In the first of a six-part series examining the private life of the wrestling star, Booker T reflects on getting a second chance at fatherhood.
My daughter likes to tell a story. It’s the fall of 2010 and my wife, Sharmell, and I had just brought her and her twin brother home from the hospital: Kennedy Rose Huffman and Kendrick James Huffman, two perfectly healthy newborns who were determined to make sure their parents didn’t get a wink of sleep.
For me, that was an easy price to pay. Between stints in the WWE, WCW and TNA, I became a six-time world champion in professional wrestling. Those belts might be part of the entertainment we created, but the work was real enough. You get used to hitting the road for long stretches at a time and make your peace with uncomfortable beds and new time zones. It was good training for becoming a father to two restless newborns.
With Kennedy, my first and only little girl, I’d find myself holding on to her so tight that she could barely move or take a deep breath. Now that’s turned into “Dad would hold on to me so tight I couldn’t breathe!” She was too young to remember, of course, but she heard me saying it, and it’s become part of her memory all the same.
I did hold on to her tight. Kendrick and Kennedy arrived 25 years after I had become a father for the first time. Barely out of my teens, I was just a kid myself. I wasn’t ready. I thought about how I wasn’t there for my oldest son and how I had a second chance to make up for my past mistakes. Maybe I held on so tight because I didn’t want her to slip through my fingers. This time, I was determined to find out what it meant to be a real father.
Booker T reflects on his life journey. Photo by Cody Bess.
My own father died when I was just 10 months old. I couldn’t tell you how his voice sounded or whether he had a unique way of walking or if he turned the lights off when he left a room, but in a strange way I felt like I still knew him. I kept a photograph that captured his strength of character. I looked at it and saw a man who would do whatever he had to do for his family. I felt like I could do the same if I were put in the right situation.
Maybe there is no such thing, but I can tell you getting a call at 19 that you’re about to become a father definitely isn’t it. I was a wild kid getting into all sorts of trouble, from seeing all kinds of fights to keeping company with pimps and prostitutes. I was living with my aunt — my mother had passed when I was 14 — and had no direction. I wasn’t in love, and I wasn’t about to give up whatever freedom I thought I had. I just went into complete denial.
The mother, Angela, kept trying to reach out and have me take responsibility, to marry her and start a family. She was a 17-year-old girl; I was a 19-year-old boy. We were both just kids from troubled homes who went through a phase of puppy love that suddenly had a lot of real consequences. When I got the call that there was a baby in the world with my blood, I visited every now and then and sent money when I could. (I named him Brandon Terrell so he had my initials without getting the worst of my first name: being called “Booger” by kids in school.) Even though I felt torn when I saw him, it still didn’t keep me from abandoning the situation. That’s not a father. That’s a sperm donor.
Prison is no picnic. . . . I knew quickly it was not where I wanted to be.
Pretty soon, it was out of my hands altogether. Part of my rebellion involved committing a string of robberies, but I wasn’t exactly a master criminal: when the authorities caught on, I did 19 months. Prison is no picnic, and whether it rehabilitates criminals or just punishes them is another conversation, but I knew quickly it was not where I wanted to be. It gave me time to think about my future and about taking responsibility for my actions. All my actions.
When I got out, I found out Brandon was in foster care because his mother, who had issues of her own, had abandoned him. That was too much for me, and I fought hard to win custody and prove I could take care of him. Suddenly, I was an ex-con with a five-year-old.
I did the best I could, but in another couple of decades, Brandon and I would not be on speaking terms — and I was about to become the father of twins. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if history will repeat itself.
By the time I married Sharmell in 2005, I thought I was done being a father, done serving up jailhouse cuisine to a child whose formative years I had missed out on and who later found himself in legal trouble that led to us growing apart. Brandon had become, in many ways, his father’s son, and the sense I had failed him was strong. I didn’t want to go through any of that again. But Sharmell wanted kids, and pretty soon it was something we both decided would be the perfect next chapter in our lives.
At the time, I was 44 and she was 39, so you wonder whether it’s even up to you. We tried and tried, but we were both on the road at the time with all the stress that brings and nothing was happening. We went on hormone drugs to move the process along, a step which led to my departure from the WWE in 2008: When I came up positive for hCG, a synthetic hormone used to increase the chances of pregnancy, the organization told me I couldn’t take it. (hCG can also be used as part of a performance-enhancement regimen for athletes.) I loved wrestling, but I had to leave it. My wife and I wanted kids, and that was that.
We got pregnant in 2008 and 2009, and both times Sharmell miscarried. The experience of having and losing children brings you to a completely different place. You’re hurt, distraught and upset you lost something so precious before you ever really had a chance to embrace it.
In 2010, Sharmell got pregnant again. Before we even went to the doctor, she told me she was having twins. And she was absolutely right. The way I looked at it, we lost two and God blessed us with two.
Booker T and Sharmell at home with Kendrick James and Kennedy Rose. Photo by Cody Bess.
I think I gained 30 or 40 pounds of baby weight myself. We went through everything together: the breathing classes, all the doctor’s appointments. She carried them to term, and for those nine months, you feel a bond and a love before they’ve even arrived. All those formative moments — tying their shoes, hearing those early words, everything I missed out on with Brandon — are right there.
When I can, I like to go to school and eat lunch with Kennedy and Kendrick. Sitting there, I can’t believe how different things have become. With Brandon, I was either working six days a week at a warehouse or trying to get my wrestling career off the ground. He’d frequently come home to a house that was empty except for the dog wagging its tail. If he had problems in school, I’d practically barnstorm the place, dragging him out of class by his arm in front of everyone. That’s not how you resolve a situation like that, but I was overwhelmed and underprepared.
These days the twins get dropped off and picked up from school. They come home to Sharmell or me — or both — and we go over homework. Meal time is a place to bond and figure out what they’re up to. I bonded with Brandon, too, but it was over food I had learned to make in prison: liquid cheese and ramen noodles. Like I said, we worked with what we had.
With time to himself, Brandon fell in with the wrong kinds of people. Five years old or not, that’s not happening a second time. Sometimes my twins tell me they’ve had an argument or fight with a buddy, and that’s fine. Brandon was in a far less forgiving neighborhood. As a rookie father, I yelled and screamed, thinking that would straighten him out. It didn’t, of course, and you understand you need to listen and have some patience. I also realized kids need activities. The twins have been in karate, recitals and other pursuits since they were three years old.
By this point, I had taken a job with TNA Wrestling, and my schedule had me working only 80 dates out of the year. I was home a lot, which is exactly how I wanted it. Since day one, I haven’t missed anything. There’s no time taken away from them, and that’s something I did manage to learn with Brandon. If someone wants a picture or autograph in public and my kids are around, the answer is going to be no. When I’d go to Brandon’s basketball games and everyone wanted a photo, I didn’t realize how much it would affect him and how it took away from what he was doing. I never wanted to be the center of attention, but now I insist I’m not.
Do they know who I am and what I did? Sure they do. Kennedy will use my catchphrase in wrestling, “Can you dig it, sucka?” She’ll hum my theme music. I’ve wrestled only sparingly since they were born, but they can pull up my YouTube clips whenever they want. There’s a huge difference now, though. When I go to Kendrick’s basketball games, I’m not diving in for selfies. It’s our time together.
And I’m not joking when I say I think they’re absolutely smarter than I am. Their spelling, their reading — it’s all advanced. And it’s got me reading and writing more. They have so many questions, and you want to have the answers. I don’t think I’ve studied so much in my life. Or driven slower. With Brandon, I trusted the school system — and later, a tutor — to do everything. Parents are a huge part of the educational world, and I think my kids appreciate how invested I am in their studying.
Even though I call Kendrick my best buddy, there’s got to be a line drawn there. There’s going to come a time when you have to be stern with your kids and identify right and wrong. I don’t know if I want to be friends with my kids. When it comes time to discipline, I don’t raise my voice much. There’s none of the temper I had with Brandon. Just by saying you’re disappointed, they’ll know what it means. My son understands responsibility. I’ll ask him, “Who’s the man of the house?” He’s ready to be. And that’s what you want. Nothing is given. Everything is earned.
The kids are my legacy. They’ll live and breathe for me when I’m not here.
There was a selfishness present when I had Brandon that doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t live for myself: I live for them. Seeing them grow from infants, seeing them in dance and other activities, I never had a chance to experience that before, to see that part of their life and what it means to them. You want them to look back and say they had a great childhood.
My daughter will say, “You know, Dad, we’ll always be connected even when you’re gone.” For a five-year-old to say that is pretty remarkable. My son will say, “You’re the best dad in the world.” The kids are my legacy. They’ll live and breathe for me when I’m not here.
In your head, you like to think you’re the ultimate dad. Reconciling with Brandon — a story for another day — helped. But there’s always something new to face, and if you can learn from past mistakes, you’re going to be all right. I used to be scared of this, and maybe some days I still am, but you put your gear and armor on. You put your shield up, and you hold on tight.
Don’t miss the rest of our exclusive series with Booker T: