ABERDEEN, Wash. - Daniel Bryan smiles as he walks around the campus of J.M. Weatherwax High School, commonly referred to as Aberdeen High School, in Bryan's hometown of Aberdeen, Wash.
It's about a two-hour drive south down Interstate 5 from Seattle to the town Bryan was born and raised in. The quote under the welcome sign to Aberdeen reads "Come as You Are." It's a tribute to Kurt Cobain, the late frontman of Nirvana who was also born in Aberdeen and attended Aberdeen High School with Nirvana bassist and fellow founding member Krist Novoselic. It's a small town of less than 17,000 residents, nestled in the forest of the Pacific Northwest, that proudly proclaims itself the "Lumber Capital of the World."
"I love being back home," Bryan said. "Despite being around major cities my entire adult life, I've never gotten comfortable in cities. I have this almost ambient anxiety around the constant concrete structures. Coming here is relaxing to me. When I get past Olympia and start driving through the trees, my body just starts to relax and I feel a different energy."
Bryan, who was back in his hometown to promote the return of the Showcase feature in WWE 2K19, was known by his actual name, Bryan Danielson, the last time he was on campus. At that time, he did everything he could to get out of school as he dreamed about being a professional wrestler. As he looked up at the banners hanging in the gym, he laughed when he came across one for the boys wrestling team, which finished fifth in state in 1999.
"So 1999 was the year I graduated and I didn't even realize we were fifth in state," Bryan said. "My senior year of high school -- I was so sick of coming to school. I got a little bit bored with school because it was always very easy for me. I made up this excuse where I said I got this job because I had to save up for wrestling school. So I made up this job that I had during the day, and I faked my mom's signature and I would show up and take the tests and do the homework, but I wouldn't actually have to go to school."
Not long after graduating high school, Bryan moved to San Antonio where he began his professional wrestling career at Shawn Michaels' Texas Wrestling Academy. He would eventually become one of the biggest names on the independent circuit despite being released twice by WWE before returning and winning the WWE championship at WrestleMania XXX at the New Orleans Superdome.
"Just when I had scratched and clawed my way to the top," Bryan said. "My in-ring career was over."
On Feb. 8, 2016 Bryan returned to Seattle and announced his retirement from WWE after concussion-related issues. Bryan, who said he suffered three concussions within the first five months of his 16-year wrestling career, took a break from wrestling before returning as the on-screen general manager of SmackDown five months later. But as Bryan began to do more research on concussions and the one test that flagged him and cast him away from the ring, he started to doubt whether he should have retired at all. It was a doubt that only increased when other concussion specialists cleared him. After a two-year process, three leading concussion experts cleared Bryan before the WWE's medical director finally cleared him to return last March. He hasn't had any setbacks since his return. Well, at least none related to concussions.
"Every single match I've had since I've come back, I felt good afterwards," Bryan said. "Health-wise, I felt really good until this weekend. I did a full European tour where I wrested every night, and the hardest part about that was missing my baby more so than anything else. But physically I felt great. Then this week I did something and it just reminded me I'm 37 years old. We wrestled Saturday night in Pensacola, Florida and then had a four-hour drive to Albany, Georgia and I don't know what happened, but I got out of the car and I'm holding my back and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what happened?!'"
There is a different feeling for Bryan after a match now than he had before his retirement, a time when he thought he was saying goodbye to the one thing he said he "loved in a way that he has never loved anything else." After almost three years out of the ring and two years in between his retirement and his return, Bryan is just thankful to be back doing what he loves again.
"I'm in this state now that I'm very appreciative of getting something you love back, so I approach each match almost with more of a sense of joy and gratitude. So when I come back I'm almost on a high where you don't feel anything," Bryan said. "After I've come back from matches I haven't felt anything but this high of how great it feels to be back. I've been disappointed in some matches where I come back and say, 'Uh, that didn't go nearly as well as I thought it would,' but most of the time I come back and say, 'Man, that was fun.'"
"I actually do have a list of guys and it ranges from guys like AJ Styles and Goldberg to Johnny Gargano and Roderick Strong" Daniel Bryan on his list of dream matches
When Bryan returned at WrestleMania last April, there was almost a wait-and-see approach to his comeback. How long would it really last? Would he be the old Daniel Bryan who made the word "Yes" far more than a one-word answer? Was Bryan simply returning to the Superdome, the site of the greatest moment of his career, for one more WrestleMania match or was he back for good?
"Realistically, I want to wrestle until I'm 70," Bryan said. "That's a goal to people that sounds insane, but there's a MMA trainer, Firas Zahabi, he trains Georges St-Pierre and he was on Joe Rogan's podcast and I love what he said because this is how I envision my life. He said, 'I want to be grappling and doing jiu-jitsu the day before I die.' He wants to live to be 90 years old, but he loves doing this so much he wants to physically be capable of doing it until the day before he dies because it brings him joy and that's how I feel about wrestling. For me, my goal is to enjoy this moment that I have in the WWE spotlight because that doesn't last forever. That really has taken hold since I was forced to retire. You have to appreciate every moment of this, but I also have to transition my style in a way that I could still be wrestling when I'm 70 years old. I want to transition my style slowly to something that's a little bit easier on my body."
When Bryan talks about transitioning his style, he laughs as he remembers watching Jerry Lawler, 68, wrestling Terry Funk, 74, last year and how they stole the show by punching each other and throwing fire balls in each other's' faces. "These are two guys who don't need the money but they love the performance art aspect of it and they're constantly finding ways to be different than these young guys who can do 10 million things," he said. "You can tell they're having fun doing it so that's my dream scenario."
Bryan recently finished the book "Creative Quest" by Roots drummer Questlove and there's a section that talks about departures from your old self. Whether that's as a musician doing something totally different musically or in the case of Bryan as a wrestler, doing something totally different in the ring. No matter what that is, fans of your old work will reject it. As Bryan read that, he thought back to his first match at WrestleMania and his current struggle in adjusting his style to one that will allow him to continue wrestling 30 years from now.
"When I came back at WrestleMania, people wanted to make sure that the old Daniel Bryan could still be there," he said. "The guy that that they loved. I gradually and slowly want to phase some of those things out and incorporate new things. Like I started doing the heel hook, which automatically incorporates working someone's leg more and that's more ground based and not as much flying around. Since I've comeback I've done very few dives through the ropes, so I'm slowly phasing things out so people don't miss it anymore. It's not like I came back and I'm this completely different guy that the fans don't recognize. It's slowly phasing that out into something that they enjoy and is still exciting to watch."
The biggest change in Bryan's life since his return has nothing to do with his evolving in-ring style. On May 9, 2017, he and his wife Brie Bella, a former WWE Divas champion, welcomed their daughter, Birdie Joe Danielson. There was a time when Bryan never thought his child would see him wrestle, and now his wife will regularly send him pictures of Birdie watching him on TV or the laptop.
"I'm hoping to wrestle long enough where she can remember seeing her dad wrestle," Bryan said. "It'd be really cool for me to experience that. I'm looking forward to having Birdie really understand what she's seeing and me still being able to wrestle and her knowing what her dad did and what her dad loved. The WWE has been very accommodating to me in terms of reducing my schedule so I have a better life balance now as far as spending time at work and spending time at home with my baby. The last full-time year I did, I did 227 matches. Never again in my life will I do that. As much as I love wrestling, I don't want to do 227 matches in a year ever again."
Bryan's status with the WWE has been a topic of discussion with his contract expiring next month, but all signs point to Bryant staying with the company. Not only is he one of the faces of WWE 2K19, but he's already looking at a list of potential opponents after facing The Miz this Sunday at SummerSlam.
"I actually do have a list of guys and it ranges from guys like AJ Styles and Goldberg to Johnny Gargano and Roderick Strong, who are down at NXT," Bryan said. "I want to wrestle AJ, I want to wrestle Shinsuke Nakamura, I want to wrestle Andrade Cien Almas because I love Lucha. So Andrade is a true luchador, who main evented arenas in Mexico as a luchador and I want to go out there and I want to wrestle him. I have all these dream scenarios in my head where I would love to do this and that. I think that's one of things that's makes me so passionate about wrestling -- the variety."
As Bryan looks ahead to SummerSlam, he can't help but be just as excited about the WWE championship match between AJ Styles and Samoa Joe. All three came up together in the independent circuit and built their brands wrestling in a completely different atmosphere.
"It's really surreal," Bryan said. "We did a triple threat match in Japan recently. It was AJ Styles, Samoa Joe and I at the sold out Sumo Hall in Tokyo, Japan. So we're main eventing a WWE show at a sold out arena in Japan. The three of us also wrestled in the main event of something called the Ted Petty Invitational that was probably in front of 150 people somewhere in Indiana. It was funny because we're in the back in Japan saying we should just do that exact match again. The reality is none of us would want to do that because we're not doing the same crazy stuff we did 15 years ago. It's just surreal and it's really rewarding to see guys you came up with, grow together and become adults together and now we're here. We were all in some way shape or form rejects. We weren't what the modern WWE was looking for and now somehow we are and I think that's cool."