December 10, 2007 12:00 PM

The way his longtime friend Bubba the Love Sponge tells it, Hulk Hogan’s Thanksgiving was a quiet, pleasant one. With wife Linda, 48, and children Brooke, 19, and Nick, 17, in California, where Linda’s parents live, Hogan spent quality time with his 87-year-old mother in the Tampa area, and then hung out with Bubba, a Sirius Satellite Radio personality who lives nearby. He had a laid-back dinner with Bubba’s family, watched movies and football, and at one point chatted with his own kids on the phone. “He was fine,” says Bubba. “When it’s Hulk Hogan, it’s just the guy next door.”

And like plenty of guys next door, the semi-retired wrestling star (born Terry Bollea) now knows how quickly the status quo can crumble. The very next day, Nov. 23, Hogan learned that Linda had filed for divorce after 23 years of marriage, saying the union was “irretrievably broken,” asking for alimony and child support for Nick, and seeking half of the couple’s more than $10 million in assets, which include three homes in Florida. The move shocked fans of the pair, who have seemed virtually inseparable over the years and who even attended marital counseling during an episode of their VH1 reality show Hogan Knows Best last season. “There was a real respect between them,” says a source. “Terry always called himself the luckiest guy on earth to have Linda and two great kids.”

And now Hogan, 54—who got wind of the split only when a St. Petersburg Times reporter called for a comment—seems to be hanging on to that optimism. “I care for my wife, and my children are my world,” he said in an official statement to TMZ on Nov. 27. “I just hope this all works out.” In private, he told Bubba much the same. “He said, ‘Linda’s a great mom, and I’m a great dad,'” his pal reports. “‘We’re going to get through this.'”

So how exactly did “this” happen? Those who know them say the rigors of filming their highly rated reality show—the future of which “remains undecided,” says a VH1 rep—plus the family’s ’06 move from Belleair, Fla., to Miami to further Brooke’s singing career strained the pair’s bond. “Linda and Terry have led separate lives for a while,” says a music industry source. “With the constant push to make their daughter a singing star and the social pressures of being in Miami, they have had lots of problems.” In the view of another observer, “Linda would like a show business career of her own and is resentful that she had to take a backseat.” Adding to the family stress level: Nick’s November arrest on a felony charge of reckless driving (see box).

But there is no doubt that the pair—who would share custody of Nick, their only minor child—are devoted parents. “They love their kids more than anything,” says a business acquaintance. “They would get in all sorts of fights and say awful things, but at the end of the day, there was a real togetherness, a genuine love. Terry would have sacrificed his career if it meant saving his family. He was very happy with his life the way it was.”

What it will become remains to be seen. While Hogan is due to report to the Culver City set of NBC’s American Gladiators Nov. 28, Linda has been lying low. “She’s basically doing okay,” says her mother, Gail Claridge, who has an interior design store in Westlake Village, Calif. “She’s going to live in California. She’s here with her children, getting herself situated. They’re okay too.” Indeed, when daughter Brooke hit the pool at the Shore Club in Miami’s South Beach Nov. 25 with friends, “she seemed like everything was okay,” says an onlooker. “You could tell she was preoccupied,” says another observer. “She wanted to relax and not think about anything dramatic going on.”

Friends say her parents will try to keep the drama to a minimum. “I think it will be very amicable,” says Bubba. “They’ve been together for a while, and they needed a change of scenery. The kids are grown, and it’s time for them to be happy.” Which might mean reuniting one day. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up old in rocking chairs together,” says another friend. “He could never find someone else like her, and I don’t think she’ll ever find someone like him.”

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