Roman Reigns' Abrupt, Whirlwind NFL Journey Before WWE StardomOctober 8, 2015
Seeing Roman Reigns charge across a WWE ring and vault into the air to crack a Superman punch across some heel's jaw, it's hard to imagine him as a low-rung defensive tackle swallowed up in the trenches at an NFL camp.
But he was not yet Reigns back then. He had yet to be fitted for his flak jacket and wrestling boots. He had yet to learn the family business.
He was still plain old Leati Joseph Anoa'i, a promising defensive lineman out of Georgia Tech.
In college, Anoa'i improved every year, moving from backup to starter to captain. By his senior year, he had blossomed into a powerful force up front for a stout Yellow Jackets defense. His profile on the Georgia Tech website boasts much to be proud of.
In 2006, the man who would become Reigns netted 40 tackles, two recovered fumbles and 4.5 sacks. His contributions earned him All-ACC first-team honors.
He next eyed the NFL. Even though his father and uncle were both WWE Hall of Famers, his cousin Rodney (better known as Yokozuna) headlined WrestleMania and an assortment of cousins had made their living in the squared circle, Anoa'i had eyes on thriving on the gridiron.
Unlike his teammate Calvin Johnson, though, he was no surefire prospect.
A scouting report from NFLDraftScout.com (h/t CBS Sports) described him as a leader and a player with burst. It pointed out a number of Anoa'i's shortcomings, as well.
According to the report, "He is a high energy type who just lacks that instinctive feel for the flow of the ball. He is best when occupying multiple blockers at the line of scrimmage, as he doesn't have the range to make plays in space."
In these scouts' minds at least, he was not powerful enough, not enough of a bully on the line, not quick enough to respond to the chaos of the game.
Still, the 303-pound lineman was projected to be a a sixth-rounder in the 2007 draft, per NFLDraftScout.com.
Not invited to the NFL Draft Combine, Anoa'i had only the Georgia Tech pro day to make an impression on scouts. He posted a 4.91 in the 40-yard dash, a strong number for one of the big boys up front. Anoa'i bench pressed 370 pounds, showed off a 34-inch vertical and completed the three-cone drill in 7.29 seconds.
The numbers weren't enough. Seven rounds went by; Anoa'i's name went uncalled.
But going undrafted is not always the end of the NFL story. Teams scoop up unselected free agents, and sometimes those players—Antonio Gates or Wes Welker—turn out to be home runs. The Minnesota Vikings signed Anoa'i, but he didn't end up being a proverbial diamond in the rough.
He was one of the many unknown guys toiling for a spot on the team who get cut before the season kicks off. He only made it as far as rookie camp.
In his mind, Anoa'i almost made the team. He told Eric Adelson of Yahoo Sports, "I was as close as you can imagine. It just slipped through the fingers. It wasn't meant to be."
After explaining that medical issues led to him failing the physical, he added, "I'm convinced I could have made the team."
The Vikings released Anoa'i at the end of May. He would have to wait three months before another team called. This time, it was the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As much as his stay with the Vikings was a blink-of-an-eye run, his time with the Jaguars was even shorter. The Jags picked him up on Aug. 26, only to drop him five days later, as Matthew Byer noted for Slam! Sports.
While not a team flush with great talent, Jacksonville's defensive line featured two Goliaths ahead of Anoa'i on the depth chart—Marcus Stroud and John Henderson.
Of his momentary teammates, he told Jimmy Traina of The Buzzer he enjoyed being around them. Anoa'i recalled, "Those two defensive tackles were just massive monsters, mountains of men and they controlled that defensive line and line of scrimmage."
Playing alongside them was not to be. Scout's John Holler wrote of him, "Joe Anoa'i was a blown-up linebacker with a dice-roller's chance of hitting it in the NFL."
But before Anoa'i moved on to face the monsters who occupied WWE, he had one last go at professional football. He signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL in 2008.
Success came in spurts. Anoa'i moved up and down between the practice squad to the regular roster. He played in only a handful of games. He made a minimal impression on the field.
His stat line (courtesy of the official CFL website) for his lone season is not impressive: no sacks, no fumble recoveries, nine tackles.
Still, before he left the league, he notched a game-saving play and a highlight he can savor for years to come. Going up against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Edmonton defense needed a stop to seal the win.
The Tiger-Cats quarterback scrambled to the right and tried to dive for a first down, but Anoa'i was waiting for him. He collided into the ball-carrier, causing a fumble.
Of the hit, Anoa'i told Slam! Sports, "I knocked the snot out of that guy. He went flying. He helicoptered for at least five or six yards for sure."
He had little chance to add to memories like that. Football proved to be the wrong place for him. Luckily, he had wrestling in his veins.
His family tree brimmed with bruisers and warriors of the ring. He would soon follow their lead.
In a phone interview with Carlos Pineda of SouthernPigskin.com, Anoa'i said, "I always had that in the back of my mind and fully in my heart that I knew if football didn't work out, wrestling would be something that I know I could enjoy. It's something I could thrive in and become that star and be a difference maker in this world."
He was never going to be that in the NFL.
Had he made the cut with the Vikings or the Jags, he likely would have been either a practice-squad player or a career backup. He wasn't explosive or powerful enough to consistently make it past NFL offensive lineman.
It's odd to hear that seeing how explosive and powerful Anoa'i has become since morphing into Reigns. It helped that his new battlefield had him slim down. An increase in quickness came with trading the bulky body of a defensive tackle for a comic book physique.
It helped that he traded a sport he was good at for an industry he was born to be a part of.
He knows that being Reigns is right for him. He said in an interview with CBS Sports' Denny Burkholder, "I found the team that I needed to be on."
The 2015 Royal Rumble winner is right. In just a few short years, he has rocketed up the WWE card. And while he has his doubters and critics, his growth as a performer is undeniable.
He flourished against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31. He and Big Show blew away expectations at Extreme Rules in a violent, savage contest.
Each time out, he looks more and more comfortable in the ring. He bounds from one corner to the other with the ease that a gazelle treks across the plains. Anoa'i has found a home as a wrestler as Reigns.