He says hello and then you are following in his wake. He doesn’t have time to waste.
“They don’t want cold pizza,” Rocky King says.
Inside the Papa John’s in Midtown they know him by name and it’s hugs all around.
“Thank you. Love you, baby.”
And then you are in his wake again, following the smell of pizza stacked 15 boxes high.
A few minutes later, on the drive downtown, he points out the window.
“My life and my story really started two blocks down the street.”
That’s where Rocky, a kid from South Carolina, wound up eating out of trash cans.
“I was homeless.”
You can’t help but wonder what others thought when Rocky would tell them his dream, the reason he had come to Atlanta. You can assume there was laughter and scoffs and raised eyebrows. “I’m going to be a professional wrestler,” he would tell the others, and if they thought, ‘Well, I’m going to be president of the United States next week,’ they didn’t say it.
That’s the gift of destiny. It has a way of pulling you toward it if you’re strong enough to resist the voices of doubt, to quiet them. Rocky didn’t doubt. He was eating out of trash cans in the shadow of Turner studios, the place that could change his life.
THE DREAM MADE REAL
It happened. Rocky King became a professional wrestler, his matches televised to the country. He took on all the greats – Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Jake the Snake. The wrestling business was filled with its own demons – addiction and greed and despair, but for Rocky, the trappings did not trap him.
They set him free.
“I said if I ever make it, I’m going to come back and help people like myself.”
Nothing in life is simple, or maybe it’s because we won’t allow it to be simple. To Rocky, there was never any question that once he had enough, he was leaving and coming home.
We pull up outside a downtown church. There’s nary a parking spot to be had. Rocky gives away one of his pizzas to a man who makes a space for him. He gets out of the car and recognizes some homeless men who are waiting for him. “Hey brother! Happy New Year! I got some clothes.”
They go to the back of his minivan and Rocky pulls out winter coats and pants and passes them around as the men quickly snatch up the precious gifts.
He makes small talk, the sort of thing most don’t do with homeless people. “How are you, friend? How ya' feeling?”
And then he grabs his stack of pizzas and children are weaving about his legs as he makes his way into the church. He hugs as many as he can, laughing and saying, “You gonna help me feed today?”
An hour later he picks up more pizza, this time double the amount from earlier. He gets back in his minivan and drives to about a block from the jail on Peachtree Street. He drags a little fold up table from the back of his van and before it’s even set up, the stream of people begins. Mostly men. Some women. Some women with small children.
They trickle across the parking lot, dragging their belongings in bags and shopping carts. They line up, patiently waiting their turn. Rocky comes to the same place each time, so they can find him.
Rocky won’t wax poetic about the harsh reality of living on the street. It is what it is. “Didn’t nobody wake up and graduate from school and say I wanna be a homeless guy.”
He gives away more clothes. Everyone eats until they are full.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Early in this day, before the sun was up, Rocky helped to lead bible study at Atlanta Mission. He does it with comedian Jeff Foxworthy who has become a close friend. Last May, when Foxworthy was featured in an 11 Alive story for his work with Atlanta’s homeless, he spent a good portion of his interview encouraging us to tell Rocky’s story.
On this morning at bible study, with cameras now there for Rocky, Jeff explains,”He just loves people who need loving on. I sometimes ask myself ,'God am I going to get to heaven and find out that Rocky was an angel that I didn’t know about? Because you say in Hebrews they walk among us.’ Maybe Rocky is one of them angels and we didn’t know about it.”
It is dark when we arrive at Rocky’s gym in Riverdale. He leases part of it to a few trainers, but the dozens of kids spread across the gym are here for free. There’s two full size rings, one filled with young adults who have the same dream Rocky had, to become professional wrestlers. Rocky trains them for free.
In the other ring, little girls as young as 7 years old are learning to box. One tells me that if something bad happens on the streets now, she can protect herself.
Rocky moves from child to child, sharing a look, a smile, a hug, a hand on the shoulder, a word of encouragement. For many of these kids Rocky is the only father figure they’ve ever had, and he takes the responsibility seriously.
One 14-year-old boy says Rocky has taught him, “How to talk to people. How to introduce yourself. How to be a young man. How to assert yourself more, not to be shy around people. Basically he's like a father figure.”
An almost 30-year-old man says, “I wish I could explain it. He’s a blessing. That’s my father right there.”
Rocky laughs and says the man was a “bad dude” when he showed up at Rocky’s gym.
It’s a place where people come to find strength they didn’t know they had, and to heal wounds invisible to the naked eye.
Rocky presides over his lost child kingdom, his arms crossed, a small smile on his lips.
When the kids leave, something many of them try to delay, they pass by a huge box filled with free food to take home.
Rocky hugs them. “It’s a powerful thing when you tell a kid who don’t have nothing, ‘I love you.’”
A year ago Rocky had a stroke. He has had to relearn how to walk. He is now blind in one eye and his famous strength has been stolen away.
But he is still on the streets every day.
To him, it’s not an option not to help.
“God blessed me to be able to wrestle around the country.” And it’s what came after that high that is the center of Rocky’s life, the center of who he is. As he drives to his next destination he talks about the people who “plant seeds” versus the people “who take and take.”
“You gotta give back.”
Despite all that he has lost, Rocky’s true power, love, shines brighter than ever.