There are stories that come along every so often that are far bigger than we are. Journalism and good storytelling is one thing, but there is a next level out there.
I was reminded that one of my pieces reached that higher tier this past weekend when I got to spend quality in-person time with Lisa Purves, Adrian Bowles, Paula Parsons, Aaron Fowler and Trevor Edwards.
You may remember them from a story that came out on June 30, 2022 — DNA Says These Five Strangers Were All Fathered by the Same Wrestler—and The Rock Is Their Half Brother — which ran at the Sports Illustrated website, with a complimentary piece here at SlamWrestling.net.
They are all the children of the late Rocky Johnson, who was born Wayde Bowles and died in 2020. The five are spread across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. They learned of their common heritage through DNA tests, and found each other through the Internet and the last of the surviving Bowles brothers, Ricky Johnson.
The family reunion was pretty special, as Aaron and Lisa are both in B.C., and had only met once, and Aaron had never met any of the other siblings. But it’s not like they were strangers. In the three years since Aaron discovered his lineage — the last to do so — he has been welcomed with open arms and talks regularly with his new family. Aaron and his wife, Allison, made the trek for a wild weekend of hugs, tears and more than a few beers.
An Airbnb was rented out in Ajax, just east of Toronto proper, and it became party central, a chance to share stories, meals, and more.
They even invited a journalist along — me.
I’m not sure that there was ever a single story that I did more work on than the piece on Rocky’s kids, between the many people to interview and confirm information with, to writing the story, and then pitching it around. Then once SI bought it, there was a whole new set of fact-checking and rewrites.
We were careful to make the story about the “Fabulous Five” as they have started calling themselves, and not about Rocky’s acknowledged children, Curtis Bowles Johnson and Wanda Cunningham, from his first marriage, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, from his second. Neither Curtis, Wanda nor Dwayne are responsible for the actions of their father.
My invite was a great way for them to say thank you for the story, and its impact on them.
As the public contact for the family, since she was already out there as a screenwriter and filmmaker, Lisa was the one who took all the calls, emails, texts, and so much more. By her estimation, she had more than 4,000 people reaching out. There were those who were negative, but overwhelmingly, she said it was positive.
After all, it’s a story about abandonment, about a father who made a choice and the subsequent effect it had on the children left on the outside looking in, especially with him being a famed wrestler … and then their half-brother becoming one of the most famous people on the planet. People could relate to the abandonment, to growing up without a parent, to discovering half-siblings along the way, hidden families.
In a weekend of many magic moments, one stood out for me.
I’d brought along a copy of my first book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians, which was already signed by both Rocky and Ricky Johnson. I told the story about how Ricky invited my wife and I to dinner with Rocky and his wife, Sheila, at a restaurant in Toronto’s west end, in 2003, not long after the book came out. Rocky was floored by the photo I’d chosen, which he said was his first-ever promo shot. The next day, Sheila told me that Rocky had stayed up all night reading the book, finding out what happened to so many friends and colleagues from a business where there was always a next town, a next promotion, a next country.
Then all five of Rocky’s unacknowledged kids signed the same page, alongside the father they never got to know.
On the Sunday, Lisa had arranged for a film crew to come in and shoot more for her ongoing documentary about the whole discovery of her family, titled Just Call Me Lisa. Mark Brombacher was hired to direct in Toronto, with Eddie Cristobal as the Director of Photography, and Brian Baek on the second camera and sound.
Brombacher has known Ricky Johnson for decades — almost as long as I have — and through Ricky has gotten to know his newly-discovered nieces and nephews.
He shared his thoughts on shooting the documentary, where I was filmed first and then left to head back home.
“The thing that struck me most was the immediate and loving connection these five siblings shared. The warmth and love was palpable everywhere. Numerous times, someone would say that, ‘It’s as if I’ve known them my entire life.’ It’s rare to find siblings who get along so well in any family no matter how long they’ve known each other,” Brombacher said. “As for their estranged brother Dwayne, they have no bitterness or anger. Only love and kind wishes. In every family you always have bickering and jealousy over money, but Lisa, Aaron, Trevor, Adrian and Paula are all rooting for their brother Dwayne, and would just like to know him, not because he’s famous, but because he’s their brother.”
To that comment, I will add that they welcomed me with open arms too, a much lighter-skinned brother who still has some of his hair.
It’s a good reminder that in a world of increasing division and bubbling animosity that love could and should conquer all.
TOP PHOTO: Aaron Fowler, Paula Parsons, Trevor Edwards, Lisa Purves and Adrian Bowles. Photo by Greg Oliver