5:52 AM PT -- 9/24 -- James Laurinaitis -- the former NFL and Ohio State football star -- says he's heartbroken over his father's death ... writing in an emotional post Wednesday night, "I'm absolutely crushed."
"I hate that I wasn’t able to say goodbye," Laurinaitis said ... "I miss you already."
James -- a 2nd-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft -- was close to his wrestling legend dad ... and often spoke about how Road Warrior Animal helped mold him into a special football player.
Laurinaitis shared pictures of the two together in his post ... and added, "I don’t have the right words to say."
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"Say hello to Mum Mum, Pop Pop, and Hawk for me. Thank you for your love and support and the many lessons you’ve taught me. I can’t believe you’re gone. I love you Dad."
WWE icon Joseph Laurinaitis, AKA Road Warrior Animal, died Tuesday night of natural causes ... TMZ Sports has confirmed. He was 60 years old.
Law enforcement tells us, the wrestling legend -- who was one half of the famous Road Warriors tag team -- passed away at Tan-Tar-A Resort in Osage Beach, MO.
We're told cops received a call at around 11:49 PM from Laurinaitis' wife ... but when deputies arrived on scene -- emergency personnel had already declared the ex-wrestler deceased.
Laurinaitis is considered one of the best in-ring performers of all-time -- he wrestled for most of his WWE career with Road Warrior Hawk and won multiple tag team championships as The Road Warriors/Legion of Doom.
He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2011.
"RIP Animal,love you my brother," Hulk Hogan said in a statement Wednesday morning. "I know you and Hawk have a lot of unfinished business to take care of! God speed and blessings to your beautiful family,one love4Life."
Laurinaitis' son, James Laurinaitis, was a superstar linebacker at Ohio State who was picked in the 2nd-round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Rams.
Joseph, meanwhile, was known for his face paint and spiked shoulder pads ... as well as his imposing frame -- he was 6-foot-2, 300-plus pounds.
As a team with Road Warrior Hawk (who died of a heart attack in 2003) ... Laurinaitis famously headlined several HUGE WWE events.