Bruno Sammartino was a hero of mine since I was thirteen years old, and I had the privilege of spending Christmas with him. Little did I or anyone else know that this would sadly be his last.
Campo die Sogni – The Final Christmas of Bruno Sammartino
Unless you are a member of the FBI (Full-Blooded Italians), the first thing you might be asking yourself is, “What the heck does that mean?” Campo die Sogni is Italian for “Field of Dreams.”
I had my Field of Dreams experience. No, it was not on a baseball field in Iowa City. It was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in an Italian restaurant named Rico’s. The guest of honor wasn’t Shoeless Joe Jackson. No, it was my hero, The Living Legend, Bruno Sammartino.
Back in the year 1968, in the living room of the Scala House on Intervale Avenue in Farmingdale, New York, on Saturday afternoon, for some unknown reason, wrestling was on our TV set. Back then, it was the ONLY set in the household. Ray Morgan was the announcer for a show called Capitol Wrestling held at the National Arena in Washington, D.C. Mr. Morgan introduced the WWWF Champion, a gentleman from Abruzzi, Italy by the name of Bruno Sammartino. I was instantly transfixed by this man who had muscles on top of his muscles, yet spoke so humbly. At the end of the interview, Mr. Morgan asked Bruno to say a few words to his Italian fans. I screamed for my mom to come to the television to translate. Fortunately, she was in the kitchen (where she was 24/7). She came over and told me that Bruno was very grateful for the fans who supported him and came out to see him.
A few months later, the WWWF came to the Island Gardens in West Hempstead. I am not sure what I promised my dad in terms of good grades or behavior, but he was more than happy to take me. That night, Bruno wrestled his arch-nemesis, the evil Professor Toru Tanaka (who I learned later wasn’t a professor at all, nor even from Japan, just a nice guy from Hawaii named Charlie J). The match ended when the two of them collided. I still swear I could feel the collision, and Bruno was the one who got up before the count of 10. Seeing Bruno on television was one thing, but seeing this larger than life Superman in person was beyond incredible. At that moment, Bruno became my hero.
I collected baseball cards in my youth, but from that moment on, all my discretionary income went towards the purchase of wrestling magazines, especially when Bruno was on the cover. I saw Bruno wrestle The Wolfman at the Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, New York. What made that day memorable, besides, of course, my hero triumphing over evil was that my brother Jim made his way to ringside and made the mistake of pointing a camera (with flash attachment) in the face of Crazy Luke Graham. Crazy Luke’s boot missed Jim’s head by mere inches!
The Day That Wrestling Died
My love affair with wrestling continued well into my teens and mid-twenties, ending, by no coincidence, when Bruno retired in 1980. Within the next few years, wrestling had changed and not in a good way.
Something I considered a sport had evolved into a three-ring circus with the ringmaster being a pompous man named Vince McMahon. Although I continued to watch, it was halfhearted and mainly out of habit.
They said that Buddy Holly’s death was The Day The Music Died. If that is true, then Bruno Sammartino’s retirement was, in my opinion, The Day That Wrestling Died.
Melodramatic? Maybe a bit, but since I am the one writing this, I only have to listen to my very own head and heart.
With the advent of the Internet in the mid-’90s, there were at first chat rooms and later websites where wrestling fans could gather and discuss their favorites, both past and present. I think that if I had a dollar for each time I categorically stated that Bruno is, was, and always will be the greatest champion this sport has ever seen, I would not be typing this on a 35-degree autumn day in Minneapolis. I’d probably be on my laptop at a Tiki Bar in Cocoa or Daytona Beach, drinking whatever frozen concoction the bartender recommended. The important thing is, I still would be typing it.
About two years ago, I had the fortune of meeting (on Facebook) a very nice gentleman by the name of Mike Migut. Not only did we share a common interest in old school wrestling, but as it turns out, we shared a common hero in Bruno. In Mike’s case, not only was Bruno his hero, but he was also his friend. In sharing wrestling stories with Mike, I learned that he and I share many common values, particularly how important family is, devotion to our moms, and of course, our love of old-school wrestling. Through Mike, I could keep up-to-date with my hero’s life. Mike was gracious enough to share stories of his lunches, dinners, and more with Bruno, plus his trip to Italy, a thrill for which I have no appropriate words.
In my conversations with Mike, he frequently mentioned that he could set up a lunch or dinner with Bruno if I were ever in the area. I smiled to myself and thought, “Man, maybe someday… That would be great.”
In early October 2017, I posted a tribute to Bruno on my Facebook page. Mike enjoyed it so much that he asked me if he could read it to Bruno, as he was taking him to dinner to celebrate his birthday, Mike was very well-mannered, but he didn’t have to ask. I told him it would be an honor. Unfortunately, the dinner was delayed because of some health issues Bruno was experiencing, but the night before it happened, Mike messaged me and asked me for my cell number. He said if he could, he might have Bruno call and say hello. I smiled and thought, “Man, that would be so cool…”
By the Grace of God, the very next evening wasn’t crazy busy at work, and right around six my time, my cell phone started ringing. It was Mike. He told me someone wanted to say a few words to me. I think I am pretty good with the written and spoken word, but there are no words to explain how I felt when I heard Bruno say, “Hello, Benny.”
Bruno and I chatted for a few minutes, and to my absolute delight, he was exactly how I had pictured him in my mind for almost 50 years, gracious and humble to a fault.
If the story had ended at that, it would have been a great one indeed, except it didn’t. A couple of weeks later, Mike texted me and asked if I would like to attend a Christmas dinner in Pittsburgh. Besides him, his mother, and brother Kirk, the guest list would include Dominic DeNucci, one of the greatest wrestlers from the 1960s, Donnie Iris, who made it to the top of the charts in 1970 with “The Rapper,” and later again in the 1980s with “Love is Like a Rock,” and oh yeah, the Living Legend, Bruno Sammartino. Would I like to attend? Does Lilah love ice cream? Is the Pope Irish? Within 30 minutes of Mike’s text, I had gotten the time off from work, bought a plane ticket, and reserved a hotel room.
We were eating at Rico’s Italian Restaurant, one of Bruno’s favorites, and after eating there, I can understand why…
Anyone who knows me just a bit knows that I inherited my mom’s talent for worrying. If worrying were an Olympic sport, Mom would have toppled Michael Phelps as the all-time Olympic Gold Medal Champion. I went over every possible scenario in my mind as to why this wouldn’t happen. I worried myself sick, although I would have gone under any circumstances except death, car trouble (I would have walked to the airport), flight delays, Pittsburgh blizzards, etc. But to my great joy, none of these happened.
I sat in my hotel room that day, trying to keep myself occupied so that the time would pass and I could leave. Ironically, I am wearing the very same dress shirt I bought for the occasion (my Bruno shirt) as I am typing now. Finally, it was time to leave for Rico’s. Of course, I went through my mental progression of worry. “What if I couldn’t get a Lyft”?” “What if he couldn’t find Rico’s?” etc. Of course, none of this happened, and I was at Rico’s with almost an hour to spare.
I bellied up to the bar and ordered a very large glass of wine. As the wine moved down and the anxiety started to dissipate, a very familiar face walked in, Mr. Domenic DeNucci. The difference between introducing yourself as a random psychotic fan and a fan with some reason for being there is amazing. Domenic’s warmth and sense of humor took away what remained of my anxiety.
Never in a million years could I have imagined sitting at a bar in Pittsburgh, sharing a drink (Dominic drank coffee, by the way) with someone you watched on television a hundred times, not to mention seen in person. Like Bruno, Dominic was a genuinely humble man. You’d never know that he wrestled all over the world and was the equivalent of Bruno in Australia, but, as Casey Stengel would say, “You could look it up,” which I had!
About 20 minutes later, I saw a black Mercedes pull into the parking lot. From the driver’s side emerged a woman who I immediately identified as Mrs. Sammartino. About 30 seconds later, out came Bruno. I am trying to come up with the words to describe the utter amazement, awe, and thrill that went through me at that moment, but I don’t think there are words to describe it. The rest of the evening was a blur, possibly because of the crate of absolutely fantastic wine at the table. The one thing I remember very vividly was being able to read my tribute to Bruno without messing up, and him saying, “Oh my God!” at the end, which meant that my speech was either very bad or very good (the rest of the table applauded, so I will assume the latter).
I must also mention that one of the guests was Dominic Ierace, who is more commonly known as Donnie Iris. So, not only did I get to meet my hero along with another legendary wrestler I admired for years, but to boot, I got to meet a rock and roll superstar. Maybe it is something in the Pittsburgh drinking water, but Donnie was just as humble as Bruno and Dominic. I told him that I would sing “Love Is Like A Rock” while holding my then infant son Matt at our apartment in my endless effort to get him to go to sleep. I’m not sure if he appreciated his music being used as kid NyQuil, but he appreciated my support.
To my great joy, Donnie is a very passionate baseball fan. We talked about the 1960 World Series. I told him that I forgave him for wearing a Pirates jacket. Donnie was a prince of a man, and it was a pleasure and an honor to meet him (as well as his delightful other half, Melody J).
I am not quite sure how to end this story, but the one thing I do know is that I have to thank my friend Mike Migut a thousand times over. Mike is no longer a casual Facebook acquaintance. Mike is now a genuine friend. Mike made the dream of a lifetime come true. My Campo die Sogni. Little did I know that this would be Bruno’s last Christmas. The significance of the previous sentence weighs heavily. I will forever hold this night in my heart.