‘It keeps him alive in your heart’

Colt and Ariel Toombs, the son and daughter of the late wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper, with his memoirs, which the duo finished following their father's death in 2015. (Greg Oliver/SLAM! Wrestling)

Colt and Ariel Toombs, the son and daughter of the late wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper, with his memoirs, which the duo finished following their father’s death in 2015. (Greg Oliver/SLAM! Wrestling)

A reflective Rowdy Roddy Piper, the late wrestling mega-legend, spoke openly and eloquently in a 2014 interview about his changed ways, his family, and his outlook on life and his career. His words ring both prophetic and ominous — and incredibly powerful — following his sudden death at age 61 in July 2015.

“I have four of the most beautiful children in the world, so when I call my shots, I call them the way that I always dreamed I could, I’m a dad,” Piper said in that interview, talking about the projects that he chose to be involved with came secondary to time with his family. “If somebody asks me, how do you want to be remembered, I want to be remembered as a good dad. So when I go to do something, I go, ‘Well, how does this reflect on my family and everybody’s else’s families? What are the kids seeing? What am I showing? What am I doing?’ Not that I won’t get in there and do a Boogie Nights … I’m not saying that. But that’s not for them to watch. I think that there’s a certain responsibility that you carry….”

That very same question surely would have elicited a vastly different response a decade earlier, when wrestling’s ‘Rowdy’ one was still in the latter stages off a hall of fame wrestling career that saw him perfect the role as a bad guy, earn worldwide fame, money beyond his wildest dreams, and even some starring roles in Hollywood. In those days, wrestlers lived like rock stars, partied like them as well, and subjected their bodies and minds to unspeakable violence and abuse, both physically and with substances. Piper was no exception. Rehab and a cancer scare, he said in the 2014 interview, helped him turn the corner, one that he wasn’t sure himself how he even got to.

“I went down in an airplane, I’ve been stabbed a few times, electrocuted, (in) 30-some car crashes, (had) cancer, seven screws in my neck, right hip replaced in ’94,” he said, even slipping in some of his trademark wit, when he added that he’d “been married 31 years …”

Piper was at a loss to explain all he’d survived to that point, but wasn’t at a loss to explain his gratitude for his survival.

”I’ve ah … woosh, I don’t know why I’m still here,” he said, his voice trailing off. “There’s an old saying, you need a licence to fish, you need a licence to hunt, any jerk can have a kid, it takes a man to be a father. And I got lost there for a while. Especially with the cancer. It was ugly. It just got ugly. I got lost out there. And a couple of things happened in my family that made me go, ‘Whoops, I’m not being a good dad.’ And I turned my life around. It was for them,” he said of his children, Ariel, Colton, Fallon and Anastacia.

Two of his children, Ariel and Colt Toombs, have picked up the pieces of their shattered hearts and finished their father’s memoirs, a project he was in the midst of at the time of his tragic death.

Both listened in silence as their father’s quotes were read aloud to them during a telephone interview last month as they promote their father’s legacy, Rowdy: The Roddy Piper Story.

“I could hear dad’s voice as you were reading them,” Ariel said, emotion evident in her voice. “That’s just like him.”

Ariel and Colt collaborated on the book at the behest of its publisher and editor because both offer unique accounts of life as children of Piper, one of pro wrestling’s most iconic characters, ol’ “Hot Rod.”

“We had two very different childhoods with him,” Colt said, offering his sister the chance to tell her story first.

“He was very old-fashioned, so I think the way he raised us daughters and the way he raised Colt are two different stories,” she said. Hers are memories of an overprotective father, but one who made a lasting impression. “Obviously, it was pretty cool having him as a dad because aside from Rowdy Roddy Piper and his legacy in the ring and everything, he was just a very fun dad. He brought that same energy into parenting.”

Certainly being the child of one of wrestling’s most reviled characters, at a time when wrestling was still being marketed as on the up and up, was not without its challenges.

“It could be hard with him being a heel, especially when I was younger — most wrestling kids have heroes for dads and our dad was a villain. So there were challenges that were brought by that. But at the same time, he brought that same fun energy you’d see in promos that he would cut into parenting. Obviously he wouldn’t be yelling at us so much, or being mean, but … he was one of the most fun people to be around and it was really, really cool to have someone like that be your parent.”

Parenting promos for Colt were less focused on fun and more centred on education, he recalled. “I had a very similar but different experience with dad,” he said.

“Obviously, he had three daughters and me and with them, he was always very old school and protective and wanted to make sure that nothing bad in the world could ever touch them. Whereas with me, if there was a fire, he would just throw me into it and see how I did, and that’s how he wanted to raise me,” he added, drawing laughter from both. “He wanted me to sink or swim and challenged me 24/7 because I am the surviving male of the family.”

Looking back, Colt sees that it was tough love, but love nonetheless. “I always (assumed) he was just trying to get me ready for adulthood, but I didn’t realize until after he passed away he was just trying to get me ready for when he passed because he knew eventually it was going to happen and there was only one other male in the family and he wanted to make sure that that was taken care of and that was my job,” said Colt, like his sister wise beyond his years. “I didn’t realize that, literally, until he passed away and then it all kind of started to make sense.”

Life lessons aside, Colt has nothing but love in his heart for his late father. “I definitely grew up with a very different experience than the girls. It was little bit rougher, but I still had all that fun love and good memories with dad. He still had that great energy and all of those great times we had, I had a lot of great experiences with dad.” He must’ve, as his son followed his father’s footsteps into pro wrestling.

But being the son or daughter of someone as famous as Piper, who travelled the world many times over helping World Wrestling Entertainment become the top wrestling company on Earth, was not easy either.

“It is very difficult,” Colt said. “Unlike most people, where dad goes to work and they don’t see him until he gets off, when (our) dad went to work, we saw him on television and we could see him getting beat up and hurt and all of this stuff. No matter whether you’re in the business and you know what’s actually going on, if you see your dad getting hit or beat up or whatever, it affects you in a different way. When you’re a kid, your dad is your hero, especially for me being a boy, and it’s very hard to see your father getting beat up like that.”

And, much like his sister, being the son of a villainous wrestler had its challenges publicly. “Every time you leave the house — because our dad, like Ariel touched on earlier, was the No. 1 villain, he was the best bad guy in the world — it made a lot of problems outside the house. We would go outside and people would say, ‘I hate your dad, I hate you, he’s a terrible guy.’ When in reality, we were just sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, we love our dad, where do they get this? I don’t understand.’ It could be a very confusing life for kids. It makes a big identity crisis. You’re trying to be yourself but everybody hates you because you’re Rowdy Roddy Piper’s kid. It’s a very odd lifestyle.”

Ariel agreed, adding that the view from the Piper household, where the kids were wise to the fact that dad wasn’t actually getting hurt, was not unlike the view a parent has at Christmastime when it comes to Jolly Old Saint Nick.

“The best way I can compare this is when you think of Santa Claus and children think Santa Claus is real but the parents know he’s not and with dad it was similar. When we were very young, we’d have fans that would come up to us and were just so invested in the storylines and hated him or loved him or wanted to know what was going to happen next or did this really happen or that? It was almost like you knew what the real Santa Claus story was. It kind of forced us to have a little bit more of a worldly view on society… I don’t know how to explain it.”

In the 2014 interview, Piper spoke of having lived two lives, the one when wrestling and partying were his focus and the one when family was. His kids say while it maybe wasn’t that cut and dry, their dad was certainly a different man in the final years of his storied life, something that is explored in the book.

“I noticed it,” Ariel said, “maybe not in that much of a cut and clear sort of way, but as he got older and wanted to retire from wrestling a little bit more and everything like that, he definitely kind of hit a point where for him being a parent was more important than anything else. We get into that in the book, especially around (his) rehab and cancer.”

Their father had an awakening.

“He was very embarrassed to be considered Rowdy Roddy Piper to his children,” Ariel said. “He didn’t want the stigma of the heel and the wild life that they led in the ’80s and ’70s to be what we remembered him as or what we looked up to, especially as we got older and the Internet came along. We could look that stuff up. He was very concerned about that being the image that was portrayed as a father to us. He definitely worked very hard at cleaning up his image, if anything else, just for his health, in front of us because he didn’t want us to grow up and be like people perceived him to be.”

Piper’s rock star image wasn’t uncommon for wrestlers of his era, Colt pointed out. Many from his generation battled painkiller addictions, alcohol and drug addiction, a hazard of the industry. “You have to realize the drugs that were used and steroids that were used back then … in wrestling, it’s very different. If you’re in the NFL, in your season, you play one, two games a week, tops. If you’re a well managed fighter, you fight maybe seven times a year, tops,” he said. “Pro wrestlers wrestle or fight every single day of the week and there were certain things they had to do to either get up and get going or get to bed because they had a fight in another four hours. They didn’t do it because they were abusing it and that’s the way dad was. I’m sure there were some times, it was the ’80s and they were partying, but 90% of the time, the things he was doing was in order to keep going. He needed that stuff to keep going because after the 365 days of the year, he’d fought 320 of them, that really does a number on a man and a body. He did certain things to keep going for us and the family.”

Ariel speaks proudly of her late father and his triumph over his demons. “I’ve always felt that rehab was one of the most selfless things he ever did. Wrestlers got into what they got into because they were just in a constant amount of pain and my dad was definitely at the top of that list as pain goes. When he went to rehab, he stopped drinking, which was a big thing, and he really (cut) down the pain meds he had been taking. And after that point, he was sober and much healthier, but at the same time, he was in a lot of pain all the time because he didn’t have as much to manage it with. Some people might judge it and judge him for rehab or whatever, but I always felt that he really did a very selfless act and put himself through more pain than he had to just so that he could be clean and sober in front of his family.”

“Exactly,” added Colt. “He always knew that any day could be his last.”

Losing their heroic father, however, never seemed possible to Colt or Ariel, who had seen their dad have his share of near-death experiences.

“You have to realize, I truly believed he was immortal until the day he freakin’ died,” Colt said. “I believed he was immortal. I can recall two times in our lives when (doctors) called us and said, ‘Listen, your dad’s not going to make it,’ whether it was some accident or injury, ‘You guys need to come say your goodbyes.’ We would, and sure enough, all of a sudden, miraculously he would come through.”

“There were times when the doctor would be like ‘We don’t know why he’s alive,” Ariel added.

Colt recounted one of his father’s courageous incidents of death-defying toughness. “One time he got into a car accident, he broke both ankles and he walked home. He had a rib that went into his spleen and he was bleeding out internally. He went into the bathtub and his assistant came and got him out and he went to the hospital. He literally walked home on two broken ankles in L.A., which was about two and a half miles. He was truly and incredible man. So believing that he could be mortal was definitely hard to comprehend when you actually grew up in that lifestyle and the way that our family was.”

Ariel feels her father spent much of his life attempting to prepare his family for his eventual death. “I remember at a very young age dad sitting me down and try to explain to me that he wasn’t always going to be around,” she said. “He was always very concerned that his children understood that. Now I get it as an adult, but I didn’t when I was little. He was a wrestler and he really, truly didn’t know if he’d die in his thirties, die in his forties, die in his eighties … he really felt that any day could be his last because of the lifestyle.”

“That’s the thing with being a fighter, too,” Colt interjected. “Every time you step in that ring, it is possibly your last. Every fighter knows that. The ring is the one place you can legally kill a guy and not go to jail. When you think of it that way, it’s totally different.”

Despite dear old dad’s warnings, his triumph over health scare after health scare, including beating cancer, made his children immune to the idea he could actually die. Therefore his actual death was even more difficult to believe.

“When you’re thinking like that and you’re hearing that every day of your childhood going into your adult years and you’re seeing him survive all these miraculous things, you really do start to feel like ‘Oh, yeah, I’m sure you’re going to die, dad,’” Ariel said cynically. “You almost take it for granted how strong and tough and awesome he was. When he passed, it was just unreal.”

While neither claims to be on the spiritual side, both Ariel and Colt admit to feeling their father’s presence even after his death. “I’m not super spiritual, and I think his death has really challenged me a lot because I guess I’ve been looking, like I’m hoping to see his ghost or something and I haven’t, but I dream about him all the time and in my dreams, he gives me advice on current situations that I’m going through,” Ariel admitted. “And I don’t know if it’s my imagination creating what I think dad’s advice would be or if it’s something else, but I see him all time. And when you wake up, it’s like he died all over again because you remember that he’s not there.”

“Isn’t that worst?” Colt related. “Sometimes you wake up and you forget this has all happened and all of a sudden you realize it, but for a moment, you have to go through it again. We grew up going to church and stuff, that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily this incredibly spiritual guy, but I’ll see a light flicker that just shouldn’t flicker and I’d like to think it’s him and that kind of stuff. I don’t know, it’s my way of going through stuff.

“But I did have one dream where I travelled back in time and dad was still alive but for whatever reason everybody wouldn’t let me tell him — like it was the day before he passed. I’m trying to tell him and I couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t let me tell him. It was the worst dream in the world. It’s like when you’re running down that hall and you can’t run fast enough in a dream.”

“I have that dream all the time and you guys won’t let me tell him,” Ariel confessed.

“It’s the weirdest thing, man,” Colt said.

Finishing their father’s memoirs has been therapeutic, gut wrenching, painful, beautiful and informative, they said.

“There’s so much we learned,” Colt said. “There were a lot of stories, for instance, that I was there for but they had a different point of view or a different side of it. There are so many little details that were missed out in certain stories.”

And then there was their father’s childhood, which he’s described many times as very difficult. He grew up on a reservation in The Pas, Manitoba, as well as Port Arthur in Northern Ontario.

“Dad had a hard time remembering his past, so his entire childhood was really something we learned,” Colt said. “We knew it was hard, we knew he went through a lot but we didn’t really know, or I didn’t really know, how much he actually went through. I didn’t know he fell through the ice an almost died. He got his hand stuck in a machine washer. He got hit by a car. All of these things before he was even 10 years old. I mean, when that happens to a kid who’s not even 10 years old, that really shapes who he’s going to be. It’s no wonder he was so tough. Every time I would hear these stories or go over them, I’m picturing my 10-year-old dad going through this and I’m sitting there bawling because I just want to help him, but you can’t. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s almost like I’m living through him with these stories. For me, childhood is a really big one and it filled in a lot of gaps and memories for me.”

For Ariel, she came to the realization that her dad was very modest when it came to his success. “He was a very humble person,” she said. “I mean, I know he seems very cocky in the ring and stuff, but he was actually very humble about the whole thing and he never wanted attention from these things. So sometimes he would tell us stories or we would hear stories and I never realized that a lot of them were downplayed. Then we’d talk to these people when we’re doing the book interview and they’re just adding in these details and you’re like ‘What?’ He would almost downplay it like I don’t know if he thought he would look better to us or he didn’t want us to think that that much insanity happened to him or whatever, but honestly, the whole book for me, every single story, every single chapter had a nuance or something that I didn’t know.”

Spending time learning about her late father has proven very therapeutic, she said. “For mourning, and it being such a hard time in our lives to write the book, it was also very special and a really cool thing because not a lot of people get to experience something like that when a loved one passes. It kind of keeps him alive in your heart. I never appreciated, for lack of a better word, the fact that he was famous and led this big life and stuff. I didn’t fully appreciate the value of that until he passed, because now I look at it and I see a way to keep him alive and learn more about him. Everyone has these stories and I feel very blessed to have all of that.”

Asked the difficult question of what they would say to their late dad if they had one last opportunity to go back and have a final conversation, Ariel didn’t hesitate.

“Go to the doctor right now,” she belted out.

“That’s not far off, Ariel, that’s not far off,” her brother replied.

The mood turns sombre.

“For me, I wouldn’t say anything,” Colt said. “I just want even another moment with him. There were so many conversations that we had that were so deep and so intimate and about certain things that we got so deep in and I don’t want any of that. I just want to see him and hug him and just literally go play basketball or catch with him one more time. Something so simple just so we can have one more pure happy moment.”

Heartbroken by his words, Ariel answered through tears.

“Honestly, this is a really hard question to answer and I don’t know what I would say other than go to the f—ing doctor. That would definitely be the first thing I would say. I think I’d want him to know because he was always worried about his children and how we perceived him. He was always very worried about family and I guess I would just want him to know that he was the best dad in the world and if we could line up all the dads, we’d still pick him.”

Rowdy: The Roddy Piper Story is available wherever books are sold.

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