Torch Flashbacks 5 Yrs Ago Today: Brian Pillman dies in hotel room at age 35
Oct 5, 2002 - 1:28:00 AM
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The following is a reprint of the Torch Newsletter cover story on the death of Brian Pillman from five years ago this week. We will publish a number of other articles from the Torch Newsletter covering Pillman's death throughout the weekend. He died on October 5, 1997.
-Jason Powell, Torch assistant editor
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Torch Newsletter Archive
By Wade Keller, Torch editor
Cover Story Headline: Brian Pillman dies in hotel room at age 35
Subheadline: His death is sad conclusion to difficult life and troubled final few years, leaves behind widow, five children
Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #461
Cover dated: October 11, 1997
Sunday afternoon, Oct. 5 just past 1 p.m., Brian Pillman was found dead in his hotel room in Bloomington, Minn. The toxicology report is not back yet, but preliminary reports indicate he died of a heart attack due to a congenital defect. His father died at age 50 of a heart attack when Pillman was only three months old. The stress of his personal and professional life, his physical problems, and his lifestyle may all have contributed to the degeneration of his heart, half of which was diseased at the time of his death, which left him susceptible to a heart attack at such a young age. Pillman was 35.
Pillman wrestled in St. Paul, Minn. the night before his death. According to Eddie Sharkey, a referee on the card, Pillman seemed to be in good spirits before the card, but not long after his match he saw Pillman sitting against a wall staring into space, and later lying in a fetal position in a corner. Sharkey and some wrestlers he was with offered to take Pillman out to dinner, but Pillman turned them down. Instead Pillman ended up going out drinking with some wrestlers, including the Harris Twins of the DOA. He was last seen stopping by his hotel room at the Budgetel Inn in Bloomington, Minn. just past 10 p.m. that night. It's not known what time he returned to the hotel room, but it was there he died, apparently in his sleep.
The next day the WWF shuttle to the airport left without Pillman. Pillman had missed some appearances recently and his behavior had been erratic enough that WWF officials and wrestlers figured Pillman lost track of time or "made other plans." Nevertheless, they had his hotel room checked. The hotel manager and police found Pillman inside his hotel room, dead, with empty prescription pill bottles by his bedside.
Police originally believed he may have overdosed on pills. WWF officials, who were travelling from Minneapolis/St. Paul to St. Louis and preparing for the PPV, did not receive word of Pillman's death until several hours later, just before going on the air for the PPV that night. They acknowledged Pillman's death during the "Free for All" pre-game show and several times during the broadcast. McMahon said that authorities did not suspect foul play, but did mention prescription or recreational drugs may have been the cause.
As has been well-chronicled Pillman faced adversity as a child when he underwent dozens of surgeries through adolescence to treat throat cancer, including ending up with an artificial larynx.
The final few years of Pillman's life were just as trying. The mother of one of his children committed suicide two years ago. She and Pillman had been going through a nasty break-up. She called him on the phone and wanted to talk to him, but Pillman refused to talk to her. She then shot herself before the person who answered the phone could hang up. Pillman told friends of his at that time he didn't know if he would be able to go on. From there, his lifestyle turned down a path of escapism.
He then married Melanie, who had a child with Pillman and adopted one of his children. She is currently pregnant with another child by Pillman. In all, Pillman leaves behind five children with one more on the way. Melanie filed for divorce three weeks before Pillman's death in what she said she hoped would be a wake-up call for HIM. Pillman, though was still living with her, but she had banished him to the basement.
Pillman in recent weeks had worried his friends and coworkers. He failed a WWF drug test, but was not taken off the road. Some sources say he was suspended without pay. He missed a scheduled appearance recently because he never made it out of an airport because he was so out of it. Pillman was facing tremendous peer pressure from fellow wrestlers who feared his behavior was going to prompt the WWF to reinstitute more strict drug testing again. There had even been a plan among a few wrestlers that they were going to beat up Pillman to send him a message. In the weeks before his death, several people who received calls from Pillman say he was unintelligible.
It wasn't just problems in his personal life that led Pillman down such a destructive path. Professionally he was having major problems. When he crashed his humvee on Apr. 14, 1996 and almost died, he recovered fully except for one of his ankles. The ankle never healed totally and needed to be fused in place, taking away much of his mobility and causing him tremendous pain after his workouts and matches. That pain led to a reliance on pain pills, a readily available, highly addictive medicine that is used, by some estimates, by the majority of wrestlers in the major promotions today. An athlete all his life, including a starting linebacker at the University of Miami, a reserve linebacker with the Cincinnati Bengals, and a starter with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, he was said to be emotionally distraught at times over not being able to do the things he used to be able to do.
His car wreck came at a time when his career had finally begun to take off. He was involved in one of the most talked about angles of the year, a shoot-style feud with Kevin Sullivan. His contract expired in the midst of the angle and he negotiated with both the WWF and WCW while making a few appearances for ECW. After his injury, though, his market value dropped, but the WWF, wanting to steal a major name from WCW to make up for their recent roster losses, went after Pillman hard with a $200,000-plus guaranteed contract. They signed him, but he was unable to return to full time action until just a few months ago. He may be most remembered for being part of an angle on live television where Steve Austin broke into his house and Pillman pulled a gun to protect himself and his wife.
After playing football in Calgary for the CFL, Pillman turned his attention to becoming a pro wrestler at Stu Hart's "Dungeon" in Calgary. Nov. 25, 1986 Pillman made his in-ring debut, wrestling regularly in the territory with his contemporaries Owen Hart and Chris Benoit. He signed with WCW in 1989 and wrestled there as "Flyin' Brian" and a member of the Hollywood Blondes with Steve Austin and later the Four Horsemen until joining the WWF last year. He was in the midest of the controversial angle where he had won the 24 hour services of Goldust's wife, Marlena. The WWF did not address that controversial storyline, although Goldust wrestles on the Oct. 13 Raw with Marlena back in his corner. The announcers will cover the abrupt end to that storyline during the match.
"He was the only non-relative to belong to the Hart Foundation because he was so close to the family," Helen Hart told the Calgary Sun. "We're shocked. We all feel very bady. He had a real affinity for wrestling, was a real good athlete, and had a ton of charisma. There are so many phonies and superficial people in wrestling, but he was deep, intelligent, and sensitive."
Helen said Pillman seemed despondent dating back to last July when he visited the Hart family in Calgary. "He seemed depressed and maybe had a lot on his mind," she said. "I was concerned he was taking too many pain killers."
His death received a lot of press coverage nationally. WCW and the WWF both acknowledged his death on their live Monday night programs. Eric Bischoff of WCW remained friends with Pillman, even after his departure last year. Pillman's funeral is Friday in Florence, Ky.
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