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wrestling / Columns

Csonka: Thank You Bruno Sammartino

April 21, 2018 | Posted by Larry Csonka
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Over the years, I have discussed the origins and evolution of my time as a wrestling fan. In the early days, I was a huge NWA fan thanks to my brother. It’s what he preferred, and 6:05 on Saturdays was appointment viewing for us. But with the passing of Bruno Sammartino, it made we think about another appointment I used to keep. It was 11AM on Saturday mornings, and it was with my grandmother. I only had the pleasure of knowing one grandparent in my life, my mother’s mother, and spent many hours with her. She was a strong woman, raising 6 kids largely on her own as my grandfather was apparently not the best husband and father. But she became sick later in life, suffering from cancer and heart disease, and lived with us for her final 6-years of life, while I was between 4 and 10 years old.

She was a great woman, filled with great stories that she loved to share with me. Stories about her life, about our family, but one day she noticed that I loved to watch wrestling. One Saturday, she had me go to the corner store for some strawberry ice cream (not that yogurt bullshit the doctor wants me to eat Skippy, yes, she called me skippy) and said that she had plans for us that day. Plans usually meant story time and TV, since she was bedridden, and that was ok. When I returned, she revealed her plan, she wanted to watch WWF Superstars of Wrestling with me. It was during his time that she shared with me her love of wrestling, her time attending studio wrestling hosted by Bill Cardille, and her love of Bruno Sammartino.

She, like many in Pittsburgh, looked at Bruno Sammartino as a hero. She had endless memories of watching him, watching wrestling with my mother, aunts, and uncles, and then launched into a rant about that “son of a bitch” Larry Zbyszko. This woman wanted to kill Zbyszko for what he did to Bruno, you could joke and say it was still real to her, but that emotion and love was engrained in me. I didn’t really like watching the WWF product, but I watched it with her because of the stories she would share. She was the only grandparent I ever knew, but in her final years, we spent every Saturday morning together, watching WWF and me, sitting by her side, listening to her stories and hot takes on the wrestling. She hated Hogan because he “couldn’t lace Bruno’s boots,” and she always let me know that he wasn’t the best. She believed that Andre the Giant was a mythical creature that went undefeated for years and hated that Hogan slammed him.

For many people, when they hear the name Bruno Sammartino, they think legend, hero, and icon. But for the last 30 years, it made me think of my grandmother. Those final years are as fresh as if they just happened. We shared a bond, and we did so because of her love of Bruno Sammartino. So thank you Bruno Sammartino, thank you for providing my grandmother with many years of entertainment and for that allowing us to bond in her final years.

Now due to being born in 1977, I can’t claim to be this longtime fan that saw all of Bruno’s matches, but as a Pittsburgh boy, his death gutted me. Sammartino was a hero in Pittsburgh, loved and revered in the same breath as Terry Bradshaw, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, and Mario Lemieux; he was a Pittsburgh sports legend and hero.

In my early days as a writer, I did a series on the top 25 greatest North American wrestlers, and of course, Bruno was on the list. That early project was the first time wrestlers, and people representing wrestlers ever contacted me with positive words on my work. I was so proud about what I had penned on Bruno that I printed it out and sent it to him. It seems silly, but I felt he had to read it. I eventually heard back, which led to a short meeting with the legend while I was up visiting my parents in Pittsburgh.

I wish I could tell you it was a meeting of the minds and that we had an all-time great conversation on wrestling. He was gentle, kind, and respectful to someone he owed nothing to. But I was a wreck, far from cool, calm and collected. The best comparison I can come up with is that I was Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on SNL, hell, I’m pretty sure I even blurted out, “remember that time, in Madison Square Garden, that was cool…” he kindly thanked me for my words on his career and said to “keep up the good work.” I didn’t even get to tell him about my grandmother.

I was far from a confident writer at this time and didn’t even know if I could make this thing work. But hell, if Bruno said I did good work, and told me to keep it up, who was I to argue? I left the short meeting completely embarrassed in the fact that I couldn’t hold a solid conversation with the man, but I had a new confidence and continued working on my craft. Thank you, Bruno, for your kindness, without it I would have given up long ago.

From that point on, 411 became my priority, I worked hard to improve, and eventually, 411 became my fulltime job. Reflecting back on things, I owe Bruno Sammartino so many thanks and a huge debt of gratitude. His connection with my grandmother allowed us to bond in her final years, his word to a scared young man gave me confidence, and I now realize that not only was he a wrestling great and a Pittsburgh legend, but I now realize that I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

Thank You Bruno Sammartino… for everything.

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