PHILADELPHIA — Daniel Bryan once raised the WWE championship over his head in front of 70,000 screaming fans after winning the main event of the biggest wrestling show in the world.
Bryan is used to cheers.
But to earn them in Philadelphia, the retired wrestling star needed pointers on how to throw a baseball before first pitch duties at a Phillies game Monday. Bryan joked he hasn’t thrown much of anything in his adult life except tennis balls to dogs.
“You throw it too high, you get an ‘ooh.’ Throw it too low, you get a ‘boo,'” team publicity director John Brazer told Bryan.
Wearing a No. 81 jersey, Bryan fired a perfect strike to first baseman Tommy Joseph and the new tag team performed Bryan’s signature “Yes!” chant: Both arms and index fingers extended toward the sky while the wrestler and his fans bellow “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Bryan will still whip the Philly fans into a “Yes!” frenzy on Tuesday night at WWE’s “Smackdown Live!” TV event — but in casual clothes as the show’s storyline general manager and not in tights, ready to wrestle.
Roughly 2½ years after the 35-year-old was picked as WWE’s chosen one , he’s retired because of a nasty concussion history over a 14-year career. Bryan is a jarring example of how the real-life brutal physicality of professional wrestling takes a toll on performers in an otherwise scripted and staged entertainment world.
He said he had had at least 10 documented concussions and at least four post-concussion seizures. Bryan, who wrestled for years on the independent circuit before his WWE debut in 2010, said his first concussion came just a few months into his career in the early 2000s. He was wrestling in Japan when he landed head first outside the ring onto concrete. His last concussion happened in a match on WWE’s European tour in April 2015.
Even with his brain repeatedly used as a battering ram, Bryan wants back in the ring. He gave an emotional retirement speech on the Feb. 8 edition of “Raw” but hasn’t conceded his career is over. Whether under the WrestleMania spotlight or elsewhere, Bryan hopes to wrestle again.
“I honestly do,” he said. “All the real concussion specialists who deal with concussions every day, all of them think I am fine.”
He cited a team of concussion specialists at UCLA suggested by WWE.
All sports — WWE included — have heightened education of the long-term damage that concussions can cause. The company has not taken a risk with Bryan’s health by booking him in a comeback match.
“You can see it from their point of view,” Bryan said. “If something happens to me … and then they let me back in the ring, and something happens to me, even if these other doctors say I’m cleared, they’re not the ones who the media will blame. Because concussions are such a hot topic issue and everyone’s afraid of that sort of thing, that’s one of the reasons why I wasn’t cleared.”
Medical director Joseph Maroon deferred to WWE for comment. WWE had little to say Tuesday on its decision: “WWE determined it is not in the best interest of Bryan Danielson (aka Daniel Bryan) to continue as an in-ring performer.”
Bryan tried to move on from wrestling, saying he had been accepted into Arizona State. He’s married to former WWE wrestler Brie Bella and the couple decided to start a family.
But he couldn’t stay off the road for long. Under contract to WWE for two more years, Bryan accepted the offer in July for a role as “Smackdown” GM.
“They didn’t give me a choice,” he said, laughing. “I’m under contract so they say ‘show up,’ and I show up.”
Bryan said he is treated fairly by WWE, which he doesn’t believe is purposefully holding him back from wrestling.
“There are times I just get all worked up and I’m like, I need to call them and I’m just going to ask for my release,” he said.
WWE likely wouldn’t grant it to one of its more popular superstars of the last decade. Bryan says that without a family, he might have pushed harder to break his contract and look to wrestle elsewhere.
“Hell, I might even be wearing a mask at an independent show next week dressed up as Star Man,” he said. “Because it’s what I love to do. But, it becomes different when you have a wife and you’re trying to have kids.”
He’s still involved in storylines and is currently engaged in verbal battles with former “Real World” star The Miz. Bryan was irked when WWE stirred unfounded comeback talk with an online poll that asked fans who Bryan should face if he could return for one more match.
“Don’t think for a second I’m not like, what are you guys doing?” he said. “I know they won’t let me wrestle.
“Nothing has changed on their end.”