SMYRNA, Ga. - Self-proclaimed “firebug” Jake “The Snake” Roberts burns yet another pile of brush outside a palatial suburban Atlanta home that doesn’t seem to fit in with the more modest houses nearby.
“A couple of them look like crack houses -- that’s why I’ve already been over there twice,” Roberts jokes.
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A few minutes before, his “new alcohol” -- coffee -- was delivered to him by 25-year-old perennial foil Louie Benson, and Roberts is quick to “thank" him for his efforts.
“I’ll take this,” Roberts says as Benson opens the car door. “You can stay in the car.”
It quickly becomes clear as a reporter settles in for a 24-hour stay in Diamond Dallas Page’s “Accountability Crib” -- where the 57-year-old former pro wrestling star is cleaning up his life – that Roberts is leaning on jocularity as one of his biggest weapons in the fight against slipping back into a decades-long battle with substance abuse.
And yet, just minutes after delivering rapid-fire one-liners, Roberts is shedding tears while sitting at the kitchen island. He had just found out that an old friend from high school in Texas had died suddenly. Roberts is somewhat vague with the details, but apparently the pair had some kind of dust-up not long before Roberts traveled from Texas to Smyrna to begin this journey.
Roberts explained that after his sister was murdered decades earlier without him telling her he loved her, he promised himself he’d never left an opportunity to bury the hatchet slip away. And yet, he said he went by the friend’s house two or three times, meant to go knock on the door and never did.He’s feeling pretty low, pretty regretful.
But, he quickly realizes, that’s the point. Instead of searching for something to numb himself, he’s feeling.
“Emotions suck,” Roberts admits. “They make you a better person, but you don’t have to enjoy it.”
Roberts moved into the home on Oct. 29 after spending weeks doing Page’s DDPYOGA system in Texas to slim down his 300-plus-pound frame. The process is being filmed for a documentary titled “The Resurrection of Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts.”
Page, 56, feels like he’s repaying a debt to Roberts, who trained Page for the squared circle when he was a 35-year-old wrestling manager who no one thought could make the transition.
But Roberts isn’t the only person in the house searching for the next step in life. The eclectic bunch includes Benson, a 25-year-old DDPYOGA video intern and wrestling fan who’s here both to advance his career and work toward halving a frame that was once 452 pounds; Ray Lloyd, 48, who starred in World Championship Wrestling as Glacier and is now training with Page to someday teach DDPYOGA to others; and filmmaker Steve Yu, 41, who is working with Page on Roberts’ documentary while also working to finish his own doc, “Inspired: The Movie,” centered on what inspires people to drastically change their lives.
On this Monday morning, the news of Roberts’ friend’s death is tough, but it doesn’t overshadow all the good things that are happening. Roberts had just returned the day before from an appearance at a pro wrestling show in Las Vegas. A couple of weeks before Roberts had suffered a setback – an alcohol-induced blackout returning from an appearance in Rhode Island -- and he wasn’t taking any chances in Sin City.
When he got off the plane in Vegas, good friend and fellow grappler Sinn Bodhi – who portrayed Kizarny briefly in WWE – met Roberts at the airport and watched him take antabuse, a drug that makes a person violently ill if he has any alcohol.
“A lot of this is making sure you do the right things when you’re stepping into the danger zone,” Roberts explains. “I’m not going put a gun in my mouth anymore, spit in the chamber and see if I get lucky. I wanted to have all the cards stacked against failing.”
Roberts laughs when recalling the scene of him drinking water with his friend in a Las Vegas club.
“I’m in Vegas drinking water,” Roberts said. “I’ve ruined my life.”
To confirm that Roberts is clean, he will travel with Yu that afternoon for a drug test – and Roberts can’t wait.
“I’ll get high by passing this test in a way, in a good way,” Roberts says. “Instead of hiding from a drug test I’ll be dancing when I go there.”
In the interim there’s plenty to do. Page was returning that evening after 10 days away for appearances and visiting family for the Thanksgiving holiday. Yu begins preparing for an episode of the Page/Roberts YouTube cooking show “Eat This” that will be recorded as soon as Page gets in. The process includes Yu setting up lighting, but also kitchen cleaning and putting up groceries. Yu bristles a bit when asked if he’s the house’s “den mother.”
“I try to keep things organized," Yu said. "I think people get used to me taking care of things so they don’t have to.”
Roberts heads outside with Benson for a Twitter session, but Roberts must first point out the dent in the washer/dryer set at the edge of the garage.
“Dallas likes to change the look of things by running into them with his truck,” Roberts says. “I keep trying to explain to him that the camera doesn’t actually drive for you; it just shows you what you ran into.”
Roberts then sits down in the shadow of the smoldering fire and tweets. He’s new to social media and not a fan of typing, so Benson tells Roberts what followers are saying and transcribes what Roberts tells him. In around a week-and-a-half, Roberts had amassed about 7,000 followers on his new handle.
Still proud of his good behavior in Vegas, Roberts tweets:
"you are welcome to victory celebration this evening. will be tipping an empty glass. amazing numbers of f'd up people in vegas..."
As with the workouts, Roberts is taking Twitter in baby steps.
“I haven’t even told him about the hashtag yet,” Benson says.
“Hashtag? That’s where you hand the crack pipe to somebody else,” Roberts responds.
As Roberts answers questions, the metal from a Fossil leather and silver bracelet shines in the sun. Roberts bought it in Las Vegas and had already shown it off to several people in the home as a source of pride.
“Because I wasn’t going to save my money to get my dope,” Roberts says.
After everyone returns inside, Yu notes Roberts’ successful Thanksgiving Day, when one of his old drug dealers called him.
"I told him the bad news,” Roberts says of him cleaning up. “Well, the good news for me.”
He adds that the 7,000 Twitter followers “are just my drug dealers.”
“They’ll unfollow you if you pass too many drug tests,” Yu jokes.
Roberts had much better conversations on Thanksgiving with three of his eight children.
“They told me how proud they were of me,” Roberts said, pausing for just a second to compose himself.
As is common with Roberts, his manner goes from sentimental to slapstick in the drop of a hat, and Benson is generally the catalyst. Somehow the oft-lampooned wrestling movie “Ready to Rumble” is brought up, giving Roberts a chance to chastise Benson’s annoying little brother ways.
“He thinks it’s ‘Gone with the Wind,’” Roberts says.
Benson’s keeps going, playing both sides of the fence by saying it was a bad movie but he did like it, and that it “had a good cast.”
“Shut up! Shut the hell up!” Roberts yells, later adding, “I’m starting to lose weight, and stopping doing drugs just to get the [heck] out of here.”
It’s finally time to get out of there, but just to head with Yu to the drug test at a local lab. Roberts has forgotten his ID, but the attendant says it’s OK because his records are on file. Roberts figures as much, adding, “My urine speaks volumes.”
After returning from the restroom, Roberts raises two fingers to note his second passed drug test of his stay. He was confident enough to declare victory before the attendant gives the official word.
“I’ll be excited when I have to take my shoes off to count the weeks,” Roberts says, before stepping outside for a victory cigarette. As Roberts takes a drag of his Kool, Yu says that they need to work on Jake’s smoking, but “one step at a time.”
Errands are next: Home Depot for rocks Roberts needs for a walkway he’s putting down and Costco for organic chicken for the cooking show. Ever the multi-tasker, Yu drives while constantly on the phone talking with people about projects. Roberts, in the front passenger seat, gets fed up with all the wheelin’ and dealin’ and pretends to go to sleep -- with accompanying faux snoring.
The bespectacled Yu, who generally stays out of the house’s antics, shocks Roberts by backhanding him in the sternum.
“Did you see that?” Roberts asks a reporter in the backseat, the beginning of an hours-long recruitment to have the scribe testify at the trial.
Back at the house, Monday evening sets in, and despite a house full of wrestlers and fans, Panthers-Eagles and not Monday Night Raw is must-watch on the big-screen TV in the living room. Everyone’s waiting for Page to get in from L.A. so the cooking show can start, and idle chat with Roberts can go in the most bewildering directions.
He talks about the snake tattoo he’s going to get up his arm when Bodhi – who’s both a wrestler and a tattoo artist – comes for a visit. The tattoo will start with the snake’s head at the palm of his hand so he can open it up to show people.
It’s not a look for everybody, but Roberts is excited, and as he turns his palms down his wish for the tattoo becomes more understandable. A tattoo is a creation, as opposed to his knuckles, which show destruction.
Roberts suffers from “boxer’s knuckles,” where his knuckles have settled closer toward the back of his hands. But the condition didn’t come from the wrestling ring.
“I had a thing for busting windshields, Roberts admits. “I would hear a voice that would say, “It’s 8:15. By 8:21 you have to bust a windshield. And I had to do it. I became an evil, maniacal clown. I busted those windshields because I wanted to fight someone, not knowing it’s a mirror.”
Page finally gets in a little after 10 p.m., and within 45 minutes of his arrival he and Roberts are wearing chef hats and taping “Eat This,” with Roberts sporting the second goodie he got in Las Vegas – a tuxedo T-shirt. The pair whips up a concoction featuring organic chicken, onions, grapes and vegetable mayonnaise while Roberts discusses his successful sober stint in Vegas.
“You can eat food good for you and it taste good, too,” Roberts says before the taping, still seemingly amazed at the epiphany.
Soon the house will be silent as a tough workout awaits in the morning.
Roberts is asked how the workouts are going, and he quickly responds, “You’ll find out in the morning; you’re going to be down on the floor with us.”
In the “Accountability Crib,” even visitors have to toe the line.
It’s just past 9 o'clock Tuesday morning and Roberts is settling into the hot tub outside to loosen his creaky body for another workout. The tub is surrounded by a wooden fence that Roberts will soon paint to match the dark brown of the house’s exterior.
It’s hard to look at this scene and not think of Daniel LaRusso preparing for combat and fixing up Mr. Miyagi’s backyard simultaneously in “The Karate Kid.”
An hour later the living room’s ragged, dorm-like furniture is moved to the side and yoga mats cover the floor. The workout has to be fast and furious since Roberts has a nearby Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at 11:30 a.m. Roberts mows through the workout at a pace he couldn’t have imagined months earlier, but has to stop a bit early because of the bone spurs in his left shoulder that will have to go under the knife at some point.
At this workout, the focus is on Page and Lloyd playing good cop-bad cop with Benson, who lapsed when tasked to continue working out and watching his diet during the holiday. It’s showing in his performance.
“What name did we use for you today?” Page asks Benson as Yu arrives at the house. “Starts with a P – pathetic.” He asks Benson multiple times, “Do you want to go home?”
Benson is finally dismissed so he can drive Roberts to his AA meeting, and soon Page is trying to figure out how to get 20 yoga mats in his limited living room space so he can hold a seminar there.
As he works, he acknowledges how well Benson has done in general, and that his problem, like Roberts’, is going to take time.
“Louie is just like Jake,” Page said. “It’s just that his addiction is to food.”
Page is then asked about Roberts’ house projects and “The Karate Kid” comparison and smiles.
“It’s a lot more than the working out,” Page says. “He’s just learning to live again. When you’re a junkie you become a social misfit. Most people saw him as a God, so when they saw him all screwed up they were even more disappointed in him.”
Page repeats that he’s just returning a favor from Roberts’ help two decades ago. Paying it forward is a theme in the house, as Lloyd chimes in that it was Page who got him his first meeting with former WCW exec Eric Bischoff, jumpstarting his career.
Page recalls a conversation with Dusty Rhodes, who also helped make Page’s career happen.
“Dusty said, ‘I never understood why that drug addict meant so much to you until I read your book. Now I get it.’ That meant a lot coming from him.”
Ironically, Roberts soon returns from his AA meeting as Hank Williams Jr.’s “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” blares on the radio. He’ll continually face temptation during a process in this house that Yu figures will take a year.
But Roberts is learning.
“Nothing like a bunch of drunks sitting around talking. But it’s stuff you can relate to,” Roberts says. “Just when you start to point the finger you’re like, “[Screw] me, I’ve done that too.”