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Dixie football player remembers his father's legacy

Son of Brian Pillman making own legacy

Says high school football career has been his salvation

Photo by The Enquirer/Joseph Fuqua II Dixie Heights senior Brian Pillman poses with pictures from 1984 of his father, Brian Pillman, the former Miami grad, Cincinnati Bengal and professional wrestler.

By Ryan Ernst • rernst@enquirer.com • November 4, 2010

Brian Pillman has daily reminders of his father’s legacy – his teammates who call him Flyin’ Brian, the substitute teacher who raises his eyebrows when he comes to Pillman’s name during roll call, the stories his relatives recount.

Even if he wanted to avoid it – and he doesn’t – he couldn’t. The Dixie Heights senior football player is unmistakably the son of one of Cincinnati’s rags to riches stories, one that ended too soon and too sadly.

Photos: Remembering the late Brian Pillman

The elder Pillman – former high school standout, walk-on, all-American, NFL longshot and professional wrestler – left his son with many of his characteristics. He has the same eyes, the same smile, the same walk and talk. The trait most useful to him now, however, is the knack for playing every football game like his last. Because starting tonight in Mount Sterling, Ky., that’s what every game could be.

His high school football career has been his salvation. It’s the card that served as the perfect complement to the difficult hand he was dealt. And it’s nearing an end.

“It’s scary, because I love football and I love the camaraderie of it,” Pillman said. “I really don’t want to lose it. I’m going to play as hard as I can to survive and keep us going as far as we can get.”

One look at Pillman’s helmet indicates that’s not just trite talk. It looks like it’s survived a bear attack. The helmet’s paint is chipped; the decals are pealing. Its owner is the kind of player offensive linemen hate to block. He’s a caffeine-infused gnat – pushing, spinning, scrapping, chasing from whistle to whistle.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has seen the tape. It looks familiar.

“It’s amazing,” said Harbaugh. “He has that same nose guard stance as his dad, and he’s quick and ferocious. He’s built similarly. Their mannerisms are the same. It’s uncanny.”

Harbaugh, who has taken an active role in Pillman’s life, first met his father when the two were freshmen teammates at Miami University. Pillman was a 5-foot-10 walk-on from Norwood, where he already had developed a reputation as an intense loose cannon.

“The most intense football player I’ve ever been around,” said former Norwood coach Jim Barre. “Pre-game, he would get his pads on and go into the shower room by himself and meditate and get ready. Then you’d hear him banging his head against the wall.”

Although the Miami coaches hadn’t offered him a scholarship, they thought Pillman’s quickness and tenacity could fit into the interior line of their angle defense. They were right. He quickly earned a scholarship. By the time he was a senior he had built himself into a second-team All-American.

Pillman signed as an undrafted free agent with the Bengals. Peter King, now of Sports Illustrated, chronicled Pillman’s journey to make the team in a weekly diary in The Enquirer.

It was August of 1984. The Reds had just traded for Pete Rose and named him player-manager, allowing him to chase Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record in Cincinnati. While Rose dominated the headlines, another hometown overachiever following his dream started to make waves.

As training camp wore on, Pillman continued to stick. When he entered preseason games at Riverfront Stadium, the crowd went nuts.

King thinks he knows why.

“Everyone wants to think that if they got the shot to do the one thing they’ve always wanted to do, that they’d shed every drop of blood to do it. That was Brian Pillman,” he said. “He did everything possible to make it happen. He had more desire than any other athlete I’ve covered in 30 years as a sportswriter. … All you had to do was look at him. He was a football player. It meant the world to him.”

Pillman made the team and stayed with the Bengals for just one year. He later played in the CFL, then embarked on an 11-year professional wrestling career. In the middle of his new career he and wife Melanie welcomed Brian Zachary Pillman. (He isn’t a Jr.; his father’s middle name was William.)

“My mom said my dad didn’t want people calling me Junior,” said the younger Pillman. “He wanted me to have the same name, but he wanted me to be my own person.”

As it turned out, he would have to become that person without his father’s influence. The elder Pillman, a steroid user, also struggled with other forms of substance abuse. In 1997, when his son was just 4, he was found dead of a heart attack in a Minnesota motel room.

The younger Pillman doesn’t remember his father, but admits he inherited some of the same self-destructive tendencies. By the time he was a freshman at Dixie Heights he was a self-admitted “trouble-maker and a bad student.”

“He was the kind of kid that when you looked at him, you knew he could have easily gone the other way,” said Dixie football coach Tom Spritzky.

That’s when Pillman rediscovered football – a game he had played as a youth but quit in junior high.

“Being around the football program and all my new friends on the team and the coaches, that turned everything around,” he said. “It made me a better player, a better student and a better person all-around.”

The game also helped him deal with other setbacks. His grandmother, Mary Pillman, died in 2008. A year later, his half-sister Alexis died in a car accident. Around the same time he moved in with his aunt Linda Pillman, his father’s older sister.

He said football has been his escape. Undersized like his father, Pillman had a difficult time getting varsity playing time before this year. As a junior he played in five games at linebacker, collecting 14 tackles in a reserve role. Before this season, the 5-11, 190-pounder asked coaches if he could move to nose guard.

“I saw how the team was developing and I thought I could help us there,” he said. “Plus, it’s what my dad played in college. I thought I could be fit for it. I was honored when they said yes.”

He took to the new position quickly and earned a starting spot. Ten games into the season he’s the second leading tackler on a team seeded third in the playoffs. If his career ends after Friday's game at Montgomery County, he insists he’ll have no regrets about how he’s played.

His tenacity was on display three weeks ago during an emotional Senior Night at Dixie. His older sister Brittany walked him onto the field. He dedicated the game to his father and his family, then delivered the performance of his life in a 47-20 win over Holmes.

Pillman recorded a career-high and team-best 14 tackles, including a sack.

“It was very emotional,” said Linda Pillman, “I tell him all the time how proud his father would be of him.”

Pillman hears that a lot – from family members and his father’s friends. It always has the same effect on him.

“It makes me happy, because I know I have a legacy to live up to, something to keep me going,” he said. “Not a lot of people have that.”

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