Before I fell in love with Jon, I fell in love with wrestling.
I grew up in Rochester, New York, in the early ’90s — this was before the wrestling boom, before the Attitude Era. Wrestling wasn’t “cool” yet but I didn’t care. I wanted to be Ric Flair so bad. “Not Miss Elizabeth,” I’d have to correct people. I didn’t want to wear fancy dresses. I loved wrestling. I was so proud of these wrestler-themed folders I had in second grade: Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man Randy Savage, Jake the Snake Roberts, the whole deal. Kids in class would make fun of me for them. “Why do you have those???” Stuff like that. I remember coming home one afternoon, in tears, and telling my mom what had happened. She asked me if I wanted to get new folders.
I said no way.
My first boyfriend was a wrestler. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, so boys hadn’t really been a part of my life growing up. But then one of my classmates, before our senior year, she’d met this guy at summer school, Anthony, who wrestled in the local indie scene. And he’d been bugging her ever since then to go to one of his shows. Knowing I was a wrestling fan, she asked me to come with. We had a great time….. and eventually Anthony and I started dating.
Hanging out with Anthony, pretty soon I became friends with a bunch of other people in the Rochester wrestling community. It was a tight circle, the kind where everyone knows everyone. One of the wrestlers I’d see around a lot was this crazy-tall guy — I mean crazy-tall, like a legit 6' 7" — who played this character (or at least I thought it was a character) where he was basically the most arrogant dickhead you’ve ever met. He went by “Huberboy #2” (his older brother had taken “Huberboy #1”). I called him “Huber.” His real name was Jon.
Eventually, Jon and I got to know each other the old-fashioned way: using AOL Instant Messenger. I think I’d mentioned to him once where I’d gone to school — and then, from there, all these things we had in common just came tumbling out. For example, Jon had gone to an all-boys Jesuit high school. He’d grown up pretty much down the street from me. We’d literally been baptized by the same priest. It’s like our lives had been intersecting for years, only without us realizing it. And it wasn’t anything more at that point — I was still with Anthony. But it was something, you know?? It was like, Whoa….. what IS this.
Then one night, after a wrestling show, my brother Adam and I needed a ride home. It was out of the way from where Anthony was heading, but since Jon lived nearby, he offered us a ride. When we pulled up to the house, before getting out of the car, Adam (for reasons I’ll seriously never understand) blurted out, “Hey, Jon — you wanna meet our cat?” Jon said sure. He came inside, sat on my parents’ couch, met Rabbit (our cat)...... and then he and I just spent the rest of the night talking. And talking….. and talking.…. and talking. We must have sat on that couch and talked from 10 until 6 the next morning. Nothing happened, although I’d never wanted to kiss someone so bad in my life. When Jon left, I just remember thinking to myself, like, Oh — NO. But in a good way. It’s like I already knew there was no going back.
I broke up with Anthony the next day….. and Jon and I lived happily ever after. Just kidding. My breakup with Anthony caused some real drama within our tight-knit circle. Jon absolutely hated drama — so now he wanted nothing to do with me. And that probably would have been the end of us (before there even was an us) — if it hadn’t been for wrestling. Because while all of this was happening, I’d gotten up the nerve to start training to become a wrestler myself.
The gimmick they gave me was…... something. Roc City (our local indie promotion) had this wrestler with an “evil priest” gimmick, known as “Father Synne.” So they brought me in as his sister, “Synndy Synne.” I wore my Catholic schoolgirl skirt, my button-down blouse, my knee-high socks….. you get the picture. It was cheesy, for sure. But it was a chance.
And then from there — well, there just weren’t that many female wrestlers around in the early 2000s. So as unpolished as I was, I was still able to get booked on most area shows. Jon ended up getting booked on a lot of the same shows….. and since it was cheaper to travel in groups, and we were all pretty much broke at the time, we would travel together.
Those loops became our weekend routine: Drive three hours east from Rochester, to wrestle in Schenectady for World of Hurt on Friday nights. Then drive another hour north, to wrestle in Hudson Falls for World of Hurt on Saturdays. Then maybe a Sunday show if we could find a booking. And then back home. It was me, Jon, Colin, Shawn and Jimmy, all cramming into the 1996 Oldsmobile Cutlass I’d bought from my uncle. Then squeezing five in a motel room, and getting paid $20 apiece to wrestle in front of 15 to 20 people on the second floor of a warehouse or something. We were grinding.
As for Jon and I, it’s hard to define what our relationship was at that point. We definitely weren’t dating….. and I’m not even sure we were friends??? But we both loved wrestling. And we just kept spending time with each other.
I guess you could say our first date happened by accident. One night, around the end of 2003, a bunch of us had plans to go out to dinner at Applebee’s. But then at the last minute, the rest of the group bailed — and it was only me and Jon left. So we ate together, like we would have anyway, and after that I drove him home. And I just have the most vivid memory of us there: sitting in my car, in the driveway of Jon’s mother’s house….. and Jon turns to me and he jokes, “So — this is our first date, huh.” You know that kind of joke, where it isn’t really a joke? It was like that. “You’re going to have to kiss me now,” I joked back. He laughed. And then he kissed me.
I know there’s a tendency, after someone passes, to want to sugarcoat things — to tell the “easy” version of the story. But that’s not something I’m interested in doing with the story of me and Jon. It just wouldn’t feel right. Our love was never perfect….. but it was always real. And I will not be ashamed of what was real. So I just wanted to say that up front.
The truth is, when Jon and I first started dating, we fought all the time. We were That Couple: the one that’s constantly arguing, constantly making up. It wasn’t exactly the kind of romance you dream about. It was a grind — a lot like our wrestling dreams. And I don’t think that was a coincidence.
Actually….. I think the two things were very related.
Jon had a lot of issues with me being a wrestler, for a lot of different reasons. The most obvious reason is that, point blank, the wrestling business was just super f*cking toxic for women back then. And to be honest, I hesitate to say “back then” — as I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement in that area. But it was brutal for women when I was starting out. It was sh*tty and it was degrading and it was dangerous. And Jon knew that, and he cared about me and was always protective of me. But at the same time….. I wasn’t about to give up on my goals. So there was tension with us because of that.
And then I think there was also some tension because of the (relative) attention that I got, as a cute young girl who could wrestle a bit. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I didn’t deserve the attention — I loved wrestling, but I was not particularly good at it. Whereas Jon, I mean, if you’re reading this then I probably don’t have to tell you: He had so much to offer. He had a rare kind of talent. And it was really frustrating for him to have that go unrecognized for so long.
One of the problems Jon faced, in terms of getting opportunities early on, was how wrestling has these boxes they like to put people in — and if you don’t fit neatly in one of those boxes, it can be tough to find success. So with Jon, he had this physical frame where he was like….. taller than most “giants,” except he wasn’t ripped or thick or built like a giant. So he would always get this feedback from wrestling promoters that he was “too big to be a little guy, but too little to be a big guy.” And he couldn’t really do anything about it.
An example of this would be, like, when WWE would come to our town — they would hire some of the local indie guys to work as extras on the show. Jon would be one of those guys, and he was obviously more than capable of doing whatever was required. But say they needed an extra or two to play security guards during a segment….. well, they’d never give Jon one of those roles. Because they weren’t about to have “security” be a 6' 7" dude who towered over the company’s actual wrestlers, and made them look small, you know?? So a lot of those nights, Jon would end up just getting paid to sit in catering. Stuff like that was extremely hard on him. And it was hard to be around him in those moments.
Jon and I were always in love with each other….. I have no doubt about that. But it’s like he just couldn’t always find the peace he needed, to allow himself to have that love. I’m not too proud to say that he broke up with me several times. That he broke my heart several times. He was never abusive toward me — not once, not ever. But he knew he was the love of my life. And he could be mean.
At some point I decided that I had to move on. This was around 2009, and we’d just broken up again. It was never not love….. but I was exhausted. We had been dating since 2003 — and now here we were, six years later, still spinning in a circle. We needed to stop.
So this time, when Jon asked me to take him back, like I had so many times before….. I said no. I just told him, you know — I’ll always be there for you. I'll always be your best friend, your ride-or-die. But I think this is the end of the road for us as a couple. I want marriage. I want a family. That’s something I know I want….. that’s my happy ending. And it just doesn’t seem to be yours. So for us both to be happy, I think this is best.
And then Jon got help.
I want to be careful with how I phrase this, because I think it’s easy to oversimplify things when it comes to talking about mental health. But this is such an important part of Jon’s story, to me. And I hope that it ends up being a part of his legacy. I hope that, when people remember Jon, they mention one of the bravest things he ever did: He had unresolved trauma — and he confronted it.
I’m not going to go into every detail here, because I think some things are private. But one area that I will detail a bit is how therapy helped Jon finally come to terms with the death of his dad.
Jon’s dad was his hero — he meant everything to him. And when he died (in November of ’01, just a handful of months before Jon and I met), Jon was a wreck. It was a devastating loss. But over the years, I think he’d kind of “blocked out” a lot of how that devastation had impacted him. And it was therapy that gave him the strength to start unblocking it.
He started to confront the fact that, after his dad’s passing, he found it hard to let new people in. The idea of getting truly close to anyone, and building them into his life, only to experience that level of loss again…. that scared the hell out of Jon. And what scared him even more, he realized, was the idea of ever dying young like his dad did — and abandoning someone else. The idea of anyone who loved him feeling the pain of losing him forever…. that terrified Jon.
And he’d thought he never wanted marriage, and never wanted kids, for just that reason.
I won’t lie — writing this, there are a lot of complicated emotions attached. The irony of it can be overwhelming to think about: how the exact fear that troubled Jon most, the fear that he finally got over….. it ended up biting him in the ass. It ended up coming true.
But I also try not to think about it that way.
Instead, I try to think about a man who did the bravest thing imaginable — a thing that ended up saving our relationship, and making our family possible.
I try to think about a man who asked me for ONE more chance….. and who promised me that, if I gave it to him, he’d be the best husband, and best father, I ever met. And he was.
Those next couple of years were a whirlwind. Jon and I had figured our sh*t out as a couple, finally, and were really happy. And I think the energy that Jon got from that happiness, it just started overflowing into his professional life. He was becoming more and more confident in his “Brodie Lee” character, and as an in-ring performer as well. He was putting on really good matches. He was getting really good responses. After all these years, it felt like he was gaining legitimate momentum.
Pretty soon he’d built a name for himself around some of the larger indies: places like Chikara, Dragon Gate, Ring of Honor. And he was working with the best those promotions had to offer — guys like Moxley, Claudio Castagnoli (Cesaro), Tyler Black (Seth Rollins), the list goes on. I wouldn’t quite say he’d “made it”…. he was still working nine-to-five as a textbook clerk for the Rochester City School District. Wrestling was still technically a side hustle. But things were happening, you know? For the first time, it all started to feel kind of real.
As for my own wrestling career….. I’ll only say a quick thing.
I remember talking to Ruby Soho the other day, and just being like, “Man. I wish I’d wrestled 10 years later.” I need to qualify that — big time — of course: I wasn’t NEARLY as talented as Ruby, or Britt or Becky or Sasha or any of the other female stars who are working today. They’re so damn special. I was never that.
But I won’t lie: I still get sad, sometimes, when I think about the wrestling business of a decade ago, the wrestling business that I tried to make it in. Because the truth is….. that business chewed me up and spit me out, pretty much. It wasn’t any one thing. But it was just too many years of being screwed over in ways that became so predictable. Too many years of being around types of behavior that we didn’t even have words for yet. Too many years of not being taken seriously at all, of being treated like a novelty object. I wouldn’t say I ever fell out of love with wrestling….. but eventually I fell out of love with the dream of becoming a wrestler.
And then we got pregnant.
This was the spring of 2011 — and at this point, Jon’s wrestling career and mine were headed in opposite directions: his taking off, mine winding down. I was feeling good about the new path I was on, though. I’d just gotten hired for a manager’s position at an American Eagle, and I finally had some stability for once. I was making solid money — enough to help support us while Jon rode this exciting wave he was on. We were in a great place.
The Tuesday after Memorial Day, I had what I thought was a hangover. Wednesday morning, I was late. I took a test….. then made a doctor’s appointment to be sure. 100% pregnant. There were so many different feelings bouncing around in my head at that moment. Mostly, though: Time to tell Jon.
I planned on telling him that night….. or at least I planned on it until he surprised me with a phone call that afternoon. “I just got laid off by the school district.”
So now I’m like, okay, well….. I definitely can’t tell him TODAY. We have our “date night” scheduled for Thursday, though, so I figure I’ll tell him then. We’ll have a nice dinner, we’ll take our minds off of things, and we’ll talk about this news. But then at dinner, Jon tells me he just got booked for three huge shows that weekend with Dragon Gate USA: back to back to back, on an East Coast loop — and he’ll be in the main event of the final show in New York. He leaves tomorrow morning.
So now I’m like, okay, well….. I definitely can’t tell him TODAY. He’s got travel coming up, he’ll be up all night, then he’s going to fall asleep at the wheel and get in a terrible car accident. No way, can’t do it. So I put it off again. I decide I’ll tell him on Sunday night, after his last Dragon Gate show. Sunday night, Jon calls me, devastated. “My wrestling career is over,” he says. He blew out his knee in the main event. He’s going to need surgery.
So now I’m like, okay, well…. I definitely can’t tell him TODAY. Or tomorrow. Or the next day. Or—
And that’s when it hit me: I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep waiting for the perfect moment. Because it was never going to come, you know?? I think I realized, like — there’s actually no such thing as a perfect moment. Or at least not that kind, not in real life. Not the kind you can make plans for. I was going to have to take a leap of faith.
So a few nights later, we’re chilling at home, about to watch some TV. Jon turns to me and goes, “You ready for some Dexter?”
I’m like — “I’m pregnant.”
He immediately gets up off the couch. He walks over to the other room and shuts the door. He stays there for probably 10 minutes in total silence. He walks back out. He sits back down on the couch. He turns to me and goes, “You ready for some Dexter?”
And then he smiles.
Near the end of 2011, Jon got a call from Joey Mercury. At the time, Joey was a producer for FCW (Florida Championship Wrestling), WWE’s developmental territory in Tampa. Basically, FCW was like an early version of NXT (before they moved it to Orlando and it became NXT).
Joey wanted to know if Jon was interested in coming down for a tryout.
“I appreciate the offer,” Jon told him. “Let me think about it….. but honestly I don’t think so.”
That answer might surprise you — it’s WWE calling!!! But that’s where Jon’s head was at after he hurt his knee. The actual injury ended up not being too serious, compared to what we had feared: He’d needed a simple surgery and only had to miss a few months. It could have been much worse. But I think something about it, combined with his having been laid off, and then also my being pregnant (and how badly he wanted to be a good father)….. it had all really gotten to him. I think it had triggered a lot of those old insecurities and frustrations, those old feelings of rejection.
He told me, “I think I just need to chill with wrestling, you know??? I’m 32….. I’d be the oldest person there. It’s embarrassing. I don’t want to become that middle-aged dude who can’t read the writing on the wall.”
I basically stared a hole through him.
“Jon,” I said, “That’s the most ridiculous f*cking thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Look at how far you’ve made it. It’s a tryout. The only writing on the wall here is that you should try.”
Brodie was born on January 17th, 2012.
He came a little early — but thankfully Jon had already gone down to Tampa, and had made it back in plenty of time for the birth. Now it was the morning after, and the three of us were sitting together in the hospital room. I remember I was holding Brodie for the first time; with him being premature, I’d had to wait a little longer than normal for that. He was in my arms when Jon’s cell phone started ringing.
Jon let it go to voicemail.... and when he listened to the message, his jaw dropped.
Hey, Jon — it's John Laurinaitis. Call me back at your earliest convenience. We’d like to offer you a developmental contract with WWE.
A few months later, we packed up our things and headed to Florida.
On May 27th, 2013, a vignette aired during Monday Night Raw. Jon had filmed it recently, with fellow developmental guys Bray Wyatt and Erick Rowan, as part of a new group that they were in called “The Wyatt Family.” Bray was a young prospect that WWE was very high on, and he’s also a creative genius — the Wyatts were his idea. It was pitched as this, like, “backwoods Florida swamp cult” type of thing: with Bray as the leader, and Jon (going by “Luke Harper” now) and Erick as his followers.
The vignette was about a minute long, and didn’t reveal much. As soon as it started, though, Brodie’s eyes were glued to the TV. He was only 16 months old — but instantly he recognized Luke Harper as Jon. Amazed (or confused), he then looked over at the couch, where Jon was sitting. Then he looked back at the TV….. and then, again, back at Jon.
“DADA!!!” he started saying. I think he thought it was magic.
It kind of was.
The biggest disappointment of Jon’s WWE career probably came at WrestleMania 33.
One thing you have to understand about Jon is that, for all of his success, he never truly lost that “indie wrestler” in him. That grinder. That underdog’s mentality. And I think one of the ways that it showed up sometimes was in how Jon measured his accomplishments.
So, like, what Jon would focus on wasn’t that he’d achieved things A, B and C — he would focus on how he was “never” going to achieve things D, E, F, G and H. He’d say: WWE will never sign someone like me. Then WWE signed him….. and it became: Well, I’m never going to make it out of NXT and onto the main roster. Then he debuted on the main roster…. and it became: Well, I’m on Raw, but I’m just a bit player. Then the Wyatt Family turned into one of Raw’s main focuses….. and it became: Well, we’re doing alright as a group, but I’ll never win anything in singles. Then he beat Ziggler for the intercontinental belt…. and it became: Well, they’ll put a midcard singles title on me — but I can promise you one thing for sure: They’ll never, ever, EVER let me near the WWE title.
I think Jon accepted his “spot” for what it was, for the most part. I mean…. he got to wrestle for a living. Our family had more financial security than either of us could’ve hoped for. He’d made lifelong friends. Jon was never ungrateful for the opportunities that WWE had given him — and he usually had a pretty healthy perspective on what mattered. But everyone still has dreams, you know?? And I think deep down, under Jon’s pessimism, there was still that kid who dreamed of “winning the big one.”
And though he’d been wrong about what he could achieve in WWE all those times before….. unfortunately, it seemed like Jon was going to be right about the world title. He’d won the IC belt in the fall of 2014 — but then a couple of years passed, and that was still the furthest he’d managed to move up the card. He’d hit his “WWE ceiling,” in other words. And I think it stung him, in his own way, having to come to terms with that.
But then something strange happened. I guess it started in October 2016, when Jon came back from his injury. Jon had torn a ligament in his knee that March, then missed the next six months rehabbing. For his return, they teamed him up with Bray again, in an updated version of the Wyatts — this time with Randy Orton, of all people, as part of the group. And from there, this really great story developed between Bray, Randy and Jon. I won’t try to summarize it, but it was basically a cool twist on the usual Wyatt stuff: Where, instead of Bray seducing Randy into joining the Family, Randy seduced Bray into thinking he was seducing Randy into joining the Family. When, in truth, Randy was planning to infiltrate the group….. then turn on them. And Jon was the only person who saw the scheme for what it was.
Ultimately, this was all ramping up to a huge match at WrestleMania…. Bray against Randy, for Bray’s WWE title.
Like I said, though — something strange happened: Instead of getting behind Bray or Randy, the crowd started to get behind Jon. It was one of the most layered stories that he ever got to tell in WWE, and he just crushed it. He played his part to perfection, as the classic guy who’s paranoid but no one will listen….. and then it turns out that he was actually right to be paranoid, all along. I think the fans really related to him, and were excited to see these new shades of Luke Harper. And as Jon’s momentum kept building, through late 2016 and into early 2017 (aka “WrestleMania season”), the crowds started to get behind him as more than just a supporting character. Now a lot of fans were voicing their opinion that the match should be a three-way….. with Jon added in. It was this amazing, organic thing.
And it breaks my heart a little to think about, but Jon really did want it….. and he kind of almost started to believe that it might happen. We’d be talking, and he’d just tell me, like: “Even if the bell rings, and I get hit with an RKO, and I’m laying there for the rest of the match until it’s over — I’d take it. I’d still take that. It would still mean I was in a world title match at WrestleMania.”
So in the weeks leading up to the show, Jon was on a mission to prove to WWE that they should add him to the match. It was a Hail Mary, for sure. But he felt like, if he could just keep putting on great performances, and keep getting those strong reactions from the crowd….. maybe he’d have a shot.
His last best chance to make an impression was at Elimination Chamber in February. Jon had been booked to work singles against Randy — probably the highest-profile singles match of his WWE career. Mania was seven weeks away. If they tore the house down….. who knows?
They tore the house down.
The crowd went insane for it. Jon and Randy had the most incredible chemistry together, and it showed. (Randy is one of the best of all time for a reason.) Those guys put on an awesome match.
But it just wasn’t meant to be. The plan was “Bray against Randy at WrestleMania,” and that’s what WWE stuck with. They wrestled one-on-one for the title, with Randy coming out on top.
Jon and 32 other guys wrestled in a battle royal on the pre-show.
It was a gutting outcome.
Honestly, though….. I’ve never been more proud. Jon may not have gotten his WWE title shot — but he handled it with such passion and such grace. He did everything humanly possible to change their minds. Even when there were probably no minds to change.
And that’s the thing about Jon. He had a cynical side, for sure — he could be pessimistic about a lot of stuff. But I’ll always remember that 2017 WrestleMania, the show he didn’t even get a spot on, as one of his greatest moments. He knew the odds were stacked against him….. he knew he was pretty much destined to lose.
But he put his whole damn heart into it, and went for it anyway.
My favorite moment of Jon’s WWE career probably came at WrestleMania 34.
The Wyatt Family had been on-and-off for a while, as a result of the usual stuff that happens: storylines, injuries, “changes of plans.” But even when the Wyatts were “off,” there was just something uncanny about Jon and Rowan as a duo….. where they always seemed to have this habit of finding their way back to each other. And that’s what happened in the fall of 2017: After both of them had been out of the mix for an extended period, they got repackaged as a new tag-team known as the Bludgeon Brothers.
Jon and Rowan really were like brothers. There was genuine love between them — which, for as much as wrestling is a performance, trust me, that helps a lot. They were both these big, menacing-looking dudes on their own.…. but for whatever reason, put together, they looked even bigger, even more menacing. It just worked. And while they were never going to be WWE’s top priority, I think they knew enough to know that the Bludgeon Brothers was an opportunity for them. They came up with a whole new look, with new gear and new-ish names (no more “Luke Harper” or “Erick Rowan,” now it was just “Harper” and “Rowan”). They started dominating the other teams on SmackDown, and coming across like monsters. To use some wrestling terminology, they were definitely getting a “push.”
But I don’t think either of them could have imagined what they got at WrestleMania.
WrestleMania 34 was being held at the Superdome in New Orleans, on April 8th, 2018. Jon and Rowan had been picking up a lot of wins over the last few months, and were now being booked in a match for the tag-team titles. But there are matches, and there are matches. And this one was about as good as it gets: against arguably the two greatest tag-teams in WWE history — the New Day and the Usos — at the biggest WWE show of the year. Of course, if you’re going up against the two greatest teams, at the biggest show of the year, there’s also a catch: You’re probably not winning!! And I think that’s where Jon and Rowan were at in terms of their expectations.
So — the way it works at WrestleMania is that if you’re “friends and family,” when the wrestler who you’re there for has their match, typically someone from WWE will bring you ringside for that match….. and then afterwards you’ll swap out with the friends and family of the wrestlers in the next match, and so on. So when Brodie and I (plus Nolan, about four months old, in his BabyBjörn with his tiny noise-canceling headphones) got to ringside to watch Jon, we were sitting with Kofi’s family and Woods’s family. And as much as I’d love to say I believed in my husband, let’s be real: I was certain the New Day were winning.
But then all of a sudden: Jon was up on the top rope….. he and Rowan were hitting their finisher…... Jon was covering Kofi for the pin…... and the ref was counting, “One…... two…... three.”
OH MY GOD.
JON JUST WON A BELT AT WRESTLEMANIA.
THAT JUST HAPPENED.
When the match was over, I started crying, and I legitimately couldn’t stop. I remember Jon and Rowan standing there, holding their belts up high, soaking in the reaction from the crowd. Then I saw Jon’s eyes sort of dart around….. and I could tell that he was searching through the sea of people, trying to spot us. So I just start screaming to him as loud as I can — I’m sure it sounded like someone was being murdered. Finally, Jon locks eyes on where we’re sitting. He gives us the most perfect Jon grin…... then climbs out of the ring and walks over to us. WrestleMania is kind of like this “well-oiled machine,” though, with everything timed down to the second — so pretty soon the production crew starts yelling at Jon, trying to rush him to the back, to stay on schedule.
And I’ll never forget what happened next.
Jon stops dead in his tracks. He turns toward the crew. And — in this tone of voice that is basically just, like, do not mess with me right now — he goes, “I’M KISSING. MY F*CKING. WIFE!!!” And then he turns back toward us, grabs me by the cheeks, kisses me deeply, and screams, “WE DID IT. WE F*CKING DID IT.”
Jon and I go way back with Chris Harrington — and one day, around late summer or early fall in 2018, he sends Jon a text: Ten percent. He says he has this project that he’s working on, that he can’t give us any details about. And that he’s like….. ten percent sure is going to work. But be ready. That’s all he’ll say.
Then a couple of weeks later, Chris sends Jon another text: Thirty percent.
Then a few weeks after that, another text: Seventy percent.
And then eventually Chris sends Jon one last text: A hundred percent.
I think that AEW, for Jon, was like the culmination of his wrestling journey, in a lot of ways. It was everything he’d ever wanted out of being a wrestler.
Jon still wanted all the things that he’d been chasing when he signed with WWE: To test his own limits. To provide for his family. To make Brodie (and now Nolan) proud. But he also wanted all the things that he’d given up on chasing, in order to fit in there — in order to become “Luke Harper, WWE Superstar.”
Basically, he wanted to be himself.
He wanted to wrestle great matches, in all sorts of styles. He wanted to show that he could cut a promo. (WWE didn’t like it when he spoke….. Vince had told him his voice didn’t fit his body.) He wanted to tell exciting stories, ones that paid off and made sense. He wanted to act serious and act funny. He wanted a shot — he wanted to earn a shot — at “winning the big one.” He wanted to succeed on his own terms.
In AEW, with the Dark Order, Jon (going by “Mr. Brodie Lee” now) got to be the leader of a group — not a follower. And as the group evolved, I think it almost became like this reflection of who Jon was as a person. Like….. it started off as this one thing, and everyone thought they knew the full extent of what it could be. But then over time, all these other dimensions started to slowly reveal themselves. Whether it was on Dynamite, or on BTE, or wherever — I think fans started to notice that there was something really interesting going on with the Dark Order. That there was a lot more to them than meets the eye.
And “more than meets the eye,” to me, was Jon in a nutshell.
People would see this scary looking 6' 7" Wrestler Dude, with the crazy eyes and the beard and the hair…... and think they had him pegged. But “Luke Harper, WWE Superstar” wasn’t Jon. There was so much more to him than that. And I’m so, so glad that you all got to see it. You got to see the comic timing that he developed with a guy like John Silver. You got to see the way that he looked sexy as HELL in a suit. You got to see him be a legit top guy, and hold his own.
That last one made me especially happy. A little over three years after the disappointment of not getting his match with Randy and Bray, Jon finally did get that title shot. Actually, he got two of them. First, in May of 2020, a match against Mox, for the AEW title — which he lost.
And then in August, a match against Cody, for the TNT title — which he won.
It’s funny: The night that Jon beat Cody, he didn’t tell me anything specific ahead of time. He just said, “You should watch.” So I broke my usual rule and let Brodie stay up for Dynamite. And when Jon won….. man, oh man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an excited kid. Brodie was delirious. Like — he was BEAMING. I remember Jon called us after the match, and before he could even get a word in, Brodie was like, “Dada. Are you bringing the belt home?!”
The next morning, Jon got home, and we must have spent half the day taking photos — of him, Brodie and Nolan, all holding the TNT title.
They’re the last photos I have of Jon with the boys.
It was a really good day.
The final match of Jon’s career was on October 7th vs. Cody: their big rematch, after Jon’s win a couple of months earlier. As a twist, to raise the stakes, they made it a dog-collar match. All you have to know about dog-collar matches is that they’re super weird.
Jon loved getting weird.
I think it was one of the best matches he ever had.
The thing that I remember most, though, isn’t the match itself. It’s the fact that Jon lost…. and he didn’t care. He really didn’t. He was totally fine. And I remember being so struck by that. Like — in WWE, when Jon would take a tough loss, he could get pretty demoralized. He’d tell me, you know, “That’s it. That was my last opportunity, for sure.” But this felt very different. He was so PROUD of those matches with Mox and Cody. He was so proud of having proven that he could get to that level. And he was so excited about the future, about what might come next.
Then Jon got sick.
He was on vacation, of all things — the plan was for him to be off of TV for a week or two, after the Cody loss, and then to come back really strong. So the four of us had decided to split up for that time: Brodie and I went to Cleveland, to visit some friends of ours, while Jon and Nolan held down the fort together in Tampa. I think we all were in good spirits. But when Brodie and I got back home….. I mean, it was nothing dramatic even. Jon just wasn’t feeling well.
We had an exercise bike in the garage that Jon would use for his cardio workouts. He’d go on these ridiculous rides, and leave this huge pool of sweat on the floor when he was done. On October 19th, though, he went on a ride and something different happened. This time, he came inside and he wasn’t sweating. He was like, “I don’t know. I just couldn’t finish it.” It was unlike him, for sure….. but that’s really all it was. He was feeling sick. He was feeling “unlike himself.” We thought he had COVID.
We tried hard to figure out what was going on. I think Jon took every type of COVID test that’s ever been invented (all negative). He got a bronchitis diagnosis, at one point….. until it quickly became clear that it wasn’t bronchitis. He just felt sicker and sicker — and weaker and weaker. That’s the only way I can think of to put it.
Eventually, he couldn’t make it out of bed on his own, so I took him to the ER.
We started talking to a nurse there and explaining Jon’s symptoms. While we were explaining, the nurse put one of those little oxygen monitors on his finger. But then she looked at it, and was like, “Wait, hold on. I’ve gotta get a new one. This one is broken.” She got a new monitor, and took his O2 again. “What the heck??? This has to be wrong. Give me a second.” Then she came back with a third monitor, and tested his O2 one more time.
“These monitors aren’t broken. Something is not okay.”
Jon’s nurse was right: his oxygen levels were not okay. They were in the low 60s, a level at which most people apparently would have been unconscious. (The doctors think that what probably happened is Jon had pneumonia, or something like it — but because he was in such great shape, his body had blown through what might have otherwise been the traditional warning signs. His official cause of death was later established as “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.”)
They put Jon on oxygen….. and for the next few days it was up and down. He’d have good stretches, where his levels improved. Then he’d have bad stretches, where the improvement stalled. To be honest, though…. it still didn’t seem like life and death. Jon was pretty communicative, overall, and we’d have regular conversations. He was texting with people. Stuff like that.
As this was happening, Halloween was right around the corner. Brodie desperately wanted to go as Orange Cassidy….. and (as his buzzkill mom) I was trying to talk him out of it. I was like, “Sweetie, no one’s going to know who that is. You’re going to be a kid wearing a denim jacket. People won’t think it’s a costume.” And I just remember telling Jon all of this at the hospital, so distinctly — because his response was one of the last things he ever said to me. He pulled the oxygen mask off his face, in this exaggerated way, like he was in a movie. I think he was trying to be funny. And he was just, like, “OH. MY. GOD. Buy the kid a f*cking denim jacket.”
I went to Target that afternoon, and got Brodie his Orange Cassidy costume. Then I stayed up late and put together Nolan’s costume by hand: a kiddie version of one of Jon’s AEW “Brodie Lee” looks. And I was actually feeling almost good for a second.
Then I got the news that Jon was about to be airlifted to Jacksonville.
I was floored — I’d had no idea things were escalating to that level of seriousness. They were. Jon needed a treatment that was unavailable in Tampa, so he was immediately being transferred to the Mayo Clinic. I packed a bag for the airlift.
Before I left, I took a picture of the kids with their costumes on. I guess it seems silly now….. but in my head, I had this idea that I’d show Jon the picture, and it was going to somehow be like “medicine” for him. It was going to cheer him up.
It never happened.
As I was hugging Brodie and Nolan goodbye, the hospital called. “We wanted to let you know: Jon started to crash. He had to be sedated. He’s not conscious anymore.”
On November 22nd, Jon had a panic attack. Normally, a panic attack is not life-threatening. But with Jon’s condition, it was one of the worst things possible. Jon’s lungs had significant scarring — and in order to keep further scarring at bay (so they could heal), it was important that they not experience any sharp, rapid movements. His panic attack unfortunately involved exactly that: sharp, rapid movements of the lungs.
It felt like a line in the sand. At Mayo, Jon had been placed on ECMO, and he’d had good days and bad days. Overall, it felt promising. After the panic attack, though.…. it was just different. Jon hung on for another month. But there were no more good days.
I never lied to my sons — that’s one thing I made sure of. Nolan is only four, thankfully, so he was young enough that it didn’t really come into play. But Brodie is nine, and was eight at the time….. and as things progressed with Jon, he started to have more and more questions. Every day he’d ask me, “How is Dad doing?”
I’d make it a point to tell him the “good” things as much as possible, but I would also try to be real with him. So if Jon had a rough day, I would tell Brodie, you know, “Your dad didn’t have a great day today. But we’ve got the best doctors in the world, and they’re working around the clock to see what they can do.” And when Jon got airlifted, I told Brodie what was happening. It pained me — like it actually brought me physical pain — to not be able to give him better news about Jon. But I also knew that I had to be honest with him. It would have been unfair to keep him in the dark.
By now we were coming up on Christmas, though, and I wanted to make it special. I wanted to do whatever I could to take Brodie’s mind off what was going on. So I asked him if there was anything he wanted as a present (other than his first request, which was “dad being home”).
And God bless him….. without missing a beat, he was like: “I want to go to AEW without Robyn.” (Robyn was his babysitter.) “I want to go by myself.” It was really cute — all Brodie wanted was to be one of the boys. I was like, “Okay, buddy, let’s see what we can do.” I knew that Jericho chartered a plane from Tampa to Jacksonville for every Dynamite….. so I asked him if there was any chance Brodie could tag along on his next trip. Before I finished my sentence, Jericho was like, “Yes. Done. Whatever you need.”
That Wednesday, December 23rd, two things happened.
One: I learned that Jon wasn’t getting approved for a lung transplant….. which had basically been our final shred of hope for him. This was the end now.
And two: Brodie had the night of his life.
AEW signs my paychecks — and if you want to, you are more than welcome to take the praise I give them with a grain of salt. But I don’t bullsh*t when it comes to my kids. And the way that AEW treated Brodie that night….. I will never forget it. They took this little boy, on one of the last days before he’d have to find out that he was losing his dad. And they made him feel like a superhero.
Whether it was Chris letting him ride on his plane. Whether it was Tony letting him hang out backstage. Whether it was Megha and Margaret watching over him with so much care. (I haven’t mentioned them yet, although I guess it makes sense in a way — they were like my guardian angels through all of this. Megha is a lawyer for AEW and the Jaguars; Margaret is head of AEW HR. Without them, we wouldn’t have had even a fighting chance.) Whether it was Miro, or FTR, or Spears, or whoever, treating Brodie like he belonged and being so, so cool. Whether it was the guys in the Elite basically making him an honorary member. Whether it was Kenny, who was world champion at the time, filming a segment after the show where Brodie got to “beat” Kenny for the AEW title. I’ll never be able to thank everyone enough for what they did. That night went above and beyond a workplace — or even friendship. It was family.
On December 24th, I got a call from the hospital that Jon was going into organ failure. I would need to make end-of-life arrangements. I asked them for one thing: Could we please delay this for two days. Give me two days, so the boys can have a normal Christmas.
On Christmas morning, back in Tampa, I made us breakfast and then we opened presents. Santa got an iPad for Brodie and a Power Wheels Jeep for Nolan. Chris (Jon’s brother) and his wife, Audra, were there, as well as Jon’s aunt and uncle, Laurie and Tom. We all spent the day together — the kids playing with their new toys, running around outside, just having a lot of fun. Finally, around 10 p.m., I put them to bed.
Their normal bedtime is 8 p.m., so Nolan went out like a light — but Brodie wasn’t quite there yet. “Are you going to be here tomorrow when we wake up?” he asked.
“No,” I told him. “I need to be at the hospital very early for your dad….. but I’ll be seeing you right after that.” The plan was for me to drive to Jacksonville, first thing in the morning, to get everything prepared — and then for Tom and Laurie to take the boys up later that day.
“I hate this,” Brodie said.
“I hate it, too, sweetie.”
“Is he going to die?”
I’d been dreading the question for days. Or probably more like weeks. I knew it was coming….. but it still knocked the wind out of me when he asked.
“You need to go to bed,” I told him.
“Mom,” he said, now raising his voice a little. “Answer me. Is he going to die?”
“Please go to bed, Brodie. It’s getting late.”
“MOM,” he said, almost screaming now. “IS HE. GOING TO. DIE.”
“Brodie. Go to bed.”
“WHY WON’T YOU ANSWER ME???” He started sobbing.
“Because it’s very late, and you need to go to bed.”
I hugged Brodie so tight, and wanted so badly to comfort him — to tell him that it would all be okay. But I knew what was coming. And I couldn’t lie.
“I have the most unimaginable favor to ask. And if either of you guys say no, I want you to know that I will never, ever, ever hold it against you. But Jon is going to die. He’s going to die soon. And I need to tell Brodie. The two of you, you mean everything to that kid. And again….. I know this is unimaginable. It’s beyond beyond. But I have to ask if you’d be willing to come to Jacksonville, and be there in the room with me when I explain to Brodie what’s happening.”
On Thursday night, Christmas Eve, I had gotten on the phone with Big E and Cody — two of Brodie’s favorite people in the world. And I’d asked for the favor of a lifetime.
They didn’t hesitate.
Saturday morning, Cody and E arrived at our hotel….. Cody, having driven all the way down from Atlanta; E, all the way up from Tampa.
Jon’s brother and I had connecting hotel rooms, so I put Cody and E in his room, while Jon’s mom stayed in my room with the kids. I prepped the guys, then I popped into the other room and said, “Brodie, could you please come next door? I have a surprise for you.” Brodie walked in — and his eyes just lit up. He jumped into Cody and E’s arms. He was so happy to see them. They will never know the depth of my love and appreciation.
We sat Brodie on the bed, and I said to him, “Hey, buddy….. we’ve gotta have a really hard talk right now.”
And then I told him what was going on.
Brodie collapsed into my arms, like he was weightless. Like he was nothing. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” That’s all he would say. You could literally hear his heart breaking. I lost track of time, so I don’t know if we were in there for 30 minutes or three hours. But I know it was the worst moment of my entire life.
And I know Cody and E never left.
Jon died on December 26th, 2020, that Saturday afternoon. He’d been in the best shape of his life for the dog-collar match in October, at around 275 pounds. He weighed 170 pounds now. I know it was a tough image to take in, him being like that — especially for anyone who hadn’t seen him get worse more gradually like I had. But I also know that the guy who was there at the end….. it wasn’t Jon. Not really, you know?
We took turns saying goodbye. First, Megha and Margaret went in. Next, Cody and E. Then Spears and Breeze (Jon’s two best friends), and Spears’ wife, Cassie. Finally, Chris, Audra, Tom, Laurie and myself.
I played the song “My Hero” by Foo Fighters on repeat (Jon’s favorite), so it wouldn’t be quiet.
I felt like he wouldn’t have wanted it to be quiet.
He was 41 years old.
I remember as we sat there in the hospital room, near the end, watching the monitor, it did the strangest thing: where it would drop down, real low, almost to zero….. and then at the very last second, right when you thought that was it, it would pop back up a little. Just a little. And for a while it kept on doing that.
I’m sure it’s a normal thing that happens — and there’s some boring medical explanation.
But I just remember sitting there, watching it, and thinking to myself, like, Oh, Jon…. that’s the WRESTLER in you. You can’t help yourself. You can’t help trying to kick out.
Today would have been our tenth anniversary. December 13th, 2011 — that’s the day we got married. It was a Tuesday (and you know what that means). Counting everything….. I guess we knew each other for about 18 years. Funny how that seems both so long and so short.
I’d give anything for 18 more.
I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, just over the last few months, about some of the moments since Jon passed that he would’ve loved to have been here for. Brodie having his first sleepover….. Jon would’ve been Peak Dad that night. He would have been such an absolute dork, messing with those poor kids. Nolan driving around in his Power Wheels….. I can picture Jon right now, walking alongside of him, this huge smile on his face. Nolan giggling the entire time. Big E winning the WWE Title….. Jon would have flipped his f*cking sh*t. He would have been ridiculously happy. The stuff that’s been going on with the Dark Order, the way that guys like Silver and Vance have blossomed into stars….. Jon would have been really, really proud. And oh my God — AEW running a show in Rochester??!? I know the crowd reaction that night would’ve been all sorts of insane. Like: Jon would have soaked in that “hometown pop” for obnoxious amounts of time, I can promise you. We would have never heard the end of it. He would have loved it so much.
Lastly — I’ve been thinking about how blown away Jon would have been by the outpouring of affection we’ve received from the wrestling community this year. It would have overwhelmed him, truly, to know what he meant to you all.
As for me….. I’m doing well, all things considered. Some days are better than others. “You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met,” Jon liked to tell me, but I think he’d be shocked at how vulnerable I’ve been. I haven’t pretended to be okay, more than I am — and that’s become its own sort of strength. Working for AEW’s community department has also made me feel stronger. Helping them build a wrestling community as special as this one….. it’s a dream job. I feel like it’s what I was born to do.
And then of course there are my boys. I lost my person….. but I still have my boys. Nolan, his inner light just constantly radiates. Brodie, he got his dad’s passion and grace. They’ve both shown so much resilience. They’ve both been incredibly brave.
They’re going to grow up with all of the love in the world, and into amazing young men.
And if they ever need help with Jon’s memory? I’ll tell them about this 6' 7" heel who used to live down the street. He went by “Huberboy #2.”
He was a babyface, once you got to know him.