It’s not everyday you can say that you met a legend. I was surrounded by a few this past weekend at the 2014 International Sports Hall of Fame: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee Haney, Betty Wieder, and Mark Henry. However, the Legend I am referring to is Bruno Sammartino. If you are not from the baby boomer generation or a major fan of wrestling you might not know the name. I thought I would take today to share history and his legend with you. Yesterday was the 2014 International Sports Hall of Fame (ISHOF) Ceremony, a prestigious award that is given to five outstanding individuals in the world of sports from around the globe. This Hall of Fame is unique. It extends beyond the number of points scored, championships one, and records attained. It accounts for the difference a person has made in the world.
I first learned of Bruno last year when Jim had brought me to the 2013 ISHOF ceremony. Jim explained to me that Bruno was one of the first major wrestlers in the United States and one hell of a wrestler at that. I was intrigued, not so much for myself, but for my father. I knew my dad was an athlete all of his life, so I was sure he had the reverence and respect of Bruno as I had of an athlete in my era, say Triple H. Last year I stood in awe as Bruno was inducted to the ISHOF and took the podium and gave a brief history of his life.
Born and raised in Italy, Bruno was the youngest of eleven siblings. On the onset of World War II. Bruno along with his family left their home in Abruzzi, Italy in order to escape the German soldiers. They lived in the side of a mountain to remain hidden from the German soldiers, when at sometime Bruno fell ill to rheumatic fever. As a fifteen-year old boy, Bruno left Italy to meet up with this father in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After defeating the rheumatic fever and escaping the war, Bruno embarked on one of the most amazing life stories imaginable. Arriving in Pittsburgh, Bruno took the weight room and wrestling ring. After becoming a name known around town in Pittsburgh he was spotted by Rudy Miller, who recruited Bruno to become a professional wrestler. Bruno fought his way to the top and is the longest reigning WWWF champion, holding the title for over seven consecutive years. As an Italian Catholic myself, I can appreciate Bruno’s opportunity to perform for a private audience including the Pope! He gained his title back and holds the record for a reigning champion of over 11 years! Bruno sold out Madison Square Garden over 187 times!
My little biography doesn’t do Bruno justice though. Yesterday, as I scanned the crowded room full of legendary athletes, I looked for a familiar face. And then I saw him, standing next to his physician, at a small round cocktail table. To my surprise, no one was hovering around him. I felt myself hold back for a second, and then I thought, “No, go tell him”. I casually walked up to the table and tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Bruno, is okay to get a picture with you?” Kindly he replied, “yes.” After having our photo op, I let it out. I proceeded to tell him that I might not be able to fully comprehend his legend, but that my father, and my grandmother do. That his story has been passed down from generation to generation, not just from the Internet, but also from family stories. That hearing his story evading the German soldiers, overcoming illness, and rising up to become one of the best athletes ever known is a story to inspire generations forever. I sat there listening to him talk to me, and it felt like I was talking to my grandfather, an ex-POW of the Germans. Bruno is so humble, so warming, and so genuine. He proceeded to tell me that he never imagined people would remember his career, that once he was done, he would be forgotten.
Despite the ability to preserve someone’s memory through the Internet, nothing can share the value of a person’s life passed down through generations. Beyond being the longest reigning WWWF champion, Bruno is truly a champion of life. The obstacles his generation had to face, one can only imagine. It’s not always about the trophies you win or the titles you hold, it’s about what you do with your life. Bruno Sammartino is a legend, a legend of life.