During the last WrestleMania, WWE announcer Justin Roberts looked out at the arena filled with about 80,000 cheering fans, then over at world champion wrestler CM Punk.
Roberts, who grew up in Buffalo Grove, first met CM Punk, who was born in Lockport, when he was 17. They were both starting out in their respective careers, working at small wrestling events around the suburbs, including matches at the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin.
Now, here they were, at the top of their games.
“We didn't say anything, but we looked at each other and thought, 'Wow, we've come a long way from Chicago,'” Roberts said.
For Roberts, the journey has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to be a WWE announcer.
“I got my dream job,” Roberts said. “It sounded impossible, but I got it. That's why I tell people today, if you want something, go for it. No matter how impossible it may seem, anything and everything is possible if you follow your dreams.”
Today, Roberts, 33, hosts the WWE's “Monday Night RAW” on the USA Network, and monthly WWE pay-per-view specials such as “Royal Rumble” and “WrestleMania.” On April 7, he'll announce “WrestleMania 29” on pay-per-view.
Roberts, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., also is an entrepreneur. After a shoulder injury, he designed a powerful massager he could take on the road with him, called Hands To Go. The wrestlers use it too, he said.
But wrestling is, and always has been, his main focus.
Growing up in the suburbs, Roberts was mesmerized by wrestling on TV, including “Saturday Night's Main Event.” He used to imitate wrestling announcer Howard “The Fink” Finkel, and remembers, as a kid, how he'd “run around with a microphone, announcing things.”
Roberts' parents took him to some wrestling matches, and at age 11 he got to meet wrestlers The Ultimate Warrior and Kerry Von Erich.
“They were larger than life,” Roberts said. “I was hooked.”
Not seeing himself as a wrestler, Roberts fixated on becoming a professional wrestling announcer. His first gig was when he was a teen, voicing a wrestling telephone hotline. The hotline contained a recorded message with the latest wrestling news, and Roberts presented himself as a character called Enzo Reed — a name he's still sometimes called today.
When a relatively large wrestling show came to Waukegan in 1996, Roberts found a way to meet the guy who was hiring the show's “enhancement talent.” Roberts persuaded the man to let him announce just one match.
“I was on top of the world. It didn't matter that it was only 100 people. I was in a wrestling ring, and it was awesome,” he said. “I got my foot in the door as Enzo.”
Roberts was brought back again and again, and started doing bigger events. When Roberts left for college at the University of Arizona, he continued working and networking out there. But all along, he had his sights set on the WWE.
In 1999, Roberts made a tape of his work by hooking two camcorders together, and sent it to the WWE every three months for three straight years.
“There's a line between pain in the (butt) and persistence,” he said, laughing. “I just wanted this more than anything. I started from scratch. I made my own connections.”
Whenever the WWE came to town, Roberts showed up and tried talking to WWE employees, hoping to catch a break or make a connection. In 2002, he saw the man he'd been sending tapes to, approached him, and pitched himself as an announcer. The executive told him, “Maybe we'll get you on sometime.”
The next day, Roberts got a voice-mail message inviting him to do an on-air tryout.
His career at WWE took off after that. Roberts now works with the wrestlers he idolizes, mingles with celebrities, parties at the Playboy Mansion and travels the world with WWE — racking up 200,000 frequent flier miles per year. Roberts says he appreciates every moment of it.
“It's awesome going out there and watching people light up from the show they're seeing. These superstars are so talented. They're incredible athletes. They're working year-round, and they wear no helmets or shoulder pads. These guys are real-life superheroes,” he said. “The ultimate best part about the job ... is seeing the difference that these superheroes make in these people's lives.”
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Ÿ Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a good column feature, drop them a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.