THE FRENCH COULD NOT HAVE ROOTED ANY LOUDER for Lindbergh to land safely than the sellout crowd of 18,000 is screaming for Stone Cold Steve Austin to shake free of the sleeper hold that has dropped him first to one knee, then both, in the center of the ring at Dallas’ Reunion Arena. (Nor were any Frenchmen spotted on the runway waving large foam rubber hands with just the middle finger extended, but…oh, never mind.) Perched on Austin’s shoulders piggyback-style, applying the pressure that has apparently rendered him unconscious, is a longhaired three-hundred-pound embodiment of evil named the Undertaker. At Austin’s right is a wisp of a referee who is about to count him out, which would allow the ’Taker to retain the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) championship belt he stole from Austin some weeks back. With both hands, the ref lifts Austin’s massive right arm over his head and watches it slump lifelessly down to his side. “One!” hollers the ref to the judges at ringside, holding up a single bony finger to compensate for his voice, which is being drowned out by the increasingly desperate crowd.

He lifts Austin’s arm a second time. It falls limply again, and up goes the ref’s hand. “Two,” he mouths, completely inaudible now.

“Kick his ass, Austin. Kick his ass!” come the cries from the arena as the ref lifts his arm a third and final time. But when the ref lets go…a miracle: Austin’s hand hovers, weakly at first, and then slowly all the fingers but one recede into a fist. Suddenly the crowd recognizes his trademark gesture, the one that might get your car keyed if you do it in traffic—the one that signals to the Undertaker that he is indeed about to get his ass kicked. In a flash Austin is up, shooting the finger at the ’Taker with both barrels. He briefly pummels his face, then quickly applies the Stone Cold Stunner, his unbeatable closing move. He lays the ’Taker flat out, maybe dead. The belt will be his again.

Or so it seems. Before the Undertaker can be counted out, his father, Paul Bearer, reaches under the ropes, grabs the ref’s leg, and pulls him into the crowd. At the same moment, two members of the ’Taker’s Corporate Ministry, a quasi-Satanic cult bent on taking control of the WWF, jump Austin in the ring, allowing the ’Taker to escape. With two Stunners, Austin dispatches the interlopers, but the damage is done: Because he wins on a disqualification, he cannot be the champion.

Unmoved, a defiant Austin storms around the ring. With precious little left from the fight, he hobbles on his battered knees like a rabid, three-legged dog, like Mickey Mantle on one of his gimpy home-run trots, in a swelling, swirling volume greater even than Yankee Stadium’s. Gamely he climbs the turnbuckles in each corner to address his fans with his arms raised over his head, his middle fingers pointed to the heavens. The fans respond in kind. Then a man at ringside throws two cans of beer to the center of the ring, and Austin catches them one at a time in his big right paw. He pours them into his mouth and all over himself and throws the empties into the crowd. The same thing happens in each corner: He faces his fans, slams a beer, and tosses the empty to them. (Understandably, he throws one of the first empties right to an unnaturally busty brunette in the front row who has been leaning over the guardrail since the telltale sound of shattering glass signaled Austin’s imminent arrival in the ring. “When you hear the glass, it’ll be your ass!” goes one of Austin’s many slogans.)

After drinking ten or so beers in this fashion, Austin fetches two folding chairs, sits down in the middle of the ring, and drinks a couple more. The crowd is well past euphoric, unable to hear even themselves. With one hand they flip the bird; with the other, they toss half-full cups of beer. They are not throwing beer and shooting the finger at Austin; they are throwing beer and shooting the finger with him.

All this goes on for fifteen minutes, until it’s time to leave. But the night isn’t over: Outside, thousands of these very same fans stand three and four deep against the fence that lines the driveway to the backstage loading area of the arena, hoping to get a glimpse of Austin in his rented gold Cadillac.

WOULD ANYONE DENY THAT BOERNE RESIDENT Steve Austin is huge? And not just six-foot-two, 254-pound, brick-outhouse huge, but think-piece-in-the-Sunday-New-York-Times, gonna-get-my-picture-on-the-cover-of-the-TV-Guide, cultural-benchmark huge. An Annie Leibovitz picture of Austin with a milk mustache is the latest Got Milk? ad, part of the campaign that has become the most reliable barometer of hipness in America today. The March 27 TV Guide cover, the second within a four-month period to feature Austin and other WWF talent, was easily the weekly’s biggest newsstand seller in the first half of 1999. Most important, this fall the UPN will air WWF matches each Thursday night in what will be the first-ever regular prime-time wrestling series on network television. Already the WWF’s current USA Network show, Monday Night Raw, is the top-rated program on all of cable. Not bad considering that when Austin signed up with the WWF four years ago, its Monday night broadcast was not even the highest-rated wrestling show in its time slot.

The story of how Austin came to carry the fortunes of the WWF on his wide shoulders is a familiar one to the fans who have read about it in magazines from Rolling Stone to Newsweek. It reads like the dream of every high school kid who ever gunned the engine of a jacked-up pickup or threw an empty beer can into his girlfriend’s parents’ yard. Born in Austin a week before Christmas in 1964, Steve Williams grew up in the South Texas town of Edna. Coming from what he calls a family of comedians, he clowned around naturally, but a run-in with the high school football coach after he cut up in the coach’s wife’s math class led him to confine his attention-getting to the football field. He played fullback and linebacker for the Edna High Cowboys well enough to get a scholarship to Wharton County Junior College and then North Texas State University in Denton. Despite blowing out the ligaments in one of his knees, he played all eleven games in his senior year at North Texas, but when the season ended, he knew football was over for him. Bored with school, he took a job loading freight and started hanging around Dallas’ Sportatorium, drinking beer, watching wrestling’s famous Von Erichs. He came to believe that, given his physique and his tendency to end up in the spotlight, this was something he could do.

In 1989 he began a troubled odyssey through the sport’s minor leagues. He enrolled in Chris Adams’ wrestling school in Dallas, where he picked up basics like how to hold and how to fall, and soon after, he moved to Memphis, where he took the name Steve Austin and concentrated on the finer, more vital aspects of reading a crowd and “cutting a promo” (wrestlespeak for bad-mouthing an opponent). He moved up to the WCW (World Championship Wrestling) in 1991, though early incarnations of his persona didn’t take. He fought as Stunning Steve Austin, the even-prettier half of the dandified, golden-tressed Hollywood Blonds, but as silly as it sounds, there simply was not enough “there” there. “I got very little interview time,” he says. “I had no room for creativity. We were just a couple of jackasses—cocky, obnoxious smartasses.” When he sought more leeway, the WCW told him there was nothing they could do with him, no way to market him. Then, in late 1994, he ripped his right triceps wrestling in Japan. They let him go.

“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says now. He hooked up with Atlanta’s Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) and, still injured, unknowingly laid the groundwork for “Stone Cold.” “For the first three months I was rehabbing, and I couldn’t do anything but interview. I didn’t have a character. I gave basically real deal—style interviews, shooting the truth from the ECW platform.” He ran down other wrestlers, but mostly he dogged the WCW. “It was easy—I was angry for real. Hell, I’d just been fired.” Once in the ring with the ECW, he matched the mouth with flawless, believable technique. After just three fights, he got the call from the WWF.

At that time the Connecticut-based WWF was wrestling’s grand old man, but it was playing catch-up in the ratings with the upstart WCW. When current WWF president Vince McMahon bought the federation in 1982 from his father, who had inherited it from his father, it was a regional circuit playing ratty arenas in the northeast. McMahon had bigger plans. He started buying up other circuits around the country, enlarging his stable and eliminating competition. He recognized the exploding audience for specialty programming as a result of the cable TV boom and signed a deal with the new USA Network. Quickly wrestling went from somewhat ironic filler to national prime-time event. McMahon’s most significant change was his first: He dropped the “real sport” charade and rechristened the WWF “sports entertainment.” The move freed his federation from licensing fees and his wrestlers from the pesky drug policies of state athletic commissions.

The WWF flew high into the nineties. Its biggest star, Hulk Hogan, was a genuine celebrity, appearing regularly on late-night talk shows and in movies. Ratings soared. But a series of scandals threatened to kill the WWF. A ringboy claimed that his continued employment had been conditioned on sex with a high-ranking male WWF executive. Rumors of widespread steroid use by WWF wrestlers culminated in McMahon’s federal indictment for distributing the drug and conspiring to defraud the Food and Drug Administration. (He was convicted only of the conspiracy charge and acquitted on the rest; he calls it “total lies, salacious crap.”) In the middle of it all Turner Network Television—or, as a bitter McMahon sees it, “that billionaire son-of-a-bitch [Ted] Turner”—formed World Championship Wrestling and scheduled its weekly show directly opposite the WWF on Monday nights. Suddenly the WWF, which had started the ball rolling, was a fading number two.

So it was a wrestling federation with a very real black eye that invited Austin on board in 1995. Keying on his technical skill, they dubbed him “The Ringmaster”—another poor fit. He had gotten used to the freestyle rantings that carried him through the heightened raunch of the ECW and wanted a persona that allowed him to spew more naturally. One night he watched a documentary about a wildly anti-social serial killer and seized on a new character. A new name came when his English wife exhorted him to “drink your tea before it gets stone cold.” McMahon gave him the green light to see what Stone Cold Steve Austin could do, and he shaved his head, grew a goatee, and got mean. He started to cuss and drink beer in the ring. Almost overnight, he turned wrestling “from a G-rated family show to the edge of what’s acceptable,” says Mark Nulty, a lifelong wrestling fan who writes about the sport and sells videos of old-school matches on his Web site, “He was the first guy to come on TV and be uncontrollable, to use the word ‘ass,’ to flip the bird.”

According to McMahon, Austin’s behavior did not initially meet with his approval. “That was me, playing my way in their playground,” Austin says. A typical (and defining) bit of playfulness came at 1997’s King of the Ring. After defeating Jake “the Snake” Roberts, a Christian soldier of the strychnine and snakehandling variety, Austin took to the mike. “Jake, you can thump your Bible and say your prayers, and you see where it got you. You can have your psalms and your John 3:16. Austin 3:16 says that I just whipped your ass!”

“He knew we could stop it,” says McMahon, a fairly hollow statement now that “Austin 3: 16” adorns everything from T-shirts to shot glasses to those giant foam rubber hands. After early anxious moments, the WWF’s ratings started climbing, Stone Cold merchandise started moving, and the WWF went with the flow. Stone Cold Steve Austin was no longer just acting like “the toughest son of a bitch in the WWF”—he was being billed that way. In what proved to be the shrewdest move of all, the WWF incorporated whatever unease it felt into the act. For the past year the primary storyline on Monday Night Raw has been Austin’s violent feud with McMahon, the boss’ scheming to keep the title from Austin until he will behave in a more corporate manner, and Austin’s profane refusal to be anything but himself.

Week after week the fans eat it up in a way no one expected. “Originally I was a heel,” says Austin, using the wrestling term for a bad guy, “but things started changing. It was 1997; things were not so black and white. I was getting cheered as much as I was getting booed. Everybody started telling me, ‘You’re a baby face’”—a good guy—“and I said, ‘No, I’m a heel.’ I had taken a lot of pride in being a heel. But suddenly I realized I am a baby face. What’s up with that?”

Austin answers his own question with a reference to his “psychology,” a word he uses loosely but cagily to characterize the things he learns from the audience’s response to his carrying on. “It should be a psychology lesson every time you are in the ring,” he says, “because a lot of psychology goes into reaching the biggest demographic.” Simply put, heels try to be universally hated and baby faces try to be universally liked. Before Austin, though, it never worked that way. “While a good-looking guy might be liked by the girls, their boyfriends are going to hate him,” he says. Austin fixed that problem: His target is his boss, McMahon. Everybody wants to flip the bird at the boss.

But his success is just as much a sign of the times. If the seventies were the Me Decade, the nineties are the Look at Me Decade, and nothing matters as much as getting on television. For those poor unfortunate souls who fail to make it, the only hope of validation is to search the tube until they find someone who reminds them a little of themselves (think Jerry Springer). To the extent that a wrestler can provide this, Stone Cold does. His gimmick is that he has no gimmick. While the other WWF wrestlers play the roles of pimps, perverts, and the undead, Stone Cold walks out and acts the way a lot of people feel. He wears no wild costume, keeps a leg brace on his busted knee, gets ticked off about the things that tick off regular folks, and acts the way regular folks do, or would like to, when he gets ticked off. And when it’s all over, he drinks a lot of beer.

“Look at a pie,” says Austin. “Everybody wants a piece, but I’m lucky. I get the whole pie.”

And it’s a big damn pie. While the WWF will not release hard figures, reports place his income at between $5 million and $10 million, much of it from merchandise, which he designs in large part himself. On most of his T-shirts, which sell at a clip of a million a month, he chooses the artwork and invents the slogans. “Of course, I came up with ‘Austin 3: 16.’ I came up with ‘100% Pure Whoop Ass,’ ‘100% Pure Rattlesnake,’ and ‘100% Pure Hell Raiser.’ You can put ‘100% Pure’ in front of just about anything.” At an average of $20 a pop, his T-shirts accounted for nearly half of the WWF’s $500 million in merchandise sold in 1998.

Still, 1999 has not been a perfect year for Austin or the WWF. In May he and his wife divorced. A month later, fellow WWF wrestler Owen Hart fell from the arena rafters to his death in a botched stunt at a pay-per-view event in Kansas City, Missouri. Rumors of bad blood between the two had circulated since a sloppy pile driver from Hart temporarily paralyzed Austin in 1996. “I’ve got nothing bad to say about Owen Hart,” says Austin. “Mistakes will be made in any business, and accidents will happen. We had our accident, and he had his.” Then, in June, a seven-year-old boy in Dallas allegedly killed his three-year-old-brother with a move he said he saw watching pro wrestling. Neither the WWF nor Austin are talking publicly about the tragedy, but a few weeks before, talking less guardedly, he addressed critics who perceive a real threat in his sport’s cartoon violence and vulgarity. “I don’t expect the TV or anybody else to raise my kids,” he said.

IT CAN BE DIFFICULT TO DISTINGUISH Steve Austin from Stone Cold, but watching him in Boerne, you notice that his star turn takes a laid-back twist. Here he is accorded the special, small-town type of fame typically enjoyed by high school quarterbacks on Saturday mornings; he flirts with all the girls and signs autographs for all the kids. At the Longbranch Saloon, a local beer joint, his is a familiar face at a bar lined with hard-ridden regulars. But everybody who comes in wears either a Stone Cold smoking skull T-shirt or a camouflage baseball cap with “Stone Cold” on the crown. These are Austin’s hunting buddies, and they laugh at all his jokes as the talk veers from his favorite country songs to a fence he ran over recently in his truck. One man is his taxidermist, another his hunting guide. One couple, Rickey and Sandra Fischer, helped watch his two little girls during the divorce. He met the Fischers after he got out of his truck at a red light to push Sandra’s car, on foot, through a rainstorm to a service station.

In Boerne his time is taken up with raising his two girls, seven-year-old Stephanie and two-year-old Cassidy. He shares custody of them with his ex-wife, and he talks about them constantly. Driving through town one morning in his day-old Ford truck, going from the weight room to the tanning salon to a Mexican food place in the center of town, Austin pulls pictures of the girls from his fanny pack more than once. Stephanie smiles sweetly, and Cassidy is pictured walking on a dirt road with Rickey, stomping on bugs with an exaggerated step. It is what Stone Cold Steve Austin would call her “B.M.F. walk.” (You ask him what that means.)

But the ring is never far away. On the back of the picture of Cassidy, Austin has penciled out ideas for his next video: “Cold Beer” and “Hell Yeah!” The legend will only grow.