Examining Verne Gagne's Choice to Forgo the NFL for Pro Wrestling

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterApril 28, 2015

Credit: WWE.com

Had the siren call of the squared circle not pulled Verne Gagne away from the NFL, pro wrestling history would be missing one of its all-time greats.

On April 27, Gagne died at age 89. He leaves behind a legacy in wrestling that is unmatched. Gagne whipped young prospects into stars. Ric Flair, The Iron Sheik and Ricky Steamboat are among the many greats who learned under Gagne's tutelage.

In addition to being one of the finest grapplers of the mat game, Gagne formed the American Wrestling Association, the place where wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan first burst onto the scene. He was a renowned promoter, a world champion and a member of myriad wrestling Hall of Fames, including WWE's.

Before that, though, he stood at a fork in a road. On one side waited the wrestling ring and on the other the gridiron.

Verne Gagne
Verne GagneCredit: Pro Wrestling Illustrated, via WWE.com

A football star at Minnesota's Robbinsdale High School, Gagne caught the eye of university scouts. He ended up going to school in the state where he was born, a state that he would later make a pro wrestling hub.

Gagne joined the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team in 1943 under coach George Hauser. He played both defensive end and tight end. In his junior year, he was described in The Milwaukee Journal as "the rugged Gagne" and said to be one of the reasons fans should expect the Golden Gophers to be a tough, defensively stout team. 

The paper lists him as 6'0'' and 197 pounds.

As noted in the University of Minnesota's statement on Gagne's death, he earned All-Big Ten honors in football. The bulk of his success, though, came on the mat.

As impressive as he was hunting down ball-carriers, he was even better as a wrestler. WWE's tribute to the late grappler lists a number of his collegiate wrestling accomplishments, including two NCAA national titles:

After a stint in the United States Marine Corps, where he continued to hone his football skills as a member of the El Toro Marine team, Gagne returned to school to add to his robust resume. There were more foes to topple, more offensive linemen to push aside.

Meanwhile, the NFL wanted him. He had shown enough promise at Minnesota to catch the Chicago Bears' eyes. 

In the 19747 draft, the Bears selected Gagne with the 145th pick. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, that was 59 spots ahead of Hall of Famer Art Donovan and 184 spots ahead of legendary coach Tom Landry.

With a potential career as a Bear ahead of him, Gagne's passion for battling between the ropes didn't wane. He wanted to supplement his NFL career with one in wrestling. 

Verne's son Greg Gagne says in the documentary The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA that Bears owner George Halas didn't want Verne to both wrestle and play football.

Verne Gagne applies a hammerlock.
Verne Gagne applies a hammerlock.Credit: WWE.com

Gagne could have just hung up his wrestling boots and traded them in for cleats full time. He could have added to the long history of hard-nosed defensive players that Chicago has trotted out over the years.

Instead, a salary dispute and Gagne's unwillingness to drop wrestling had him change teams.

The Green Bay Packers signed him in 1949. While Gagne played three exhibition games for the Bears' rival, a debate raged on over whether the Bears or the Packers owned the rights to the young player. In the end, it didn't matter.

Curly Lambeau released Gagne; the Minnesota native then left football for good.

Gagne could have worked to get himself on another squad. He could have sought to repair his relationship with Halas and attempt to ply his trade for the Chicago squad.

It appears he was good enough because interest in him didn't stop there. George Schire wrote in Minnesota's Golden Age of Wrestling that a few years later, "The San Francisco 49ers offered him a contract that would start at $5,000 a year."

The NFL wasn't the giant it is today, though. It wasn't America's favorite sport and didn't assure a man a shot at amassing wealth in a short stretch. At the time, wrestling was the smarter bet from a money standpoint.

Eagles vs. Rams (1949)
Eagles vs. Rams (1949)HAROLD P. MATOSIAN/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Gagne pursed a career in wrestling and surely didn't regret it. 

The grappler explained to David Condon of the Chicago Tribune in 1954 that it wasn't the physical toll that led to him choosing wrestling over football. Gagne plucked a row of false teeth and told reporters that he lost the real ones in the ring.

"Compared with wrestling, football is like taking a vacation cruise," he said.

It was money that lured him from the gridiron. The 49ers' offer of five grand, for example, didn't compare with what pro wrestling could give him. Shire writes that the AWA world champ brought "in $30,000 annually for tossing foes around the ring."

However, Condon believes the numbers to be higher. He writes that Gagne earned $75,000 to $100,000 a year and that "it takes no mathematical genius, then, to figure that Gagne bettered his annual income by something like 1000 percent when he retired from the gridiron to become a full-fleged rassler."

And his career could last far longer on the wrestling mat. What Gagne excelled at is a violent enterprise, but one where the violence is controlled as possible. Football, on the other hand, is a game of constant collisions, often at full speed.

Gagne remained an in-ring performer far longer than he would have been able to battle in the trenches against offensive linemen. The Hall of Famer debuted in 1949 and wrestled his last match in 1986. Not even punters hold up that long in the NFL.

The spandex-heavy sport is certainly glad he took that path. Maybe he could have been a serviceable NFL player, even a standout one, but he was unforgettable as a wrestler and as a contributor to the industry.

Had he pushed to make his way onto the football field, the AWA would have never formed, the Dumont Network would have had one less major star, Dick the Bruiser would have had one less obstacle in his way and every pro wrestling Hall of Fame would be one legend short. 

Being a better wrestler than defensive end certainly played a part in Gagne's decision. The disparity in salary between the two careers had to as well. The most vital factor, though, may simply have been love of the game.

Gagne grew up a fan of the wars that happened on the canvas. He would sit on his grandfather's lap and listen to the matches on the radio. As he says in the WWE-produced documentary, "Wrestling was my love and very good to me for a long time."

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