July 2011, on one of the hottest days of the summer. I was rolling into work late just like any other day. Though, on this day as I was stepping out of my truck I heard from my radio “ Win a lunch with Bret “Hitman” Hart!” I had just caught the tail end of a radio contest on the newly established 93.7FM The Fan Pittsburgh Sports Talk Radio Morning Show. I thought to myself I had to have heard that wrong. What a strange prize that would be? I had to have heard the ad wrong. So, I decided to sit in my truck until the promo ran again. Being even later to work was a risk I was willing to take, considering a prize of “Lunch with Bret Hart” was the possible reward for my tardiness. Like most radio ads it ran within minutes of the first ad. It was TRUE, “ 93.7 The Fan is hosting a tournament, call in with your best WRESTLING STYLE PITTSBURGH SPORTS RELATED PROMO.” The winner will receive a 2 hour lunch with Wrestling Legend Bret “Hitman” Hart at The Tilted Kilt downtown!” A once in a lifetime opportunity to have lunch with the Wrestler that made wrestling real to me was staring me right in the face. I knew I had to win.
Becoming completely obsessed with the WWF was easy for me, I was born a year before Hulkamania took the entire world by storm. Hulk Hogan was more popular than ANY other sports figure in the entire world in 1985. I was born a Hulkamaniac, at 13 months old I dressed as the “Immortal One” for Halloween. While my 2 older cousins were both horrifying nightmare fodder clowns (Thanks Mom).
I watched Hulk Hogan come to the rescue of anyone and everyone throughout the 1980’s. Sometimes Hogan would even come to the rescue of a heel wrestler! This was an extremely effective tool the WWF used to change bad guys to good guys. The reverse was also true, if you were a babyface and you turned on Hogan you were immediately turned heel. The WWF used this method until he jumped ship on the WWF and headed south to WCW. To eventually become “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, a heel turn that haunts me to this day. In true Hogan fashion he ended up being one of the greatest heels in pro-wrestling history. I desperately missed seeing the Hulkster in the Red and Yellow. While I hated it then (which was precisely the goal) The Immortal Hulk Hogan was gone, for good.
During the 1980’s all the way through the 1990’s Tag Team’s were a massive and integral part of the show, with multiple meaningful Tag Matches a night. All of them with recognizable wrestlers, and some of these reputable stars became lifelong successful Tag Team wrestlers. Sometimes not, in the case of the famed “Hart Foundation” Bret “Hitman” Hart and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart had 2 different destinies. Bret went on to mega super stardom 5 time WWF World Heavyweight Champion, 2 time Intercontinental Champion while Jim went on to have a moderately successful career as predominantly a Tag Team wrestler with different partners rotating into Bret’s old spot. Some have it in them to evolve into a singles star, some don’t. Bret “Hitman” Hart was always one of the most impressive in-ring performers that the WWF has ever had on their roster. Possibly, no one has ever been better; or ever will be. I always enjoyed Bret’s work as a Tag Team wrestler, “The Hart Foundation” was far and away my favorite Tag Team. The big problem was, they were bad guys when I first started liking them. That fact didn’t sit well with me, I never liked a heel wrestler before.
Then with a stroke of luck the 1990 SummerSlam changed everything. The Hart Foundation was now the good guys! Thrilled that I can finally openly cheer for my favorite Tag Team! Only a year or so after that Bret was on his own as a singles Wrestler. With his crosshairs locked on the Intercontinental Champion Mr. Perfect. Whom I HATED, immensely. Mr. Perfect was a jerk, a huge jerk who claimed to be “Perfect.” From his towel toss, to his gum smack out of the air and his record. This guy really was “Perfect”, and Bret now has his first shot at singles gold against a guy that is indeed Perfect! I was actually nervous, extremely nervous. Even then as a kid I knew if Bret didn’t win this match he wouldn’t get another shot. Knowing what I know now “Mr. Perfect“ Curt Henning was in horrific debilitating back pain throughout the duration of that match. But Curt also knew what this moment meant for “The Hitman.” Withstanding the immense pain the match was INCREDIBLE, it was like watching Moby Dick performed in a wrestling ring with 2 longhaired guys sweatily rolling around in their underpants. Anyone could follow the story they were telling, wrestling fan or not. Very much like the rest of his mid-card career Bret stole the show, and everyone knew it. Including the locker room, which didn’t always support “The Hitman.”
That’s it, the New Intercontinental Champion Bret “Hitman” Hart was my favorite wrestler. Drastically different from my childhood idol Hulk Hogan, Bret was so real. Don’t misunderstand my statement, still after almost 40 years I have Hulkamania running through my veins brother! But Bret was the one guy that I could show to my “non-wrestling” friends when they would hit me with their “fake” comments. I now had definitive proof to them that wrestling was real. Because Bret Hart made it feel that way. Watch Bret Hart take the turnbuckle chest first and tell me wrestling is fake. Leg drops and posing for 10+ minutes was gone, we had pink shades and the Sharpshooter now!
Fast forward 21 years later, to me sitting in the garage of the first home I purchased for my wife and new daughter. Same feeling I had watching Bret defeat Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam 1990 was back again. But this feeling was for me, I knew if I didn’t win this contest on 93.7 “The Fan” I knew I would never have another shot at eating lunch with my favorite wrestler. As I called in I was so nervous, very very nervous. If you know me I’m sure you know performing doesn’t make me nervous, EVER. The normal excitement I have to perform has fully transformed into hyper anxiety. I stood and shot hockey pucks while I waited on hold trying to relax, but it did not help.
BOOM, Josh Miller’s voice explodes out of my phone speaker. He said “next on the line we have Nick Bartley from Mars. Hey Nick, give us your best sports related wrestling promo GO!” I knew what I was going to talk about, James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers was constantly getting fined and suspended by Roger Goodell. That was my canvas, and I started by channeling the 2 most impressive talkers ive ever seen in the wrestling industry. The American Dream Dusty Rhodes and Macho Man Randy Savage. I wanted to come out hot!
“Hey there Mr. Roger Goodell, my man James Harrison is the sack maker, fumble taker, he’s got style and grace and one scary face! He has soarin with the eagles while dealing with you snakes. He will make your Quarterback crack and your kicker quiver…. And let me just tell you something Mr.Roger Goodell while you sit back there laughing and joking, James Harrison’s in the Burgh baby cooking and smoking!!”
There, it’s out; now I wait for their reaction. This was a Monday, I was the second caller. The first caller did his promo in the “voice” of Mickey Mouse, I knew I had a good shot at beating that guy. This contest is a week long, the winner was to be announced on Friday. But Josh Miller comes back onto the mic and says something I will never ever forget. “ Wow, this is the second caller? I hate to tell all of you guys waiting, this guy just won…” At the time I was holding on the line but was on mute, the call screener picked me back up and said “ Thank you for your entry we will be in touch…” So, after all of that and Josh Miller telling everyone that I had just won. I had to wait 4 days for the call. It came, I WON!
This moment felt like I had just pinned “Mr.Perfect” myself, it was incredible! Now I have a new problem, I have to have lunch with Bret “Hitman” Hart! I am not one to be star struck, never have been. I have always been able to speak to pretty much anyone without fear. This was different, Bret was my favorite wrestler as a child. I was once again nervous, so the first thing I decided to do was get my replica Winged Eagle World Heavyweight Championship Title for Bret to sign. I am not an autograph guy, when I find them I give them away. They hold no meaning to me unless I was the one getting the autograph and it’s signed to Nick. That feels more personal to me, and the person giving out the autograph knows that it’s not for eBay. So I got my title belt and took some pictures of my daughter sitting in it and found about 100 more Bret Hart items I wanted to show him!
The morning of 7/22/11 I set off at 8am for our noon lunch at The Tilted Kilt Bar. I was allowed to bring one person with me, so I chose my youngest brother Josh who was a Shawn Michaels fan. I commanded him in the car to not mention Shawn during our lunch, I didn’t want this lunch to be about anyone other than the “Hitman.” I walked in with only my Championship belt, and saw the table they had roped off for us in the back near some massive TV’s playing Hockey highlights. I was 2 and a half hours early, but I didn’t care one bit. I sat Bret’s title belt at his place at our table. And I started drinking Labatt Blue Light to calm myself down. I am in no way, shape or form a drinker. I’m not against it. I just feel like I tip toe the obnoxious line in my normal life. So to me drinking Nick would just have to be completely intolerable. So I normally choose to not drink, on this day though I definitely needed a beer!
At 11:50 I see this massive black SUV pull up, it’s him. I swear his music hit when he walked in, but my brother told me I imagined that. Boom, there he is! Walking in, Bret said hello to everyone he passed, trust me at the time I was like ok enough already! Bret turned the corner and saw me and my brother standing inside the velvet ropes at our table. Bret started walking towards us but was stopped by The Tilted Kilt host and the Fan Morning Show hosts to welcome him. I eavesdropped on their conversation, “Hello Mr. Hart” the host said. Bret immediately stopped him mid sentence “ What’s with those ropes” Bret pointed to the velvet ropes that were blocking off the table from the rest of the restaurant. Bret continued “You gotta take these down, I don’t want anyone here thinking they can’t stop over and say hello to me.” Within seconds the ropes were gone. I have heard so many times in my life that you don’t want to meet your heroes because more often than not they disappoint you. When Bret said “These ropes gotta go” I was already positive we were the same kind of person.
Bret walked over, said hello to me and my brother and picked up “his” Championship Belt. Looking at the belt he said “it really is the best looking belt isn’t it?” I would have agreed with anything Bret said at the time but I wholeheartedly agree with him. I thought the same exact thing, that is the World Title. Slightly drunk, my nerves were easing. Especially after Bret had them remove the velvet ropes. We jumped into conversation like old friends. Throughout the entire 2 hour lunch we talked about the wrestling business for roughly 10 minutes. Bret signed my belt for me and we started watching Hockey highlights. I have read a lot about Bret, and there were a few major discrepancies in my mind that needed clearing up. Bret, on multiple different occasions was asked what his favorite NHL team was. On one occasion he said The Pittsburgh Penguins, which I loved! Another time on the back of an old WWF magazine poster Bret said his favorite to my dismay was the New York Rangers. Then yet again in an interview I watched Bret claimed his favorite NHL Hockey team was the Calgary Flames and to me that made the most sense. There will never be a better time to clear the air in between my ears, I had to ask. “Bret, i’ve seen you say you have 3 different favorite NHL hockey teams” I said “That’s impossible, who is your real favorite team?” Hoping he would say the Pittsburgh Penguins I waited for his reply. He laughed after I asked him the question, “well Calgary didn’t have a team when I was a young kid and my Dad met my Mom in New York City. So I adopted the New York Rangers as my favorite team until Calgary got the Flames.” No mention of the Pens, I asked again “ I read somewhere you liked the Penguins?” I really wanted Bret to like the Pens, but honestly I was just happy to talk puck with the “Hitman.” Bret then told me “ Oh as a teenager I was obsessed with the Penguins, the team was really crappy they never won but they would fight so much! I loved Battleship Kelly, so yeah when i was a teenager the Pens were my team.” There I dragged it out of him Bret “Hitman” Hart was indeed a Pens fan!
I could have cared less to eat, but it was time to order. I cannot even remember what I had, but I remember what Bret ordered that day. He ordered a BBQ Chicken Pizza but was very adamant “Please no onions, I hate onions.” Our waitress was in her very early 20’s, a very nice girl but sadly she didn’t get the order correct. The pizza came covered in onions, tons of them. Bret just stared at the pizza when she put it down. “I’m so sorry honey but I can’t eat this with these onions all over it” Bret informed her. By the look of her face she just completely forgot about Brets request for no onions. “Oh no i’m so sorry! Let me go have them make you a new one” she was red with embarrassment. Bret stopped her, “No you don’t have to do that, just take them back and scrape them off. I’m totally fine with that” Bret told her. I couldn’t believe this guy. He’s a really good, normal dude. First he had the manager take the ropes down to make people comfortable approaching him, then instead of having this girl get in trouble for her error on a celebrity’s food order Bret just wanted it to be quietly taken care of without anyone realizing her mistake. The way people have demonized Bret over the years is a very one sided, wrestling politics driven assessment. It is not fair, or accurate. I first hand experienced his humanity towards everyone he came in contact with on this day. Bret happily ate the de-onioned pizza, and when the manager came to ask how our lunch was Bret said “delicious and our waitress is doing a fantastic job.” He didn’t have to say that, but he did.
After lunch Bret talked to my brother Josh and asked him about our childhood. Josh is quite a bit younger than me, by the time he started school I had already graduated High School and moved out of the house. But we would still bond over the wonderful world of wrasslin! I would come home from college to find Josh excitedly waiting to show me his new entrance ramp he made for his figures (which are now in my possession). Brothers fight, naturally I think. Not horrible fights but “roughhousing” as my GrandMother would say. My brother busted out a story for Bret that I wasn’t expecting. We have another brother and a sister, Josh’s older brother and my younger brother’s name is T.J. When Josh said “T.J.” I knew the story that was to follow. Josh continued “ When I was 3 years old or so Nick would hold down T.J. and let me practice my face punching.” Bret laughed so loud, he actually clapped while laughing. It reminded Bret of his brothers, he said “That is hilarious, when we were kids my brothers would try and pee on me!” We all laughed at that comment, brothers. I figured this would be my best shot to ask about Owen.
I started off with a story about T.J. and I when we were young kids, I wasn’t sure how this was going to go over. When we were kids I shared a room with my brother T.J., poor guy was doomed. I would lay awake at night and force him to ask me wrestling trivia questions. I pretended to be Bret (while imitating his voice) and T.J. would be Owen. When T.J. I would fall asleep mid question. I would kick up on his bed and say “Owen wake up, ask me more questions!” Bret’s face went from laughing about Bruce and Dean peeing on him to a very happy smiling face of remembering his brother. Bret said “That’s what brothers are for right? Do my voice.” I was just asked to impersonate Bret Hart, by Bret Hart. So, I did. “Owen, you know I’m the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be!” Bret turned to my brother Josh laughing, “I don’t sound like that do I Josh?” We all got a huge kick out of that. So after the “Hitman” impression Bret wanted to know how I won this lunch. So I told him the story and Bret said “do the promo.” Sitting in my chair I started the promo, and was immediately stopped by the Excellence of Execution. “No no, stand up. You don’t cut a promo sitting down.” When Bret said that all I could think about was him sitting in his wheelchair belittling HBK on RAW. But of course I’ll stand for the “Hitman!” I did the promo and he immediately said “Reworded an old Dusty promo ehh?” He was the first person to call me out on that, and he was 100% correct! Lunch sadly came to an end, but not before Bret sat and signed every single item I had nerdily packed up for him. I left the massive box of memorabilia in my truck out of pure embarrassment.
Some of the most incredible experiences happen by chance, winning the prize of “Lunch with The Hitman” was one of those experiences that I will never ever forget. One of my childhood heroes Bret “Hitman” Hart far surpassed any expectation I ever had of him. You will never win the lottery unless you play. I’m glad I took my shot!