LOS ANGELES — When the lifeguard arrived, between 50 and 75 yards off Venice Beach, the boy and his father were caught in the rip current, enveloped in what’s called an “impact zone.”
“The best way I can describe it,” said Kenichi Haskett, Section Chief of the LA County Fire Department – Lifeguard Division, “is like being inside a front-loading washing machine. The waves keep crashing on you, pushing you down. … I’ve been through that, those kind of rescues. You think you might die.”
This was Sunday afternoon, shortly before 4 p.m., the first weekend Los Angeles County opened its beaches since the stay-at-home order. The swells were 6 feet, and the current was fast, as the father and his 10-year-old son were now 200 yards north from where the lifeguard first spotted them.
The lifeguard, whom Haskett personally debriefed, tried to deliver a “rescue can” — a small, buoy-like device to help tow distressed swimmers back to shore. “But because of the size of the waves, the boy couldn’t secure it,” Haskett said.
That presented the lifeguard — who has a middle school-aged son himself — with an excruciating dilemma. The father was 6-6, about 270 pounds, with shoulders the size of a small desk.
“Based on the gentlemen’s size and the conditions in the water…,” Haskett said, “these are choices we do not want to make.”
Then again, based on the gentlemen’s character, there was never a choice.
“Take my son,” said the father, a former professional wrestler named Shad Gaspard, to the lifeguard.
Save my son.
Three minutes had not passed before the boy was safe on shore. He was physically unharmed, but deeply distraught. “Dad told me to push off to the guy,” he told Steve Smith, a firefighter-paramedic from Rescue 63 in Venice. The boy kept saying that: “Dad told me to push off to the guy.”
The guy. The lifeguard.
Just as he turned back, making a hasty return to the ocean, the lifeguard saw the father again. “A wave pushed him under in the impact zone,” said Haskett. “He didn’t resurface after that.”
The rescue divers went in immediately. Then, the Coast Guard. Still, there’s been no sighting of “the gentleman” Shad Gaspard.
I met Shad in 2012. Director Peter Berg and writer Scott Burns had just opened a gym in Santa Monica. It was affiliated with Freddie Roach’s Wild Card, and the plan was to eventually stock it with pro fighters. But back then, we were mostly an odd fraternity, guys who did a little sparring and a lot of storytelling. We were cops and firefighters, writers, directors, bouncers and actors, a future life coach, and one pro wrestler. I never saw Shad spar, though. That was a good thing because, unlike most of us, he could actually hurt you.
Shad grew up in Brooklyn, near the subway station at the corner of Flatbush and Nostrand Avenues. He told me his father had fashioned him into a fighter as a child, overseeing his training in boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai. By the time Shad was 16, he was beating up grown men in smokers. In 2005, at 24, he signed with WWE, for whom he’d do two stints as part of the tag team “Cryme Tyme.”
He looked the part, with a body perfected at Gold’s Gym. But it was difficult to imagine him as a fighter. Shad had no mean in him, at least nothing apparent, and none of the fake ego that plagues men who fancy themselves fighters.
For decades, legions of professional wrestlers have died prematurely of suicide and drug addiction, in road wrecks, and of heart attacks brought on by steroid abuse. They’re like bodybuilders — massive physiques built like fortresses, to protect that vulnerable, damaged part of the self.
Shad was the opposite, though. He seemed to live in a happiness bubble, and to bump up against it was to be happy too. Really.
I recall a Christmas party at the gym, during which I found myself talking to an impossibly beautiful woman. Finally, in my inspired state, marveling at my great, good fortune, I catch Shad grinning at me.
As if to say, “Yup.”
Oh. My bad.
He nods again, starting to crack up. The impossibly beautiful woman is his wife, Siliana.
Point is, another guy — most guys, I think — wouldn’t have been so understanding. But when you have Shad’s kind of muscle — the stuff that’s inside — you don’t have to flex for show.
A friend of mine — rising young trainer Julian Chua — recalls, in the infinite wisdom of his slightly younger self, enthusiastically stepping outside a bar with a man who had just vowed to kill him.
As they turn to face each other, however, his antagonist begins to back away.
Julian figures he scared the guy off. Then, as he turns back to the bar, he sees the real reason: Shad is standing behind him. He’s got that same grin.
After wrestling, Shad wrote a pilot called “Pinfall.” Then there was a screenplay about the Haitian Revolution. And a graphic novel. An appearance or two at Comic-Con and some acting gigs, of course. But most of his time seemed devoted to his wife and especially his son, Aryeh.
“Completely inseparable,” said Lt. Sal Lucio, a former SWAT team cop, who used to watch the little kids sparring under Chua’s tutelage. “Big Shad could be stern with his son. He wanted Aryeh to learn how to fight, but they’re little kids, they don’t always win. Sometimes you get touched up. Sometimes you cry. That’s when Big Shad would start hugging and kissing on Aryeh.”
Enveloped in the father’s bubble, Aryeh would snuggle your puppy one minute, then square off to do battle in the next. The kid had a little mean streak. It made his father proud. Shad had been bringing him to the gym since he was maybe 4.
Sometimes I wondered, though, what it was like for Aryeh. Being Shad’s son is about as close as a kid can get to saying, “My dad’s a superhero.”
Truth is, his father had been touched by something ecstatic and addictive in a previous life. That moment when the wrestler “gets over” with the audience is what keeps everyone coming back. Not merely the fans, but the wrestlers themselves.
“You get all of their emotion, all of their glory,” Shad told me one night. “You can feel it come into you. You can’t match that high.”
Until, perhaps, you become a father.
Vince McMahon once told Shad there were two kinds of people: those who want to mourn the hero, and those who want him to return. McMahon’s theory of the audience, he told me, was based in part on his favorite movie, the classic western “Shane.”
As it ends, with a boy calling to his hero, the audience is left to wonder: Is Shane mortally wounded? Will he live? Will he return?
It’s not clear. It’s a movie. It’s a construct.
But this much is true: Shad Gaspard is the man men are supposed to be. He was funny. He was strong. He was kind.
And when the moment came, he saved his son.
Who wouldn’t want to be Shad Gaspard?