By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
"Here I am, on top of the world. I should be happy, but I'm not."
That's Jake "The Snake" Roberts describing himself at the height of his wrestling career, when he was so popular that the World Wrestling Federation couldn't turn him into a hissable villain. Behind the scenes, he was miserable, thanks largely to a horrific childhood, during which he says he was abused sexually and physically by his stepmother.
"I had so many issues growing up that I never dealt with," Roberts said in an April 19 phone interview. "I couldn't shake them, no matter what I achieved."
That led to drugs and alcohol, in copious amounts.
"I started so I didn't have to feel that sh-- anymore," he said. "It worked for a short time.. ... It started out as a fun thing, and the next thing you know, it's a necessary thing. When you need to take drugs or drink to get you going, then you've got a problem."
Now sober for about five years, Roberts tours the country with a solo spoken word/comedy show and headlines about two fan conventions a month. He'll be in Amarillo as one of the main attractions for the annual Yellow City Comic Con this weekend. (Click here for a preview of the con's full offerings.)
The annual con (in its third year as a full-weekend event) runs from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday in the Amarillo Civic Center Complex North and South Exhibit Halls, 401 S. Buchanan St.
Roberts, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014, will speak at a 3 p.m Saturday panel, following a 1 p.m. screening of the 2015 documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake. That film is a brutally intimate look at his struggle for sobriety, and he was no less candid on the phone in a 20-minute chat, such as when we talked about his old gimmick of bringing snakes in the ring.
No one, apparently, was more frightened than Roberts himself.
"I can't stand 'em," he said. "But I'm a whore. Pay me, and I'll do it."
Well, in general. Today, he said he has nothing to do with serpents: "Oh, hell no."
He's definitely retired from the wrestling ring, too.
"I'm 61, about to be 62 (on May 30)," Roberts said. "I punished myself enough. Now, I'm just trying to take care of my old bumps and bruises and keep a handle on what's going on with my body now."
That includes some worrisome spots on his brain, likely caused, he said, by the numerous concussions he suffered over the years.
"I wrestled 320 dates a year. On average, I had three concussions a year, sometimes six or seven a year. You multiply that by 38 (years wrestling), and that's not a good number," he said. "I get tested every six months to make sure they're not growing into something else.
"I really didn't think much about it 'til all that came out about (traumatic brain injuries in sports)," Roberts said. "But I've started having issues with my memory, my speech started failing me. I think part of the reason was because I wasn't using it. I'd shut down when I was drinking and drugging."
That's one reason for his spoken word tours, he said — to help refresh his memory.
"Oh man, it's fun, a lot of fun. I get to go and hang out with fans and talk to them before the show," he said. "It's wild. They'll bring up material I've forgotten."
Fan support is evident at cons like YC3, too.
"The most satisfying story I've ever heard is someone saying, 'My grandpa got me into wrestling. It was our special time every week'," Roberts said. "You realize that you were a special part of their life and are tearing up when they tell you. ... That's pretty awesome."
Family ties also contributed to Roberts' career, but the memories are far less happy. His father, Aurelian "Grizzly" Smith, also worked as a professional wrestler, but father and son always had problems.
"He never raised me," Roberts said. "He had his own issues, and I'm not going to discuss all that, but he certainly had some big problems and we didn't get along. He never helped me get into wrestling. In fact, he tried to stop me, but I was so hellbent on being bigger than he ever was. I wanted him to like me, to love me, to respect me, but that wasn't his way. He'd tell other people that all the time, but never me, which really sucks. It does piss me off.
"There were sometimes we'd watch TV and I'd see these perfect families and then look at us and say, 'Jesus, what's wrong with me? Why can't I be like Leave It to Beaver?'," he continued. "Well, it just don't happen. That's television for ya."
At the end of Smith's life (he died in 2010 in Amarillo from complications of Alzheimer's disease), Roberts said that the two men made some peace.
"We finally got it all out there," Roberts said. "We talked about it a little bit. I forgave him, and then he was gone. Then he was gone."
Today, Roberts said he's happy.
"My life is cleaner that it's ever been," he said. "I have great fans who still support me. When I was down and out, they stil loved me, and that really helped me with my recovery, knowing that I had that support.
"It's a funny road you go down sometimes, and you get help from the strangest places."
YC3 tickets are $25 for three-day admission for adults or $10 for three-day admission for children, and $10 for either Saturday or Sunday day passes for adults or $5 for children ages 5 to 12.