Column: Heroes and the modern athlete

LIVE-MIKEOne of the more jarring and painful passages into adulthood for many people is the realization that the idols and heroes of one’s youth will often fail, in some way or another. The failure doesn’t have to be a spectacular one. It can simply be the moment that one realizes that the heroes of youth aren’t perfect, but instead flawed humans like the rest of us. While not earth-shattering, these moments of realization go a long way towards stripping away the illusions of the way the world works in a child’s mind.

But for sports fans, more and more these days, the more we find out about our heroes, the more misplaced that idolatry seems. As a youngster, two of my biggest heroes were Lenny Dykstra and Kirby Puckett. Major leaguers whose hustle and exuberance, respectively, resonated with me deeply. As it turned out, both men—despite their on-field abilities, were not role-models at all, a shock to an eight-year-old’s understanding of how the world was supposed to work.

Like many youngsters growing up in the late 1980s, the world of professional wrestling was as much a breeding ground for hero-creation as legitimate athletics. Despite the best efforts of my older brother, I remained firmly convinced that pro wrestling was real until the age of nine or ten. Larger than life athletes, literal representations of good versus evil, there was a reason so many of us worshipped men like Hulk Hogan. Men who entered the squared circle and delivered impassioned speeches about the importance of upholding a strict moral code.
Even after I grew wise to the WWE’s sham, it was still hard for me whenever news would break about those childhood heroes battling addictions to alcohol and pills and committing terrible acts, from drunk-driving to‑perhaps most famously‑Chris Benoit’s double murder-suicide that left his wife and young son dead.

But of all those wrestlers I adored at an early age, there was perhaps nobody I rooted for harder than Jake “The Snake” Roberts. A tough-talking Texan with a handlebar mustache and a 12-foot python, Roberts, to me, was the epitome of what a man was supposed to be. Sure, he was slightly unhinged, but he was captivating. And my Jake Roberts bed sheets and Wrestling Buddy plush toy were testament to his hold over me.

A few years back, I came across a YouTube clip, now famous in wrestling circles, that showed how far Roberts had fallen. Wrestling in a small venue in Boston, Roberts, now sporting some 70 extra pounds around his waist, shambled into the ring, addled by drugs and alcohol, mumbled incoherently into the microphone at a visibly shaken audience, laid down in the ring—apparently sleeping—and left without wrestling.
I knew the man had fallen on hard times, but the video was still tough to watch. The once-great Roberts, a man who possessed both wit and athleticism, was a broken old man, seemingly destined to fall prey to an early death at the hands of drugs and alcohol like so many of his colleagues.

But last week, stories broke about Roberts’ attempts at rehabilitation. Staying in the house of another former wrestler, Diamond Dallas Page, who has become something of a self-help guru, Roberts, it seemed, was making a sincere effort to shake the demons that the life of a professional wrestler had awakened in him.

Through participation in Page’s intense yoga program, as well as counseling sessions, the 58-year old Roberts has dropped most of that extra weight–with much of his progress captured by a full-time filmmaking crew that is there to document the day-to-day goings on at the “Accountability Crib,” Page’s name for his Smyrna, Ga. home.

As the videos—posted to YouTube on Page’s account—show, the process is by no means an easy one. One recent video shows Page offering words of encouragement to a distraught Roberts, lying in his bed, who is inconsolable about a short relapse with booze.

A screenshot from Diamond Dallas Page’s website shows the physical transformation pro wrestler Jake Roberts has undergone over the last year. Roberts’ battle with drugs and alcohol remains ongoing, but his recovery is being documented by a film crew.  Photo Courtesy of DDPYOGA.com

A screenshot from Diamond Dallas Page’s website shows the physical transformation pro wrestler Jake Roberts has undergone over the last year. Roberts’ battle with drugs and alcohol remains ongoing, but his recovery is being documented by a film crew.
Photo Courtesy of DDPYOGA.com

Every day is an uphill battle for Roberts, and that won’t likely ever stop being the case. It’s a much tougher fight than squaring off with King Kong Bundy or The Honky Tonk Man, but, for the first time, Roberts seems to understand that to be the case.

He may not be thrilling a crowd of thousands at Madison Square Garden anymore, but Roberts’ constant fight has the opportunity to make him more of a hero now than he ever was before.
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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or sports@hometwn.com; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.