Last week, retired pro wrestler, football player and shot putter Jim Neidhart, the father of WWE star Natalya, passed away at 63 after a fall at home. Best known for his WWE Tag Team Championship runs with brother-in-law Bret “Hitman” Hart as the Hart Foundation and his membership of the five-man faction of the same name, he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. While the exact timeline of his illness hasn’t been reported, it either coincided with or directly followed his latest stint in rehab, the genesis of which was documented on the Total Divas reality series that his daughter is a cast member of.
While many wrestlers develop addictions stemming from the wrestling lifestyle in some form, like the introduction to easily accessible pills, Neidhart’s demons are well-documented as going back at least to his teen years. A May 1979 Washington Post article on drugs in sports detailed Neidhart’s issues extensively, referring to him as “the classic case” of an athlete who “cannot face competition” without taking amphetamines. Starting his senior year of high school, he “became accustomed to popping a couple of uppers before every track meet in Long Beach, where he was the leading high school shot-putter in the country in 1973.” The usage got heavier in college, and he “went on several legendary drug-induced rampages” as a result.
The one described as “the most notorious” came in 1976 after Neidhart finished second at the Pacific Eight Conference Championships in Berkeley, where he represented UCLA. “Already fortified by a massive dose of amphetamine, he ‘unwound’ with tranquilizers and alcohol and then, in the words of a witness, ‘just went berserk,’” wrote Barry Lorge in the Post article. “Neidhart, who weighed more than 300 pounds, practically dismantled his motel room, then tied four bed sheets together, strapped a fire extinguisher on his back and leapt Tarzan-style off a fourth-floor balcony. Instead of swinging to another balcony, however, his arc sent him crashing through a plate glass window and into a first-floor room. UCLA wound up with a $5,500 bill. Neidhart, vastly relieved that he was still alive, transferred to the University of Hawaii.”
“You can take one 20-milligram capsule of [Obetrol, a combination of methamphetamine and the active ingredients of Dexedrine and Adderall] and scoot along for a whole day — go lift all kinds of weights, throw things and boogey around most of the night,” an anonymous “track man” told the Post. “When you take half a dozen of them like Neidhart did — 120 milligrams of amphetamine! — you could fly out a window, which is exactly what he did.”
Neidhart subsequently tried various different schools, including a return to UCLA, but they all flamed out. Cal State Long Beach took Jim in, only for him to be declared ineligible and then jailed for a month on extortion charges when he threatened his coach if he wasn’t given $1,200 (the value of his scholarship) so he could train on his own. A Dallas Cowboys tryout, meanwhile, went south when they found out that his trial was pending in Long Beach. From there, he ended up in Calgary, where he tried to pursue a career in the CFL while becoming a pro wrestler.
Neidhart would battle his demons for more than 40 years, gaining infamy for crack smoking binges and public incidents like breaking into his neighbor’s house to steal her painkillers and doing an interview at a Florida Marlins game where he was violently twitching throughout. The most famous incident of supposed intoxicated acting out, though, was one where he was exonerated: The January 1987 charge that “The Anival” violently punched a female USAir flight attendant in the arm after being refused a beer. At trial, while the flight hostess and a co-worker testified for the prosecution, Neidhart’s defense saw another flight attendant and a whopping nine passengers tell the jury that nothing of the sort happened. After being acquitted, Neidhart sued his accuser for defamation, as well as USAir, eventually securing a $380,000 settlement. According to Bret Hart’s book, much of that money was blown on cocaine and a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle, with the cash remnants of the settlement stored in the fanny pack that Neidhart wore while riding said motorcycle.
While previous trips to rehab didn’t take, the one that was very public, because his daughter convinced him to do so on television (i.e., the most recent one), appeared to do some good. If nothing else, he became a recurring character on Total Divas and appeared to be much more lucid than in previous appearance, at least chemically speaking. Unfortunately, though, as has happened before in wrestling, as his life was finally piece back together, tragedy struck.
The usual example cited is Chris Candido, who died in 2005 shortly after breaking his leg. In the previous year or so, Candido, who had become a liability due to severe painkiller issues, had quietly gotten himself clean and was slowly trying to build up his reputation. “I want to have a career in wrestling, basically,” he said in a 2004 interview. “I’m booked more than I’ve been in a long time. Even in [televised independent promotion] ECW, we only worked two or three days a week, and I’m working at least that, if not more, most weeks now. So that’s all I can ask for now. I screwed up my reputation bad enough where it’s going to take me a while to rebuild it.”
As he picked up buzz, Candido ended up with a gig on the new TNA Impact (now Impact Wrestling) show on Fox Sports Net, quickly becoming a highlight as the player/coach of a young tag team named The Naturals. He was also on WWE’s radar, at least for an appearance on an ECW nostalgia pay-per-view event, if not more, and was on his way to an amazing turnaround. As a very experienced 33-year-old, he still had upside, after all, and was so beloved that everyone he was working for, TNA included, pledged to keep paying him as long as he could make appearances while injured when he broke his leg. He died shortly after getting back from his last appearance, and while it was long believed to be a blood clot as a complication from surgery (the death certificate wasn’t public), his brother has since said that it was the result of contracting pneumonia in the hospital.
Six months later, Eddie Guerrero, the most beloved wrestler in the business by peers and fans alike, died of a heart attack. He had extensive drug and alcohol issues for years, but after a 2001 drunk driving arrest — right after he completed rehab, no less — the switch was flipped. Fired by WWE, he made a point of rebuilding his reputation on the independent scene and internationally. He was doing so well that the return seemed inevitable, but it only took him five months to get back. In the next two years, he reinvented the personality side of his presentation, oozing with charisma as a lovable scoundrel, and became ridiculously popular in markets with large Latinx populations.
Guerrero was even made WWE Champion, with the contemporaneous reporting by Dave Meltzer in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter repeatedly alluding to WWE brass calling the Mexican-American their “Latino Steve Austin” in terms of box office potential. But when the title reign wasn’t clicking the way that was expected business-wise, Guerrero lost his cool at fans during shows and appeared to be burning out, so it was agreed that he would drop the belt. In the next 18 months afterward, he became an even bigger star by feuding with real-life buddy Rey Mysterio and was set to win the belt again. He died in his hotel room, however, hours before it was to happen.
Jim Neidhart may not have had a career in front of him anymore like Candido and Guerrero, and given his dementia, he may not have had much quality of life remaining, either. But after battling his worst impulses for more than 40 years and finally coming out the other end, he and his family — devastated in the past by the premature deaths of other family members — deserved more time with him. In fact, of 1997’s extended Hart Foundation group, only Bret Hart survives, with Owen Hart, brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith and unofficial family member Brian Pillman all dying prematurely by 2002.
If there’s any consolation to the timing of Neidhart’s sobriety, though, it’s that, thanks to the reality show and ubiquity of smartphone cameras, the best moments of his final years have been memorialized. So maybe, just maybe, they will override all of the insanity that came before them.