Professional wrestling star John Cena Jr. was down, dazed in the ring, as his opponent Randy Orton spotted his dad, John Cena Sr., shouting encouragement to Cena Jr. from his front row seat. To the shock of everyone in the venue and fans watching on TV, Orton hopped out of the ring, grabbed the 60-year-old Cena Sr. from his chair, threw him into the ring, and then proceeded to kick him in the head.
That night, Cena Sr. walked out of the hospital with a bandage on his head and a concussion, but to hear him tell it, getting kicked in the head by Randy Orton was one of the greatest days in his life.
"Busted my eye open, needed six stitches!" Cena Sr. recounts proudly with a smile in his voice. He remembers making a point to go to his job the next day, working for the city, so he could show off his big black eye to his co-workers. "I looked like a panda bear!" he says with glee.
This literal kicked-in-the-head father-son bonding story is only the first of two gifts John Cena Jr. Has given his dad. The second, perhaps more important, was a figurative kick in the hindquarters that may have saved his father's life.
Being in the ring with his son was something John Cena Sr. dreamed about, raising five boys in a suburb of Boston. One of his favorite activities was to bring the boys to watch WWF matches from the cheap seats at the Boston Garden. But it wasn't always easy between the two John Cena's.
"When I was a teenager, I was really abrasive," says Cena Jr. and despite his father's love of professional wrestling, John was more interested in proving himself on the baseball diamond or football field than in the wrestling ring. It's been written that Cena moved to California to become a bodybuilder, but, "Really, I just left to leave," he says. "I needed to get away and as far away as I could."
As far away as he could was Venice, California. Packing up his car with little money and no job, he made a clean break from his life against his father's wishes.
Arriving in California John Cena Jr. began working at a Gold's Gym. Because he couldn't afford an apartment, he slept in his car. Then early in 2000, a wrestler who trained at Gold's encouraged him to take classes at Ultimate Pro Wrestling (UPW), a former World Wrestling Entertainment developmental company. Cena seized the opportunity and started competing as the character Prototype with the tagline "half machine, half mayhem!"
Coming back full circle to wrestling also brought Cena Jr. back full circle to his dad. The older Cena even began working as a ring announcer.
"My dad couldn't have been prouder if I were the CEO of Microsoft," Cena Jr. says.
And John Cena Sr. couldn't have asked for a better gift: he was no longer watching from the nosebleed seats; he was apart of the action.
But the second gift John Cena Jr. gave to his father was the hard one.
It started when Cena Sr. was almost 70, during a visit to his son's new Florida home. "He couldn't finish the tour. Dad had to stop and catch his breath," Cena Jr. says.
Cena Sr. had let his weight get out of control, ballooning up to 310 pounds and settling around 285. "The doctors told me if I had a heart attack now, there's nothing they could do," remembers Cena Sr.
Junior knew his dad had to make a change, and that it would not be easy for him. He sat down his father and had one of the hardest conversations a child can have with a parent -- a frank talk about health and weight. This was a wakeup call for Cena Sr., and Junior was determined not to let him off the hook.
"My dad thinks he's invincible, thinks he'll live forever. But he's like most people: give him an excuse 00 the weather's bad or I'm going to this or that party -- and some fancy diet program just isn't gonna happen," Cena Jr. says.
With the help of sports scientists and nutritionists, Junior worked to design a health plan that would work for his dad, a man who liked to eat and was set in his ways, and then helped to ensure his dad followed through.
"Basically, the program is eat healthy for six days a week, eat whatever you want that last day. On the third week, we add two, 20-minute workouts," Cena Jr. says.
At the end of the program, which Cena Jr. calls 10 Week BodyChange, Cena Sr. had dropped 50 pounds. "My blood pressure was out of sight," Cena Sr. says, "and now it's down to 110/70. I'm 70 years old, and people say I look 52."
There are a lot of topics we try not to think about -- our parents' aging and health is one of them. As I thought about gifts for my own father this father's day, I was struck by their story and the bravery it took for John Cena Jr. to have this conversation with his Dad. Sometimes the most meaningful gifts we can give someone are a supportive but real conversation about a difficult topic.
After talking to John Cena and his Dad, I can't think of a more powerful thing to do for our dads this Father's Day than to check in on their health, give them some loving support and, like John Cena Jr., maybe a metaphorical kick in the hindquarters if needed.
Is there any better gift than to see our fathers around for many years to come?
Not for John Cena Sr. He says, "I want to stick around a while, remember those days, the boys wrestling in the basement. I want to remember those days with my kids, to laugh and just enjoy life."