger, Oregon District hero
When Betts crumpled at the doorway where he died, Ganger scrambled out and pulled the weapon from his hands, then pressed him to the sidewalk to make sure he would not rise.
Once the police rushed in and took over, Ganger hobbled out to tend to the wounded and dying lying in the street.
That’s when someone noticed he was bleeding. A bullet casing from the shooter was sticking out of his leg. He was taken to a makeshift medical area and soon transported to the hospital.
And now he’s left the biggest piece of shrapnel in his leg, he said, as a way to remember the nine people who were killed.
But he’s been left with other things from that night, as well.
He has persistent nightmares.
“I deal with it every night,” he said. “I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD. I have a severe case of it. I eventually realized I needed help and I’m getting therapy and have been put on medication for my anxiety and depression.”
But he said there’s also been sunshine that often eclipses those dark clouds.
A month after the shooting – at a fundraiser for victims at the Antioch Shrine in downtown Dayton – he was given a black jacket that had the city’s’ skyline and “For the Love of Dayton” embroidered on the back and on the front, right over the heart, were the words “Dayton’s Protector.”
And then there were the colorful, hand-made “Thank You Jeremy” notes – decorated with hearts, balloons, a rainbow and other things – that he got from two young sisters named Terin and Jessa.
“Thanks for your bravery,” wrote Terin.
And Jessa summed it up for everybody when she wrote:
“Not all heros (sic) wear capes!”
‘They’re shouting for you’
As we sat at the kitchen table in his Troy home the other evening and talked about everything from that fateful night and the public embrace he’s gotten since to his long, colorful involvement in sports and even that sleeve of tattoos, especially the skulls, on his right arm – “I like the freaky stuff and they all tell a story,” he grinned – it became clear he had picked the perfect ring name for his wrestling career:
A 225-pound boulder of a man, he said he spends five to six days a week working out at Hybrid Strength and Fitness in Troy.
He also works a factory job in Sidney and still mans the door on weekends at Ned Peppers. And as his leg has healed, he’s resumed his wrestling career, even though he’s 42.
A week ago he was in the ring at Rockstar Pro Wrestling on Watervliet Avenue and Saturday night he was featured at a Midwest Championship Wrestling show in Marion.
With some coaxing the other evening, he brought out some of the cards he’s received since the shootings.
While he’s tried to deflect the praise that makes him out to be a hero – “That night the true heroes were the Dayton Police Department; if it wasn’t for them, I’d be dead,”– most folks believe he should wear that mantle, too.
One card sent to Ned Peppers read:
“Dear Jeremy – Love you. You have stated that you do not want to be described as a “hero” and yet the Bible describes what you did.”
Included on a separate paper was the Biblical verse John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The note concluded with “Dayton Strong!”
And in the close-knit community of the Oregon District’s entertainment strip, there are several people who can tell you of another cape-less crusader moment from Ganger.
It happened a few of years ago when a fire broke out in the apartment of Michael Rapsawich above the Hole in the Wall bar on Fifth Street.
Then a bartender at the Southern Belle — and now at the Trolley Stop — Rapsawich wasn’t home, but his beloved, aging dog Winchester was.
Ganger ran up to the apartment, got inside and was immediately engulfed in black smoke. He pushed forward, eventually found Winchester in the bathroom, scooped him up and carried him to safety. Then he turned and went back into the fire to look for a cat that was not there.
In August his selfless actions landed him in the hospital – under a bogus name to keep people, including the media, away from him – for three days.
Word first got out about what he had done when friends mentioned him in social media posts. Then a surveillance video was released showing him leading people to safety during the shooting spree. Eventually he did an interview with Eva Pilgrim of ABC News that aired on Good Morning America,
A week after the shooting, John Legend — the 10-time, Grammy winning singer, songwriter and pianist originally from Springfield — made a surprise visit to the Oregon District to show support and put on an impromptu show at Blind Bob’s.
Ganger — just a few days out of the hospital and still struggling physically and mentally — was invited to attend, though he admits he knew nothing about Legend.
“I’d never seen him,” he said. “And when we walked in, everybody stood up and started clapping and cheering and it was getting louder and louder. I started looking around and I go, ‘Where’s he at? Which guy is he?’
“I was standing next to the mayor and someone in her detail goes, ‘Just wave to everybody…. They’re shouting for you!’”
‘Just do something nice’
Phyllis Dawkins was Ganger’s third-grade teacher and remembers him as being “a really quiet kid who was a good student and was really smart and had huge glasses.”
Once at Troy High School, Ganger began to make his mark in sports. He wrestled until a knee injury derailed that pursuit. He continued in football as a running back/fullback and said he primarily blocked for Ryan Brewer, who ran for a then state-record 2,856 yards as a senior and was named Ohio’s Mr. Football.
Ganger got a scare that season when he collapsed with what he said was a stress-caused “massive seizure” after a game with Greenville.
“I’d stopped breathing and our strength coach performed mouth to mouth,” he said.
He ended up playing at Urbana University and after college worked a factory job and became a bouncer at the Living Room on North Dixie and then Wings Sports Bar.
As a kid he said he’d been fascinated by pro wrestling: “I saw Adrian Adonis, the British Bulldogs, Hulk Hogan, a lot of those guys back in the day. “
Finally, when he was 25 he got involved with Dynamic Profession Wrestling in Piqua and then with the Heartland Wrestling Association, which had a developmental league. He was trained by Cody Hawk and since then has wrestled all across Ohio and in New Jersey, Tennessee and Alabama.
“But what I’m really known for is Hardcore wrestling,” he said as he pulled out his phone to show photos of himself bloodied in matches involving barbed wire, fluorescent lights being smashed over him, staple guns, tables set on fire and even a couple of dozen wooden shish kabob skewers stuck in his shaved scalp until it looked like he had Mohawk made of wood.
“I do all the crazy stuff,” he grinned. “I love it when I hear people going ‘Oh.. my…God!’”
That disregard for self may have helped him make his stand at the front door of Ned Peppers that night, but he was steeled by the fact that “that was my family inside and I wasn’t going to let anybody get hurt.”
The PTSD is the down side of all this and Ganger soon realized he knew nothing about it:
“I thought I’d be done and over with it by now, but military guys have told me it hits you hard and I now realize I have a big battle ahead.”
Some of his best medicine came when he visited kids at Dayton Children’s Hospital recently.
“Our community down in the Oregon District really was messed up by all this, but to me it seems like people have gotten stronger. They’ve bonded together.
“Now I tell everyone, we need to start treating people the way we used to treat them. We need to be humane.
“You don’t have to do anything big or drastic, but if you see someone out on the street, tell them to have a good day. Or just do something nice – open the door or carry something for them.
“We don’t have to live in the world of hate anymore.”
Honored by WWE
In November, the World Wresting Entertainment NXT promotion brought Ganger to Winter Park, Fla. so he could spend a couple of days at the organization’s developmental complex and then sit ringside for a show.
“I was sitting next to Shawn Michaels (WWE Hall of Fame wrestler) and Jeremy Borash (WWE announcer) when Triple H got in the ring and started talking…about me,” he said
“I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ and they said, ‘Well, we didn’t tell you, but you’re going up in the ring.’ I was like ‘What?’ I got really, really nervous and had butterflies.”
Paul “Triple H” Levesque, the wrestling legend turned WWE executive, named him an honorary NXT champion and presented him with a bulky title belt as the crowd chanted: “You deserve it!…You deserve it!”
Then Triple H turned to Ganger and said: “There’s a saying, ‘Heroism is not only in the man, but in the occasion.’ And you are a man whose heroism far surpasses anything that can happen on a (athletic) field or in this ring.”
Back home Ganger has been saluted, as well.
The Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Troy – knowing Ganger is an ardent Cleveland Browns fan – mounted a plaque on a prime table by a TV that reads: “Reserved during Browns’ games for our hometown hero, Jeremy Ganger.”
A woman contacted him via social media and asked what his favorite sports team was. He told her the Browns and sometime later she showed up at Ned Peppers, handed him a beautiful, weighted Browns blanket she’d made, gave him a hug and walked away.
Other people have contacted him to say he saved their lives that night.
The Dayton Dragons and Rockstar Pro Wrestling have been the lone sports ventures in the area to honor him.
But he did make the front cover of the “Dudes of Dayton” 2020 calendar that was a photographed by Joanna D Neff of Hollow Oak Studios and is being sold as a fund-raiser at Heart Mercantile in the Oregon District.
“Oh and a lady named her cat after me,” he laughed.
He returned to Ned Peppers as soon as he got out of the hospital, but it took him a while longer until he was ready to work the door again.
He said it was important to be back at his old post:
“It’s a way to let people know we’re OK, that we are getting through this. If I didn’t go back, if I kept living in fear like I was, then the guy wins. And hate is not going to win here.”
Now that he’s back, Ganger said he won’t let anybody else take over the front door duties: “I will not let anyone get hurt here again.”
Still he has fantasized about a job change:
“One day I’d like to have a job where I am helping people. I know I’d probably have to go to school for it and that what I’d have to pay for the education I could never earn back, but I still wish I could be helping people who really need help.”
But there are plenty of people here who are still alive because he already has done just that.
Like the little girl said:
“Not all heroes wear capes!”
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