Ranking the Greatest Pro Football Players Turned Pro Wrestlers
It's Sunday, which is a national holiday of sorts to millions of Americans. This doesn't involve many going to church, but the stadiums of their local football teams does act as a sort of cathedral for our country's obsession with pro football. Televisions are stuck on games throughout the day, millions of dollars are wagered on the results of games and tons of social media updates surround the topic of team loyalty or a player on a fantasy football team.
With the craze that football has over Americans and the barbaric dangers that the sport can have, it is pretty unusual to see the ties between football and professional wrestling. Major wrestling events have included football players in the past and been held in football stadiums. Ties between the two entities are made constantly as football often can feel like a storybook script, while wrestling literally is. A few weeks ago, controversy in football was compared to a wrestling storyline. It also isn't much of a stretch to see Vince McMahon portrayed as a similar authority figure to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
It's no wonder that football players have been seen at wrestling events and some ex-football players have attempted to join WWE as performers. A football player seems like an ideal type of talent that WWE would be looking to sign as football players deal with a very dangerous sport that involves a lot of charisma, as well as finesse and strength. In the old days of football, some players would wrestle during the off-season for extra money.
As we attempt to combine the most dangerous sport in America today with the dangers of sports entertainment (refrain from the XFL jokes, please), here are ten former pro football players that have all made it in pro wrestling.
Ahmed Johnson spent four years in WWE with a load of potential, but a lack of sustained success. This all came for Johnson after a stint of playing football for the University of Tennessee and briefly was a member of the Dallas Cowboys as a linebacker. As quickly as it happened, Johnson was out of football and starting his pro wrestling career.
Johnson would become the first-ever African-American Intercontinental Champion in WWE history, but didn't rise above that level. His inability to show personality and carry a feud ultimately did Johnson in. He still had a longer and more successful career in the squared circle than he ever did on the gridiron.
He was known as The Alpha Male in the ring, but Monty Brown got himself noticed as a great linebacker from little-known Ferris State in Michigan. His performance got enough notice that he ended up signing with the Buffalo Bills and played in Super Bowl XXVIII for Buffalo in 1994. Two years later, Brown signed as a restricted free agent with the New England Patriots and became a starter rather quickly. After ankle injuries took him off the field, Brown hung up his cleats and perused a pro wrestling career.
Monty Brown would be seen in TNA and get a few chances at a world championship, but never found a way to win the big one or any title for that matter. Brown seemed to do enough to get noticed by WWE. In late 2006, Brown signed with WWE and would debut under the name Marcus Cor Von, keeping the "Alpha Male" gimmick. The biggest thing Brown would do as Cor Von in WWE was stay in the ECW brand and join The New Breed, along with Elijah Burke, Kevin Thorn and Matt Striker.
The Loose Cannon himself used to be a football player, believe it or not. Brian Pillman was only 5'10" and 228 pounds, but he played in college as a linebacker for Miami University (Ohio), where he would shatter records in the tackles for loss category. Pillman did not get drafted to the NFL, but ended up signing on with the local Cincinnati Bengals. Pillman would also travel to Canada and play in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders.
This is ironically the perfect lead-in for Pillman joining the Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling in 1986. This would ultimately get Pillman involved with the NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions, which evolved into WCW. Pillman was a two-time Cruiserweight Champion and held both the WCW and NWA tag team titles with Steve Austin, who was only "Stunning" in the years before he became "Stone Cold". He grew to have an unusual legacy as the talent exchange with ECW saw Pillman let out a new side of his personality. He became very controversial and developed the nickname of "The Loose Cannon".
For a nice bit of WWE history, Pillman was the first superstar to ever sign a guaranteed contract with Vince McMahon and WWE in June 1996, which was done in fear of the company losing talent to WCW, who gave out guaranteed deals to many top stars that jumped ship from WWE.
Before dominating WCW and being known as one of the defining superstars of the late 1990s, Bill Goldberg was a defensive tackle at the University of Georgia and was drafted in the 11th round of the 1990 NFL Draft. Goldberg played for the Los Angeles Rams in 1990 and notably was on the Atlanta Falcons from 1992 to 1994. After being cut from the Falcons, Goldberg was drafted by the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995, but never played a down for Carolina. With injury issues, Goldberg never returned to the NFL even after getting himself healthy.
Any wrestling fan can tell you the rest of this story. In 1997, Goldberg enlisted in the WCW Power Plant and soon began one of the most prolific undefeated streaks in wrestling history. Two world championships, one of which came in WWE, and two United States Championship reigns later, Goldberg is remembered as one of the more popular yet critiqued superstars in recent memory.
The Narcissist himself was once just a standout football player who began his collegiate career at Penn State before transferring to the University of Miami. After college, Luger would play in the Canadian Football League before being signed by the Green Bay Packers. Luger never played a down in the NFL, but was on their injured reserve list and attended training camp in 1983. Luger would also move to the USFL, playing for three different teams in the now-defunct league.
With a bodybuilder physique and his football career over, Luger began a professional wrestling career. Luger started in an NWA territory in Florida before joining WCW in 1987 and using the nickname "The Total Package". Luger would leave WCW to join Vince McMahon's World Bodybuilding Federation. After a motorcycle accident and the WBF going out of business, Luger popped up in WWE as The Narcissist before altering his gimmick to a patriotic and All-American persona.
By 1995, Luger moved back to WCW until the company folded in 2001. Luger would ultimately be a five-time United States Champion, a two-time WCW Champion and a co-winner of the 1994 Royal Rumble.
There doesn't need to be much explanation for what Lawrence Taylor did on the football field. Taylor was in the Pro Bowl 10 times, won two Super Bowls, the NFL MVP in 1986 and won multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards. From 1981-1993, Taylor had over 1,000 tackles and 142 sacks, which is more impressive when you factor in that sacks were not seen as an official stat until a few seasons into LT's career.
The football aspect of Taylor's career is defined, so his place in the main event of WrestleMania XI, becoming the first non-wrestler to compete in the final match of a WrestleMania since Mr. T in the original WrestleMania a decade earlier. Taylor had an altercation with Bam Bam Bigelow at the Royal Rumble in 1995, which would lead to their WrestleMania match. Taylor, much like any celebrity who has wrestled at WrestleMania, won in his wrestling debut. The match really did a lot for mainstream media with WWE and it only got bigger from there. WrestleMania is as big of a deal as it is today, in part, because of Lawrence Taylor.
Most people may not even know who Leo Nomellini is. Football addicts know him as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he did have a nice career as Leo "The Lion" Nomellini. When he wasn't wrestling, Nomellini was playing football at a very high level. A two-time All-American at the University of Minnesota, Nomellini was a first round draft pick in the 1950 NFL Draft. Drafted 11th overall, Nomellini was the first-ever draft pick in San Francisco 49ers history.
Nomellini never missed a game in his 14-year career, playing in 174 regular season games. Nomellini was a 10-time Pro Bowler and a nine-time All-Pro, playing both defensive and offensive tackles. Nomellini was also a member of the NFL All-Decade Team for the 1950s and his number 73 has been retired by the 49ers.
As for pro wrestling, Nomellini was great in the tag team ranks, winning eight tag team titles in his career, including one reign with the AWA World Tag Team Championships. Among his tag team partners during these reigns are legendary AWA promoter Verne Gagne.
Ed "Wahoo" McDaniel
WWE Hall of Famer Wahoo McDaniel was originally a top linebacker in the AFL. After playing for the Houston Oilers in 1960 and spending 1961-1963 with the Denver Broncos, he was traded to the New York Jets and became a big part of their defense. McDaniel was a top name selected by the Miami Dolphins in 1966 during their expansion draft. In 1968, McDaniel got into a fight with two police officers, leading to a trade to the San Diego Chargers in the middle of the season. McDaniel never played a down for the Chargers, changing his focus to pro wrestling instead.
McDaniel did the typical thing of the time by wrestling in the off-season due to football contracts not paying much. During his career, McDaniel wrestled for Dory Funk while in Houston and Vince McMahon Sr. while playing for the Jets. Following his career, McDaniel wrestled full-time until returning to Houston and nearly taking Dory Funk Jr,'s NWA Heavyweight Championship.
McDaniel would go to AWA and eventually make it to Jim Crockett Promotions, where he would enter into a legendary feud with Ric Flair. McDaniel would win countless championships in NWA and hold their United States Championship five times, a record in the title's history. That title is the original incarnation of WWE's United States Championship seen today.
McDaniel would use the name Wahoo and wear a traditional Indian headdress to pay tribute to his heritage in the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.
Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd
Ernie Ladd was among the greatest men in San Diego Chargers history, as well as being a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. It isn't too often that this can be said. Ladd was a standout coming out from college at Grambling State and was signed quickly to the American Football League. Ladd was an instrumental part of the AFL success the Chargers had, leading them to a championship in 1963. Ladd was named an All-Pro in the AFL three times and was an all-star four times.
Ladd began wrestling as a publicity stunt during the off-season of football, but grew to love wrestling and ultimately cut his football career short in favor of a full-time career in pro wrestling. Ladd was the first major African-American heel in mainstream pro wrestling, using his sheer size and mean demeanor to stand away from the pack. He wasn't just all muscles; Ernie Ladd could excite a crowd like few before him and few since have.
At 6'9" and 315 pounds, Ladd was considered one of the biggest men of his era in both pro wrestling and football. Ladd had some very surprising measurements, including a 52-inch chest, 39-inch waist, 20-inch biceps, 19-inch neck and size 18D shoes.
This is such an easy choice for the top person on this list that it almost is humorous that there was any doubt. Nagurski is the only man to my knowledge to be both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as being a former world champion in pro wrestling. Nargurski was a monster of a man, which made him the perfect specimen to get into the rung during the offseason. Nagurski played for the Chicago Bears from 1930 to 1937.
Nagurski was so versatile on a football field that he could play both offense and defense, as well as become a lineman when he was no longer able to be a skill player. Nagurski is still the only player in NFL history to become an All-Pro at three positions that did not include kicking.
Nagurski was recognized as one of the toughest football players, so he was naturally seen in the same light while in the wrestling ring. His celebrity as a football player made him a hot ticket item in the wrestling ring. It is among the reasons that he was crowned an NWA world champion in his career.