The Fall, and Rise, of Bret “Hitman” Hart: Part One
Bret Hart working alongside the March of Dimes
For Part Two of this interview, in which Bret discusses mending fences with Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon, his triumphant return to the ring in 2010, his place in wrestling history, becoming a grandfather, and whether or not we’ll ever see another Bret Hart match, click here.
They call them “bumps” – the pro wrestling term for the falls, slams, and crashes combatants take during an all-out, tear-the-house-down brawl. Canuck wrestling legend Bret “Hitman” Hart knows the feeling — during his two decade career he’s had his face smashed against turnbuckles, his body driven through tables, and none other than Andre the Giant press him high above his Goliath frame, only to toss him like a rag doll from the ring to the concrete arena floor below.
But the worst bump Hart, 56, ever took, occurred far from the wrestling ring, in a riverside park in his hometown of Calgary – the same city where his father, Stu Hart, operated his fabled Stampede Wrestling promotion.
In June 2002, at the age of 45, the former multi-time wrestling champion inadvertently rode his bike into a hidden, basketball-sized hole in the grass, tumbling to the ground and triggering a stroke that left half of his body paralyzed.
“If you watched you’d think that was the most pathetic bump,” Hart told me. “Of all the bumps Bret Hart’s ever taken, you’d think he could fall on the grass a little better than that.”
Nearly eleven years to the month later Hart, in Toronto on behalf of the March of Dimes, a charity he works closely with, met me in a downtown hotel. The hero I watched as a child as he battled a roster of wrestling’s greatest villains crossed the lobby – his hair a little greyer, a limp in his step, sometimes battered but never beaten.
For the next hour we sat alone in a large, nondescript conference room, Hart candidly discussing, in detail, everything from his stroke and the gut-wrenching recovery to his status as a Canadian hero.
In part one of our two-part interview, Hart takes me through his fateful bike ride 11 years ago, reveals the challenges he faced on the long road to recovery, talks his safety record as a wrestler, and tells me why he believes he’ll live to be 100.
MIKE CRISOLAGO: You quipped that the anniversary of your stroke is your “11-year celebration,” but in a way it really is a celebration.
BRET HART: Now it is – like the way you remember 9/11 or something you survived, I guess. I don’t keep track of dates in a bad way. I try not to remember the day people died so much as I remember the day they were born. That kind of stuff.
With my stroke, you’re right, it’s a black day that I put a pink circle around. I rarely let the day go past without remembering or reflecting. A lot of times I’ll ride my bike along the same path – the same ride I took the day I crashed – and the same hole is there, funny enough.
MC: Take me back through that bike ride.
BH: I was pedaling up a real small hill and I hit the hole and I could have tipped over right there, but I kept pedaling. I was trying to fight out of the hole without getting off the bike. If I had just stopped and maybe got off I’d be fine. I was standing up on the pedals, so I couldn’t really do that. And then my back tire hit the hole, and I did the same thing – keep pedaling, fighting out of it. Then I got my bike where it was kind of wobbling. I got about three feet from the hole and then my bike just fell over sideways.
I do remember when I hit it and fell I was mad at the hole. I said ‘Stupid hole.’ And I was all slurring and drooling. I believe I had the stroke as soon as I hit the ground. It’s funny how much I floundered in those few minutes trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I thought I had a pinched nerve. I had no pain other than a little bit of a scrape on my head. I couldn’t figure it out.
It’s always weird for me to remember taking my left hand, putting it on the handle bar, and just watching it fall off, and going, “What the hell is wrong with my arm?” I remember trying to swing my injured leg over the seat, and I fell over again with my bike sort of in a heap on top of me. And that’s when I finally called someone to come help me. But even then I didn’t think I was in any kind of big state…just give me a couple of hours and I’ll walk this off. I’ll be fine. Then about four in the morning they did a CAT scan or a brain scan and they came back and told me that I had a stroke. And then from that point you’re trying to remember what the hell a stroke is.
(The paramedics) told me when they picked me up that my left pupil was huge – like just full black – and my right one was just normal. So they could tell looking at me that (I was) hurt. It’s not an Advil and go to bed.
MC: Looking back, was the stroke something that was inevitably going to happen, or was it the fall that triggered it?
BH: My belief is the fall. There’s no way to really know, but I had no symptoms. There was nothing that happened that was significant other than the fall. And the grass was still pretty hard. But the second I hit the ground my whole life changed completely.
MC: Tell me about being in the hospital and coming to grips with the left side of your body being paralyzed.
BH: It was so bad in the beginning. I realized I’d have to put all my faith in these people to put me back together – and I remember saying “I’ll do whatever they tell me to do, everyday, to the best of my ability,” and I did. I remember my doctor saying to me, “What do you want the most?” I said, “Just get me out of the wheelchair.” I remember when I finally got out of the wheelchair my walk was still pretty jilted and stilted and kind of off-balance and stuff like that, and I actually remember praying that if I get out of the wheelchair I won’t complain about anything else.
There was an [older lady] named Miriam that was in there with me, and she gave me such a good pep talk the very first day. She gave me a lot of support in those first few days, as did the nurses and the physio and the doctors and everyone else. Six months later I’m starting to walk and get better and I remember her still sitting in her wheel chair. She didn’t get anything back. And you learn how lucky you are. You take all those old memories with you and you try to move forward. That’s why I do what I can for the March of Dimes.
MC: As you’re talking you’re lifting your hand off the table – a simple movement that was the product of months and months of rehab.
BH: I remember sitting there, I don’t know for how many weeks, trying to turn my hand over. My physio consisted of my hand dropping on the table and saying, ‘See if you can turn it over,’ and then trying for 30 minutes to turn it over and after a couple of weeks you could get it up like that [raises his hand slightly] and then it would fall down and it would be so draining that you’d just be wiped. You’d go up and lie down for two hours. And you start to feel pretty hopeless.
MC: You eventually overcame the half-paralysis of your body, but what didn’t you get back?
BH: There’s these tendons near your calf that lift your feet up when you walk – some of them didn’t come back so I’ve got kind of a flip flop (left) foot that kind of drags a bit. Same with my scapular – my chicken wing – the left one, there’s hardly any strength in it. Two places that I can live with, but it’s still there, it affects how I lift and the things I do now in my life. That, and I have a bit of a droopy smile on my left side. All in all, that’s it, and maybe my vision was a little affected in my left eye for a while. Other than that I think I got off pretty good.
MC: You suffered a severe concussion in a match against Bill Goldberg in December, 1999, that ultimately forced you to retire? Is there a connection between that and the stroke a few years later?
BH: It’s hard to say. It’s really hard to say. They told me that they didn’t think there was but my honest opinion – I think there’s a connection.
MC: As a professional wrestler you always kept in peak physical condition. What kind of workout routine do you keep since the stroke, and what would you advise others in your position to try?
BH: Free weights are really hard on your joints – your elbows, your knees, your wrists. I think it’s a smart idea to start taking care of your joints as you get older. I set a goal for myself when I was in the hospital. I thought some day I’m going to try my hardest, when I recover from this, to lift 300 pounds again. Just to be able to say I did it. And I did. I remember it took me a long time. I tried my hardest for I don’t know how many years. And I came back and I trained and trained and I did – I think I got 301 or 302 pounds or something on the bench press. And I remember struggling and fighting – it wasn’t very Olympic form or anything, but I did it and it was a huge thing for me. And since then, the day I did it, I don’t do heavy weights anymore.
I do a lot of machines, and you can get the same results with these chest press machines and stuff like that. I can do a lot of the same things I used to with certain exercises. But my left arm will always be weaker than my right one.
MC: There’s also a great irony, considering how your career ended, that you were always known as one of the safest wrestlers to work with.
BH: In my 23 years, there’s not one wrestler anywhere that ever got hurt by me that couldn’t get up the next day and wrestle. When you’re climbing up on the top rope and there’s a wrestler below and you’ve got to jump off with that elbow drop, there really is a moment where you go, “He’s got his wife, his kids, everything he’s got in his whole life is in my hands right now.” If I’m off because I’m drinking too much or didn’t get enough sleep on the plane, or I’m wobbly or I’m tired or in a bad mood or I just fall funny – one little mistake can be critical in wrestling. And I found that myself, in the end, when Bill Goldberg kicked me in the head. I got my hand up and I missed his foot. I would have been able to kind of just deflect it enough to fall a different way. Then I turned and he kicked me in the back of the head.
MC: It’s been 11 years since your stroke. What’s the future look like for Bret Hart?
BH: I’d like to write another book. I’d like to do some acting. But I look at acting and go, ‘If I can do something fun, I’ll do it.’ I’m not looking for anything hard anymore. I want to be with my granddaughter and do stuff. I may have kids of my own again. I haven’t ruled anything out. I look at every day as still lots of things that are going to happen for me in the next 50 years. I expect to have a long, good, healthy life. My dad lived close to his 90s and I always think with medicine the way it is, the future looks brighter and brighter every year. I expect I can live to 100. I’ll be really mad if I get short-changed on that. I’m owed a hundred years at least, minimum, and then maybe I’ll take the ride.
Part Two of the interview, in which Bret discusses becoming a grandfather, mending fences with old wrestling rivals, his triumphant, post-stroke return to the ring, and his enduring legacy as a Canadian hero, will be published Tuesday, October 15.
*This interview has been edited and condensed