Vito may be best known as Nunzio's tough-guy enforcer, but the big man has a big heart come the holiday season. "Vito Claus" might have been handing out coal at Armageddon, but the neighborhood guy everybody knows gets in his truck each year to hand out bagfuls of toys to less fortunate kids in his native New York. Vito used to be one of those kids, and he feels strongly about giving back now that he's lucky enough to be living his dream. WWE.com caught up with Vito to get the details on his annual tradition.
WWE.com: Why is it important to you to make the time to hand out gifts during the holiday season?
Vito: When I was 10 years old, I was a sick kid. I had a bad virus and I was in one of those incubation "bubbles" for a while. When your parents can't even touch you — when they have to put masks on and gloves on — I always remembered that time, when you deal with something like that. I never used to think about it because it was just something that I overcame. But now that I've had success in WWE, I look back at my life and say, "You know what? I came from behind the eight-ball because I really had to work for everything I achieved in wrestling and nobody every handed me anything."
You know, when I bring toys and I look at these kids and sometimes I say that I was one of those sickly children, or that I know what it's like to not have a dollar in my pocket and I know what it's like to not be able to go buy something. This Christmas, I'm able to enjoy myself a little bit. I wouldn't say treat myself to the world, but I'm comfortable and I'm the happiest I've been in my entire life. I'm living my dream, and when you come from where I came from in the streets and was always fighting for what you had to get, never taking a backseat to nobody and doing your thing. So when I'm able to help out, it's not like I'm doing it for the recognition, it's just that you wish you had someone to do that for you back in the day.
WWE.com: What type of reaction do you get from the kids? Are there any stories that come to mind?
Vito: Once when I was in WCW, there was a child whose father wrote me via e-mail. He told me that "I have to thank you for making my little girl smile. Any time on Monday nights, Vito with Johnny the Bull would come on, and you were her favorite guy in the whole world. But I just want to tell you that she passed away from cancer, and I just wanted to thank you because that was the only time she ever smiled and never felt pain."
That got me. When people say that I'm their hero or I'm somebody special — I never think of myself as that — I'm just a regular guy with a big heart.
I guess if you want something bad enough and you're able to work at it and if you want to be something, it doesn't matter what you go through as long as you get there. So, I mean this year, it means a lot because I fought through a lot of stuff and a lot of things and here I am.
WWE.com: Can you tell us what you'll be doing this year?
Vito: I belong to a bunch of foundations for charities, and every year I put toys in my truck and go around to the neighborhoods and give out toys using a WWE duffle bag like my Santa Claus bag. I had a great day today visiting Staten Island Hospital. There was one kid — a cancer patient — who was just laying there on the bed motionless. I showed up, and his eyes lit up. I gave him three or four toys, especially some baseball gear. I gave him a WWE picture, and the kid was like he wasn't even sick. His mother and father were so appreciative to see their child get up a little bit. I saw people in the emergency room. I saw a lot of people who couldn't get home for the holidays.
I was able to hand out tee-shirts, Wiffle ball bats and balls, self-pitching batting tees, Hess trucks, stuffed animals, pictures, baseball gloves, walkmen, video games, and I got to spread some holiday cheer to kids ranging from five months old to 18 years old. I also gave pictures to all the nurses and doctors for the work they do. The patients all had smiles on their faces. The hospital staff all had smiles on their faces. A lot of the fathers recognized me from WWE and as Santa Claus at the pay-per-view, and the girls all said "thank you." There were some jokes that came my way about eating all those worms thanks to The Boogeyman. No celebrities or pro athletes had been there visiting, so it was a treat for everyone. I was also a very humbling experience and made me appreciate even more that I'm healthy and have a lot of good things going on in my life. So, if I can make somebody smile, that's great.
I represented WWE and Staten Island today, so it was a good day.
WWE.com: In addition to WWE, where do all these presents come from?
Vito: Companies like Pepsi and Coca Cola contribute. The other stuff I get from the Marty Lyons Foundation; they give me a bunch of toys and I drive my truck around wherever I am and just open it up and ask if anyone needs any gifts. I go to the neighborhoods where I know it's kind of rough — everybody on Staten Island pretty much knows me — they all say, "You don't want any money for this?" And I tell them no, I came from this. I grew up like this, so you give back to people.
WWE.com: How did this all start?
Vito: I belong to the Marty Lyons Foundation; I always did charity work for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Rainbow Wish and the Staten Island Special Olympics. I would go every year and sign autographs and hand out medals. One year, I went and I was going to hand out one or two medals, but instead I ended up staying and handing out 250 medals. Every kid just wanted to be donned with their gold medal or silver medal and wanted me to put them on. And I tell you what, they were the smartest kids because they knew my career better than I did. They're die-hard wrestling fans and they remember everything I did. This year, I couldn't attend because I was working, but I had Coca Cola and Enterprise donate stuff on my behalf. They sent me a bunch of stuff and off I go again. So, this year, I'm making my way to the hospital and then after that I'm going to go to a couple schools, sign some autographed pictures. But I do it on my home time.
WWE.com: You played a different type of Santa at the Armageddon pay-per-view. Can you tell us about your experience?
Vito: When they called me and told me I was going to be on pay-per-view — that they had a spot for me — that's all that mattered. I just wanted to make the best possible show for everybody, and I hope Mr. McMahon was happy with me. Most importantly, they gave me a chance to speak on the mic and interact on the biggest stage: pay-per-view. I was able to get on the mic and I was in an important role. That's really amazing.
I know one day I'll get my chance to shine a little bit, but I don't at all mind doing what I'm doing. The little bit that I get each and every week, or whenever they feel the time is right for me, I appreciate it and I take advantage of it. So, I guess that's why if you don't have a pair of balls to stay in this, or you don't have the guts, I mean if they would have told me 14 years ago, "Listen, it'll take you 14 years to get to WWE. Can you hang?" Most people would have said, "I don't think so, I'll pass on that one."
But I never gave up and I always kept trying, and I guess it's like a real-life Rocky story because I grew up with nothing, but I always believed in the back of my mind that I could make something of myself, that I could be a champion, be somebody. Man, I come from the leather-jacket, tough-guy role, which is how my life really was. I'm not trying to be somebody I'm not when on TV. But when people see the goodness in me this time of year, even though I'm a certain way on television, they can tell I really care. I make these kids smile and they think the world of me, but I'm just a regular guy from the neighborhood and I'm just being myself.
WWE.com: What's your next goal in WWE?
Vito: My dream has always been to get to WWE. So now, I guess it's having longevity in the company. I guess the one thing that maybe everybody wishes could be, but if I could be a WWE champion one day, that would probably be my greatest accomplishment. That would be great, along with having a lengthy, successful time in WWE and be able to be here for a long time.
When I was in WCW and I got to win my first title, that was a great experience. When I beat Terry Funk for the WCW Hardcore title, I beat a legend and that was pretty unique. Being an Iron Man Champion in Germany — with guys like Fit Finlay and William Regal and Dave Taylor; the European guys understand that that's a very prestigious title to have. I'm one of the few guys ever pin Misawa in all Japan. Very few people get to do that. Anytime I get to achieve that level of greatness, it's good.
But right now in WWE, I know what it means to appreciate what I have. And when I tell you that I appreciate every day that I'm here in the company, I really do. Anything that happens or comes my way, I'll take it and run with it. The hardest part was getting here and to open the door. Now, to have the door open and I'm in WWE, anything they give me to do, I'm just being natural with it and going with it and giving 150 percent.
Nobody ever took the time to know the real Vito. They just knew the rough and tough. But when you get to know him, he's a pretty regular guy. He's just a neighborhood guy.