While more and more young people are growing up with aspirations of becoming a professional wrestler and training for a career in the industry from an early age, many of the industry’s biggest stars are still former football players who couldn’t carve out a career in the National Football League; in fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say at least 50 percent of the WWE’s roster, at one time or another, played football. That list includes the likes of Titus O’Neil, among others, but we won’t include him on this list as they’re in the middle of the pack – neither thriving or failing in terms of in-ring ability. This list includes set of names both thrived and failed following a football career.
There have been several others whose transition from college – and professional – football to the ring hasn’t been so smooth. But let us explain the criteria of this list before we go any further. When we say fail, we’re speaking in relative terms. Obviously, any wrestler who made it to either WWE, WCW, or another mid-level promotion isn’t a failure, but he is in regard to the others on this list. We could list former college players who quit wrestling after booking a few shows for low-level independent promotions, but you don’t care or know about those people. How would you assess the wrestling careers of these 15 former football players?
15. Thrived: Baron Corbin
Depending on how you view Baron Corbin, he could have fallen into either category on this list. Some might say he’s been pushed without merit during his stint with the WWE, while others might argue he’s been made to look too weak far too often. Regardless, he is a Money in the Bank winner, United States Champion, and was recently ranked by Pro Wrestling Illustrated as the 49th best wrestler in the world – that’s elite company.
Before becoming the ripped WWE Superstar he is today, Corbin, whose real name is Tom Pestock, was a member of the practice squad with both the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals. He played his collegiate football as an offensive guard with Northwest Missouri State University, which played in NCAA Division-II. So needless to say, he’s already doing much better in wrestling than he did in football.
14. Failed: Tino Sabbatelli
The jury is still out on this one but we’re going to hedge our bets on Tino Sabbatelli being a failure, at least relatively speaking. The former safety played four seasons with Oregon State University and was subsequently drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft. However, he lasted only through parts of five seasons in the NFL, while recording five interceptions. Those aren’t bad numbers, and it’s clear his football career is going to hold up better than his professional wrestling career.
He was signed to a developmental contract with WWE in 2014, but didn’t make his televised debut until two years later in an NXT taping. The 34 year old only had has first televised singles match this past September and doesn’t appear to be gaining any traction with the company.
13. Thrived: Brock Lesnar
Some might make the case that Brock Lesnar is simply a slightly better Bill Goldberg, but that’s definitely an insult to The Beast. The current WWE Universal Champion has competed in his fair share of short matches, but he is more than capable of putting on a tremendous match with whomever it is he is paired. Beyond that, the four-time WWE Champion doesn’t mind taking bumps as evidenced by being crushed by an announce table at this past SummerSlam – and who could forget his shooting star press?
Lesnar has accomplished just about everything there is to achieve both in professional wrestling and even in MMA, but the same can’t be said about football. An alumnus of the University of Minnesota, Lesnar took a hiatus from the WWE in 2004 to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. He was signed by the Minnesota Vikings as a defensive tackle, but was released just prior to the start of the regular season.
12. Failed: Mojo Rawley
Sure, he won the most recent Andre “The Giant” Memorial Battle Royal, but you could make the case that was only because of his friendship with New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who appeared at WrestleMania and, in turn, gave the WWE some much-needed press for the event. Beyond that, Rawley has had limited success in the WWE and is one-half of the most annoying tag team in the company. The sad truth, however, is that without the Hype Bros, Rawley would easily be expendable.
The 31 year old of Alexandra, Virginia played Division-III football with Christopher Newport University, which is apparently a real school. However, he impressed enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Maryland and eventually became a practice squad member with both the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers. He joined NXT in 2012 but has ultimately been directionless in his five years with the company.
11. Thrived: Dusty Rhodes
A lesser known but significant entry, long before he was “The American Dream,” Dusty Rhodes played both baseball and football at West Texas State, which is now West Texas A&M University. He also tried out for the Boston Patriots of the American Football League. It wasn’t until 1967 when he began toying with the notion of pursuing a career in professional wrestling. While his football career was a failure, it doesn’t take a wrestling industry expert to state he was one of the most popular wrestlers of his era – and perhaps of all-time.
He began his career with Big Time Wrestling and eventually worked prominently with both the WWWF and Jim Crockett Promotions. The WWE Hall of Famer earned multiple accolades and won a host of championships throughout his career; he was a three-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion and three-time NWA World Television Champion. He passed away in 2015 due to a kidney failure.
10. Failed: Monty Brown
Despite being named Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Rookie of the Year in 2004, Monty Brown never earned much success during his brief professional wrestling career. The native of Saginaw, Michigan debuted in TNA back in 2002 and by 2004 was defeating the likes of Kevin Nash and Diamond Dallas Page to earn NWA World Heavyweight Championship opportunities; however, he was unable to win the big prize during his time with TNA.
Brown was signed by the WWE in 2006 and competed briefly with its ECW brand as “The Alpha Male” Marcus Cor Von. He was released after only a few months and subsequently announced his retirement, despite being only 37 years old. Perhaps wrestling was never really his passion as he previously played four seasons in the NFL following an impressive collegiate career with Ferris State University.
9. Thrived: “Superstar” Billy Graham
One of the biggest stars of his era, “Superstar” Bill Graham was the hero of several of the elder statesmen modern-day professional wrestling stars. He had the look of a champion and the promo skills to make him one of the most successful wrestler during the 1970s and 80s. However, well before then, Eldridge Coleman (his real name) played football for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League until an Achilles tendon tear caused him to retire and pursue wrestling.
Like many of the greats of his era, he was trained by Stu Hart and competed with Stampede Wrestling at the start of his career. He later joined AWA, but is best known for his three stints with the WWE during the 1980s, during which time he won the WWWF Heavyweight Championship. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.
8. Failed: Steve McMichael
Steve McMichael benefitted from name recognition in building his wrestling career. Unlike others on this list who had to develop their skills on the independent circuit or train for years before earning a big break, McMichael was pushed right into the limelight as part of WWE’s WrestleMania X match between Lawrence Taylor and Bam Bam Bigelow. Prior to that, he was a two-time NFL Pro-Bowl defensive tackle who won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears.
Months after he showed up at WrestleMania, McMichael was hired to work as a color commentator by WCW and, the following year, began competing in the ring as a member of the Four Horsemen. He lasted three years with the company and was a United States Heavyweight Champion, but most feel his push was extremely undeserved, especially as there were others far more talented and entertaining than McMichael.
7. Thrived: Bill Goldberg
Who’s next? Oh, it’s Bill Goldberg, who, well before he was mowing down opponents in WCW on his way to an unprecedented win streak, was a defensive tackle with the University of Georgia Bulldogs. He was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1990 NFL Draft and played briefly with the team before joining the Atlanta Falcons in 1992. He didn’t really have any professional wrestling aspirations, but was noticed by WCW talent Lex Luger and Sting, who urged him to give it a shot given his impressive physique.
It didn’t take long until Goldberg was a star and the face of WCW. He debuted on an episode of Nitro in 1997 and started a 173-match win streak that was eventually ended by Kevin Nash at Starrcade. He’s a one-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion, one-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion, and one-time WWE Universal Champion. Regardless of how you feel about his in-ring capabilities, as limited as they are, you can’t deny the impact he had on the industry.
6. Failed: Droz
Unfortunately, Droz finds himself in the failed section of this list due to no fault of his own. He was a quarterback in high school, but was recruited as a defensive tackle with the University of Maryland and eventually played three seasons in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, and New York Jets – he gained the nickname Puke, which was later utilized in his brief wrestling career, by vomiting during a Monday Night Football broadcast.
At the end of his football career, he began competing on the independent wrestling circuit and eventually appeared briefly in ECW in 1997. He made his WWE debut in 1998 and was placed in a program with the Legion of Doom in which he replaced Road Warrior Hawk. He suffered a career-ending neck injury from a D’Lo Brown powerbomb in 1999.
5. Thrived: Roman Reigns
Yup, believe that, Roman Reigns has turned into a success story and if you need proof, his recent return solidified his draw value as the ratings for Raw went up. Say what you want about the Big Dog but one thing’s for sure, you can’t question his commitment and noticeable improvements, the guy is quietly becoming “the guy” but for real.
Prior to his WWE days, Roman was all about that football life. He was considered a huge prospect out of Georgia Tech, but was disappointed going undrafted. After joining camps with the Vikings and Jaguars, Reigns took his talent to Canada joining the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos. Again, his run in the league was short-lived and he’d transition into wrestling shortly after. Good decision Roman….
4. Failed: Steve Williams
Although his success in North America was limited (he was still a four-time WCW/NWA World Tag Team Champion), “Dr. Death” Steve Williams is regarded as one of the best workers of all-time and has the accolades to back it up. In 1991, he was ranked as the eighth best wrestler in the world by Pro Wrestling Illustrated and he earned Match of the Year accolades in 1996 from Wrestling Observer Newsletter for his tag match with Johnny Ace against Jun Akiyama and Mitsuharu Misawa. Most of his success came in Japan, where he was a former AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion and eight-time World Tag Team Champion. Although all those accomplishments were noteworthy, his WWE stock plummeted during the Brawl For All tournament, turning the wrestler into a complete bust. He would never recover.
He was an All-American right guard with the University of Oklahoma, but was also an accomplished amateur wrestler, which led to his desire to pursue a career in professional wrestling, despite the fact he was drafted by the Donald Trump-owned New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.
3. Thrived: Enzo Amore
Again, this one is subjective as you can make the case that Enzo Amore is one of the worst, though you cannot deny his ability as a top draws in the WWE right now – OK, that’s a stretch, but he’s at least keeping the Cruiserweight Division relevant, which others have tried and failed to do. But he’s doing that with his ability on the microphone, which, in this author’s opinion, is overrated to begin with, but that’s a different story. Regardless, if it weren’t for his promo-cutting abilities, Amore is a draw and surely, the best thing going for 205 Live.
Believe it or not, the New Jersey native was once an aspiring football player. While he might not have the hulking build as others previously mentioned, he played the more athletic safety position with Division-II Salisbury University from 2007 to 2009.
2. Failed: Gene Snitsky
Gene Snitsky is regarded as one of the worst wrestlers to recently compete in the WWE and his 2.53 rating (out of 10) in Cage Match is a testament to that. The 6-foot-8, 307-pound athlete was signed by the WWE to a developmental contract in 2004 and shortly after debuted to feud with Kane during the program in which Lita was (kayfabe) pregnant with Kane’s baby. Snitsky ultimately caused Lita to miscarry the baby, which was undeniably the most memorable thing he did in the WWE.
Prior to joining the WWE, Snitsky played college football with the University of Missouri. He didn’t attract the attention of the NFL, but was part of the pre-season roster of the Canadian Football League’s Birmingham Barracudas during the league’s failed expansion efforts into the United States.
1. Thrived: The Rock
As if there was every any doubt. “The People’s Champion” entered the wrestling industry following a successful career as a defensive end at the University of Miami and a brief stint in the Canadian Football League, where he played for the Calgary Stampeders. Despite his football background, a career in professional wrestling always seemed to be in the cards for Dwayne Johnson, as both his father and grandfather were accomplished wrestlers.
However, it wasn’t an easy transition. As Rocky Miavia, Johnson won the Intercontinental Championship, but was unpopular among fans and botched several spots in prominent matches. He ultimately turned his career around by joining the Nation of Domination and later developing The Rock gimmick. He’s now a 10-time World Champion, five-time Tag Team Champion, and the star of every single movie that has ever been released since 2010.
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