A personal reflection on the suicide of Adam Firestorm
Widow and friends believe CTE, concussions, at root of Firestorm suicide
MARTY GOLDSTEIN - SLAM! Wrestling
When I first heard the news that Adam Dykes had taken his own life, I was standing in a Winnipeg WalMart at 12.30 a.m. (late Friday night basically). I had last spoken with him probably two days before, which was unusual because that, for us, was quite a break.
We "spoke", if that's what you can call having an MSN window open 24 hours a day for months on end and swapping links of old school pro wrestling bouts and goofy '80s videos, almost every day for three years. Adam and I had worked together on a particular project in 2007 that resulted in a wrestling TV show being optioned by a U.S. border station KVOS, and me and our partner Shaun Myall making an appearance on a CBC national TV show, Dragons Den, in search of financing. We constantly asked each other for help and advice on our own work, mine in daily talk-radio in Winnipeg, and Adam doing online video-editing projects, an online wrestling interview show, ringsidelive with Ian Hamilton, and the like in Victoria.
Between the time difference, and his being a stay-at-home father for "The Dudester" his four-year-old son Thomas, I spent a lot of late nights enjoying his company long-distance, talking about old-time wrestling, the characters we knew like the Honky Tonk Man, our travels together in the ECCW dirty yellow van with Bruce the midget, our imitations of Lord James Blears and Howard Finkel, our kids, our lives.
The last thing I had noticed online , before I rushed off to a hectic Thursday of 90 minutes of talk radio, hosting a book launch for SLAM! Wrestling: Shocking Stories from the Squared Circle, and making a speech about Kerry Brown on a local wrestling show, was that his martial status on Facebook had changed to "it's complicated". That is never a good sign.
Most recently, Adam, who I habitually called Torchy after his wrestling persona, The Torch, asked me for my opinion on how to package some old wrestling matches from various promotions for a planned DVD release -- chronologically? By venue? By style? By individual wrestler? That's how focused Adam was on producing a professional product.
Meanwhile, I was working on a project never before required in Winnipeg's wrestling industry in general, organizing a tribute card and fundraiser for the family of a deceased wrestler. Kerry "Pitbull" Brown, a former Stampede Wrestling champion who could not cope with the transition from being an in-demand wrestler to a middle-aged bouncer back in his prairie hometown, essentially drank himself to death in September at age 51.
I had run the general line-up and agenda for the event past Adam, sent him the rough cut of the video tribute, gotten his input, and asked him to try to get Dr. David Shults, the wrestler with whom Kerry first feuded in Stampede, to send a video about his experiences with Kerry for the event. I was so far behind in getting everyday chores done, because the tribute show was taking up three or four hours per day, that's why I was in WalMart at midnight on a Friday.
About four weeks ago I had spoken with Dan Kroffat, a respected former Stampede wrestler who made the transition early, and is well-established in business and political circles in Alberta. Dan didn't know Kerry had died; and in the course of discussing the far-too early death of Kerry and others, we struck upon the idea of doing something about it. Education, counselling, advice, to try to stop the endless procession of tragic and sudden deaths in our industry caused by poor lifestyle choices, addictions, depression.
While I was on the phone with Dan, Adam popped up in a Messenger window about some good-natured nonsense. Hang on, I wrote, something important is going on here. When Dan and I got off the phone, I immediately called Adam and told him, I told Dan you did our reel for the Dragon's Den audition and you were the only guy to handle production, we're gonna do this with Dan Kroffat and make a difference in this business. Dan wanted to see it happen.
Adam and I were going to start working on the plan on December 1st, to develop and distribute a series with me interviewing Dan Kroffat.
That is just one of the many reasons it seemed so shockingly illogical he would have killed himself.
Because we were about to embark on a mission to help guys like Kerry Brown before it was too late.
I didn't have any clue that Adam was secretly in need of that same help. And none of us closest to him knew it -- until it was, for Adam, too late.
Adam grew up in Auckland and moved to British Columbia, just in time for the world's fair, Expo 86. An observant Mormon, his closest friend in Canada was a fellow church member, James Olson. They watched wrestling together as kids and moved the ranks of the equivalent of cub reporters until finding their way inside a small BC promotion run by Michelle Starr, doing publicity and event related duties. Adam evolved into the masked Mexican-style flyer, El Antorchia/Torch, and his former partner, Happy Kreter (who wrestled as Strife), wrote about it on his Facebook page:
I had been training in Surrey as part of the class of í97. Michelle Starr was teaching us, and Adam assisted at every session. Adam did every drill with us even though he was already a worker.
Adam suggested the idea of doing a tag team with me, and pitched it to Starr, who was the booker at the time. I guess he trusted Adam because, even though I had never worked, Generation X got the green light, and I got a head start on my career.
Adam was climbing the ranks in ECCW and building his name as El Antorcha, and certainly didnít need to saddle himself with a skinny jabroni like me as a tag partner. He put faith in me, and I didnít want to let him down. That challenge made me a better worker.
Adam and I were in the halls of Lord Byng Secondary on our way out to our debut match-up as Generation X, our tag team. It was also my first match ever. I was hyped up, and started jogging to the ring.
"Dude, thatís no way to go out," Adam said to me. He knew the key to success out there was to own the moment.
With just a few words, Adam slowed me down, and reminded me to be composed. I internalized his message, and tried to walk out the way he did.
Gen X, him as El Antorcha and me as Strife, was the best break I ever had in wrestling, and I owe it to Adam.
After unmasking, Dykes' alter ego became Adam Firestorm. Happy Kreter's posting continues:
I remember the first time he talked about working without the mask.
"Iíll call myself Adam Firestorm, or something like that," he said.
Firestorm was a song by Earth Crisis, an obscure metal band that I liked, and that we had used as Generation Xís entrance theme. I was stoked when "Adam Firestorm" debuted, and I took secret pride in having been a very small part of him coming up with the new gimmick.
On September 26, a wrestling card made a rare appearance on Vancouver Island. Adam went to Campbell River for the All Star Wrestling show expecting to be the ring announcer. Instead, as he explained on his blog
, he ended up in the ring:
Of course, the number one rule of wrestling is "always bring your gear". I can honestly say that actually wrestling has been the furthest thing from my mind for the last couple years. As a result, and in addition to the effects of some illness and medications I was required to take, letís just say I was far from in "ring shape" let alone any kind of shape.
But, as things always always seem to go, I ended up wrestling my old nemesis Disco Fury in the opener. I wonít lie and say that it was a mat classic, but it was great to be in a ring again,"... and Adam then wrote "even if it was for the last time."
I wondered, why would he say that out of the blue.
But the real story of the trip wasn't returning to the ring. Everyone I spoke to feels somehow, what happened after accelerated Adam's descent.
His blog tells the harrowing tale of the return trip:
We got no more than 15 minutes out of town before we were stopped dead in our tracks. Both literally and figuratively. The culprit of the tracks-stopping was a 600 lb. elk. We have no idea where it came from. The road was clear, and then all of a sudden, there it was. There was just enough time for Thug (driver Ken Cossitt) to yell out a very naughty, one syllable word. I cannot really describe the impact... Right after the massive impact, it felt like jumping off the high diving board at the pool and landing in the water face-first as all the glass showered my face. My right leg was also torn up from the knee to the ankle as I was wearing shorts. I got a mouthful of glass, and a few days later I am STILL finding glass in my ears, up my nose, in my scalp, hands, everywhere. The next day it was still in my shoes and socks.
Everyone got rattled severely from the impact. Iím still stiff and sore and walk like the Iron Sheik. My head is healing way fast, and my leg looks nothing like it did even yesterday. We were very lucky that a first aid attendant was driving past, and he was able to check on us and make sure the RCMP and an ambulance were on the way. Initially, I was told that Iíd need to go to the hospital, but after getting cleaned up a bit, they realized none of my cuts needed stitches. I did have hundreds of cuts, mind you, but they were all caused by smaller pieces of flying glass, and not major shards or anything.
We were also kindly told of all the recent deaths that have occurred on the highway under similar circumstances. Thug (the driver, a referee) did a great job of handling the wheel, even given the short reaction time he had. Most people try to swerve and not only hit the animal, but roll their vehicle as well. Long story short, the police were expecting us to be dead, and at first didnít realize that who they thought was a witness or bystander they were talking to was actually Dirty Money (Shaun Myall), who had been IN the van!
So we are all very lucky. .. When you look at what was left of the van, you can see how very close I came to being killed. Itís a very humbling (second Sheiky reference!) and sobering (obviously not a Sheik reference) experience.
Torch / El Antorchia.
Three-times ranked in Pro Wrestling Illustrated
in the top 500, Adam's in-ring career was effectively ended with an injury to his right elbow that never healed properly. He made an impact on everyone not only for his athletic ability and the way he could put together a match, but for his personal integrity.
Kreter gave a description of Adam's character from their days together:
Adam wasnít just my mentor in the wrestling business; he was also my first friend in the biz. I remember getting my share of harassment in the dressing room. Ribbing is part of the business, but being a vegan, I could have been a target for harsher treatment if it werenít for Adam.
One night on the road, a couple of the boys took meat-lover's pizza into the battle royale, and rubbed it in my face. I didnít think it was a big deal. I was used to people not understanding my lifestyle, and I shrugged it off as just another rib. But back in the locker room, Adam stuck up for me.
"Ribbing is one thing," he told my attackers, "but messing with someoneís personal beliefs -- thatís not cool."
Adam was a meat-eater himself, and had no personal stake in the situation, but his sense of right and wrong was unfailing.
Of course, everyone continued making fun of each other (including jokes about me and my diet), but that was the last time anyone tried to violate my beliefs... Also, being the only two non-drinkers in ECCW, we always roomed together on the road.
Being stuck in a van with 12 guys for weeks at a time is extremely taxing, and if I had roomed with anyone else, I might have lost my mind. But Adam could always read me, and knew when I wanted to talk, or go hang out with the boys, or just be left alone to read and fall asleep. We also both had similar spending habits, or lack thereof. I think we were the only boys who came home with money in our pockets.
But without that outlet for his creative juices, unable to find suitable employment after graduating from college in Calgary, he settled in with his wife Emele and their young child in Victoria, James Olson explained. "Adam would be a hard guy to be married to, to be with an ambitious professional woman, men don't change much, and Adam was disappointed with pitching projects" that weren't going to materialize in that smaller market.
When I called James last Saturday, he first spoke about some of the personal issues that troubled Adam. I knew that his marriage was dissolving and that he was seriously thinking of moving to back to New Zealand at the end of January, but Adam insisted the break-up was amicable and without malice or bitterness.
He and Emele had reached an impasse after years of problems, but Adam never explained to me what was at issue. Certainly the expectations the wife and her mother, who shared the house they lived in, were more straight-laced than the laid-back mirthful young man who Olson described as "Adam the supernatural entertainer, who couldn't throw a basketball but who came alive in a ring and knew how to make people laugh and how to entertain them."
"She told me, ya, I'd like to marry a clean-cut guy, with a similar education (business and IT), but she married Adam," said Olson. "I know that Emele understood that he wasn't the type to have 'conventional career' from the time they were dating. She married him knowing that. The expectation wasn't that he must go to work everyday doing something he didn't love. There was a hope, however, to get him focused on using the skills he has to get out of the rut he was in for so long. "
Adam had spoken with me about a year ago that their Mormon faith and the requirements of the church had been something they had discussed at length, a big deal considering. Olson explained, "I saw Adam to be a pretty faithful kid. He was a Scout leader, led Elder's quorums, he helped out in the church in so many different ways. The payment of tithing, encouraged by the church, is a big sacrifice," and might be an example of the difficulties in the marriage Adam had alluded to.
And, Olson added that, in his opinion, "Culturally she (Emele's mom) is Chinese-Canadian, and if I was to guess, things like being a stay-at-home dad with intermittent earnings made her stressful to be around. Things like status and the role of men and woman, she had traditional expectations. What mother-in-law doesn't want her son to be a doctor? He worked on some projects that were great but to translate that into $60,000 a year, well Victoria isn't he easiest place to do that."
While every one of his friends that I spoke with said that Adam had expressed unhappiness for three or four years about things not being smooth with his wife, Olson was of the view "They got along well but earlier this summer this depression really picked up."
I knew about the frustration Adam felt that his immense creative talent wasn't translating into a steady income. James said "He didn't just want to go to work -- he wasn't crazy about having a stranger taking care of his kid. But if you are unable to provide -- he's at home with his son but instinctively, something inside us says heeeey..."
I knew Adam had written "... actually wrestling has been the furthest thing from my mind for the last couple years... in addition to the effects of some illness and medications I was required to take, letís just say I was far from in 'ring shape' let alone any kind of shape."
I knew about most of what James told me about the unraveling home life. The medication I knew about because months ago Adam quizzed me about my own experiences with depression. Then there was that change in marital status on his Facebook page, which changed back to "married" again only hours before he killed himself.
I knew about everything and nothing all at once. I did not know why this happened, especially the timing of when it did, with Emele in Regina, on a trip to her hometown. Even after telling me of the impending split, Adam out of the blue three weeks ago told me he had applied for a TV job in Regina. What about New Zealand? I thought.
He wanted to be close to Thomas if he had a choice, that was clear.
I still didn't know why he killed himself.
The elk, the elk, the elk. I kept returning to it. Not to his jokes about it. To the spaciness, the lack of focus, the distance I heard in his voice after it almost landed in his lap. Here was a straight, loyal, faithful Mormon, who had not often found himself in life or death situations. Risks in the ring, he took. Outside of it, he was straight as an arrow. He told Dirty Money, they should have been dead. He was rattled, at the very least.
Adam Dykes was not at obvious risk of being a suicide risk. But I had a nagging sense, in the back of my mind, that there was something else that we all knew, but didn't realize we knew.
I got the "call" from Dirty Money. I spoke to him and Mr. Thug. Both of them had also noticed a change in Adam after the road accident.
I asked Olson, the trauma caused by the collision with elk included, do you think concussions had anything to do with his fatal decision? He answered without hesitation.
"I totally believe it. My guess is he took too many knocks on the head over the years. He always had migraines from time to time I can count easily five to six times. I saw him knocked to snot or, 'I just faced a beating on the road 80 times,' (as the indy style in the early 00's was hardcore and violent). You could guess that maybe 10 times he had a real good level of concussion."
I asked Kreter the same question, and he emailed back:
I was with Adam a few times when he took some knocks to the head. That's part of the business. But I also recall one time in particular where Adam appeared to be severely concussed. I don't remember what caused it, but he was in a stupor for the rest of the night. I'm sure it was a concussion, and I'm sure it went undiagnosed.
When I think about the people I've seen with concussions, that incident with Adam stands out as having the most severe symptoms, even though I don't think he ever lost consciousness.
I also know that Adam was one of the most loving and kind people I've ever known. He was also one of the most selfless. For his mental state to have deteriorated to the point that he was suicidal must have taken something astronomical, and probably not just one thing, at that.
The head trauma from wrestling combined with the van crashing into the elk -- both the physical and psychological ramifications of that accident -- and then mingled with whatever may have been troubling him in his personal life, it could only have been the intense compounding of these things to have driven Adam so far out of his mind. Any one of them, taken individually, I think Adam could have weathered.
Of course, it's speculation, but it's based on the facts of his recent history and on the fact that I knew him to be someone of strength and compassion.
Adam himself had written about his concussions on his blog in 2007. In a post entitled "In Defense Of Protecting Your Melon
" he explained his new-found concerns:
I will sheepishly (and shamefully) admit that there was a time when I would see stars after taking a hard blow, or even suffer a full-blown concussion and wear it proudly like a badge of honor. I remember one show where I came down with a bad migraine headache (which seem to run in my family), yet still went to the ring and ended up trading it for a concussion after an opponent caught me in a most amateurish way on a risky dive to the floor.
I remember the first two years of my career diving off of whatever the highest place was in a given building onto opponents. Throwing myself down bleachers and taking hard, unprotected chairshots to the head. I wonder sometimes now, at the age of 30, if I am all the more dumber for it, or if I just have whatever that condition medical students get when they read about ailments and then think they have all the symptoms themselves.
I was never the type to throw my hands up when I saw a chair coming straight for my head. Okay, I lie. One time when I had stitches in my head from some minor cosmetic surgery, I tossed my hands up, not looking to reverse the effects of several hundred dollars of surgery that Canadian health care didnít cover. So really I wasn't being smart, I was just being cheap.
Perhaps the best thing I ever did for my in-ring carer was stray away from some of the more "hardcore" antics that dominated my first two years in the ring. I wouldnít get the big huge "pops" from the crowd, but I prodded myself on getting my message and story across without having to resort to the more violent style that I once embraced.
Not to belittle those who like to swing chairs, crash through tables, go through glass, or land on thumbtacks. While that may not be MY thing, you canít question their guts. Then again, where does it being a matter of guts end, and the senselessness or real danger begin?
Of course, thereís a giant, hypocritical part of me that just says to myself, "Geez, maybe all those veterans in the dressing room when I was starting out were onto something when they told me to slow down." And now in 2007 am I trying to say the same thing to others?
On that fateful last night, as Adam spoke for the last time with James Olson, "The boy was still up, and he wouldn't do it then. It was 9.30ish -- he posted a Facebook reply to something at 10.47. After talking with Adam, I called his Uncle Ray in Nanaimo and said, if you could arrange to go over there or get him out of the house, he isn't surrounded by friends... he was kind of isolated in the house with the kid. It was 10.30 my time, I asked his uncle, trying to do it in a way where I'm not blabbing, try to call him this weekend I asked. I didn't think he'd do anything. Then on Friday night Ray called me and said, well, I can't call him, and I go why ... oh nooo."
Adam Dykes, the most normal man any of us had ever met in the wrestling industry, got off the phone from his childhood friend, put his beloved son to bed, and took his own life.
"If only he could have seen how how the people were affected by him. On Facebook, Wikipedia, there's not too many guys who could pull this off in the world. He touched so many people. He showed could you could be one of the boys but not be a "wrestler". Even his last Facebook status -- "Planes Trains and Automobiles" -- that is so typically Adam, cause he's the guy you go to to hear something that'll make you laugh, the '80s references."
Olson insists Thomas, who was at home, did not see anything. Olson said Adam's body was found by his mother-in-law the next morning, hidden from his son by the layout of the room.
"I believe at some point of the night he went to a dark place mentally, didn't understand what he was doing and didn't wake up," said Olson. "I don't think he thought about what it will do to Emele or to Thomas. I don't think he was in his right mind. "
Emele was called in Regina and the news spread through the family until Uncle Ray called Olson. He realized that if he didn't tell someone outside the Mormon community, it would take -- who knows how long? -- for the wrestling community to find out.
An ECCW promo shot.
He called the former partners in the ECCW promotion, who then made the call to various west coast wrestlers. When the Vancouver Island boys found out, Dirty Money called me. Adam had been our partner in the Island Sports and Entertainment project that got us TV exposure nationally. We worked over the phone long distance for a week, and then in a frantic weekend in Victoria, we voiced and edited the demo reel.
Everyone I have spoken with told me, they also found Adam sounded different after the elk almost killed him. I was told others noticed the same thing. Was it narrowly avoiding death and not being able to accept his luck? Was it some sort of post-traumatic stress? The strain of living with his wife and family while a separation was unfolding?
And there were the eerie coincidences.
After writing about the September bout as being his final match, his last blog post was about the passing of WWF manager Lou Albano. A leading Manitoba wrestling figure, Dave Levinski, reminded me that after watching The Wrestler and the sad story of Randy the Ram, Torch had said to me, "When I look at the wrestling business and what it does to you, I want to kill myself."
An online newsletter caught the fact that Adam's final ringsidelive interview -- the night before he died -- had been with Irv Muchnick, whose latest book Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestlingís Cocktail of Death, goes into excruciating detail into the Chris Benoit murder/suicide and, who said there would be another tragedy.
Adam had mentioned the Benoit case before.
In fact, it was the entire reason for that 2007 post about protecting your melon, as he explained at the outset:
I may very well catch a little flack or heat for this, but Iím not really sure if I care or if it even really matters anymore.
Now before I get into this rant, let me first clear up that I absolutely love professional wrestling. I have ever since the first time I saw it at the age of nine. Even though the wrestling business and landscape have changed drastically numerous times since then, itís always been a pretty big part of who I am. Maybe even the biggest part.
Even though I havenít competed in a couple years now, my brain is always going into overdrive with different ideas, new moves to try, spots and combinations, gimmick ideas, and promos. I assume itíll probably always be that way.
I have to admit, however, that the recent events surrounding the death of Chris Benoit and his family have taken some of the fun out of wrestling for me. Not to mention the all-too-stale state of mainstream wrestling in general.
Even moreso, a recent appearance former WWE star Christopher Nowinski made on Bryan Alvarezís Figure Four Daily podcast on the long term effects of head injuries on athletes has me questioning how my own concussions and whatnot are going to affect my long-term health."
Adam concluded: "I guess all Iím trying to say is that with the results on the study into Chris Benoitís poor, battered brain being released, letís all try to wrestle a little smarter and protect one another (and ourselves) a little more to ensure that thereíll be many more entertaining, exciting wrestling shows to come ... as well as long, fruitful careers for all involved."
Adam Firestorm in the action.
A few days ago I heard from Bryan Alvarez of Figure Four Weekly
. Also a friend of Adam's, he emailed me: "I don't know if the family has any interest in this or if it would even be possible, but Chris Nowinski called and was interested in the possibility of examining his brain. I'm sure you're well aware of all the works he's done. He says in cases of suicide with marital problems, there are areas of the brain that have been destroyed that leave a person unable to cope with a stress they normally would have been able to cope with. I haven't talked to his family but if you think they would be open to this you could pass it on."
I shook as I called James Olson. He said he would speak with Emele about it as she had told him, that she felt the things she read about the Benoit deaths were all too familiar.
Late Thursday, I found out about Emele's own Facebook post: "I believe Adam suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This is the same disease that caused Chris Benoit to kill his family and then commit suicide. The Adam I married was not the one I lived with these past four to five years. Finally I see that with the sad hindsight of 20/20 vision. Much of what I simply didn't understand in his behaviour or mistook as drug abuse was symptoms of his brain damage."
Kreter expressed a special memory of Adam and the effect he had on him personally, that is at the core of his being:
As years went on, I was drawn away from wrestling and more and more to my first love -- music. Sometimes when I came back to wrestling shows, there was hostility from a few of the boys who thought I had turned my back on the business.
Adam, on the other hand, was one of only maybe three guys who made a point of coming out to my concerts. He even filmed a performance of mine in Calgary, and sent it to me. He was always someone I looked up to, and his support meant the world to me.
I met Adam when I was still a teenager, and, as hard as it is to believe about someone Iíve known my entire adult life, I donít have a single bad memory of him. In a world of uncertainty, Adam was someone whose heart I always trusted.
To this day, when the anxiety of a circumstance threatens to overwhelm me, I recall that pivotal moment a lifetime ago, and Adamís words reach me again.
"Dude, thatís no way to go out."
And I am centered again.
Thank you for the gift, Adam. You will always be a part of me. "
Kreter is managing the Adam Dykes Memorial Fund, which will be used to fly him home for burial and to establish a trust fund for Thomas' education. Donors can visit any Coast Capital Savings branch in B.C. and make a deposit to the account of "Dykes Family In Trust," or cheques and money orders can be made out to "Dykes Family In Trust" and mailed to this address:
Dykes Family in Trust
c/o Happy Kreter
Langley, B.C. Canada
Some of Adam's ashes are going to be sent to New Zealand for burial after a funeral on Saturday.
James Olson, when asked how he might reconcile Adam's religious Mormon upbringing with committing suicide, was adamant that Adam was a victim of an undiagnosed condition, beyond the Zoloft-treated depression.
"It (the impending split from his wife) hit him like a ton of bricks when she went to Regina. No one tries to send their ex over the edge. Was it the right way for him to go? No. Will God punish him if this is the result of mental illness? No. Look at how sad people across Canada in small pockets are. He was the guy who made you happy and crack up. He's not the guy who want to hurt hundreds of people. Adam was a kid who never knew how to grow up quite right, ran away and joined the proverbial circus; maintained some very good standards in a peculiar environment, and made a lot -- a LOT -- of people happy along the way."
November 8, 2009: Friends remember Adam Firestorm
November 7, 2009: B.C. wrestler Adam Firestorm commits suicide
SLAM! Wrestling Canadian Hall of Fame: Torch
Previous SLAM! Wrestling obituaries
Marty Goldstein has been involved with the Canadian wrestling industry as a producer, performer and historian since 1980. As Marty Gold, he hosts The Great Canadian Talk Show on Winnipeg's 92.9 Kick-FM, 4 PM Central time weekdays.