WWE superstar Daniel Bryan announced his retirement last night. I don't watch wrestling, but I understand why people do- and it's for stories like Bryan.
Bryan was a Doug Flutie-like character for WWE- someone that was too short to succeed, too physically unimpressive to be the face of the franchise, and too non-traditional for the league offices to promote. He started wrestling in 1999 at the age of 18 and was signed to the big leagues for a season or two. He was released and bounced around independent leagues, working on his craft for the next decade.
WWE eventually signed him back and he made his debut in 2010. While Bryan was growing a cult following, the main league actively prevented him from becoming a bigger star. Pro wrestling has two distinct type of characters: faces and heels, which are just alternate names for heroes and villains. Bryan was always meant to be a face, but the main offices concocted story lines that forced him into a villain, and made him come up short of the Championship time and time again.
But in 2013, Bryan's magnetism was too much to ignore. Fans were disrupting other matches with calls to see him entertain, and eventually his popularity won out. He was the centerpiece of the organization and was named Champion at the start of 2014.
And then the injuries became too much. Bryan suffered nerve damage in his neck and his arm. He was battling the side effects of concussions. After reaching the mountaintop, his entire career was derailed.
Daniel Bryan announced his retirement last night in a heartfelt manner that should resonate across all fields of employment.
"I've been wrestling since I was 18 years old," Bryan opened. "And within the first five months of my wrestling career, I'd already had three concussions. And for years after that, I would get a concussion here and there, or here, or there, and it gets to the point when you've been wrestling for 16 years- that adds up to a lot of concussions.
"It gets to a point where they tell you that you can't wrestle anymore.
"And for a long time, I fought that because this...I have loved this in a way that I have never loved anything else."
It was at this point that the crowd burst out into a chorus of "Thank you, Daniel!," as the wrestler held back tears.
"But a week and a half ago I took a test that said that maybe my brain isn't as okay as I thought it was. And I have a family to think about."
This is important. Bryan, one of the most visible faces in wrestling, is retiring because of concussions.
And for someone, who had to toil for 15 years before achieving their ultimate goal, to give it all up? That's heart breaking, regardless of your opinion of wrestling.
Bryan had to go through a series of emotions that every single athlete has to go through before calling it a career. Can my body still hold up? What about my possible future?
What about my family?
We've seen a wave of players in the NFL think about giving up their careers for the sake of their body and their future. Just this offseason, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is considering joining 49ers linebackers Chris Borland and Patrick Willis on the sidelines to preserve their bodies for the rest of their lives.
This is an issue that pervades all sports, and it's the WWE that's preventing Bryan's return, per TMI's Stephen Totilo.
"WWE didn't acknowledge it at first, but Bryan has talked about it in interviews, saying he was cleared by a doctor who handled NFL players at the Super Bowl but was not cleared by Joseph Maroon, the doctor WWE uses to test for concussions."
This is an NFL problem, and it's one that will be difficult for the players to solve on their own because this is their life's work, this is their craft, and to walk away from their life at the pinnacle of existence is one of the hardest things that they'll ever have to do.
It's also a problem that the NFL has to acknowledge before it can be answered, as NFL's commissioner Roger Goodell flippantly dismissed an inquiry on football safety by declaring that people can be injured on their couch.
The players are becoming more aware of the risks and the league has a penchant for ignoring scientific findings. This league is in danger, unless the front offices change.
And if the players want to consider taking the step away from football, we as fans should applaud that decision because these are people that have placed their livelihood on the line for our entertainment. Sure, some have been compensated handsomely, but money should never detract from anyone's personhood.
Bryan's closing words to the audience perfectly captured the difficulty of his decision.
"Today, when I woke up this morning, I felt nothing but gratitude. I have gotten to do what I love for nearly 16 years. I am grateful.
"Now, tomorrow morning, I start a new life. A life where I am no longer a wrestler," Bryan said as his voice lifted, as if he were straining to imagine a life without wrestling.
"But that is tomorrow, and that is not tonight. And by damn, I have one more night to feel this energy and to feel this crowd," Bryan cried out, imploring the crowd to make him feel alive again.