To those who say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, I say you need to pick better heroes.
Before I jump into the opportunity I had to meet my childhood hero, I want to express my love for an often-maligned and looked-down-upon art form: professional wrestling.
Sure, it can be goofy as hell. Even embarrassing at times. But when done right, it is friggin Shakespearean storytelling clubbing our human emotions in the jaw like a stiff forearm.
I’m certain great pro wrestling had as much influence in me loving storytelling as any novel I read growing up. I’ve mentioned before how pro wrestling magazines played a big part in me pursuing a journalism degree.
Growing up as a socially-awkward small town boy (that will probably be the title of my memoirs), I fell in love with wrestling. It was big and colorful and crazy. This was the time of Sting versus Ric Flair, Big Van Vader crushing dudes and the Steiner Brothers rivaling only my other favorite brothers (Super Mario).
Then there was this crazy guy missing his front teeth who crash landed from some exotic town named Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Even though Cactus Jack was a bad guy – a bad guy fighting my favorite at the time, Sting – I couldn’t help but become enamored. He was different than all the other guys on the television and seemed genuinely crazy.
It wasn’t too long after this I fell away from wrestling for a bit. It was in this time the Cactus Jack guy went off to Japan and became the King of the Death Match and a hardcore wrestling legend.
I returned to wrestling after renting a VHS tape of Wrestlemania that features an incredible match – Shakespearean, if you will – between Bret “Hitman” Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The obsession reignited and burned through the late 1990s, reconnecting me with that crazy Cactus Jack guy but in a completely different way.
The other exciting rivalry at the time was the Undertaker versus a guy with an ugly leather mask and unflattering brown jumpsuit looking thing.
This was Mankind.
He didn’t fit the WWF mold of giant bronzed statues of men with 24-inch biceps (or pythons, brother). But he was real and emotional, if a bit deranged, and not at all concerned with being cool.
I had never related to a wrestling character the way I related to Mankind. An insecure teenager is not going to connect on an emotional level with the cocksure swagger of The Rock (who I hated as he was frequently seen beating Mankind) or the “undead” 7-foot-tall Undertaker. As much as any kid can love the Undertaker, it’s tough to relate to a phenom.
The true story of Mick Foley began to bleed (literally and figuratively) into the onscreen story of Mankind, including the publication of his biography.
As a wrestling fan and book nerd, this sent me over the top. Mick wrote his own story (sat down with a ballpoint pen and notebooks and etched out every word himself, no ghostwriter) with enthusiasm, humor and a fascinating storytelling voice.
The book is this unbelievable action-adventure about chasing your dreams, sleeping in the back of a car after driving six hours to make $15 wrestling in front of 100 people and overcoming personal limitations, self doubt and naysayers.
Then he makes it to the big leagues and things get weirder.
Mick’s story is the kind that inspires you to reach for something better and I really needed that as a young man. It’s a reminder that being kind and working your ass off can take you far in life, even if you don’t look the part or don’t quite fit in.
To beat a dead horse, I was fully invested in Mick Foley’s story. I am secure enough to say I shed a few tears when Mick lost a retirement match to Triple H. I’m not sure if any of my friends watching the pay-per-view in my grandma’s living room saw a tear slide down my cheek, but I know they saw me throw the remote control across the room.
Fast forward about 20 years and Mick Foley is on a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the infamous Hell in a Cell match with the Undertaker. My wife conspired with my mom and my mother-in-law to snag us tickets to the Phoenix show, including a meet and greet.
In the days leading up to it, I was starting to get nervous and had no idea what I would say to the man as he signed my weathered copy of Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks as well as copies of his children’s books signed for my kids (my daughter adores the Halloween and Christmas books, requesting frequent reads through the holiday season).
When I sat down next to him, I think I started with, “This is an opportunity to be genuinely cool, but I don’t think I’m capable of that.”
And I don’t remember what I said next, but Mick quickly picked up my rambling and started making sense for me. Then he said this:
“It can be tough, but I hope it got better for you.”
And I can honestly say that, hell yeah, it got better.
Mick Foley was gracious and kind. Then he got up on stage and crafted a masterful, funny and poignant story about the path to, through and the aftermath of Hell in a Cell.
I’ll use this word one more time: Shakespearean. Shakespearean as hell. And I loved every minute of it.
Thank you, Mick! It was a beautiful night.
And thank you to my beautiful wife, Burgess, who made it happen. It’s because of her everything got better. Because of her it’s been pretty dang amazing.