Last week, I went down a rabbit hole in pursuit of a story: the proliferation of prank texts that appear to provide breaking news links on the COVID-19 pandemic, only to open up to a photo of a beefy, naked Black man with a massive penis. I set out to find the well-endowed man to talk to him about his cult status during this time of crisis, only to find out he was a guy named Wood who had died several years ago.
Emails, DMs, and endless memes poured in from people who had read the story and wanted to know more about the now-fabled Wood. A few even asked about donating to Wood's family. Like many of them, I felt unsatisfied with the story; it just didn't feel like a closed case.
All I really knew about this man was that he had done a jerk-off video at some point in his life, and that he had died. It seemed unfair to tie a bow on a person's legacy based on just two things from his years on earth. I'd hate to think that one day, when I'm gone, the only thing people might know about me is that I once fell on a cactus while drunk off Bud Light. So I set off to find out even more about who he was as a person beyond his large penis and meme infamy, and I did. This is the untold story of Wood, or, rather, Wardy Joubert III.
After days of Googling and following leads that went nowhere, I got a break. An email came in with the subject line "The guy in the photo prank." It was from someone who claimed to have known Wood, aka Wardy. He shared his real name, his Facebook page, and the GoFundMe page set up by his girlfriend to help his family pay for his funeral. The comments on the GoFundMe page—which raised $10,555 for his funeral services—were sweet and funny, painting the picture of a big lug beloved by many. People mentioned his bear hugs and infectious laugh, and promised to keep unauthorized bottles and beverage containers out of the Foundry, the San Francisco event space he worked at as a bouncer, in his honor. Armed with this new wealth of information, I was able to find more about Wardy online, and to connect with his loved ones.
Wardy Joubert III was born on August 30, 1971 in San Francisco. His stepmother, Karen Joubert, came into Wardy's life when he was a scrawny 14-year-old, after she started dating his widowed father (Wardy's mom, Vera, died from Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was 11). Though it would be easy to assume that the nickname Wood was rooted in sexual innuendo, his stepmom told me that Wardy got that moniker as a kid playing baseball. When that lanky kid hit puberty, he bulked up seemingly overnight, and used his stout frame and athletic ability to become a semi-pro football player, playing in arena football leagues after high school.
"He would be like, 'Pitbull, my dream is to suit up just one more time and go on that field. I don't care if I blew out my knees for the rest of my life. I just want to suit up one more time,'" his former girlfriend, Heather Alegria (whom he affectionately called Pitbull), told me over the phone.
He was able to use his love of the game to work with a special football camp that does youth outreach and training. Wardy was a father of two, and a deacon at the St. Paul Tabernacle Baptist Church, always offering to pray for others, evangelizing on the street, and doing outreach work with his pastor. His friends and family say that he would regularly provide food for the homeless and was quick to help someone in need; his Herculean figure and warm personality made him a staple in his community. (Countless comments on social media posts I've read mentioned his smile, his sense of humor, and how he made everyone feel like a friend.)
"He walked down the street and he was like the fucking mayor," said Alegria.
Wardy was a huge San Francisco Giants fan, enjoyed rocking a G-string from time to time, and could imitate people's voices to a T.
When Wood became the unwitting star of thousands upon thousands of these bait-and-switch prank texts, it wasn't news to Alegria, or even to Joubert, that nude photos of their beloved Wardy are floating around on the internet. The image has been making the rounds on 4chan and Reddit since 2012, per Know Your Meme. They've been haunted by that particular image for years, even before Wardy's death. They just hadn't realized that it had resurged once again tied to coronavirus.
Heather first found out about Wardy's porn career when an acquaintance came over to their then-shared home in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood and saw a photo of the couple. When the acquaintance asked if that was her boyfriend, Alegria told her it was.
"And she goes, 'That's not your guy. That's a meme,'" Alegria, who dated Wardy for three years, recalled.
The acquaintance pulled up the now-infamous photo—the very same one currently being widely circulated in those fake coronavirus alerts—leaving Alegria stunned, but also amused. "That's how I found out about the photograph originally, and how I even found out about the lifestyle that Wardy was into previously," she said. As for that massive… endowment shared widely in the prank? Despite some evidence and internet claims that his penis is heavily Photoshopped, Alegria assured it's only slightly altered. "That was one thing he was proud of! That's all him," she said.
"I started to learn a lot more about Wardy after that photograph. It didn't tarnish any of our relationship," said Alegria. "It actually made us learn a lot more about each other and be a lot more open. He found that I was not a judgmental person... I never wanted him to feel ashamed. I never wanted him to feel in trouble."
Wardy's lifestyle at the time included hanging out at sex clubs and parties in San Francisco, where he was a "bull," a dom who would have consensual sex with women in front of their partners, cuckolding the men. It was at one of these parties that someone approached Wardy about doing pornographic videos to make extra cash. He was going through a contentious break-up at the time that, according to Alegria and his stepmom, put his house in Bernal Heights—the house passed down from his grandparents, to his mother, to him, and that he hoped to leave his two children someday—in jeopardy.
He confessed to all of this when Alegria confronted him—but she was understanding.
More than anything, with the recent resurfacing of the photo in the meme universe, Alegria worried about his family finding out about Wardy's side job. But as it turned out, Karen Joubert already knew.
"Prior to this, I had seen it years ago [when he was still alive]. One of my friends shared it [with me]. She had seen it and contacted me. She called me and said, 'Oh my god, you've got to look at this.' And I called him up about it. We talked about it because we were very close. We talked every day," Joubert told me over the phone.
Wardy was just 45 years old when he died of a heart attack on December 11, 2016. It was a shock. According to Alegria, Wardy was "healthy as a horse," shied away from drugs (though he had, at points, dabbled in steroids, she told me), only drank beer, and was a healthy eater. However, his heart had become enlarged, and "blew up on him," she explained.
That wouldn't be the only shock she got that day. When she arrived home from the hospital, she grabbed Wardy's phone so she could begin the painful endeavor of alerting his friends and family that he'd died. That's when she saw multiple text messages from different women, all wishing him good morning and wondering why he hadn't texted them back. "I had to call these women, and let them know that he had passed and that I would be setting up arrangements," she recalled. "Two of them were crying, very devastated. One of them wanted to argue with me over who was his real girlfriend and I was like, 'I don't think that matters at this point, ma'am.'"
She was well aware that her boyfriend kept some secrets. "Naturally you become your own journalist. I tried to find out more, but what I found out, a lot of it I already knew. I knew he had done gay porn, I knew that he went to sex clubs, I knew that he was seeing other women when he was saying he was on business trips," she said. She loved and accepted him anyway, and with him suddenly gone, the indiscretions didn't matter anymore. He wasn't perfect; but ultimately he was a good man.
"There's a lot of different things that he did that I would want people to know more about than just seeing this picture of his schlong hanging out," said Alegria. "I want people to know that one photo may have been a portion of his life, but, fuck, that man did so much good."
What's taken Wardy's family's concerns to another level is that companies have begun selling clothing with his image, including Barstool Sports and comedian Tom Segura. (Segura, however, reached out to Alegria because he intends on sending profits from the shirt to Wardy's family. Through his publicist, Segura told me, "You’re just bombarded with horrible news and then randomly you get these texts that just break it all up...I really just thought it was worth doing because he deserved it. He made me and all my friends laugh and I figure very few of the people using his image will share the profit especially since he passed.")
Wardy's family has yet to finish paying off his funeral expenses. "We had to pay for the extra big coffin for his extra big ass," joked Alegria. Although several years have passed since his death, they still owe roughly $1,500 for the memorial service, and haven't been able to afford a headstone for his grave. Joubert says whatever anyone gives would be "a blessing." A new GoFundMe page set up to assist with those costs is actively accepting donations.
Seeing the photos come back into her life has been "embarrassing," Joubert admitted. She and Alegria particularly worry about his children being sent a prank text or the memes. Joubert's sister alerted her last week to the photo's resurgence, and on the day we spoke Wardy's former pastor had also reached out to her about the photos, which had been sent to him by someone else. It's impossible to contain images on the internet, but that's what Joubert, a devout Christian, hopes for.
It would be blind or disingenuous of anyone who shares the photo to say that the fact that the 'surprise' is a large naked Black man isn't part of the joke, playing on stereotypes depicting Black men as a physical threat with outsized sexuality. Jokes about the size of Black men's dicks are pervasive in comedy, particularly from white women comedians, reinforcing these racist notions. In the midst of a global health crisis, people are understandably clinging to any opportunity for levity, even if that has, unfortunately, come at the expense of a man who sadly also happens to be dead. Wardy had a good sense of humor about himself and was a fun-loving jokester, both Joubert and Alegria told me.
"He seemed not thrilled with how it was being used then, but definitely proud of the photo," laughed Alegria. As for how he'd handle its prevalence now, it's just hard to know for sure, because he's gone.
When I took on this story, I didn't know how far into this man's life it would take me. Now, part of me feels guilt for having any part in making this prank text an even bigger story, further impacting his family's grief. I found myself trying to console them as they cried, anguished, and laughed through their memories of Wardy. The best way I could do right by them all was to tell his story and, just as importantly, theirs. He was clearly someone of rich and multifaceted character. And while those photos and videos didn't end up saving his beloved family home, they are an essential part of his legacy.
Even so, Joubert wishes it could all go away. "I'd like for it to be taken down and not spread any more. I would like for a formal apology. Let him rest in peace. He had no say at all," she said.
Alegria, on the other hand, admits that Wardy's pornographic videos have brought her solace. "I've pulled them up myself! I know definitely when he first passed I might have been contributing to some of the hits on those pages. That was my guy," she said. "I'm not sure if that's sweet or weird. Maybe I'm a weirdo, but I miss the man.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Wardy Joubert played briefly for the New Orleans Saints. According to his stepmom and former wife, Joubert never played football professionally. We regret the error.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. You can follow her on Twitter.