Originally published in The Kingston Whig-Standard on Feb. 27, 2013
Life has never been easy for Jake Roberts.
Sure, it has seen its ups and downs … successes and failures. He did, after all, put together one of the most successful professional wrestling careers in history, all while earning a reputation for being an innovator when it comes to the psychological side of pro wrestling. He’s also credited as the inventor of the DDT. To this day, he’s a wrestling legend in the eyes of many people.
But life has never been easy, according to the man himself. In fact, rarely, he says, has he even been happy during his life.
Born Aurelian Smith, Jr. in 1955, Roberts was the son of former wrestler Aurelian “Grizzly” Smith. While wrestling proved to be a family tradition, with Roberts and his half-siblings Rockin’ Robin and Sam Houston also forging careers in the sports entertainment industry, anyone who even entertains the notion that Roberts shared a like-father-like-son bond with his dad has another thing coming.
“It was negative,” Roberts said over the phone, when asked about growing up the son of a pro wrestler. “It was negative,” he reiterated. “My father … he didn’t raise me. And I’d see him once, or twice a year,” Roberts added, trailing off.
“There were a lot of problems in my childhood. Living with my grandparents, the kids were getting tossed around. My brother was adopted by my aunt, and things like that. To grow up, and your dad’s a … ‘star,’” Roberts said sarcastically, “and yet you don’t live with him, and you’re wearing clothing made out of loophole curtains, and stuff, you know … it’s pretty humiliating.”
Roberts pulls no punches when discussing his unhappy childhood.
“I always blamed wrestling for my father not being there,” he said. “I thought if he wasn’t a wrestler, I could have a dad. That’s just the way a kid thinks. Then to see him wrestling, and getting hurt, or so I thought, I thought it was very cruel. I thought my father was very cruel because he never wisened us kids up … he played it out at home, or whenever we’d see him. He’d have cuts and stuff. I had no idea he was the one doing that. I didn’t know that it was a business. I would cry myself to sleep at night, a lot of times, thinking my dad was not ever going to be able to see me because he was going to die in the ring, or something else was going to happen. So I did not like wrestling.”
Oddly enough, Roberts wanted so desperately to win over his father that he eventually turned to the very thing his despised.
“I finished high school and I had really good grades. I wanted to be an architect. That was my dream,” Roberts said.
“I was the first one in my family to graduate high school,” he said proudly, adding “and I was going to be the first one that ever went to college.”
But the beaming father Roberts so yearned for was nowhere to be found.
“My father never came to my graduation,” he said, “or ball games, or any of that. After I graduated, I wanted to get him to pat me on the back, and say he (was) proud of me. That’s what I really wanted. So I went down to see him, and I said ‘Hey, I graduated from school,’” and he said, ‘Well, I hope you don’t want anything from me.’”
Not long after, Roberts said, he attended one of his father’s wrestling shows when, in a drunken state, he says it dawned on him how he earn his father’s love and approval.
“My young brain said ‘If you want your father to be proud of you, why don’t you get up there and challenge one of those wrestlers, beat that guy up, and then your dad will be proud of you?’” Roberts recalled. “Well, it looked good on paper. I went down to the ring, banged on the mat, and I challenged this old guy … and he brought me in the ring.”
What unfolded next was ugly. Really ugly.
“He knew who I was,” Roberts said, “because if he didn’t, he probably would have crippled me. He let me run my mouth, and I made a total ass of myself. He brought me in the ring, and for the next 15 minutes, he put my body into positions it has never been in before …. and not since! Basically, I p—-d myself. I was screaming like a little girl, crying, because he was hurting me,” Roberts said, sombrely, as if reliving that beating. “After that experience, I crawled out of the ring, (went) to the locker room, and my father was standing there. He looked down on me and he said ‘I’m ashamed of you, you’re gutless, and you’ll never amount to anything.’
“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” Roberts said. “That night I cried … I was insane with anger. I gave up my dreams, and I was going to become a wrestler … come hell or high water. Just so I could shove it back in his face.”
And he did, with all the vim and vigour of a true Texan.
“The things that I’ve done to my body over the years … wouldn’t have been done had I been nurtured,” Roberts said. “Even years later, when people came up and said ‘You know, your dad is so proud of you,’ I always said, ‘Well he’s never told me that.’”
A very tough childhood was but a precursor to many other personal battles Roberts would wage during his life, battles that would include the kidnapping and murder of one of his sisters, and a lengthy, and at times very public, battle with addiction.
“You’ve just gotta survive, man,” he said. “And survival takes on a lot of different looks.”
As a wrestler, Roberts would shine, becoming legendary for his two runs with the then World Wrestling Federation. He would also star with World Championship Wrestling and made appearances with Extreme Championship Wrestling and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. He built a reputation for intense and cerebral promos, his dark side and his great use of psychology inside the ring.
But as famous as Roberts would become as Jake “The Snake” Roberts, he would become nearly as well known for his personal struggles with drugs and alcohol, culminating when he was featured prominently, and negatively, in the wrestling documentary Beyond The Mat in 1999.
Drugs and alcohol, Roberts says, were his escape from, quite frankly, himself.
“People would say ‘Well, why did you do (cocaine)?’ and I would say ‘Because I like that s–t!’ ‘Well, why do you drink?’ ‘Because I love being drunk!’ The reason I liked drugs was because I liked medicating myself to the point where I wouldn’t remember where I was, who I was, and what I had came from.”
Even his wrestling gimmick, in which he carried a python ringside, often dumping it on prone opponents, was an escape from being himself. Believe it or not, Roberts is scared to death of snakes.
“That’s the whole reason I came up with the snake idea was because I knew if I carried a snake around in that damn bag, people wouldn’t want to talk about me. They’d want to talk about that damn snake. So that got the attention off of me.”
If death and drugs and addiction weren’t enough, a divorce from his second wife in 2000 topped things off. The downward spiral that was Jake Roberts’ life and career continued downward. Roberts knows when he hit rock bottom.
“When I didn’t want anybody to see me,” he said. “When I couldn’t get off the chair by myself, when I got down on the floor, and you had to help me up, because I couldn’t get up. When my hands wouldn’t straighten out anymore. I had been hit in the head so many times that my toes were curling under, because of the brain injuries. And when I would walk, my toes would roll under my foot, and I’d step, and I’d break my toes. You know, that’s not comfortable. My hands would not straighten out, and I was getting firing … it’s like a hot needle being shoved up underneath your nails. And you never know when they’re coming. It would just happen. And when it would happen, of course, the first thing you would do is you would jump and you would scream. You know, if you had something in your hand, guess where it went. It went flying. That was probably my darkest moment. It was to the point that I was wishing to hell that I would not wake up.”
Death, Roberts admits, was inevitable. He was a defeated man.
“I think I did give up,” Roberts said. “I did give up. Six months ago, I was in a dark, dark place, man. I would wake up, and I would be disappointed I wasn’t dead. You know that? It sucks. I’m just being honest with you. I would hear that some other wrestler died, and I would be jealous.”
Then, as quickly as Jake The Snake — the legend — would devastate an opponent with his DDT, Roberts’ life changed, forever.
That’s when one of Roberts’ proteges and lifelong friends, Diamond Dallas Page, helped steer Roberts out of the darkness.
Page, who trained under Roberts, reached out to his former mentor in his darkest hour. The timing, Roberts now admits, couldn’t have been better.
“The bottom line was,” Roberts said, “he called me on the phone, asked me how I was doing, and I lied my a– off. I just wanted to get him off the phone, so he’d leave me alone, so I could do my dope, (drink) my beer, and get high.”
Page wanted his longtime friend to clean his act up, and to help him, Page wanted him to try his DDP Yoga program.
“I was like ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll try whatever you say,’” Roberts said. “‘Yeah sure! Send me that s–t! Thanks for your help, yeah sure!’” Page went ahead and sent it.
“I guess I was coming off of a high, at the time, and I said ‘I can’t do this bulls–t … eating plan. I’m sorry. You know, giving up the gluten,’” Roberts said.
“And he told me it would help me with my hands, and my feet. Well, okay, I want that.”
The six-foot-six Roberts, who was billed at 249 pounds in his career but hovering way above that at the time of Page’s call, decided to humour his friend and give Page’s eating plan a whirl.
“In two weeks, I lost like 10 pounds,” Roberts said. “And, you know, losing 10 pounds, at that moment, was a major victory to me. I mean it was like ‘Holy s–t, I can do things … still! I can still do something!’ And then I started doing more.”
Roberts said he stared at the DDP Yoga DVDs for days before he ever tried it.
“I put one in, and I tried it, and God almighty, it wore my ass out,” he said.
Enter DDP, who came, in person, to his friend’s side.
“I didn’t want him to come and see me, because I didn’t want him to see how I looked because I was ashamed, and embarrassed. And also, I didn’t want him to see where I was living, because I was ashamed of where I was living. You know … from the penthouse to the outhouse. That’s what happens when you lose it all.”
Roberts stopped, then corrects himself.
“I didn’t lose it all,” he said. “I threw it away.”
DDP watched as Roberts attempted his DDP Yoga, with little success early on.
“I couldn’t get up and down off the floor, and I was just like ‘I can’t do anymore. I’m stopping.’ And then he really p—ed me off, because then he went into my kitchen and started cooking breakfast. And I’m like ‘What the f— are you doing, man?’ You know what it’s like, when you’re angry like that, anything sets you off.”
Roberts, as he has almost his entire life, refused to quit.
“After he got through his breakfast, I could not wait for him to get through it, and I’m like ‘Alright, sonofabitch, let’s get back to this workout.’ And he’s like ‘You sure that’s what you wanna be doing?’ And I’m like ‘Hey man, if you think I quit? Screw you! Screw you, I’m not a quitter.’ You know, I was p—-d off, man. I was calling him names, and he was laughing at me.”
Roberts laboured through the DDP Yoga that day — “It damn near killed me,” he said — proving to his friend that he was committed. In return, DDP made a commitment to Roberts.
“He said ‘Look dude, if you want to continue losing weight, I’m looking to buy a home in Atlanta. If I do that, I’ll bring you out, you’ll live with me, and we’ll get you healthy.’”
And that’s just what DDP did.
“Man, that was a lifeline,” Roberts said. “What did I have to lose? I was so angry, I didn’t give a s–t if it killed me, I was going to do this frigging (program). If I had to bleed to death, I was going to do it. Just because he ‘didn’t think I could.’ Little did I know that the work that I did was the tip of the frigging iceberg of what I would be doing. But, with victories come challenges.”
Jake Roberts has carved a career out of proving people wrong, starting with his father.
Ironically, it was pointed out to Roberts, that the very skills he passed onto Page, who also enjoyed a brilliant wrestling career, were the ones Page was now using against his former mentor.
“Of course he did, the p—k,” Roberts said with a laugh. “He turned my s–t on me. He used some psychology on my a–, I know.”
Oh how the world turns. Had Roberts never taught Page those skills, Page may never have possessed them to potentially save Roberts’ life.
“Maybe not,” Roberts admitted.
That monumental moment, the day DDP visited, was just the first of many for Roberts.
In just six months, Roberts has lost 67 pounds with the help of DDP and his DDP Yoga. Roberts has been drug and alcohol free for months (for the first time in 35 years) and he’s looking more like Jake “The Snake” Roberts than he has in a very long time. More importantly, however, is for the first time in his life, Roberts is happy.
“These days, man, my life is so awesome,” he said. “And again, this thing that we’re doing right now with DDP Yoga, it’s going to help so many people. Young and old. And that’s a victory right there, man.”
The significance of what his friend has done for him is not lost on Roberts. In fact, he’s very humbled.
“No one has the right to ask for the type of help that he’s given me,” Roberts said. “He’s inspired me. He’s encouraged me. The only way I can say it is he’s given me the same type of encouragement that I wish my father had given to me. That’s the only way I can come close to understanding. The love that he has for me — sometimes I wake up and I shake my head, and I’m like ‘this dude needs some goddamn counselling,’” he joked.
“He’s so goddamned positive sometimes you just want to take a fist and shove it down his throat, and tell him to shut the eff up,” Roberts added, only half joking. “But, you know, he sees a rainbow on every corner. He sees a positive out of every day.”
From the time Roberts moved in with Page, the rules were simple, and unbreakable.
“He made me get rid of T-shirts that had negative messages on them,” Roberts said. “You know, whether it was ‘Zombie Jesus,’ or he had me get rid of a T-shirt that said ‘Wasted Youth.’ He’s like ‘What do you think that means?’ and I’m like ‘Ahh, it’s funny,’ and he said ‘No, it’s not. It’s not really funny, when you really think about it. So why would you wear it?’ and I said ‘Because … uhhh … I think it’s funny?’ ‘Well, you need to work on your thinking!’ And the next thing you know, I’m going through all of my clothes, getting rid of all of the bulls–t. And I said, ‘Okay, now that I’ve gotten rid of all them damned shirts, you’ve gotta go buy me some.’”
Page did him one better.
“We went and had some made. And one of the sayings that I picked up is ‘My history is not my destiny.’ You know? That’s very positive.”
Roberts knew his friend had his back, but it wasn’t until he suffered a shoulder injury while training at the gym recently (against DDP’s wishes, it should be noted) that he realized the fans still have his back, too.
In need of money to pay for his shoulder operation (DDP offered to pay half, the other half was to be raised online, which it was, in spades), Roberts and Page turned to fans.
“That … blew me away,” Roberts said, admitting when he injured himself, it awoke many of the demons that have chased him his whole life.
“I thought ‘Well, now you’ve gone done screwed the pooch,’” he said. “‘What are you going to do now? You can’t work out.’
“Automatically, that abandoned child in me started screaming out, ‘They’re going to throw you out of the house, nobody’s going to love you, nobody’s gonna want you.’ That’s what that abandoned child is, man. I was crying my a– off, man. I was upset. I just knew (DDP) was going to throw me out. And he looked at me, and laughed. He said ‘Dude, I’m just getting started.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Given the strife, the obstacles, the battles that Roberts has endured, just to be alive, and breathing, and still fighting, has to be considered a victory in itself.
“Those are minor victories,” Roberts points out. “I’m looking for that big one. That big one, to me, is not really helping myself, but helping others. That’s become my new high. My new high now is going to the grocery store, and I see someone is having a hard time getting around, and they’ll see me and be like ‘Aren’t you Jake Roberts?’ — now I can talk to them. Once I start talking to them, I say ‘Hey, you know what? I couldn’t even straighten my hands, and yeah, my hip was screwed up, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know, why don’t you try DDP Yoga?’ And you know what? They do it!”
As Jake Roberts continues to piece his comeback in life, he’ll no doubt draw from his dark memories to feed his progress.
He may think back to his unhappy youth, or his sister’s death, or his reliance on drugs and alcohol simply to survive from one day to the next.
He might even think back to his darkest, angriest hours, when he had all but given up. Heck, he might even wake up angry. But it will be for much different reasons.
“I’m still angry about waking up,” Roberts said. “But now when I wake up angry, I’m ready to kick the world’s a–.”