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  December 19, 1998



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Joe's a true hero
By BRET "THE HITMAN" HART -- For the Calgary Sun
  I get fan letters all the time from people who tell me I'm their hero. To me, the challenge in that comes from living up to the compliment.
 There's a saying that if you get too close to something special, it loses its glow. I've been disappointed to meet some heroes whose star doesn't shine for me any more. They have this pathetic plastic Hollywood attitude that they are somehow better than the people who made them famous.
 Everyone needs a hero. We often tend to elevate our heroes to larger than life status so that we can respect their amazing achievements without bruising our self-esteem. Too often we forget that real heroes aren't Superman and that even Superman has his kryptonite. This past week has been a reminder of their mortality.
 There is no bigger hero in wrestling than Ric Flair. You can argue on behalf of your personal favourites and I'll concede that maybe some can be as big a hero as Flair -- but not bigger. It's a matter of geography.
 The Hitman is the big wrestling hero in Canada and Germany, but ask the guy on the street in North Carolina and he'll tell you it's Ric Flair. For the boys in the locker room, there are other reasons Flair is a hero. He's one of the few remaining icons in this sport who has not sold out to the new regime. I respect him for his loyalty to traditionalism as well as for his unwavering professionalism.
 My longtime fans know that a few years ago, I said some things about Flair that were less than complimentary. No matter what I said, I would certainly never wish upon him the heart attack that it seemed he had on Nitro.
 It would be predictably superficial and transparent if I were to take back my criticisms of Flair now that the man is down. I'm relieved that I did so, to his face and in this column, over a year ago, when my sincerity wasn't written off as guilt. I took back what I had said about Flair because when I eventually found myself in similar situations to his I realized that I reacted in many of the same ways that he does. It's easy to say, "If I were him ..." but I learned a lesson about not judging a man until you've walked in his shoes. They say it takes a big man to admit when you're wrong and I admitted that to Flair, not only because I knew it was the truth but because I wanted to set an example for kids who look to me as their hero.
 I'm pleased to report that Ric Flair did not have a heart attack after all. It turns out he suffers from nerve damage connected to a back injury which sometimes causes severely painful spasms in his arm and chest. The symptoms of this neurologic episode so closely resembled a heart attack that it couldn't be distinguished for what it was until after an EKG. I'd like to take this opportunity to wish Ric Flair a speedy recovery, happy holidays and I look forward to kicking his butt one more time. The man is a class act.
 I don't know why Eric Bischoff calls Flair old, as if forty-something is a curse. I've got my share of aches and pains, but at 41, I feel stronger and healthier than ever before. I can name at least two tough guys who are in their eighties, my dad and Joe DiMaggio.
 I'd like to tell you a story about when I met Joe DiMaggio. I was signing autographs at a sports convention in New York, about four years ago, and a few thousand of the loyalist Hitman fans in the world came out that day, like they always do in that area. I was surrounded by people waiting in line to see me, so I couldn't really tell what was going on in the rest of the facility. I picked up the buzz from the crowd that Joe DiMaggio was there.
 Well, one thing I knew for certain is that after I'd signed all the autographs for the people who had come to see me, I was going to make my way over to see DiMaggio and get his autograph!
 My son, Blade, was with me that day and meeting DiMaggio wasn't for me ... you understand ... it was for my boy. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. Why do people say that to me; "hey Bret can I get your autograph for ... my ... ere ... son ... Tom?" Sure and what's your name? "Ere .. Tom".
 When I made my way through the crowd and got to meet DiMaggio, I swear I felt like a little kid meeting the most superific superstar ever! Then that annoying skepticism of adult experience crept in and for just a split second a thought maybe I should leave before my bubble might get burst. Joe spoke.
 "I know exactly who you are. I watch you all the time. I wanted to come over and see you, but my handlers wouldn't let me."
 DiMaggio is a wrestling fan! I will never forget those words as long as I live. I had the honour to talk for a few minutes with this unpretentious, dignified icon. Of course, we took the requisite photos, one for each of us to keep. Later, I explained to Blade that he'd met one of the most famous baseball players of all time. His eyes got wide as he studied the Polaroid. I confess, mine did too.
 I've been thinking a lot about Joe since he's been hospitalized with lung cancer. At 84, 47 years since The Yankee Clipper nailed at least one base hit in 56 consecutive games or participated in 10 World Series, DiMaggio scored his biggest hit of all when he awoke from a coma well enough to speak. His words, that no further public statements be given about his condition because his private life has always been -- and should remain --private, continue to inspire me. Forgive the comparison to royalty when I say that I have always shared his view that being a celebrity does not mean that you forfeit your privacy. Also, I've always said that I'll retire when I feel I'm not at 100% and it was reaffirming for me to learn that's exactly the way DiMaggio stepped down.
 Those who had the privilege to see DiMaggio play, say he gave 100% every time. Joe once said, "There might be some kid in the stands who will see me only this one time and I wouldn't want to disappoint him."
 I've always felt that same way and have sometimes been criticized by my contemporaries for taking things too seriously. Hey, if it's good enough for DiMaggio then I must be on the right track.
 I doubt Joe was criticized for endeavoring to live up to his hero status because he comes from a time when integrity, effort, and grace mattered. I believe that being a champion of those qualities is what has earned him legendary status far surpassing his impressive stats.
 I try to live by those ideals every day, despite today's slackened standards. It's encouraging to see it coming up in the next generation in guys like the Calgary Hitmen's Brent Dodginghorse, with his never-quit attitude serving as inspiration to native youth. Or feel it in the eloquently stated compassion of Mark Tewksbury's outstanding speech at the Special Olympics.
 Sometimes the meaning of Christmas gets lost in the shuffle. In true holiday spirit, I invite you all to come out to the Crossroads Flea market this afternoon, where I'll be signing autographs from 1-3.
 Proceeds will go to two special needs children, Melanie Serr and Chad Holland. Both have Cancer which requires special treatment in the U.S. and Mexico. As busy as we all are this time of year let's join together to give these brave youngsters the greatest Christmas gift of all.
 See you there.

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