Examining the Connection Between College Football and Pro Wrestling

David Bixenspan@davidbixFeatured ColumnistDecember 3, 2013

The Rock as a Miami Hurricane.
The Rock as a Miami Hurricane.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Yesterday, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football player Gunner Miller got a lot of attention after telling the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he has arranged a tryout at the WWE Performance Center.

WWE Hall of Fame inductee Gerald Brisco, who does most of the scouting of college athletes for WWE, has been in contact with him for a while and they have scheduled the tryout for June. It was originally set for this month until he suffered a "stinger" (pinched spinal nerve).

The performance center itself plays into WWE's current recruiting strategy for college athletes.

Until this year, WWE's developmental programs operated out of smaller wrestling schoolssome existing, some started when the trainer signed with WWEthat were paid as consultants by WWE.

Trying to recruit with a training center in a small warehouse lacking air conditioning was an issue, so the performance center was built as WWE's take on something like the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado.

Pro wrestling has a long, long history of recruiting football players both from the college ranks and all varieties of professional leagues.

While it's a lot different now, for decades, pro wrestling often paid a lot better than pro football. Some players would skip pro football to go directly to wrestling, some would flirt with pro wrestling in the offseason, while others made it their full-time careers.

One particular story (in the January 3, 2011 Wrestling Observer Newsletter; link works for F4WOnline.com subscribers only) from this period stands out. Hawaiian native "King" Curtis Iaukea was a standout at UC Berkley who had become a wrestling star at home before moving onto the pros.

After floating around in the CFL for a few years, he went to the Oakland Raiders' 1961 summer training camp to try to get signed. He got fed up with the extreme heat and started stripping off his helmet and pads. The coaches started screaming at him to stop.

Iaukea replied with a stern "F--- you!" He repeated himself when the coaches kept haranguing him. As a show of solidarity, Don Manoukian joined him in stripping and cursing out the coaches. Manoukian had been a star rookie the previous year as well as Iaukea's tag team partner in both Hawaii and California during the offseason.

They both quit, with Manoukian quipping, "I can make more money wearing nothing but my shorts."

The biggest pro wrestling star to come out of college football was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, whose stardom in pro wrestling was eclipsed by his move to acting in films. As a defensive lineman, he went to the University of Miami to play for coach Dennis Erickson's Hurricanes, who went on to win a national championship in 1991.

After suffering an injury, he was replaced by Warren Sapp. One of his other teammates was comedian and eventual Saturday Night Live cast member Finesse Mitchell.

Bronko Nagurski may be the biggest star if you factor in both football and pro wresting, as he's in basically every football and wrestling Hall of Fame except for WWE's.

In 1929 as a fullback, he was a consensus All-American at the University of Minnesota, having been at the top of the heap after rushing for 737 yards. He went on to a legendary career in the NFL, becoming a four-time All-Pro and three-time NFL champion with the Chicago bears.  

He parlayed his fame into a pro wrestling career, where he was probably the biggest star in the businesseven beating Lou Thesz, who often expressed disdain for those without "real" wrestling credentials, for the World Heavyweight Championship.

Other University of Minnesota players followed in Nagurski's lead over the years.

Not only did fellow College and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Leo Nomellini become a big pro wrestling star in both Minnesota and San Francisco, the school produced additional pro wrestling Hall of Fame-level stars.

Verne Gagne was named to the All-Conference team before moving to amateur wrestling and winning two NCAA Championships. After being selected as an alternate for the 1948 US Olympic Team, he was drafted to the NFL by the Chicago Bears.

Gagne was also doing pro wrestling to supplement his income, but the Bears weren't feeling it and forced him to make a choice—he chose pro wrestling.

He quickly became one of the earliest national stars built off the early years of television, which he parlayed into buying the Minnesota territory. Eventually renamed the AWA, the promotion expanded throughout the Midwest, becoming one of the biggest and most lucrative territories in the country for decades.

Unfortunately, having control of many major markets in the Midwest made him a big target when the WWF expanded nationally.

The AWA was raided of top stars like Hulk Hogan, announcers like Gene Okerlund and Rodger Kent, and even the TV production crew led by Gary DeRusha. The AWA died a slow death, only surviving for its last few years thanks to a TV deal with ESPN that ended in 1990.

While he wasn't the player the athletes above were, Ric Flair also played football for the University of Minnesota, where he was a teammate of Verne Gagne's son Greg, who also became a pro wrestler.

After dropping out of school, he went to Verne's pro wrestling training camp in a barn in the dead of winter in Minneapolis. Like many trainees, he quit due to the brutal conditions, but unlike them, he eventually came back.

I don't really need to tell you about his wrestling career. As you know, he's the consensus greatest all-around performer in wrestling history.

While the University of Minnesota produced a number of pro wrestling stars, no school is associated with the business more than West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M University). What other school would have a "professional wrestler" section on its website's notable alumni page?

The murderers' row of pro wrestling stars produced by the university's football team consists of:

  • Tully Blanchard: Son of wrestler and promoter Joe Blanchard, he's best-known as a member of the original lineup of the Four Horsemen in Jim Crockett Promotions. One of the best heels of his generation, he was a great natural worker and a strong promo.  

    As noted by Charlotte Magazine, his career was derailed while he was still in his prime in 1989 when he gave notice to the WWF, failed a drug test for cocaine and WCW refused to hire him.

  • Ted DiBiase (Sr.): Best-known as the Million Dollar Man, he's the rare second-generation wrestler who had both of his parents ("Iron" Mike DiBiase and Helen Hilde) wrestle.

    An incredibly gifted wrestler and interview, he was already an international star when hired by the WWF in 1987 for the Million Dollar Man gimmick. In addition to being an immediate main eventer, the role included five-star accommodations to help sell the gimmick. First-class airfare, limousines, a stash of $100 bills to pay cashiers with, etc.

  • Bobby Duncum: Incorrectly listed on the alumni page as Bobby Duncum Jr. (his son, who wrestled in the '90s before dying of a drug overdose), he was a major star all over the country in the 1970s.  

    Probably fairly underrated in terms of star power, as he's best-known as a main event star in the AWA and WWF, the two biggest territories of the era.

  • Manny Fernandez: Not to be confused with the other, older Manny Fernandez who played foorball, the "Raging Bull" was a fairly big star in the '80s best-known for his time in Jim Crockett Promotions, where he was a World Tag Team champion with both Dusty Rhodes and Rick Rude (as "Ragin' and Ravishin").

    A gifted performer who was held back by personality problems.

  • Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk: The sons of West Texas legend Dory Funk Sr., they're the only brothers to both hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Both are among the very best in-ring wrestlers of all time, though Terry was the standout, being more versatile, colorful and one of the 10 best talkers of all time.  

    They were huge stars in Japan as the first American wrestlers to be babyfaces on the "Japanese" side when most Americans were heels or occasionally attractions like Bruno Sammartino.
  • Frank Goodish: Got his big break in 1976 when, at the suggestion of Killer Kowalski, Vince McMahon Sr. brought him to the WWWF as Bruiser Brody, a challenger for Sammartino.

    After a clash with management, he became something of a nomad who moved from territory to territory as an attraction, often having semi-public disagreements with promoters over money.  Became a gigantic star in Japan, where he made most of his money, but was tragically killed in a Puerto Rican locker room right as he was starting a feud with...

  • Stan Hansen: One of the most popular Americans in the history of Japanese wrestling, his team with Brody was legendary, but was split up when Brody jumped from All Japan Pro Wrestling to New Japan Pro Wrestling.  

    Hansen's own jump to AJPW is one of the most famous moments in Japanese wrestling, having walked out of NJPW's tag team tournament to manage Brody and Jimmy Snuka in the finals of AJPW's. Was an elite performer well into his 40s.

  • Kelly Kiniski: Son of former NWA World Heavyweight champion Gene Kiniski, he was a natural in-ring wrestler who just never clicked personality-wise.

  • Virgil Runnels Jr.: Best-known as "The American Dream," Dusty Rhodes was likely the greatest talker in the history of pro wrestling. While he was never in the best cosmetic shape, he was actually a hell of an athlete with deceptive agility until he gained too much weight in the '80s.

  • Merced Solis: After a short time under his real name, he was dubbed Tito Santana of Tocula, Mexico, a misspelling of "Toluca" that stuck for years. An incredibly underrated performer best-known for his WWF run in the '80s, when he held both the Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships.  

    One of wrestling's true personal success stories, he saved his money, stopped wrestling full-time in 1993 and reinvented himself as a Spanish teacher and proprietor of a hair salon.

  • Robert Windham: A huge man who got his break as Blackjack Mulligan, a knockoff of AWA star Blackjack Lanza, who eventually became his tag team partner. He is best-known for his feuds with other giants like Andre the Giant as well as helping make Ric Flair a star in the Carolinas.

    Sons Barry and Kendall became pro wrestlers, with Barry being arguably the most naturally gifted performer of the last 30 years.

One funny note about West Texas State: Dick Murdoch, who never attended the school, was so entrenched among the players that he was effectively an honorary team member and eventually played in alumni games.

I could go on and on about football players in pro wrestling...

As far as current stars go, John Cenathe biggest star in the wrestling businesswas a Division III All-American at Massachusetts' Springfield College.  

Two of WWE's top tag team stars put in their time, with Roman Reigns playing for Georgia Tech under his real name of Leati "Joe" Anoa'i, while Thaddeus "Titus O'Neil" Bullard redshirted for Steve Spurrier's championship Florida Gators team in 1996 before lettering for the next four seasons.  

Even Colt Cabana played college football, seeing it as a path to his dream career as a pro wrestler. He played at Western Michigan University, where he was teammates with eventual WWE Tough Enough Season 3 co-winner Matt Cappotelli. 

Among '90s stars, Ron Simmons was one of Bobby Bowden's greatest players in the history of Florida State University, where his jersey is retired. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

Doug Furnas was a star running back for the Volunteers at the University of Tennessee in addition to setting world records in powerlifting while he was there.  

Brian Pillman was a two-time Second-Team All-American at Ohio's Miami University. And, of course, Super Bowl XX champion turned Four Horsemen member Steve McMichael was a consensus First-Team All-American playing for the Texas Longhorns.

While there have been fewer football players in pro wrestling as of late, WWE's recruiting efforts are likely to change that.

With the opening of the WWE Performance Center, Gerald Brisco's work as a recruiter and a burgeoning relationship with the NFL Players Association, more and more of the prospects who end up not being the best fits for pro football will end up trying WWE.

It's definitely a story we should all keep our eye on.

David Bixenspan has been Bleacher Report's WWE Team Leader and a contracted columnist since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @davidbix and check out his wrestling podcasts at LLTPod.com.


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