The resurrection of Jake 'The Snake' Roberts
SMYRNA, Ga. – In the tiny second-floor bedroom, there's a pile of Jake "The Snake" Roberts action figures on a table, plastic muscles ripped and bulging, snarls on tiny faces. Above them, on the wall, are signed comic-book-style cartoons of Jake The Snake fighting atop the Empire State Building and deep in the heart of the jungle. All around the room are photographs of Jake The Snake wrestling in some of the world's largest arenas against fellow iconic wrestlers.
It'd be a hell of a tribute to the man, were it not for Jake the Snake himself writhing in the bed in the center of the room.
It's a summer morning outside Atlanta. Jake Roberts, unshaven, his long hair matted, is lying in the bed, devastated, alone. He'd been clean and sober for eight months, drying out and cleaning out and trying to resurrect his life and his career. But he's just fallen.
Two airline bottles of vodka. That's all it was; that's all it took. Two tiny bottles, boom boom, downed in a parking lot. He drank to blot out the image of an old friend who'd fallen on hard times, the same way he used to drink to blot out the thought of his own fallen image.
And now that he's stumbled back into one bad habit, every seductive, self-loathing instinct in his body is telling him to get back in touch with another: when life gets hard, pack your [stuff] and run.
But on this morning, he doesn't run. He stays. He's got a control over his body and his mind now that he didn't have even eight months ago. He's hating himself for falling – "It was like hitting me in the head with a ball-peen hammer," he says – but he's getting back up to face what he's done. He's got friends now, people pulling harder for him to win now than they ever did back in the ring.
And in a twist so perfect it almost seems like it's scripted, the guy now tasked with helping Roberts save himself is the same guy Roberts once hoisted to wrestling stardom: Diamond Dallas Page.
This is Page's house, and with Page's guidance, Roberts might just be on the way to a peace that's eluded him for six decades.
This, then, is a story of fame and fortune, addiction and recovery, snakes and yoga. It's what happens when lives go off-script, for better and for worse.
Had he entered the wrestling game any earlier, Diamond Dallas Page might be somewhere working a forklift and punching a time clock today. Page was running a nightclub in Florida in the 1980s, dabbling with wrestling management on the side, when he first met Roberts. At that point, Roberts was well into his career as The Snake, and Page, then in his 30s, mentioned that he was considering getting into the ring himself.
"I wanted to do it, but I assumed I was too old," Page says. "I started managing at 31, but didn't even get into the ring until I was 35."
"Thank God for his day job," Roberts says, shaking his head at the state of Page's early wrestling game.
But Page piqued Roberts' interest with stories of doubters, of people who thought Page was too old to make a go of it as a wrestler. "They told me I never could do it, either," Roberts said. "I said to him, 'I'll train you my own damn self.' "
At one point, Roberts moved in with Page, and that lasted a few months. "I left because he had three cats and I, uh, lost a snake in his house. I ran."
But the friendship survived that, as well as the repair of the walls that had been torn down to find the snake. Page consulted Roberts on the elements of wrestling psychology, the mind games and performance flourishes that take you from no-name cannon fodder to headlining star.
"He didn't just tell me, 'Here's what you do,' " Page recalls. "He'd suggest. He'd give me bait to fish with, and then a little more bait."
Page remembers proudly bringing tapes of his matches to Roberts, eager to show him new moves. Sometimes, Roberts would approve. Sometimes, it wouldn't go quite so well.
"That's never been done before!" Page would say, proud of a new move.
"You've never seen a dog walk into the ring and take a [crap] before, but you don't want to see that, do you?" Roberts would snarl.
That kind of teaching, plus the occasional chair to the back of the head, gets you to improve in a hurry. And with his attitude, his before-Jay-Z diamond hand sign, his Sammy Hagar-after-a-workout looks, and his Diamond Cutter finishing move, Page rocketed to the heights of the wrestling world. Here's his clip reel from his glory days:
"It's sports, but it's also entertainment," Page says. "It's predetermined. So how do you get over when they – the bookers, the writers – don't see you as a top guy? You've got to go out there and do [stuff] that makes people give a [damn]. Even if you're losing. Then they see you, and they get with you."
Page was in on some of the most notable fights of the era, including celebrity matches. He teamed with Karl Malone against Hogan and Dennis Rodman, and later teamed with – yes, this is true – Jay Leno against Hogan and Eric Bischoff. He played along with the storylines, doing the occasional heel turn to keep the crowds on their toes. And the positive attitude that had served him well on the way up kept him on top in his 40s, an age when most wrestling stars have creaked off to comfortable chairs.
But even as his star was ascending, Page could see his onetime mentor sliding. The whole world could.
"When you're ashamed of yourself and you hate where you come from, you learn to lie pretty quick," Roberts says. "You learn to put on a mask. Getting into wrestling, I was given an opportunity to be something other than what I was. In a way, this crash would have happened a lot sooner. Wrestling allowed me the privilege to delay it."
Roberts, now 58, hid his demons behind a mask of aggression and psychological warfare. The son of a wrestler – his real name is Aurelian Smith Jr. – Roberts began climbing into the ring while in his teens, running the Southern circuit of Mid-South Wrestling, Georgia Championship Wrestling and other local leagues. A snake became a staple of his act – not the same snake; snakes didn't tend to have lengthy careers working with Roberts – whether used as a weapon or a noose.
Buoyed by both his snake gimmick and his sinister demeanor, Roberts worked his way upward through the ranks to join up with the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) in the mid-80s, the exact moment when wrestling's popularity first crested. Roberts fought against and alongside the era's icons, including Andre the Giant, Jerry "The King" Lawler, Hulk Hogan and, later, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Check, for instance, this classic moment where he goaded Macho Man Randy Savage into fighting, and then set a snake loose on him:
He played the game, even when the game took him in some ridiculous directions. Check, for instance, this staged bit with The Ultimate Warrior, which boasts a storyline and script straight out of some middle school boy's notebook margin scrawlings:
"I'm not Jake the Snake," he says. "But I hid behind it. If I carry a 12-foot snake in this room, you're checking that sumbitch out. You don't get to know me."
Troubled history, addictive personality, inability to resolve conflicts without either running or wrapping a snake around someone's throat … Roberts' story was always headed toward a sadly familiar end.
As his popularity waned and his alcoholism and drug use increased, Roberts found himself stumbling back down the same ladders he'd climbed 30 years before. He'd gone from sold-out football arenas to half-full municipal halls, and he had no idea what to do next. He weighed over 300 pounds, his gut hanging over his tights. He slurred his way through his performances. He would get winded just from climbing the stairs. And he was breaking promise after promise, friendship after friendship.
"For most addicts, me included, the biggest issue is shame," Roberts says. "Shame is a monster. When you get to the point that you're taking mirrors out of your house because you don't want to look at yourself, you're in trouble."
And that's when his old pal DDP stepped in.
It's a shame that the city of Smyrna has such an ugly, dissonant name, because the locale itself, just outside Atlanta's beltway, is in the midst of a full-on gentrification. Coffee shops and high-end malls are squeezing out the few remaining pawn shops and hand-painted day-care centers. The train that runs near DDP's home is on the verge of becoming a hipster novelty.
Page's home itself, tucked away on a quiet cul-de-sac, is so new it doesn't even show up on satellite maps of the address. Amid the single-story ranch homes on its street, it stands out like a leather-bound novel on a garage tool shelf.
You're not quite sure what to expect inside – groupies from the '80s sleeping it off on a dirty couch, perhaps? – but what you find is the archetypal 21st-century version of a small business: office in the front room, ready-to-ship product covering most flat surfaces, a cadre of young enthusiastic interns and assistants on laptops and cell phones.
In the center of it all is Page, his voice raw, his body leaner and rangier than in his WCW glory days. He's taking phone calls, he's autographing promo pictures, he's checking the itinerary for an impending four-week summer trip. This is Diamond Dallas Page's new venture: DDP Yoga. Yes, yoga.
"It was a blessing and a curse to start wrestling so much older than everyone else, at 35," Page says. "I knew how to avoid getting hooked on things like painkillers. But I also knew I needed to do whatever I could to hold back the hands of time."
He tried everything from chiropractics to juicers, and somewhere along the way, his now-ex-wife suggested that he give yoga a go. "Yoga?" Page remembers replying. "[Screw] that." But yoga's hold on Page was subtle and persistent, and by 2005, he was co-authoring a book, "Yoga for Regular Guys." He started getting press as, yes, "Yoga's Bad Boy," and by 2011 had refined his knowledge and approach into a series of workout packages titled, appropriately enough, DDP Yoga.
In April 2012, Page hit Internet gold. A disabled Gulf War veteran used DDP Yoga to literally get back on his feet, and the resulting video, "Never Ever Give Up," has racked up almost 9.5 million YouTube hits. Chris Jericho, Page's friend, used the program to rehab himself into shape for a recent Royal Rumble, giving DDP Yoga street cred. And so began the second phase of DDP's professional career.
He's got the PR machine humming full force for DDP Yoga now; although the DDPYoga.com website has a three-easy-payments hard-sell component to it, plenty of old-school news outlets are taking notice. "It ain't your mama's yoga" may not be the kind of selling point, or attitude, that traditionalists appreciate, but then DDP isn't looking to target people who already know their vinyasa from their ashtanga.
"My workout is about strength, fitness, and flexibility," he says. "It all proceeds from this" – he makes his famous Diamond hand sign – "the tension when you press your hands together. You start there, you work outward, you will see your life change."
Page is an inspiring figure, a buffed-out self-help guru with a fill-the-room voice and demeanor of a man used to appealing to fans in the upper decks. Once the first DDP Yoga videos went viral and the morning news programs came calling, he realized he'd taken the first solid steps into a legitimate post-wrestling career.
And that's when Jake the Snake re-entered the picture.
"Feel that. Put your finger right there."
When Jake The Snake Roberts gives you a command, you tend to obey, bizarre as that command may be. Right now, he's pointing at the meaty part of his palm below his thumb. There's a hard ridge there, like someone's jabbed a length of pencil beneath the skin. On a hand that's already a mess – gnarled fingers pointing in queasy directions, knuckles pushed back far from where knuckles ought to be – that little ridge is the most wrong element.
"That," Roberts says, with a mixture of weariness and pride, "is my tendon."
Roberts sits back in a thick leather chair that's not his. "Before I came here," he says, "I could only move my fingers this far." He holds out both hands, the fingers curled into claws from decades of abuse both given and received. "Now?" he says, and the showman inside Roberts steps to the fore as he extends his fingers out much further.
"Now I can do this," he says, his eyes lasering in on yours to be sure you don't miss one iota of his point. "And it's all due to that man right there."
He motions to a painting – yes, a painting – of Diamond Dallas Page, sporting bright blue trunks, hoisting a championship belt in exultation.
"That man's going to change so many millions of people's lives," Roberts says, and you wonder, for the thousandth time in your life, just where the line in wrestling lies between the performance and the truth.
Roberts has a small bedroom on the second floor of Page's house. He's been here since October, since he bottomed out once and for all and Page decided to close the circle by offering his former mentor a hand. Page has dubbed his home "The Accountability Crib," and he's helping both Roberts and fellow former wrestler Scott Hall un-knot their lives.
"This is not a rehab place," Page stresses. "I'm just trying to help out my buddies. WWE has a rehab that's as good as anything in the NBA or the NFL, but Jake's been in and out of it a bunch of times."
Page is coordinating with WWE's rehab team, keeping a close eye on Roberts as he takes the steps toward what Page and his crew have termed a "resurrection":
Roberts' bedroom is small – 12x12 – the size of a kid's. And like a kid's, it's decorated with wrestling paraphernalia on every wall. Cartoons featuring Jake the Snake rescuing damsels in distress, action figures of Roberts still in their boxes, various knickknacks – it's all here.
The centerpiece of the room is a whiteboard on which Roberts has sketched out his own personal rehab plan, a schedule for AA meetings, and the goals he's set for himself. Page has a simple mantra for Roberts: "Ninety meetings, 90 days, 12 steps."
Roberts shuffles through the Accountability Crib, his direction purposeful but his moves slow. He's wearing loose-fitting warmup pants, Crocs and a black Jake the Snake T-shirt with RESURRECTION in neon green letters beneath a photo of a younger version of himself. He sits down in Page's chair, and it's a jarring image: the guy who once wrapped snakes around people's necks is unburdening himself as if in a confessional.
"The soul knows what it needs to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind," Roberts says, reading an inspirational quote off his phone. "It's so true. I worked my ass off in wrestling. Fought through a bad beginning in life. But I started medicating, and the more medicating I did, the more medicating I needed to block out what I'd done."
Most of the time, Roberts works out his demons one by one, with workouts and diet. (Hearing Jake The Snake Roberts extol the virtues of black-bean brownies is every bit as strange as you'd think.) Every so often, though, one of those demons gets loose.
For years, Roberts' life had a script every bit as predetermined and predictable as a wrestling storyline: fall off the wagon, get into trouble, run away. It served him well for decades. And in June, he had another opportunity to do that, only he slipped, downing those two mini-bottles of vodka.
"I'm not like somebody who can go out and have a couple drinks," he says. "My way of thinking changes. My way of expressing myself changes. Everything changes. Once it was down in me, I was like, 'What have I done now?' That's when the pain started for me. When you're as hungry as I am for this – being totally clean – that was like shooting me. It was like hitting me in the head with a ball peen hammer. I hated myself. Did not want to get out of bed."
"I just want things to be positive, and moving forward," Page says. "Progress, not perfection. Sometimes you fall, and somebody has to reach down and pull you back up."
Page filmed his discussion with Roberts about the incident for his YouTube channel, and the video shows just how far these guys have come from their wrestling days, and how high the hill is that Roberts still has to climb (Warning: video contains explicit language):
Today, sitting in Page's office, Roberts spends a long time unraveling the incident, his reaction, his feelings, his self-loathing and his intention to never ever fall again. It's not until late in the conversation that the old Jake The Snake rears his head. "I've got the lead role in a new movie called 'Heavy Water,' " he says, grinning, "and I'm singing now, too" – specifically "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" at a recent Braves game. "I'm going to win an Oscar and a Grammy in the same year. Believe it."
Dinner's on the stove in the kitchen, and Roberts is about done laying bare his soul. "I don't regret my mistakes," he says. "Got to accept those. I'm not ashamed of my life any more. Thank God for forgiveness. I've got a lot of people I've got to come back to, but today, I'm not not hiding from it. I'm not thinking about running."
He gives a world of credit to Page. "He's got a great heart, no doubt," Roberts says. "He loves to share. I just love the guy, that's all I can say." And he's become a DDP Yoga evangelist.
"You want to share it because of how different you feel," Roberts says. "You want to tell everybody. I'll go to the Publix food store and I'll see somebody who's overweight or having trouble walking. I'll go up to them, and they'll say, 'Holy [crap], you're Jake the Snake!' And I'll say, 'Yeah, but here's what I want to talk to you about … ' "
"It's not about, 'Hey, look at my abs,' " Page says. "It's about, 'Hey, look at my life.' "
DDP Yoga might end up saving some bodies. And DDP himself might end up saving a life or two. Seems a good deal either way.