Inside a suffocatingly muggy gym in an industrial park in south Houston, Brennan Williams galloped across a wrestling ring, his dreadlocks flailing behind him. The frayed blue canvas thundered under him.
He rolled forward, a tattooed-colossus-turned-gymnast for an instant. Mid-roll, he teetered to one side, tipping over like a tree trunk brought down by a series of blows with an ax.
It didn't hurt. It was a slow, gradual fall. It's just not how the move is supposed to look.
Williams carries an offensive lineman's frame, but he is plenty agile for his size. Still, being 6'6" and as wide as a bookshelf can't make it easy to pull off something like this.
And this is all new for him. At this point, he's only been a wrestler-in-training for a few weeks. In his previous life, he was a right tackle in the NFL. Some skills from battling in the trenches translate, but as he told Bleacher Report after his training session, "I'm not doing flips on the football field."
He did the roll again. And again. Ad nauseam.
It was not yet perfect, but better.
This is the portion of the dream of becoming a WWE Superstar that is marked by monotony. It requires one to attempt a transition from a wristlock to a hammerlock under an exposed metal roof four, five, six times in a row. The process is tedious.
One doesn't just become a wrestler; one has to chisel away, one strike of the hammer at a time, to find the wrestler lying underneath the skin.
Williams believes he has found the ideal path to that process. He will learn the basics in Houston, try out for WWE and then become of one of the many prospects who populate the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida.
He has forged a track he hopes takes him from the gridiron to WWE.
There is no set formula to go from aspiring grappler to appearing on Raw each Monday. Superstars have arrived to the spotlight via cutting their teeth on the independent circuit, winning wrestling-centered reality shows or first succeeding on the football field.
The former Houston Texan's route begins under Booker T's tutelage.
The WWE Hall of Famer runs Reality of Wrestling, both an indy promotion based in Houston and a training school. When Booker isn't doing commentary on SmackDown, he returns to his hometown to oversee his own wrestling sub-universe.
That's where Williams resides now for five days a week, for hours at a time.
When Booker isn't around, his proteges provide the in-ring lessons. With Booker T in Europe with the traveling circus that is WWE, it is Australia native Rob Barnes, the one-time holder of the Reality of Wrestling Heavyweight Championship, who instructs Williams and a band of green, unsure recruits.
Barnes is a critical-but-supportive coach.
He offers a steady stream of advice. He told Williams, just like he told everyone else, how to make moves easier, such as where to point one's foot to better execute a roll. He treated Williams like every other student, demanding a lot but offering paths to improvement.
But before Barnes arrived to offer Williams that wisdom, the former offensive lineman was already in the gym, shaking the ropes with each bounding step.
He and another trainee darted across the ring, hopping over a duct-tape-covered heavy bag that acted as a stand-in opponent. The drill had him run up to the prone bag, lift it, slam it and, after bouncing off the ropes, hop down next to it.
Before diving into the exercise, Williams wondered aloud how many times he should do it. "Four sounds good. Four sounds respectable," he said.
In the midst of sprinting toward and bodyslamming this Everlast bag, Williams looked relaxed, at ease. A smile crawled across his face. After admiring wrestlers from afar, he is now getting to learn their craft firsthand.
And he loves it.
The ring is as much a playground as it is a training ground. "It's fun," he said in between drills, panting, "It's fun in a bad way."
On this night, fun included locking up with another trainee before Barnes began his more structured lessons.
In the collar-and-elbow tie-up, Williams swallowed up his sparring partner. He is taller than every recruit in the gym. He carries a width that until recently helped him fill gaps across the offensive line.
That size forces him to adjust how he wrestles. "I have to learn things differently because of how big I am," he explained.
When a line of students practiced an up-and-under move where one wrestler leaped up in the corner while another rushed in under him, he had to develop his own approach. The average-sized grappler would struggle to get underneath him. And so Williams has learned to springboard off the bottom rope to get himself added height.
In the course of leaping and ducking and repeating, one of his dreadlocks fell off.
The stray hair stayed on the canvas for just a moment, though. Williams bent down and placed the dread in the corner as Jake Roberts would his snake-filled bag or The Miz his sunglasses. There was already a larger-than-life quality to Williams in that instant. He looked the part of a wrestler beyond his girth.
But he is a long way away from trading the fluorescent lights beating down on him just then for the spotlight that illuminates the WWE stage.
One Dream for Another
Williams wore a total of three NFL uniforms: that of the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots. But the length of each stint shrank each time.
In 2013, Houston drafted the long, tenacious right tackle out of North Carolina in the third round.
His pro wrestling fandom was no secret at that point.
Then still a Tar Heel, Williams appeared on video doing an impression of Bonesaw, the pro wrestler (played by Randy Savage) in Spider-Man. In a post-draft interview, he talked about what he would dub his finishing move and what entrance music would welcome him to the ring:
Williams couldn't have known how quickly he would be putting football aside for the squared circle.
Injuries made it hard to gain momentum, hard to prove himself. He was the speeding train that kept slipping off the track.
He was hurt before training camp. In the preseason, he suffered a microfracture in his right knee. Surgery cost him his rookie season.
ESPN's Tania Ganguli often shared bad news regarding his health:
The Texans cut him in July 2014.
Jacksonville picked him up in February but released him six months later. His stay with the Patriots was even more brief. He went in, took a physical, and showed off his skills during a practice. The team told him afterward it wanted to move on without him.
By that point, he had already decided to pursue wrestling. When the Patriots called, he had an apartment set up in Houston; he had contacted Booker T and was ready to transition. Still, he thought he'd see how things played out in New England.
"I felt like the Patriots were kind of my last chance," he said.
He had an in with the team as he had worked with Tom Brady's trainer. It also didn't hurt that his father, Brent, had played for New England. He explained that the Pats understood his situation.
When they passed on him, though, he knew it was time to leave the fringe of the NFL. "I had gotten as much as I could out of football," he said.
There was no mourning period. Williams simply closed one book and opened another. He aimed his trajectory at WWE. As he sees it, he is fortunate to have a second passion to turn to.
It was now clear how different his arc would be compared to his father's. Brent Williams played defensive lineman for just over a decade. Brennan played on the other side of the ball but now plays in a different world altogether.
His father has been fully supportive of his new endeavor, but it has taken him some time to grasp the idea. "He doesn't understand it the same way he understands football," Williams explained.
It was the marketing side of the industry that served as his father's entry point. Once Brent realized the sponsorship possibilities available to his son, he put his foot on the gas, going into what Brennan described as "marketing mode." An eye-black company offered Brennan some of its wares. An apparel company sent him some gear, too.
His mother was in his corner, as well. In fact, she was the first one to suggest that he start training as a wrestler, to start doing the thing he loved from afar for so long. "You're not getting any calls," she told him.
And so he took her advice, trading in cleats for wrestling boots. Williams now sits at the bottom of the food chain, something he is used to. "In football, you always start at the bottom," he said.
In high school, you have to work your way up. In college, the process begins again. In the NFL, you have to earn your spot once more.
Going through that experience will aid him moving forward. "I'm used to having to pay dues," he said. In wrestling, paying dues equates to setting up the ring, showing up early and spending a lot of one's training time crashing back-first onto the mat.
He has no trouble doing any of it. "I've got no ego," he explained.
The work ethic that football taught him will be a major strength in wrestling. And it will help to have NFL-level footwork on top of that.
"I don't really trip over myself," he said. As he pointed out, he spent play after play jumping backward without looking behind him.
That and his size boost his chances to thrive in wrestling. The respect he has for the industry will, too. He's not just some desperate former pro athlete looking for a new means to earn a paycheck; this is an art he has long admired and feels lucky to now be a part of.
A Rookie Again
In the gym where Williams listened to Barnes' instructions, a massive Survivor Series 2005 poster stretched across the wall. A dry-erase board hung nearby, informing new trainees that Wednesday's session was mandatory.
Williams is one of those new trainees. Here, he is just another student.
He stood in line next to the other rookies, awaiting his turn to fling a fellow student toward the ring ropes, then to receive the same move himself. That he towers over everyone else makes him stand out, but his NFL background doesn't get him special treatment.
His resume is blank once again.
And Williams wants it that way. "I don't want to be a football player who came to wrestle. I want to be a wrestler," he said.
Early on, he learned firsthand the degree of difficulty in learning to become a competitor in the squared circle. Some of that is physical, the infrastructure of the ring acting as an additional opponent.
Running the ropes, an act that happens several times over in a single match, can easily result in bruises tattooing the torso if done incorrectly. It can leave you with back pain or a sore kidney. Or if you're as big as Williams and the ropes have been worn down by time and use, it can cause the rope to snap off.
That's what happened on Williams' second day as a wrestler.
He ran the ropes as instructed, and a metal brace broke off. The rope and brace went flying, hitting another trainee in the head. He was fine, but Williams was plenty scared as the moment unfolded.
Luckily it remains the worst thing Williams has experienced at the Reality of Wrestling training center. And Booker T was mostly joking when he told him, "You're already costing me money."
As Williams explained, the little things are harder than he expected.
Thinking back on NFL training camp, Williams said wrestling training is "a different kind of hard." "I expected it to be really hard. And it is," he said before adding, "I'm sore differently."
Beyond that, though, there's just so much to learn. Before Williams threatens to become a man of 1,000 holds, a la Dean Malenko, he must first grasp the basics.
The night I sat ringside watching Williams go to work, he set out to learn how to execute a wristlock, full nelson or a hammerlock. These are the kind of moves fans take for granted, the ones that act as transitions between the eye-catching highlights of a bout.
Each time Barnes laid out the steps required of a hold, Williams tried it out first on an invisible opponent in front of him. When it was time to approach a flesh-and-blood foe, he did so slowly, moving through wet clay.
He muttered the steps aloud: Grab the wrist. Step forward. Twist the arm. Hook under the elbow.
Body placement must be learned. And Williams has to fight the instinct to bend over when he and his opponent lock up. In football, it was vital that he get under the defensive lineman for leverage. In wrestling, he is supposed to play up his size.
"I'm Frankenstein, the mummy, coming down on you," he said.
The skills-to-learn checklist is long. That includes letting someone pick him at the ankle without making it obvious he didn't see the move coming. That includes giving his foe a visual clue that a clothesline is coming so they can duck. It includes elements that are worlds away from football.
Every moment is a potential action shot. Expressions have to be worthy of close-ups. Grimaces have to be exaggerated tenfold.
Thinking about how his actions translate to the camera is new territory. "I've never had to worry about looking good in football," he said.
From Brennan Williams to Marcellus Black
The study habits Williams picked up during his NFL career have carried over to wrestling. He's used to watching film, to extending the learning process beyond the practice field.
And just like with football, that means it's hard to enjoy the product on TV. The angles aren't wide enough. They don't show the dirty work, the trenches.
He now watches wrestling like he "used to watch football," he noted. It's a more engaged, critical way of observing, becoming a student rather than spectator. "It's ruined my wrestling-watching experience," he joked.
Beyond watching the moves unfolding onscreen, a wrestling student has to observe how one infuses his or her personality and style into the action. For Williams, he is going to have to start paying more attention to the big men.
As a fan, his favorites included athletic, smaller guys like Great Muta and Eddie Guerrero. But there is no way he can mimic what those men have done. "I'm not a luchador. There's nothing I can do about it. And I don't think anyone wants me to be."
Lately, he's been focusing more on the hard-hitting, intimidating guys who are more his size. He listed John "Bradshaw" Layfield and Kenta Kobashi as wrestlers he'd like to emulate.
But what of his character, his promos and all the other layers of a wrestler? Reality of Wrestling didn't waste time forcing him to think about those elements.
It was just a few days into training that he took a promo class. He was in the middle of scribbling down notes when he was asked to deliver a wrestling-style interview.
Williams hadn't thought of what kind of gimmick he'd employ. He thought he'd just be listening to a lecture on the first day.
Still, a lifelong fandom provided a solid foundation.
"I've watched since I was 10 years old," he said. He already had come up with a few promos and mulled over possible characters for fun. Williams drew on that as he spoke in front of the class.
"I said every catchphrase I ever heard my dad say and a couple things from kung-fu movies," he explained.
He did well, and now he has a ring name taken care of, too. He wanted to go with Payne as a surname, but someone else beat him to it. He is now Marcellus Black instead.
Williams doesn't yet know who Black is. He doesn't yet know what moves he is best at, what his signature in-ring weapons will be or what the finished product of his persona will be. But just weeks into the business, he is showing promise, showing that he has found the right home.
New trainee or not, he is already taking on a leadership role. He often helped out the other recruits, suggesting the tightening of a headlock or the correct angle to take to avoid pulling another guy's shoulder out of socket.
He treated his cohorts like teammates. Williams joked around, cheered on his peers and looked every bit like one of the guys despite towering over everyone.
And he is clearly comfortable with his helmet on and the spotlight pointed at his eyes. Throughout the training session, he possessed an engaging energy. He was showy when appropriate, making every movement big and significant.
Williams feels good about his progress. "I'm picking stuff up by the end of the night," he noted.
When he first tried the up-and-over move, he couldn't do it. Two days later, he modified it a touch and subsequently looked plenty comfortable pulling it off.
Even though this is supposed to be the dregs of the wrestling journey, he's gleeful about the process. He has stepped into a fantasy. "It's everything I thought and more. I love it," he said.
His adoration for the industry is such that he said even if the WWE tryout doesn't go well, he will keep at it. If another wrestling company calls, he'll be open to an offer. But from the joy in his voice when talking about how good it felt to wrap a man in a full nelson, it sounds like he would do this on any sized stage.
Williams wants to stay in wrestling, for, as he put it, "as long as they are going to let me do it."
In January, he will see if WWE will be the company to let him do it. He is training for that upcoming tryout the same way he treated the NFL Scouting Combine. Last time out, that resulted in his going to the Texans in the third round. He's hopeful about how this tryout will go.
"I have a really good chance. As good a chance as you can get," he said.
Just like football, though, there are only so many opportunities to go around. Each tryout, each stage of the WWE path boasts a large supply of bodies, but only few will emerge successful.
If Williams follows those prospects' leads and gets a WWE developmental deal, he will be carrying on a long tradition of former football players moving to the wrestling ring.
Current NXT wrestler Mojo Rawley briefly played for the Green Bay Packers in 2009. NXT standout Baron Corbin had short stints with both the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts. Roman Reigns, the man many expect to be the next WWE champ, signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2007.
To make the transition those men did, Williams has a mountain of work ahead of him.
It's work he is attacking with vigor. Even an armbar applied in a sparring session is dressed up in showmanship as if Williams was already in title contention on Raw.
Everything done in a wrestling ring has to look good to the family who bought the cheap seats way up in the rafters. That won't be an issue for Williams. Even with no one in the audience but a handful of trainees and a rubber training mannequin, he still made everything operatic, a key moment in a life-and-death struggle on the stage.
When a trainee slipped Williams' arm behind him in a hammerlock, he gritted his teeth as if someone had just given him an injection. When a trainee snapped him down to the canvas, he howled while curling his back in phantom pain.
As he said, he picked up everything by the end of the night. Moves he approached timidly just hours before now had flair to them.
Barnes instructed everyone to perform a string of moves, a fluid combination of everything the students had learned. Williams went through his with plenty of confidence, churning the pedals faster as he sped through the routine. He had stopped thinking. He was instead performing, having fun, bounding through the steps of an energized dance.
Williams looked at peace as his fellow trainee backed him into the corner, and the football player-turned-wrestler grunted, emoted, playing to a crowd that was not yet there.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Ryan Dilbert covers WWE for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter to talk all things wrestling.