It Took Time, But Now They Call Him ‘Jake The Snake’

WHEELING, W.Va. — Jake Roberts never cared too much for snakes. More often than not, he avoided the scaly reptiles because of an innate sense of fear.

But after years of frustration, he decided it was time to overcome his phobia, so he bought a snake as a pet. “Two weeks later I touched it — and a month later I picked it up,” he said.

Now at age 33, Jake Roberts answers to Jake “The Snake” Roberts, his trademark as a professional wrestler in the World Wrestling Federation. His sidekick and constant companion, Damien, a 15-foot Burmese python, has invoked terror in ring opponents while at the same time thrilled audiences nationwide.

Roberts, anxiously awaiting a feature match with Andre the Giant at the Wheeling Civic Center recently, sipped steaming coffee and spoke candidly about his wrestling career.

A native of Stone Mountain, Ga., he talked with a distinct raspiness in his voice, which no longer retained that familiar Southern drawl. At 6 feet, 5 inches and 250 pounds, Roberts is an intimidating figure even while sitting in a chair.

He wore snakeskin boots and blue tights with a cobra emblem on one leg. Damien lay still in his confined burlap sack, unaware that he would soon be used as a psychological weapon against a terrified 520-pound giant.

Roberts entered professional wrestling about 14 years ago but said he has wrestled only about seven of those years. “I’ve had a lot of down time because of injuries — wrists, ankles, knees, broken bones — and snake bites,” he said.

He pointed to a two-inch scar on his right index finger where Damien had bitten him about three weeks ago. The wound had taken seven stitches to heal. It wasn’t the first time Damien had lashed out at his owner, either.

“I’ve been working with snakes for about six or seven years,” Roberts said. “They don’t make good pets, but they sure are a lot of fun.”

Roberts refused to release Damien from his burlap prison in the brisk backstage temperatures. He may not tremble at the mention of snakes anymore, but he knows not to cross the line.

“They don’t like to sit,” Roberts said. “They don’t take to people too well, and they get very moody, especially when it’s cold.”

Roberts, who never wrestled in high school, said his entrance into professional wrestling was unexpected. “Me and some buddies went to the arena [to watch wrestling] one night, and my buddies said, ‘Hey, you could beat this guy.'”

So he challenged the wrestler. Roberts said he does not remember the wrestler’s name, but he does remember how easily his opponent manhandled him. And so did his friends, who kept reminding Roberts, “Man, he made you look like a dork.”

The rematch was a different story, though. Roberts studied and practiced wrestling moves and started a weightlifting program before seeking revenge.

Today Jake the Snake is one of the most popular wrestlers in the WWF, an organization he has called home for about four years. When an opponent has the advantage, the crowd cheers, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”

Roberts often responds by demolishing foes with the DDT, a move that smashes an opponent’s head to the mat. He further humiliates them with Damien’s assistance.

Jake the Snake has not always been a good guy, though. Fans taunted him when he first came to the WWF. Only the humiliation at the hands of a more evil wrestler, the Honky Tonk Man, changed the tide.

Asked how a wrestler makes the transformation from good to evil, Roberts replied: “I’m always the same guy. When I came up here, people perceived me as being bad because of the things I said. But the people themselves changed [their perception of] me. I never change.”

Roberts said publicity is the name of the game in professional wrestling. Some wrestlers, out of frustration, force the public to change its perception of them to gain more appeal, whether it be good or bad, he said.

If the wrestlers have no public appeal, he said, they don’t get much airtime. And “if you’re not on that tube, man, most of the people forget about you.”

Roberts said wrestling is not always the glamorous world that fans often think it is. “There’s not many nights where you sit back here and say, ‘Hey, I feel like going out there and getting the hell beat out of me,'” he said. “You have guys out there like Andre — he weighs 520 pounds — if he falls on you, it’s going to hurt.

“Once you step into that ring, man, you’re in a different world. That right there puts you on edge. You’re out there alone; the light is on you.”

But wrestling does have its advantages, he said. “Some guys do it for money; that’s why we all do it. What’s hard is staying.”