Friday, September 3, 2021

RIP Daffney Unger

Daffney, shown here at a 2011 meet and greet, passed away September 1
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Shannon Spruill, better known from her performing days in World Championship Wrestling and the independent circuit as Daffney Unger or Shark Girl, passed away Wednesday night. She was 46. Spruill had shown erratic behavior on Instagram Live, which had sparked concern across all the people she had touched over her career across social media and real life. Attempts were made to send help to her house, but she died before they could arrive. During her Instagram Live session, she had made reference to wanting her brain to be studied for signs of CTE from her wrestling career. This desire has shown to be common among suicidal people from industries, like wrestling, American football, and hockey, with increased risk for head trauma. The most notable among these was former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who took his own life after requesting his brain be studied.

Spruill began her career in the WCW Power Plant at a time when there weren't many womeni n mainstream American wrestling. Because of this, she would be seen rightfully as one of the trailblazing figures in women's wrestling, along with Chyna, and later on, Trish Stratus and Lita. Specifically, WCW did not have as robust a women's division as even the then-World Wrestling Federation. As Daffney Unger, she started out her career in WCW as a manager for Crowbar and David Flair. Daffney was not presented as many other female wrestling characters were at the time. The WWF's reliance on traditional sex appeal pigeonholed women in wrestling into a specific, awfully sexist box. Daffney broke that mold much in the same way Chyna did in the WWF, except where Chyna was a staggering, muscular figure who could go blow for blow with the men, Daffney's appeal was to the burgeoning alternative scene at the time with emphasis on dark clothing and dour and eccentric personality.

Daffney quickly became a fan favorite due to her aesthetic and her ability to let out eardrum-piercing screams, garnering her the nickname "Scream Queen." By 2000, she was an active wrestler, going against men and women and even winning the Cruiserweight Championship, albeit in the same sort of bullshit way Vince Russo would book non-traditional competitors to win titles. Despite the "accidental" way she won that title, her popularity never allowed her to garner the same tarnish that David Arquette or Russo himself would for winning the World Championship. Daffney was one of the most popular figures in late WCW, but the company would go on to release her before the WWF bought the company out.

Daffney's second act in wrestling came as a mentor on the independent scene. Imbued with a rebellious yet hard-working spirit that didn't allow her to coast on her fame, she competed across a wide swath of indies, including most notably SHIMMER Women Athletes. She wrestled there both as her traditional persona and under the Shark Girl mask. Nicole Matthews credits her with "changing her career" at SHIMMER Vol. 17. Daffney's indie career would be inextricably linked with Rachel Summerlyn, both in SHIMMER and Anarchy Championship Wrestling.

Daffney also had a short stint in TNA Wrestling, and although her time there was, as mentioned, short, it was important. She was thrust into the ring against a green Bubba Ray Dudley trainee, Rosie Lottalove, who concussed her with a stiff powerbomb. Spruill would sue TNA for medical damages, and even though the company tried to play the chickenshit WWE independent contractor card to shirk paying for her injuries, she was able to force TNA to settle with her out of court, striking perhaps the most significant blow against the model by which wrestling companies operate. Although WWE has not felt the ramifications of that decision, the case changed the way other companies did business. However, the concussion she suffered may have played a role in the depression that afflicted her. Depression, after all, is a nasty symptom of CTE.

Most importantly, Daffney was one of the kindest and most beloved people ever to work within an industry that can foster terrible people and worse attitudes from folks who go into it in better spirits. No one, and I mean no one, has ever said a cross word about her, and many have credited her with helping them out along the way. As is the case with so many people in this industry, especially women, wrestling didn't treat her with the same kindness she showed all the time. The outpouring of concern before her fate was known and the tidal wave of sadness and remembrance that peers and fans alike have shown reflect the kind of person she chose to be.

Writing these memorials is never easy, especially for the people for whom early death feels vastly unfair. It was hard for Hana Kimura, who would have turned 24 today. It was hard for writers in the wrestling community like Larry Csonka and Casey Michael, both of whom succumbed to rare diseases. And it's hard for Shannon Spruill, Daffney, someone who left such an imprint on this world both with her on-screen persona and her deeds as a real person. I can only hope that her family and friends can find peace. They deserve it, just as Spruill deserves to rest in peace.