The Rise And Fall Of Jake Roberts
An article by Mike Mooneyham
Jake “The Snake” Roberts rose to the top of the wrestling profession and basked in a spotlight reserved for an elite few. But along with that lofty position in the business came the fame, money and temptation that led to his near-fatal descent.
Roberts, who fought an out-of-the-ring battle with alcohol and drug addiction for nearly 20 years, admittedly reached a point where suicide seemed to be the only answer. Even attempts to end his life failed, he says, and there appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
“I was very self-destructive,” says Roberts. “I had gone through rehab a couple of times, tried to commit suicide a couple of times, and each time I tried to commit suicide, I’d just wake up the next morning with puke all over my chest. I was so frustrated and angry. What I was really wanting in life, I had no idea what it was. But I knew there was something missing.”
Roberts, 42, enjoyed his greatest success in the ring during the World Wrestling Federation’s heyday in the mid and late ’80s. With his trademark snake gimmick and strong interview ability, Roberts was a hot commodity and a top drawing card during feuds with fellow WWF superstars Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior and the late Andre The Giant.
At home, however, Roberts says he was a stranger.“There was no life outside wrestling. What you become is a piece of the machinery, and they keep throwing up this pipe dream in front of you. A lot of the guys fall for it. I know I did. I wrestled for 18 years. That’s a long time to do anything, especially with the attitude I had with it because I was out there gutting it every night. I wasn’t lazy, and I was very successful with it.
“The things I saw outside the ring were incredible. Traveling Europe was exciting. There’s no way to explain the high you get in the ring when you’re an accomplished performer. It was just so demanding.”
But Roberts also admits he was fighting his own personal demons on his way to stardom. As injuries from his grueling ring schedule began to mount – including surgery in which a disk had to be removed from his neck – Roberts found it harder and harder to cope.
“When you’re down, there’s no money. There was no insurance, and that was totally ridiculous in this day and time. People who pick up trash get insurance. There were no rights. I’m not bitter because I’ve forgiven all those who wronged me.
“I had the name before I went anywhere. They thought they made me a star, but it was my God-given talent that made me a star. There’s no pay scale. It was archaic, but yet for me it was the love of the excitement in the ring and the adrenaline high in performing and being able to manipulate and entertain the people that kept me going. There were thousands of times that in the dressing room – whether it was injuries, emotional problems, psychological problems or health problems – I did not feel like going out there, but whenever I opened the door and stepped out there it was like electricity hit me and I was on automatic pilot.”
Roberts, whose real name is Auerelian Smith Jr., was a second-generation wrestler. His father, Aurelian “Grizzly” Smith, was a main-event star in the Carolinas in the ’60s as one half of The Kentuckians and most recently served as a road agent for WCW. Wrestler Sam Houston (Michael Smith) is Roberts’ half-brother.
With wrestling in his blood, Roberts found an addiction that was at the same time gratifying and frustrating. But life on the road and the temptations that went along with it took a heavy toll. Roberts now accepts total blame for the problems that nearly led to disaster.
“I had battled drug and alcohol addiction for years,” Roberts says, “and a lot of that I used to blame on childhood problems or this and that, which is so easy for us to do, but had I had my head and heart right and had been following the Lord, I wouldn’t have had those problems.
“I guess from early childhood, I felt I had been left behind and not wanted as a child, therefore whenever I struck out on my own, I felt like I had to do everything myself. I couldn’t love anybody and I couldn’t let anybody love me. My poor wife
I pushed her away for years. She’d start getting close to me, and I’d intentionally do something and get caught doing it, knowing that it was going to set off a bomb at our house. But that was part of my personality and my way of living because I was afraid to let anybody get close to me.”
Roberts’ life, however, changed dramatically two years ago. While working for Atlanta-based World Championship in late 1992, Roberts suddenly left the organization during the middle of a high-profile feud with Sting. He voluntarily checked into a drug rehabilitation center – his second stint in five years – and was subsequently fined for each wrestling appearance he missed.
With his professional career in shambles, his life at home was no better. Roberts suddenly found himself locked out of a profession he had known all his life and even outside of his own home.
“My wife wouldn’t let me back in the house, and rightfully so,” says Roberts. “She had become a Christian a couple of years before. I called her up and asked to take her to church. But I was conning her. I went to church, thinking I’ll do this hour and it’ll make things easier for me.”
That hour turned out to be possibly the most important of Roberts’ life.
“It was Easter Sunday and they were doing a play,” Roberts recounts. “There was a guy portraying Jesus and he walked down the aisle dragging a cross. And boom – the lights came on and the darkness was gone.”
Jake Roberts doesn’t talk much about wrestling these days. He has traded the booze and drugs for a Bible and a zeal to spread the gospel. He’s officially been “out” of wrestling for only a couple of months, but Roberts admits his heart hasn’t been in it for the past two years.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts gets out of bed early these days. And he doesn’t slither, either, like his former trademark gimmick.
He’s up at the crack of dawn, in his garage reading the Bible and planning the rest of his day. Traveling to a distant town, working out at a gym and wrestling in front of an audience are no longer in those plans.
“Back in the bad old days, I’d been hiding in the dark at this time of the morning wishing I could go to sleep, or throwing my guts out feeling so much shame and anger I’d be thinking about suicide. But those days are gone,” says Roberts, who has since traded the booze, drugs and carousing for a Bible and a zeal to spread the Gospel.
Roberts was a major wrestling attraction for 18 years, headlining against the likes of Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant and virtually every other big name in the business over the past two decades. But something was missing in his life, Roberts admits, and total desperation had him on the verge of suicide several times.
His addiction to drugs and alcohol was serious – serious enough to voluntarily check into a drug rehab several years after being forced to enter a similar one. Roberts tried, he says, but nothing seemed to work. Until one Sunday morning a couple of years ago at an Easter service.
They were doing a play,” says Roberts. “There was a guy portraying Jesus and he walked down the aisle dragging a cross. And boom
the lights came on and the darkness was gone.”
Roberts says at that point his new future was being set into motion.
“You have to quit fighting. That’s the hardest thing, because you think you have to fight this monster. But you don’t have to fight. You have to ask forgiveness and ask deliverance and get with God and get away from these other things. If you roll with pigs, brother, you’re going to get muddy. That was one of the reasons I had to quit wrestling. When you’re out there in that fast lane, you’re going to get some skid marks somewhere burning up the pavement. You’re going to get hurt. You can’t do both.”
Roberts says the change wasn’t an easy one at first.
“It was a struggle even after that for about two years because I knew what he wanted me to do, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do,” says Roberts. “He wanted me to quit wrestling completely. But I had a fear of not being able to provide for my family. I knew in the back of mind I could always do something. Years ago I was a dairy farmer. It was just fear and letting go. I kept praying about it, my wife prayed about it and some good friends prayed about it. I started going to church, and the more I went the hungrier I got.”
Roberts, though, was still in demand by wrestling promoters across the world. He had been a top draw on the independent circuit since leaving the major organizations, and he was constantly approached for bookings.
“We’d been struggling really hard with it for six months,” he says. “I had churches asking me to speak and promoters asking me to wrestle. Whoever called first, I went. Well, the devil made sure those wrestling engagements kept coming. The Lord was letting those speaking engagements come. They were having fun. It was a tug-of-war, with Jake in the middle.”
But Jake Roberts knew a choice had to be made. There was no room for compromise.
“We do this Bible study in our home with some other couples that I really trust a lot. There’s a guy who went through a lot of the same drugs that I did. He’s a CMA (Christian Motorcycle Association) member now, and I could identify with him because he ran with that rough crowd. He had to give up his bike. He had to give up fishing. His idea of a good fishing trip was speed, beer and a hooker, and he’d say `Let’s go fish.’ Well, I don’t know what you’re going to catch, but you’re not going to want to bring it home.
“Anyway they really got on me one night. The next morning I was supposed to go to Canada to wrestle. I went out to the airport, checked my luggage, got out to the gate, and kept hearing God telling me, ‘Don’t go, man. Don’t go. Do you really want to leave your family behind? Do you really want to spin the dice one more time? Do you want to play Russian Roulette with your life again?’ He was on me. I just turned away and came back home and said that’s it. I had about 25 more dates booked and canceled them all. I was expecting all these promoters to be mad and angry, but not one of them was. They said, `Praise God and we’re happy you’re doing this for the kids.’”
Roberts says he now realizes there were signs during his career that pointed to a new future for him down the road. Despite a grueling and demanding schedule on the road, he often volunteered his time and services to speak to children and his younger fans.
“I’ve seen the world,” say Roberts. “It’s kind of funny. One of my biggest lows was not having a family life. I just really ignored my family. Therefore, when I was on the road, a lot of time when they brought kids to the back or Make A Wish Foundation called, I was always there and willing to spend more than what they asked for. I had no idea at the time, but I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do anyway, and that was speaking to kids and giving them hope.”
That concern for the children led to what Roberts does best today
speaking to youngsters and giving them hope for the future.
“I spoke a couple of times and I saw the impact that I had on kids through my testimony,” says Roberts. “But it wasn’t me
I’m bragging for the Lord. It’s just amazing that I can touch kids the way I can by by telling them my life story and answering questions for them and sharing with them. I just want to let them know that they’re not unique in their problems. There are other kids who were molested as kids, there are other kids who were beaten up, there are kids with drug problems and no problems. I tell them to not get caught up in medicating themselves. I did for 20 years.”
For the first time in his career, Roberts now has time to spend with his own family – wife Cheryl and five children, including 15-year-old twins, ranging in ages from eight months to 20 years old.
“We’re ecstatic,” he says. Even without those six-figure incomes? “I’ve been doing just enough to have some spending money,” says Roberts. “I didn’t want to work full time. It was ridiculous. That’s what gets so many of the guys in trouble. They don’t have any connection with anything else other than that world. When you start giving up your family and your free time, you’re in trouble. In the last week I’ve fished and golfed more than I have in the last 15 years, so what’s wrong with that?”
Money or no money, Roberts now seems sure of his direction in life. This summer he and his family are going on a mini-tour to Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming and back through Chicago. The travel arrangements are great, he says. “I’ve got about a month booked every day. This way I have my family with me and I’ll be surrounded by Christians.”
Roberts says he doesn’t miss the wrestling business, nor is he overly concerned about the financial insecurity that could lie ahead. “Things are going good. I’m getting some speaking engagements. I’d like more, but I’m just now getting out there and being available. I’m sure there are going to be more down the line. If the Lord wants me to, that’s what I’m going to do.
“I thought when I quit wrestling, that I’d go buy a dump truck or become a car salesman, but I keep hearing this voice saying, `Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.’ Last week I spoke seven times
five for zero amount of money, two for love offerings. The zeroes I don’t mind either. I don’t think it’s time for me to start counting pennies again. I was making big money, and I was miserable. And now, I’m hardly making any money, and I’m happy. It’s time to forget the money thing and go on with my life.
“It says in the book that if you just do what you’re asked to do, then good things will happen to you. And he’s blessed us in many ways already.”