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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, October 29, 1999

An open letter to Bret Hart

Eric Benner
Special to SLAM! Sports

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Mr. Hart,

Let my start by saying that this isn't fan mail, per se. Granted, this is mail and I'm a fan of yours, but to suggest that this is fan mail would be to distort its purpose. That being to address you about my and so many of your fans' concern about the state of your career, not to mention your state of mind.

You see, I've received emails in the five digits since starting my weekly editorial here at SLAM! about a year and a half ago. Even though the columns have varied in nature, I always received more mail about one subject than any other: you.

But I'm not here to speak for your fans, I'm could only ever endeavour to speak for just one of your fans -- me.

Mr. Hart, you've had more of an impact on my life than any other wrestler, sports entertainer, athlete, actor, or public figure of any sort. Only people who've read me from the beginning know this, but I wrote my first internet column on November 28, 1997. That was the week after I attended the Survivor Series pay-per-view in Montreal.

That broadcast, of course, was the night you faced Shawn Michaels -- or any WWF wrestler -- for the last time, and the night you were screwed in your last performance for a company to which you'd given most of your career.

I left the Montreal Molson Center that evening with a sort of sick feeling in my gut. I didn't know what I had witnessed just then, only that it was more than a little bit weird to see your brothers-in-law, Jim Neidhart and David Smith, in the ring with you, after the show, spelling out "W-C-W" with arm motions.

When I got home, that very same night, with next to no real writing experience under my belt, I typed my first column, and sent it out to the webmasters of a few tiny sites no one read. Many people who had seen the pay-per-view shared my negative, if somewhat uninformed sentiments and let me know via email. I enjoyed that interaction and continued to write the column. Six months later that column appeared here at SLAM! Wrestling, the online home of your weekly column.

But this letter isn't about me, it's about you. And before I get to the important part of what I have to say, I just wanted it to be clear where I come from. In fact, I can make it much clearer.

When I was even younger, I went to the WWF house show at the Montreal Forum each year, and for about two or three of those shows, you were the champ. I can honestly say that no one in Montreal -- not The Undertaker, not Hulk Hogan, not The Ultimate Warrior -- no one in your era received cheers like you did. And despite our short attention spans, we'd watch you put on a great show, sometimes almost an hour long, against some heel. And no matter who the heel was, you two would have a great match. The one thing I'll always remember you most for, Mr. Hart, was that it didn't matter who you wrestled. Every night seemed like a classic.

And who could forget the sunglasses? You wore them in your interviews in those days, and you'd always give a pair to a little kid at ringside. Oh, how I wished that kid would be me, but the fact that it never was didn't make you any less of a hero to me.

After you lost the belt the third time, I became somewhat disinterested in the cartoonish product the WWF was offering, and I stopped watching altogether. In 1996, WCW offered something to re-capture my interest, that being the nWo, but it was the re-united Hart Foundation that turned me back onto the WWF. Watching you five guys as heels was one of the highlights of my wrestling fan-dom.

I remember when you sported every title in the Federation. I remember the ridiculous racist angle involving you, DX, and the Nation. But most of all, I remember that, despite all the fanfare, you were possibly the last great stable group able to do your entertaining inside the ring, which was more than I could say for the nWo. Obviously, I remember when you guys split up, when you left the WWF and your brothers-in-law followed suit.

And that's when things all started to fall apart.

Things seemed to start well, with two wins over Ric Flair in your first two matches back. Unfortunately, though, those matches were mired in some of your fans' eyes by your recent comments about your late brother's decision to stay in the WWF. You called it disloyal, and I have to admit, at the time, I agreed, largely because The Bulldog and The Anvil seemed loyal enough to go.

As things went on, though, you got lost in the WCW shuffle, even more lost in the Eric Bischoff-Hulk Hogan-Kevin Nash clique than you had been in the WWF. You won the United States title a couple of times, but they were in low-profile matches against the likes of Lex Luger. Then finally you seemed to gain some momentum with your chair-wielding destruction angle last year.

All the while, I and so many of your other fans continued to follow your career, pray and cheer for you, and read your weekly Sun column. All the while, I got email after email asking me when WCW honcho Bischoff was going to see some sense and give you the heavyweight title, or at least a legitimate shot. The rumors were rampant. Starrcade 1998. Superbrawl 1999. And so it went.

That was around the time you started to lose yourself, though. At first it you lost faith in your own ability to be successful again. Maybe you missed your standing in the WWF, maybe you missed the heavyweight title. I don't know -- I'm not you.

Throughout that time, there was the bitterness, and it became more and more stale with time. Bitterness at how your WWF career ended, bitterness at Vince McMahon, bitterness at your brother for staying, or at anyone who had anything bad to say about you.

Then 1999 came around, and I don't think anyone needs reminding about what happened in late spring this year.

The way you reacted to it, though, the way you used it to lash out at Vince McMahon, largely for things that had nothing to do with Owen, it was ... well, it was frightening. There were times when I, a grown man, were scared of you. You seemed so angry and bitter, and it was so clear that not all of that anger came from the death of your brother.

Now, I would never presume to tell you or anyone how to react to the passing of a loved one. I'd be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that Vince McMahon had been lying on TSN's Off the Record when he suggested that you uttered not a word about Owen at his funeral but had plenty to say about how he ruined your career. But I read your columns each week, and never did you say anything like "let's all just remember Owen," it was always about attacking, about lashing out at the people who had hurt not Owen, but you.

Then to top that off, there's the whole Bulldog thing. The man leaves the WWF for WCW out of loyalty to you, injures himself beyond repair in a WCW ring, spends over a year trying to recover while listening to doctors telling him he never will, then finds the strength to get well, get back into shape, and wrestle again.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, while he was in the hospital bed in tremendous pain, he gets his walking papers from WCW. Then after he recovers, he wants to make a living again, so he signs with the WWF. And you question his loyalty? I didn't see you making nearly the fuss about his departure from WCW that he made for your WWF exodus. Where was your loyalty, Mr. Hart?

That's all bad enough, but then you had the gall to suggest he reminded you of pigs rolling around in their own feces, and that ... and I have trouble repeating this because it sounds so incredulous, but you stated in a column of yours that you'd run over his wife if you saw her walking you were while driving.

And then I found myself asking myself who you were, and where my childhood hero was.

I've never had the chance to meet you face to face, and I regret that, but even if I did, in 1999, I'd have to wonder who I'd be meeting: my hero, Bret Hart, or this other guy.

I still have your picture hanging on my wall, along with all the other autographed pictures of my heroes -- Bobby Orr, Raymond Bourque, Mario Lemieux, Roger Clemens, Cam Neely -- all the guys who've had their shares of rough times and who worked back from them. Be it injury or shame or just hard times, they all busted their butts and got back into the swing of things, and that's why they're heroes to me.

Though your picture still hangs there, it's out of place. It doesn't belong with all these other guys, guys who took their share of knocks and then some, but still didn't give up. Lots of other guys belong there, too, and if I ever were to meet them, I'd love to get their autographs and hang them up alongside. Ted Williams, for example, who went to war for years before returning to baseball and performing better than ever. Or your brother-in-law, who reminds you of a pig in !@#$, David Smith. That man, I admire.

But you gave up. You threw in the towel. Effectively, you said "I don't want to be these kids' heroes anymore. I've been dealt a bad hand recently and it's too much for me."

For every memory I have relating to this, though, I have ten of you in the ring, in your prime, out-performing all of your peers, never missing a show.

So in parting, I have only this to say.

You have been dealt a bad hand. Worse than I hope I ever see. You've taken more than your fair share of knocks. What happened to you, everything that happened to you and to those around you -- it isn't fair. But I'm still with you. You still hang with the rest of my heroes, and I think the same goes for so many of your fans.

All we want to see is Bret Hart, back in the ring, bringing back the second W to WCW. I'm encouraged to see you winning the United States title again and hopefully headed for the finals of that 32-man tournament, which I imagine would take place at WCW Mayhem in Toronto.

And if you make it, I'll be in a bar somewhere, watching the card, watching just for your fight. Win or lose, I hope you make it a good fight, and remind people why you were my hero and everyone's hero for years and years and years. Hopefully, you'll be a new hero for one new, young fan, that night.

Isn't that what it's all about?

In closing, I leave you with the words Bobby Orr left me on a photo he's no doubt long forgotten, all three of them, both honest and meaningful:

To Bret,
Best of luck,

No mail this week. It's just one of those days. I'll include extra next week, so get writin'. Thanks for reading.

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