Jason Eugene Braswell: A promising life, swallowed
His signature move was the Shooting Star Flip. Jason Braswell, aka “Johnny Rage,” would jump forward from an elevated position, execute a backflip in mid-air and rotate down on his opponent lying on the ring floor. The move is one of several banned by wrestling promoters due to the injury risk.
“He would do some stuff I wouldn’t do,” said his longtime wrestling partner, Clay Tate, then known as “Splatterhouse.”
Braswell was a self-professed redneck. Tate is black. Yet they were inseparable, traveling the semi-pro wrestling circuit throughout western North Carolina. Didn’t matter if it was the local fairgrounds, a speedway, American Legion post or armory, wherever there was a wrestling ring, they were there.
“We wrestled everywhere together,” Tate, now 42, said. “We all had regular jobs. He just wanted to wrestle, be with his son and dip Copenhagen.
“He was a good guy, you just had to know him,” Tate said. “He wasn’t a bad person. He would help you if he possibly could. You had to understand him to know him.”
Braswell never lost his edge in the ring, despite an old ankle injury. Still, he feared the ankle might not hold up to his aggressive wrestling stlye. That day would come in 2007 at a Battle Royale. Tate was in the ring by the ropes.
“He (Braswell) said, ‘Clay, you throw me out of the ring,’” Tate recalled. “Instead of landing on the edge of the ring and the floor, as planned, he hit the floor hard. I heard a snap. I crawled back there and took off his boot. It was already turning black and blue, and was swelling up fast.”
It took metal rods and pins to hold his foot and ankle together. To ease the pain, doctors prescribed Soma, a muscle relaxer, and Percocet, a narcotic pain killer. Friends and family members say he became hooked.
Sports had always played a part in Braswell’s life. He played football at Hibriten High School and would later take up golf, often playing with his son, Cody. But pills also played a role even before his wrestling injury. His father, Calvin Braswell, said that when Jason was 16, while operating a ripsaw at a machine shop an accident cost him his right ring finger. Calvin believes that is when his son's abuse of pain pills began.
Melissa Coffey met Braswell in 1997 at the dry cleaners where she worked. Braswell’s ex-girlfriend also worked there. He came in one day and asked her whether Coffey, then only 19, was dating anyone.
The two began a two-and-a-half-year romance, resulting in the birth of Cody, now 13.
Around 2000, Braswell began to feel shooting pains in his back from the accumulated rigors of wrestling and heavy lifting at his jobs at Clark Tire and Alray Tire centers. Doctors would prescribe the pills, and Braswell would feel no pain. But the pills also played a part in breakup of his relationship with Coffey because she tired of his pill binges.
“I loved his personality,” Coffey said. “He was outgoing, real easy to get along with. Drugs were one of the reasons we split up. When he was working, he was doing real good.
“A big piece of my heart is gone (now), even though we didn’t see eye to eye.”
Eventually he began stealing pills from his mother, Linda Philyaw. Philyaw knew but never hid her pills.
The story of Braswell's spiral down sounds familiar to Sara McEwen, executive director of the Governor's Institute on Substance Abuse.
“Substance abuse is an equal opportunity destroyer of lives, and prescription drug misuse and its fallout is rampant in North Carolina, especially in rural areas. Prescription drugs are too readily available, with the result that patients being treated for chronic pain conditions may start to use these drugs other than as prescribed, often with disastrous outcomes. Others get into trouble with prescription drugs that are prescribed for a family member or friend," she said.
“There are effective treatment options for people like Jason, but they are, sadly, under-utilized.”
Braswell, who lived in Drexel, had full custody of Cody. Then, in 2009, according to his father, he went on a pill binge. Coffey obtained emergency custody of Cody, enrolling him at Gamewell Elementary School. Braswell then came to the school and took Cody back to Drexel to spend time with him. As a result, he was charged with child abduction and found guilty. He never served time but was put on probation. He was still on probation at the time of his death.
In February 2011, Jennifer Watson sat looking through Facebook, friending people from Hibriten High School she remembered. Braswell received a friend request from Watson. He messaged her the day after Valentine’s Day.
“He gave me his cellphone number and told me to call him sometime,” she recalled. “So I took a chance and called him. “
Over the next few days they would talk on the phone for hours at a time. They talked about things they both enjoyed: camping, shooting pool, movies, music. They went on their first date on Feb. 25, to Pancho Villa in Granite Falls. They went to Dick’s Sporting Goods in Hickory. It was there where she began to fall for Braswell.
“To be honest, I don't think I have ever been made to laugh as hard as I did when he decided to try and tackle a standing punching bag in the middle of the store,” she said.
It was a whirlwind courtship. They went to the movies. They watched NASCAR every weekend. He would pull for Kyle Busch, she Tony Stewart.
They shot pool together at City Billiards.
“There would be times he would let me win because he would win all the time, even though he would say I won fair and square,” Watson recalled. “There would be shots that he would make that I could never learn to make, even though he tried to teach me. Then if I made a good shot he would always say, ‘Nice shot, baby!’”
They saw each other almost every day. They talked about getting married in early 2013. With his new love and steady work, Braswell was hopeful for the future.
In early January, Braswell again hurt his back at Alray Tire, Coffey said. She thinks that set him on his final downward spiral. Two weeks later, on Jan. 16, Oxycontin tablets and gold jewelry were taken from Philyaw’s home in Cajah’s Mountain, where Braswell had been staying temporarily. The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office accused Braswell. He was booked into the Caldwell County Detention Center.
On Jan. 19, Braswell was found unconscious in his cell, slumped from a bedsheet tied around his neck. He was flown to Carolinas Medical Center, where he died 15 days later after being removed from life support.
Braswell was 33.
His family is left to wonder what might have been, if not for the pills. He will never get in the ring with the big boys in the WWE. His cars, boats and house are gone.
“I just regret I couldn’t get him off those pills,” Calvin said. “He wasn’t a drinker or anything. But over time he just lost it all. He was spending his money on his pills instead of his bills.”
“We had talked about doing so much together, but never got the chance,” Watson said. “I love and miss him every day, and only Jason knows how much that is.”
Deep in rural Caldwell County, off Playmore Beach Road, sits Abundant Life Tabernacle. It is where several of the Braswell clan, including one of Calvin Braswell’s sisters, Betty Sue Braswell, lay buried. The day of his funeral, Feb. 9, was a crisp but sunny afternoon. Workers could be seen about 100 yards behind the church near a tree line, digging a fresh grave for Jason. Inside the sanctuary, about 50 family members and friends had gathered. Some filed toward his open casket to pay their last respects. Braswell’s striped shirt was neatly pressed. Beside him was a Duke University ball cap and a photo of Cody. Family members would say how much he appeared to be at peace.
Watson, in a later interview, talked about the future they had planned. She also hoped Jason knew how much she cherished the time they had together.
“We had talked about doing so much together but never got the chance,” she said. “I love and miss him every day, and only Jason knows how much that is. Thank you, Jason, for all the great memories I have with you in them. You made me grow in ways that I doubt I could have without you. I will always love and miss you, Babycakes.”
During the short service, a few choice songs were played, including one from country singer Brad Paisley:
“When I get to where I’m going, there will be only happy tears. Yeah, when I get to where I’m going, don’t cry for me down here.”