By Scott Atkinson
“Ain’t no time!”
“Like Father Time!”
“Ain’t no time!”
“Like Father Time!”
Leo Napier is walking around each side of a wrestling ring in Dearborn, Michigan, teaching the audience assembled there how to be his fan. They are willing. They are eager. It is the first match of the night, an untelevised “dark match” in which new talent, along with camera equipment, is tested for the big show. Napier’s job is to get the crowd riled up — not an easy task when no one knows who you are. But Napier has them. Many have not had a chance yet to visit the impromptu bar set up at the back of the room, but they are rowdy, waiting for Father Time to come to the next quadrant of the ring and give them their lesson. He speaks quickly, ending as quickly as possible the period of their lives when they had not been his fan.
“When-I-say-ain’t-no-time-you-say-Father-Time-ready? Ain’t no time!”
“Ain’t no time!”
“Ain’t no time!”
Moments ago he was not Father Time. He was Leo Napier, a mere man. And nervous. A portion of one wall is sectioned off in a long rectangle of black fabric where wrestlers are getting dressed, going over matches, and doing push-ups to pump up triceps and chests. Outside the makeshift dressing room they are bitter enemies and expert showmen, but behind the curtain they are a family, part of an otherwise unknown tribe with sects throughout the world. They are wrestlers, and before Leo Napier stepped into the ring he was with them, unnoticed and sitting in a corner, a white walking stick beside him as he dressed, pulling on shining black boots and a white and blue singlet with the words “Father Time” stitched into its side. But he was not yet Father Time. He was a sixty-three-year-old man among young men and women with magazine cover bodies. Never mind that Napier, after more than six decades, does not allow himself to ever squat less than 400 pounds on leg day in his six-day-a-week lifting regimen. They are the obvious stars. He is here to wrestle for the Ring of Honor. It is the second largest wrestling organization in the United States behind World Wrestling Entertainment, and has long been known for being the show with the young and athletic wrestlers. They flip. They leap from ropes. They do not have white hair.
If that’s not enough to make him feel like he does not belong, there are plenty of other reasons. His trainer Joe Byrd, owner of the Flint, Michigan-based Pure Pro Wrestling, is here with him. It was Byrd who got him the attention that would lead to this match, even though Byrd was among the first to doubt him. Napier had approached him after a Pure Pro Wrestling show at the Genesee County Fair, not long after Byrd had finished a cage match. Napier told him he wanted to be a pro wrestler. Byrd gave him a card and wrote him off, this man, at the time approaching sixty, who wanted to get in the ring with twenty-year-olds.
About two weeks later, Byrd’s phone rang. It was Napier. He wanted to train. Byrd was surprised to hear from him. He’d been polite when they met, but he had also blown him off and all but forgotten about him in the meantime. Lots of people say they want to wrestle. Many don’t show up. Others do but leave quickly. They want to wear the spandex and have the crowd chant their name, but they don’t want to put in the work, or the pain, that’s necessary. They don’t want to learn the craft of suspending others’ disbelief. But Byrd believes that everyone deserves a shot, and Napier is also just a hard man to say no to.
“Come on out,” Byrd told him. “Show up.”
A few days later a young, fit man knocked on the door of Byrd’s gym, located in the pole barn at his house about a half-hour’s drive into the country outside Flint. He’d rented a handful of places throughout Flint, but his student base is usually low enough that renting a space isn’t worth the money, and so he settled on the barn of his family’s farm, the place he’d grown up and later bought from his mother after his father died, where he and his wife now raise their children and “can see every star in the sky at night.”
Now this young man was at his door. Finally, he thought, an athlete. He started explaining how the training worked. “No, you don’t understand,” the young man said. “I’m going to go wait in the car.”
It was then that Byrd noticed, really noticed, the old man with him, who said, “No, it’s me. I’m here for training.”
“Before we get started I’ve got to tell you a couple of things. First off, I’ve had a bout with cancer…I’ve had three strokes…I’m blind.”It was the old man from the fair, and the young man was Napier’s son, acting for the day as his father’s chauffeur.
Byrd invited him in.
“Before we get started I’ve got to tell you a couple of things,” Napier told him. “First off, I’ve had a bout with cancer. … It was some time ago, I’m not getting treatment for it. I’m good, I’m good.”
Byrd asked if he was OK now, if it was anything worth worrying about.
“I’m good,” Napier said. But there was more.
“Also, I’ve had three strokes.”
“No man,” Byrd said. “I’m sorry, we’re not going to do this.”
Again, Napier assured him his doctor said he was fine. “I’m in good shape,” he said. “I have the heart of a twenty-year-old.”
“No man. Do you realize what we’re going to be doing here? There’s no way.”
Napier again told him he had the go-ahead from his doctor. “I signed your waiver,” he said. “Come on.”
Byrd still wasn’t sure. Waiver or no.
“Is there anything else?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Napier said. “This might scare you more than the strokes. I’m blind.”
At this point Byrd wasn’t thinking about whether Napier was OK to wrestle. He was wondering who had organized this prank — a rib, as it’s called in the wrestling world. “Come on,” he said. “Who really sent you here?”
“No,” Napier said, he was there to wrestle. “I’m serious about this.”
When Napier speaks, there is a childlike excitement in his voice, like his words are trying to catch up with where his mind is going. Even on the phone, it’s hard to not imagine him smiling. He has a smile that takes up his entire face, the skin around his eyes rising right along with his mouth. It’s hard not to smile back, even if he can’t see you.
“I didn’t have the heart to break his heart,” Byrd said later.
So they began the way all wrestling classes begin on the first day, by falling.
There is an art to falling, as it serves two main purposes, and it’s hard to say which is more important. The job of a falling wrestler is to make the other guy look good, and so you must fall with more force than if you simply tripped. In fact, to put on a show, you must fall harder and louder than if someone was to really punch or kick you in the face. In wrestling lingo, falling is called taking a bump, A good bump will result not in a thud on the mat, but in a flinch-inducing clang of steel from the ring’s supports. The second part of the fall is doing it in a way that will allow you to do it, over and over, for several years.
And so Napier, on the verge of sixty, felt his way into Byrd’s ring and watched Byrd’s silhouette take his stance, not unlike the beginning of a squat, and thrust his hips forward, taking his feet out from under him and his back sped toward the mat. Bang! He showed him how to tuck his chin to protect his neck, to put his arms out to the side to increase the surface area of the impact, lessening the shock to the rest of the body. The fighting in wrestling is fake, but the technique for falling closely mirrors the way judo practitioners are taught to fall to protect themselves.
Not everyone makes it through that first class. Even done correctly, bumps can hurt. It’s not uncommon for aspiring wrestlers to call it quits before the first bumping session is through. It’s the first thing students learn for their own safety, but it’s also a way to weed out those who won’t stick it out.
“I think I could do that,” Napier said.
And so he did. Not correctly, but he did them. Bang! Letting the weight of his body crash back into the mat.
He got up and looked at Byrd.
“That’s it?” he said. “I thought this was going to hurt.”
Byrd stepped up the pace. He took Napier through a drill he calls the Ring of Fire in which the student essentially gets the crap beaten out of them until he stops. It’s a way to teach students to “sell,” making the moves look if not real then at least plausible, to make the other guy look good, to make the audience scoot forward in their chairs. It’s also a chance to get used to the physicality of wrestling — punches don’t land hard if at all, but sometimes they do, and you have to keep performing. Ring of Fire is a drill where Byrd will be rougher than he would in a real match. Like bumping, the Ring of Fire is a way to see early on who will stay and who otherwise would have wasted his time.
And so they did it, and Napier went through it all, not flinching, not acting hurt, not even breathing heavily. “Mind you,” Byrd said later, “I’m tagging him pretty good.”
Napier wasn’t tired, but he was getting hot. He told Byrd to wait a moment, he wanted to take off his sweatshirt. Underneath, he was wearing a tank top.
“And he’s in better damn shape than I am,” Byrd said. “I said, ‘OK, I can do something with you.’”
* * *
“Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock!”
The crowd chants along with Father Time until he quiets them, ready now to cut his promo — to directly address the crowd. He has no idea that right now that Hunter Johnston, the man who booked him, is backstage gnashing his teeth, wondering if this was all a mistake. He has no idea that Johnston, five minutes before the match, almost canceled it, playing it safe, not risking all the horrible things that could happen by putting a blind senior citizen into the ring. It is a house show — a show held at a smaller venue and filmed only for DVD and not the regular cable syndication. Dark matches don’t make the DVD anyway, but even so, there are fans here, and this is the Ring of Honor. There is a reputation to uphold. It’s probably best that Napier doesn’t know, but then, Napier is long gone. There is only Father Time — and yes, he is excited — beyond excited — to be at the Ring of Honor, but he is not here to be their puppet. He is here to be Father Time, and to do the things that Father Time does.
“Preach!” someone yells from the crowd, as he begins talking and it’s possible that they know that on Sunday morning, that is exactly what he’ll be doing, or it is possible that they have simply picked up on the style of his delivery. In two days, Napier will be addressing a different congregation, in a different venue, and wearing a different costume. But the message will be the same. On Sunday people will come to see him for the same reason they have gathered here. They are here tonight to be entertained, yes, but they are here for more than that. Professional wrestling, though it is beginning to find a larger place in pop culture, has long been something you either loved or mocked. Lovers of professional wrestling, however, understand what it really is. It is a place where introverted men, raised in tough-guy culture, can express themselves. It is a world of characters they can identify with, root for, and imagine themselves being had things only worked out differently. It is a world they belong to. Is it fake? Of course it’s fake. But so are the movies that make you laugh, cry, and sit on the edge of your seat. Is it fake? Yes, but so is literature. Did a man really walk on water? Perhaps not, and yet the story lives on. And that is what they are here for: stories. They are here to lose themselves in the great themes of triumph and failure. There are Davids and Goliaths here, Jacobs and angels, and that is who they have come to see. They are here, whether they would admit to it or not, for their souls.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life, but I’ve overcome a lot. I’m a survivor of three strokes. I’ve had a battle with cancer. I’m the only legally blind wrestler.”“I’ve been through a lot in my life, but I’ve overcome a lot,” Napier says. “I’m a survivor of three strokes. I’ve had a battle with cancer. I’m the only legally blind wrestler,” he says, pronouncing it “rassler.” “When I step inside this squared circle, I can feel the power of every rassler that has sweat, and has bled, and has worked in this ring, and I become Fatherrrr Tiiiime!”
He begins his chant and the crowd joins in as though they’ve been doing it their entire lives.
“Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock!”
He has been in the ring barely a minute, and the crowd belongs to Father Time. They know his name, his chants, and his story. Like many myths, the story of Father Time is true yet simplified. It is all the crowd needs to know. They are ready to see him fight, but they do not know his whole story, or just how long he’s been fighting.
* * *
When Leo Napier was about seven years old, he didn’t see his father very often, and when he did see him, it was often in a pool hall and he had to pretend he wasn’t his son. At the time he didn’t know why. They lived in Cincinnati then, and his father would take him to the pool hall on Clark Street and hand him to his friend, Fred, and say, “Look, this is your son.” Then he would walk away.
Napier sat there the first time, looking at the man and thinking, You’re my daddy? Meanwhile, Fred played, talking to Napier. “You’re my son…I love you, son.” Then, later, Fred pulled him into the alley, grabbed him by the hand, and ran. Napier was scared. He had no idea where they were going. They went to a house. Inside his father was waiting with a stack on money.
Napier’s father was a pool hustler, and having a friend pretend to be his son’s father was the way he could take him to work and keep him safe at the same time.
Napier’s grandparents raised him. Most of his family, including his grandparents, either drank or abused drugs, but he was best off with them. He remembers his grandfather getting in a fight with a man at the house, hitting him “upside the head” with a bottle. His grandfather, he said, “Was my anchor.”
When he got older, he would deal with his problems in his own destructive ways, but as a child, he learned the power of story, escape, and fantasy.
“My escape was Mary Poppins. Yeah, during that hour, two hours, I was taken away from this world. Mary Poppins, all those fantasy movies like that. But I knew they weren’t real,” he said.
“I said, ‘Lord, you’re either going to have to show up today, or I’ll see you in heaven.’”But not being real didn’t matter, because in a way, it was real. So were the shows he watched: Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He would watch the shows and make himself promises. Andy Griffith was the kind of father he would be someday. Ozzie Nelson was the kind of husband he would be someday. He could get lost in those shows, in those other versions of himself on the horizon. Why shouldn’t that be a real person? Why not him?
There was plenty to escape. He loved his grandparents. They raised him and looked after him and had the money to make sure he didn’t just have clothes on his back, but nice clothes. He was older than twenty the first time he went to buy shoes and didn’t know that some stores — he went to a Kmart — didn’t have sales people to put the shoes on your feet for you or measure you for a shirt. But his grandmother drank and his grandfather, shell-shocked from the military, was known to fly off the handle at minor offenses. Still, he was best off with them. When he was at his father’s and stepmother’s house, at about eight or nine, he was taken into the hospital. Whenever he would go to their house he would throw up after he ate. He didn’t understand why until he heard his grandmother on the phone, after it had happened over and over, talking about his stepmother.
“And she said, ‘That woman tried to poison my baby,’” Napier remembers. It wasn’t something they could prove, but more than half a century later, Napier still believes it’s true. “She (the stepmother) had a problem with my mother and she couldn’t stand me, so she put whatever it was in my food and I would get so sick I would throw up in my nose.”
One of the best memories Napier has of his childhood was when the doctor told him he was going blind. It was supposed to be a grave conversation. The doctor sat him down and spoke seriously, breaking the news. Napier said, “Really?” with his excited smile because he had always known something was wrong, but now it had a name. He’d had trouble in school and elsewhere. One day he walked straight off a bridge and into a shallow creek. He emerged unhurt but embarrassed. If he was blind, it meant he wasn’t dumb.
In his twenties his childhood caught up with him. He was by this time married and in Flint, working at the General Motors truck and bus plant. His wife had come from a troubled background as well and the marriage was falling apart. He thought all their problems were his fault. Then his grandfather died. Napier says now that he had developed Stockholm Syndrome, the term given to prisoners who bond with their captors. His grandfather could be rough, but he loved him. He was his anchor, and with his anchor gone, he was adrift in bad memories and wondering why — why, why, why — a little kid had to see the things he’d seen. After two failed suicide attempts, he tried again, and this time he knew just how many pills he’d need to ingest to escape for good.
He went to work. He had taken enough pills already to be “whacked out” and had four more with him that he thought would finish the job. He was not a church-going man yet — his few experiences with the church had either bored him to death (Catholic mass) or terrified him (God of Church and Christ) and yet — maybe it was the drugs — it was then that he decided to speak to God.
“I said, ‘Lord, you’re either going to have to show up today, or I’ll see you in heaven.’”
He walked to the drinking fountain, carrying his pills, when a white hand was suddenly in his face, blocking him. It was a friend, but Napier laughs now at what he said at the time. He looked into his friend’s face and said, “Jesus?”
“This friend of mine named Irv, he said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Where did you come from?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, I was at the other side of the plant, something told me to come check on you.’ He opened my hands up and I had these pills and he said, ‘What are these pills?’ And I said, ‘They ain’t nothing.’ He knocked them out of my hand and the last thing I remember is in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and I woke up the next day and I said, man, I’m back here again. And that’s when I kind of really started going into church.”
* * *
The first time Napier wrestled, he wanted to wear a mask. He was almost sixty, and he didn’t think anyone would want to see an old man wrestling, especially a bunch of kids during a school assembly. Byrd had other ideas. He wanted to play up the old man thing. They came up with the name, Father Time, and in the beginning, they really played it up. Instead of walking out in a robe with a wooden staff, he made his way to the ring with a walker. It would take him five minutes just to get to the ring. Once in, there was no big promo, no preaching, no chanting. It was just something new they were trying.
“He was extremely worried about making everybody else look bad,” Byrd said. “Which was good. That’s when you know you’ve got the makings of a good professional wrestler. We’re out here to make everybody look as good as possible. A lot of guys are egotistical. They care what happens. One way or another, it’s just kind of silly, it’s entertainment, it’s for the kids, it’s for fun. So I look at a guy like this who’s so humble, who doesn’t have an ego, who doesn’t even think about having an ego, whose first priority was not making others look bad. And interestingly enough, when he first started, his original gimmick was making him look older than what he actually was.
“It took literally seven minutes to get him into the ring. People had to help him. Everyone is just like, what is going on? It’s just silent in the building. Bell rings, and the bad guy is like, ‘Ah, I don’t know about this,’ and the old man is saying, ‘Come on, come on,’ so the bad guy jumps him, starts kicking his butt. Again the whole gymnasium full of parents and kids, just quiet in disbelief and then of course suddenly he does the old Hulk Hogan comeback and that place erupted. You would have thought you were at Madison Square Garden. So that was his original routine until he learned more. Originally we planned on not giving him a lot to do because we thought he would be very limited, but he’s blown our minds.”
For Napier, that was enough. He thought he’d made it. He’d spent his whole life trying to wrestle, but things continually got in the way. Things like cancer in his digestive system when he was still in his twenties and was trying to make contacts with wrestling organizations. About ten years later he tried again but was rear-ended while driving and hurt his back and neck. He was a father then, and life was simply busier. Around age 50, he started thinking about it again, and he had a stroke. And then another. And a third. He’d been a power lifter his entire life and was still bench-pressing more than 350 pounds at the time, but after each stroke he felt weaker and weaker. After his third stroke he heard the doctor say to his wife, “I can see that he was once a strong man.”
He asked the doctor if he could keep lifting. The doctor said to take it easy, and he knew he had no choice. He started by trying to bench press the bar alone, a mere forty-five pounds. It fell to his chest. He couldn’t lift it. And so he grabbed another bar, twenty pounds, and lifted that for as many reps as he could. The next time he worked out, he added more reps, and then more, starting the long climb back to the strength he’d spent half a century building.
Over the years he’d become more involved in the church, and the deacons were slowly grooming him to become a pastor. He wasn’t sure he wanted it, but they saw something in him that he didn’t. The first time he spoke to the congregation, it was as much a surprise to them as it was to him. They knew the only way to get him there was to trick him.
“My wife said, ‘I don’t want to be no preacher’s wife!’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be no preacher!’”
But it ended up happening anyway. Looking back, he counts certain moments among the best in his life — the births of his children, the day he married his wife, the first time he wrestled for the Ring of Honor, and the first time he preached. The title of his first sermon was “Tough Enough to Overstuff.” He played on the commercials at the time advertising the Hefty brand trash bags. The sermon was about just how much you could carry with you if you tried.
* * *
Among the people who peek through the black fabric to watch Father Time make his debut is the man who more than anyone brought him here. Martin Krcic is a producer and performer for Ring of Honor. In or beside the ring he is Truth Martini, manager of his team of wrestlers, The House of Truth. Truth’s backstory is that he was a wrestler who was injured and turned to managing, living vicariously through his team. Like most wrestling characters, this persona is an extension of real life. Krcic was once a wrestler who for a time had some dark matches for the WWE, the same way Napier is having his now, before he was injured and became a manager. When he is not producing Ring of Honor events or performing as Truth, he runs the House of Truth Wrestling School just outside Detroit.
Krcic (pronounced (Ker-sitch) says that any wrestler who ever became a household name did one thing right: They were themselves in the ring. Or rather, they were some extension of themselves. They become the version of themselves they always thought — or fantasized — existed somewhere deep within. As he puts it, their characters are themselves “with the volume turned up.”
But those parallels sometimes only go so far. Truth Martini is a selfish character. He cares only about winning, and his team, the House of Truth, is not full of people he cares about so much as it is a vehicle for him, in his post-injury years, to continue winning. The real House of Truth is full of people he cares about. Three times a year he starts a new twelve-week session with a new crop of students, adding more to the long list of people who will text, email, and call him at all hours for career advice, and who will still come back to the school to continue training, or just to watch and hang out and offer their own advice to the new students. Two of his recent graduates, from Flint, are here tonight, dressed well, waiting for the show to end so they can carry equipment and perhaps say a word or two to the promoter.
Krcic saw Father Time perform for the first time in downtown Flint at a Pure Pro Wrestling. Byrd had booked Krcic’s best friend, former wrestler and current WWE writer Jimmy Jacobs. He was the “name” on the card, the person that would draw the larger crowd that the unknown wrestlers on the card could not.
Napier had been with Byrd by this point for about three years. He heard that Truth Martini was there, and went looking for him.
The unwritten rule in the wrestling world is not to be presumptious when you’re “green.” Don’t ask favors. Do as your told. A veteran says to carry his bag, you carry his bag. You don’t act like a fan. Napier acts like a fan. He’ll apologize when he meets a vet for breaking protocol, but he can’t help himself. When he met Krcic, he said, “You ought to get me on Ring of Honor.”
“And then he got serious with me,” Napier remembered. “I’m looking at him like, yeah right. But he was serious. He told me about the business, more about the business, and he was right up front of me. He gave me his phone number, which really shocked me.”
He called Krcic, and Krcic told him he should come down to his school. The first time was an event Krcic will regularly hold in which independent wrestlers can perform in front of industry types. Aspiring artists of all kinds, including wrestlers, will say that if only someone in the business could see them, maybe things would change. And so Krcic gives them the chance to be seen. Then he waits to see who shows up, and then, who can perform.
Napier showed up, and after he performed, he kept showing up and training at Krcic’s school.
One day, Byrd’s phone rang. It was Napier. There was something he had to tell him. He told him he should sit down. It had to do with Truth Martini.
“I’m getting my shot,” he said.
“What?” Byrd said.
“I’m going to be in the Ring of Honor September 11th.”
“I cried,” Byrd said later. “I cried, I did. … I just started weeping. A grown man started weeping. We’ve been through so much together and he’s been through so much, and I’ve watched behind the scenes, and people always see him smiling and laughing and always happy and strong and secure about himself, but what they don’t see is the day-to-day struggle, the frustration, just his daily life. He’s constantly running into obstacles and it gets frustrating for him. A lot of people don’t see that, but I see that. I’m with him through the struggles the good and the bad, and a lot of people just see the good. He makes it look easy, but it’s not. I promise you. He’s the strongest character I’ve ever met.”
* * *
As Father Time begins his match, Krcic, dressed as Truth Martini and taking care of his various duties as a producer in addition to waiting for his own performance, is the only one not worried about Father Time. Johnston, the booker, still has to see how he can perform, and right now he has to perform like a pro more than ever, because the things that can happen in wrestling have happened. Not long before the match was to start, Johnston shortened the match, something of an advance damage control technique. But that also means he’s fighting a revised match, and only had minutes to figure it out. And that responsibility didn’t solely belong to Napier.
Krcic told Byrd he wanted him to agent the match, meaning that he was the one in charge of it — of what would happen, of making sure it went smoothly, that the wrestlers were prepared. It was no longer just Napier’s night. They were in it together more than ever before. Byrd has performed and promoted professional wrestling since he was sixteen, but Pure Pro Wrestling has always been a local gig, not straying too far beyond Flint. Now he was making his own debut as an agent at a Ring of Honor show. But it came with a job to do: Change the match.
“I wanted to let him know what he did is pretty remarkable and it’s not going unnoticed,” Martin said of Byrd’s training of Napier.
“That’s a big honor for me, because it’s Ring of Honor,” Byrd said.
But now he had work to do. With only five minutes total, and with Napier still cutting a promo, they had only about two minutes of actual wrestling time, cutting their previous time by two thirds. Byrd figured it out, and as they prepared and went over the new routine an official came told them never mind, they could have the full time they’d planned. So they went back over the original plan, making sure they still had it down after discussing so many changes.
It wasn’t the first time he’d had to change it. In the weeks leading up to the match Napier had been working with John Washington, a.k.a. Owen Travers, at the House of Truth, planning out the match, and when he’d heard what they planned, he took, despite being 31 and less than half Napier’s age, a fatherly tone. He said no. There were certain things that Napier shouldn’t do, or ways he shouldn’t do them. In the years he’d worked with him they’d developed a system of how to learn and coach moves and modify them because of his severely impaired vision.
“John, he’s a hell of a guy and a hell of a wrestler … but you have to wrestle Leo a certain way. You’ve got to do certain things to help him out in there. It’s a different style. It’s not the Ring of Honor style and it’s not what John is used to. So I’m biting my nails. … I said, ‘I don’t want to piss John off, but you’re not going to do this match. Here’s what you’re going to do. Go and tell John what you’re going to do and that’s what your match is going to do.’”
He suggested changes, and Napier and Travers liked them, and Byrd relaxed. Now, minutes before the match, he had to take them both through that match again.
They started getting excited again. They were going to do the match as planned.
About two minutes before the match was supposed to start, Martin walked up with more bad news. The match had involved Travers walking out with a female valet. She was going to play a role in kicking off the match as well as the end of the match, standing on the apron of the ring and trying to save Travers. But she was fifteen, and when Ring of Honor officials found out, they had to cut her from the show. She had to be eighteen to perform.
Byrd had a Ring of Honor official asking him, about thirty seconds before the match, “What’s it going to be? What are you going to do?”
He altered the finish with the first thing that came to his mind. They went over it, and Travers walked out to the ring. Byrd found his seat. His knees were shaking, and then someone came and told him they needed him backstage. He was now supposed to walk Napier out to the ring. He didn’t want to. He was dressed to stand backstage, not to walk in front of a camera, even if it was a dark match. But he did it. He walked Napier out of the dressing room and into the lights, guiding him by his arm.
Then returned to his seat and picked up where he left off being a nervous wreck.
Johnston was somewhere backstage hoping everything would be okay. But Krcic wasn’t worried. In fact, he was the reason the match was taking place at all.
“I’m nervous,” Johnston had told him earlier.
He said, “Hunter, do you trust me?” Johnston said he did. “I said, ‘Then sit back and let a 70-year-old man blow your fucking mind.”
And so he watched. They all watched. They watched Father Time preach. They watched him wrestle, they watched him sell, they watched make his slow comeback from his mid-fight beatdown by Travers. Holding him by the wrist, he backed up to the corner, placed his boots on the middle rope and hoisted himself to sit on the top turnbuckle. It looked as though he might leap from his seated position — not a bad move for a senior citizen — and then Father Time stood. And as he placed one foot on the top rope, the crowd’s cheers wavered, as though they weren’t sure how feel until his other foot was on the top rope, and he was standing. Then they understood that Father Time, sixty-three and blind, was climbing the ropes — and walking. Holding himself steady with his wrist lock on Travers he sidestepped down the rope, one hand high in the air while Travers writhed below him, waiting for the punishment about to come, for what the crowd was screaming for, could not believe what they were seeing, with no idea what a dark match was or that it was supposed to be the weakest show of the night.
* * *
Napier was at home one day when the phone rang. His wife answered.
“It’s a girl,” she said.
Napier took the phone.
“Father Time?” the voice on the other end said.
It was not a girl, it was Andrew, at the time about twelve with a voice that hadn’t yet dropped.
Andrew was a student at a Center Line school, one of many who’d seen Pure Pro Wrestling’s anti-bullying events during a school assembly. The fans at Ring of Honor get the short version of Father Time’s story — the blindness, the strokes, the cancer. The students get the rest. His home life was filled with alcoholism and abuse, but it was also his refuge from school.
They feel like they’re all alone,” Napier said. He knows because he’d felt all alone, too. “Oh, my God, it was terrible Here was this little kid, big pot belly, big lips, big nose, and glasses on top of that, too. I wouldn’t even wear the glasses. … One time I was talking about how I would go to school and be bullied through the week. And you kind of live through the weekend. It’s like, you’re there, Thursday comes, and it’s like, I’ve got one more day of this, and then that reprieve. I’ve got Saturday and Sunday until that night when it’s like, I’ve got to do it all over again. A lot of kids related to that.”
Andrew related to that, and now he was calling. He’d first called Napier’s church, and they’d given him his number. He was having similar problems. Home life was tough. At school he was constantly bullied. He was thinking about suicide.
Instead, he called Napier. They talked. And as Pure Pro Wrestling continued to visit Andrew’s school they got to know each other better. Andrew was one of the few students allowed to go back stage. He would chat with Napier, Byrd, and other wrestlers. That was about four years ago. They’ve stayed in touch. The last time they saw each other, he told Napier that some girls had invited him over to hang out.
“He got the cool factor after that. It was a privilege to go back in the locker room, and people seen that,” Napier said. “I guess it made him somebody.”
* * *
Father Time must move quickly now. His hand is in the air, he is on the top rope, and the audience’s emotions are high, and he must keep them there for the finish. He falls from the rope, bringing his raised hand down on Owen Travers, who goes down and flops across the ring like a bouncing football, coming to rest in the center of the ring where Father Time scoops him up by the neck and puts him in a full nelson, his arms under Travers’s armpits and snaking around to meet behind his head. He turns, stands him up, and starts his signature move, the time lock. He wrenches Travers’s head back and forth with the rhythm of a righteously pissed off metronome and begins his chant, “Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock!” and the crowd is chanting with him, growing faster — faster than he can keep up with by the time the referee calls the match and Travers is left standing and wobbling, cartoonishly stunned while Napier walks around the ring, clapping and chanting, “Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock!” with the crowd. He does not see the referee, standing right in front of him, who grabs one of his clapping hands and holds it in the air.
It’s never a question for those behind the curtain who will win the match. Even the crowd knows the fights are scripted. But there are other things to be won, and Napier has won the most important thing, the crowd itself. For the last seven minutes they have been lost in the match, forgetting or not caring that its fake, caught up in the story the same as if they were attending a play — for that is all wrestling is — and they love him. They cheer as he exits the ring and makes his way back to that rectangle of black fabric, out of the bright lights and into dimness, killing what small shadowy bit of vision he has. It isn’t until later, sitting back in the chair where he’d gotten dressed, that Joe will tell him what he’d been unable to see, that everyone in the dressing room was there to greet him, clapping and cheering. He’d won more than the crowd. He’d won respect.
“So many people make excuses not to try or not to chase a dream, and he’s somebody who does have a legitimate excuse but he doesn’t let that stop him. You have to love it. Why else would you do it?”The show goes on. Napier sits in his chair, occasionally shaking his head, realizing again and again as he sits there that yes, that actually happened. He just wrestled alongside the best, and they loved him. He peeks through the fabric now and then, looking at the distant shadows wrestling, and he listens.
“Did they cheer for me like that?” he asks.
People come up and talk to him. They shake his hand. One of them is Kelly Klein, known in the ring as Mary Elizabeth Monroe — an aspiring independent wrestler there to network. She is young and athletic, the kind of woman any sixty-three-year-old man would love to approach him. She was in her early twenties the first time she’d ever seen wrestling. Until then, her life had been a battle of passions. She was a singer and actress, good enough that she was teaching as well as performing. She was also an athlete, and the two worlds were constantly colliding. Then she went with friends to watch professional wrestling, and saw everything she loved — the athleticism, the sport, the performance — somehow combined, and that was it.
“So many people make excuses not to try or not to chase a dream, and he’s somebody who does have a legitimate excuse but he doesn’t let that stop him,” she said. “You have to love it. Why else would you do it?”
Napier continues to sit near the corner, out of the way, as the backstage chaos continues around him, and the choreographed chaos goes on in the ring. Three hours later, the lights are up, thoroughly blinding Napier until his eyes adjust, and the show is over. He stands, but before he leaves, Hunter Johnston, the booker for Ring of Honor, the man Martin had to convince to take a chance on, pulls him aside. He faces the rest of the wrestlers, packing up after a long night and getting ready to move on to the next show.
“Hey everybody! he shouts. “Let’s have a big applause for Father Time.” And they cheer, and this time he doesn’t need to be able to see them. He can hear them, and as he makes his way through the locker room, his hand grabbing Byrd’s elbow and his feet picking their way around open suitcases, more people stop to talk with him, to shake his hand and tell him how much they enjoyed his show. Dark matches are something like tryouts — it is unheard of to be paid. Krcic, in all his years of wrestling, including a handful of dark matches for the WWE, said he never heard of anyone ever getting paid for a dark match, but Johnston gives Napier fifty bucks as a thank you. Later in the night, Krcic will approach Napier again with more good news. He’s talked to Johnston, and he can say with confidence that this will not be Napier’s last time in the Ring of Honor. Weeks later, Napier will find out that his match, his dark match, will be on the DVD recording of the night.
Outside the dressing area aspiring wrestlers one-third Napier’s age help break down the ring and load it into the semi-truck waiting outside, hoping to shake enough hands to get their shot. Byrd and Napier make their way out of the room, stepping around empty beer cups and litter. In the lobby they are met by one of the last groups of waiting fans. They ask for pictures with Father Time. Last among them is a little boy, and he stands next to Father Time, no higher than his waist, as his father takes the picture. Then the little boy leaves, and when he is gone, so too is Father Time. Now there is only Leo Napier, a mere man, too blind to see in the dark as he takes Byrd’s elbow and they step into the parking lot on a cool September night, on their way to make the long drive back to Flint.
Scott Atkinson is a freelance writer based in Flint, Michigan. For the past several years he has been an award-winning features writer for The Flint Journal. He teaches writing at The University of Michigan-Flint.
All photos by Scott Atkinson
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