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Bruno Sammartino: Mountain of strength

| Friday, Dec. 24, 2010

Framed photos fill the room.

In one image, the former champ smiles with Joe DiMaggio. In another, he bows before Pope Paul VI.

Outside, the first snow of the year is falling and the day grows darker. A lamp sits on a wooden end table, next to a framed photo of his late mother, but Bruno Sammartino does not reach out to turn it on.

He sits on the couch in his dimly lit den, wiping tears from his eyes.

"It's hard to talk about, it really is, even after all these years," Sammartino says. "I can't explain it."

This is the Bruno Sammartino few people see. To his fans, he is an icon. Sammartino was the longest reigning champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, holding the title from 1963 to 1971, and again from 1973 to 1977. He was revered as a hard-nosed fighter, a nobody who came to America as a skinny boy and through hard work and sheer determination transformed himself into a hero.

"His story resonates," said Anne Madarasz, director of Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. "His immigrant roots, working with his hands -- he represented an ethos that defines what Pittsburgh sports are all about. And he continued to live a regular life. He's like Art Rooney, the chief; like Maz. He's an everyman sports hero."

But on this day, sitting on his couch with his hands covering his eyes, Sammartino, 75, is simply a man who misses his mom.

Hiding on a mountaintop

On a mountaintop outside the tiny Italian village where Sammartino grew up, a large stone sits in a grassy field.

During World War II, Sammartino was a frightened boy hiding on that mountaintop in the Abruzzo region. Nazi soldiers invaded the village below, Pizzoferrato. They came in the middle of the night. Sammartino's uncle, Camillo, banged on villagers' doors, warning people to grab their kids and run. The village emptied in a panic. The soldiers killed anyone who was too slow.

The Sammartinos ran to the top of the mountain. For 14 months, they lived in a secret refugee camp, often surviving on snow and wildflowers. In America, Sammartino's father, Alfonso, was cut off from his family. He had moved to Pittsburgh in 1936 for a job, but communication ended when the war started.

Bruno's weight plummeted. To keep him alive, his mother, Emilia, would climb down the mountain, sneak into their house while Nazi soldiers slept in her bed, and steal food from a corner of the basement where the family stashed winter rations. It was a gruelling and dangerous trip. It took her 24 hours to return with the sack of food. Were she caught, she would be killed. Once, a Nazi soldier caught her leaving the house and shot her in the shoulder.

Bruno despised those trips down the mountain. He would sit on the stone, stare down the trail and wait for his mother to return.

Sammartino revisited the mountaintop in October, after avoiding it for 60 years. Seeing the stone, he says, triggered nightmares.

Still a powerhouse

Sammartino awakes at 5:30 a.m. each day, without an alarm.

He walks downstairs, opens the front door of his Ross home -- where he and wife Carol have lived since 1965 -- and retrieves the newspaper. He brews a cup of coffee and reads in the kitchen. Then he begins to walk around, "getting the blood moving," he says, before heading to the basement.

Sammartino's weight room there is simple and understated. He has a bench with a long bar and 50-pound plates stacked on either side; a machine for shoulder lifts, triceps pushdowns and leg extensions; and a rack of dumbbells up to 110 pounds against the wall.

As a wrestling champion, Sammartino was considered one of the world's strongest men. Today, he weighs about 220 pounds, 50 pounds lighter than his wrestling days, but is still powerful. His chest, shoulder and arm muscles bulge under his workout clothes, a sweat suit with "Built in Bloomfield" printed across the back.

He places 190 pounds on a bar, lies down on the bench and lifts the weight 10 times. He does four more sets, adding weight.

He began lifting weights in 1950, the year he and his family emigrated to Pittsburgh to join his father. They would have come sooner, but Sammartino was too weak to travel. On the mountain in Italy, he contracted rheumatic fever. Emilia Sammartino would not let her son die. She wrapped him in hot blankets and covered his body with leeches, to suck out the bad blood.

He weighed 83 pounds when he arrived in Pittsburgh at age 14. As a scrawny Oakland teen who spoke broken English, Bruno became the target of bullies. A Jewish friend named Maurice took pity on him, Sammartino says, and invited him and his brother, Paul, to join the Young Men and Women's Hebrew Association in Oakland.

"It was the first time in my life I saw weights, and it didn't seem like there were any small enough that I could lift. But on my way home, I had a feeling in my gut that this would be something great for me. I couldn't wait to go back."

Proof anything is possible

Sammartino began to grow.

His father complained that his son ate like a wolf. His mother would reply, "Thank God! We thought we were going to lose him. Let him get big!"

Bruno became obsessed with lifting. In time, Paul lost interest and focused on school -- he became a teacher -- but Bruno lifted and lifted, and got bigger and bigger.

People began to notice.

In 1957, sportscaster Bob Prince asked him to show some lifting techniques on air. A wrestling promoter saw him, and Sammartino's wrestling career was born.

In his prime, Sammartino weighed 270 pounds and bench-pressed 565 pounds. At a gym in New York, he wowed onlookers by benching 338 pounds an astonishing 38 times in a row. In the ring, he famously lifted an opponent named Haystacks Calhoun -- who weighed 640 pounds -- above his head before dropping him to the mat in 1960.

Such feats thrilled his fans, and proved to them that anything was possible.

"When Bruno came around, Pittsburgh was full of immigrants working in coal mines and steel mills," said Martin Lazzaro, a fan as a kid who became Sammartino's friend in adulthood. "When he was on TV, the whole family would gather in the living room. There was grandpap with his glass of wine. Here came all the women running out of the kitchen to watch.

"You just knew this guy was a nobody. But he came here, worked hard, got big and strong and made something of himself. These people weren't just rooting for Bruno. They were rooting for the idea that they could make something of themselves, too."

Not everyone was impressed.

Sammartino recalled the day that his father, a serious man who worked as a blacksmith, coal miner and steel maker, agreed to attend one of his weight-lifting competitions. Sammartino approached a bar with 280 pounds on it, strained, and then lifted it cleanly, completing his first challenge. He looked over to his parents, but only his mother looked back. The chair next to her was empty. He thought his father went to the bathroom, but he never returned.

"On the way home, I said, 'Mom, what happened to Pop?' She said, 'Oh, you know him. He gets restless.' Well, when we got home, there was my father, and he was yelling in Italian, which is what we always spoke at home. He said, 'In the old country, when we had something that was too heavy to lift, we used a jackass. I brought my son to the U.S. to be a jackass?' "

Sammartino laughs at the memory.

"Of course, he cared about us. He took us kids to the doctor, the dentist. ... It wasn't easy. I respected him because he was my father. But my mother was everything to me. I did not know him. You know, he was born in 1891; he had a different mentality. No games. He believed in work."

Alfonso Sammartino died in 1985. He eventually accepted his son's lifting and wrestling ambitions.

"He told me one time, 'You made us proud. Everyone talks good about us.' "

Beads of sweat cling to Sammartino's forehead. He is breathing heavily, staring at the floor. His face hardens and he walks over to the free weights, grabs a set of dumbbells, and launches into bicep curls.

His morning workout typically lasts about two hours. Today it takes three.

The greatest reward

In 1976, Sammartino broke his neck during a wrestling match in Madison Square Garden.

A doctor at the Manhattan arena told him he needed to be hospitalized, immediately. But Sammartino feared his mom would find out from reporters that something happened to her son. He told the doctor he needed to return to Pittsburgh.

"Oh, my doctor was so mad. 'You stupid son-of -- you came within one millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down!' But we flew back to Pittsburgh. I cannot tell you what hell that was. I went to Divine Providence Hospital and they put the halo around my head.

"When my mom saw it, she was very worried. I told her, 'This is just a precaution.' I said to her, 'Mom, I hope you're going to be feeling good enough to make me some good spaghetti, because I haven't been home in a while and I miss that.' "

After retiring in 1981, Bruno spent every day with his mom. He would go to his parents' house after working out in the mornings, and they would sit at the kitchen table and talk, drink coffee and eat biscotti.

"The most gratifying thing is my mom lived long enough to see the results of her sacrifices. She saw everything. I tell you, that is the greatest reward I've ever received."

Emilia Sammartino died 15 years ago. She was 97.

Time has not made that easier to accept. Sammartino misses her, and thinking of her makes him cry.

"I always wanted to make her proud," he says.

Emilia Sammartino is buried in a Greenfield cemetery. Sammartino visits weekly. Standing before her tombstone, he tells her how much he loves her.

He speaks in Italian. Otherwise, he explains, she might not understand what he is saying.

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