I remember running into him at the Calgary Stampede. I must have been 12 or 13, and I couldn't believe my luck. Here, right in front of me, stood a mountain of a man: the improbable Davey Boy Smith.
Smith was wrestling as the "British Bulldog" back then, earning his money in Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation. He was a bad guy on TV, but his heart was pure gold that sunny day. He probably had a beer or two in him when he gave me a bear hug, signed a photo and waved goodbye.
The day still remains in my mind, a perfect blue sky and the British Bulldog, standing tall and laughing, always larger than life.
David Smith passed away last week. He died of a heart attack while laying in bed on vacation. A heart attack at 39 brought instant grumbles of steroid abuse, something the Bulldog had long been suspected of. The sad part is, the Bulldog is only another in a string of wrestler deaths. His once mighty physique didn't stand up to the ravages of time, but others fell just as hard. "Ravishing" Rick Rude died in 1999, also of premature heart failure. He too left a family behind, along with legions of fans who had trouble believing Rude's magnificent strength couldn't overcome death.
Owen Hart's story is known around Calgary, but those of Brian Pillman or Louie Spiccoli are not. All these men died before their time, some from overdose, others falling while fans watched in muted horror.
It's the common thread between these men that is the biggest tragedy. Each left a family behind, in many cases small children who never got to know their fathers. The Bulldog himself had two kids, and appropriately, all the newspapers and talk shows cried right along with them. But with all the sadness, no one talked about prevention. No one said a word about the Monday night warriors who put themselves on the line week after week.
Looking at today's crop of stars, you can't help but wonder who will be next. Wrestlers like Triple H or Scott Steiner don't look like men who came about their physiques in a natural way. The Hardy Boyz dazzle the crowds with death defying maneuvers, but the percentages are against them. There are only so many times a human body can handle a 20-foot drop and the Hardys get closer with each leap.
Those who don't die, often get crippledfor life. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Marcus "Buff" Bagwell each recovered froma broken neck, but Darren Drozdov did not. Others still, like the "Dynamite Kid," sit in wheelchairs and suffer from debilitating pain due to the nature of their profession.
I love the athleticism and I love the show, but I'm having a hard time watching these days. Every time a wrestler makes his way to the ring in a sea of confetti, fireworks and fans, my mind whispers "dead man walking." Andwho's to blame for all this? The wrestlers, the steroids and Vince McMahon? Or is it the fans that want a bigger and flashier show, at whatever the cost may be?