Roman Reigns the Football Player: From Branding His Own Bicep to All-ACC Lineman

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterJune 26, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 2: Joe Anoai #96 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets takes a breather during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on September 2, 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 14-10. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Take a closer look at his right arm. Look past the facade that WWE fans love to hate, past the sleeve of Polynesian tattoos. Focus closely on his right bicep. Do you see it? It's an L, branded into the skin of Roman Reigns, an initial for his given name, Leati.    

That mark of seared skin is what coach Greg Seibert first remembers about the high schooler he knows as Joe Anoa'i, full name Leati Joseph Anoaʻi, a three-year defensive tackle under him at Pensacola Catholic High School. How one day, after his sophomore summer, Anoa'i walked into training camp with an L branded on his arm.

At the time, Seibert asked him how he got the newly fashioned scar. A heated coat hanger, Anoa'i answered. Before he could pay tribute to his heritage through with tattoos, Anoa'i took matters into his own hands, and did the deed himself in the mirror.

"Whoa, you're just a little bit different from everyone else," Seibert recalls saying. "I'm going to put you in a position to hurt people, because you're mad. You burned your own arm."

Georgia Tech DT Joe Anoai celebrates a forced fumble during the game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia on November 25, 2006.  The Bulldogs beat the Yellow Jackets 15-12. (Photo by Mike Z
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Fifteen years later, Seibert says that he regrets that thought progression, but the sentiment remains true. Joe Anoa'i was just a little bit different.

"Every single time he tried to line up for any kind of drill or any kind of one-on-one situation, everyone backed away from Joe," Seibert says.

That's how people remember Anoa'i the football player, someone who immediately instilled fear in those he faced. That ferociousness carried over into his days at Georgia Tech, says Jon Tenuta, the defensive coordinator for the Yellow Jackets at the time.

"He had all the tools, and he might not have been the tallest or fastest, but he was the toughest by far," Tenuta says. "Everyone knew he was a badass, but he never acted that way. When the lights came on, you just knew he was a badass."

On the field, Anoa'i looked the part of a Division I football player. Seibert doesn't hold back when complimenting a lineman whom he says "played with the mean streak you want a defensive player to have," and had "an electricity that made the people around him better."

"I'll even call it an aura," he says.

Georgia Tech defensive end Joe Anoai  rushes the passer versus Georgia at Sanford Stadium, Athens, Georgia, November 25, 2006. Georgia defeated Georgia Tech 15-12. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

People wanted to be around Anoa'i because they knew he'd make them better. His passion and tenacity had a tendency to rub off on others.

The fire had been passed down from his father, Sika, half of The Wild Samoans. Every day at practice, Seibert would look up into the stands and find Sika watching over his son.

"It wasn't until a bit later until I realized that that was The Wild Samoan," Seibert says. "That's when it became real to me. That is not just fly-by-night, national armory wrestling family that's hanging out at my football practice. That's one of The Wild Samoans."

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

In high school, teammates and coaches thought Anoa'i had a legitimate shot at the NFL. At Georgia Tech, where Anoa'i totaled 108 tackles and 12 sacks in four years, the competitiveness alone, Tenuta thought, would give him a shot at the next level. In 2006, Reigns earned All-ACC first-team honors with 40 tackles, two recovered fumbles and 4.5 sacks.

Yet pro football never worked out. There were two brief camp stints with the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars and one year in the CFL with the Edmonton Eskimos, where Anoa'i finished with nine tackles, no sacks and no fumble recoveries. He retired from football the next year.

MINNEAPOLIS - 2007:  Joe Anoai of the Minnesota Vikings poses for his 2007 NFL headshot at photo day in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images

Two years later, Anoa'i signed a developmental contract with the WWE, and began his ascent to infamy.

Seibert remembers about five or six years ago, a teammate of Anoa'i told him about his former star defensive tackle's new career venture. On Monday night, he turned on the television, and there he was.

"Oh, my God," Seibert remembers saying. "There's Joe Anoa'i. There's the kid who used to lift weights in our weight room. The kid I tried to teach in class. He's the kid I couldn't get to behave."

Both Seibert and Tenuta, now an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati, make a point to call Reigns "Joe." The polarizing character they see on television is only a slice of the guy they knew—the guy they coached.

"I know that Joe is playing a character. He's fiercely loyal to the people that are loyal to him," Seibert says. "If you're hating Joe's character on TV, then Joe and the WWE are winning. If you're still turning on [the TV] to see what he's going to do, then he's done his job as it's being asked to do."

"Joe is one of those guys that you're just glad you had a chance to be around him, coach him and know him," Tenuta says. "He's just a regular dude, but it's cool to watch him on TV with the entertainment aspect of it."

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18:  Roman Reigns arrives for WWE RAW at 02 Brooklyn Bowl on April 18, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
Ian Gavan/Getty Images

It doesn't surprise either of Joe Anoa'i's football coaches that he ended up as Roman Reigns, three-time World Heavyweight Champion WWE superstar. From a young age on the football field, the toughness, the bravado, the passion—it was all there.

"Now, my man is diving over the top rope over people and getting hit with a chair and all of that," Seibert says. "That can't be that much worse than burning a big letter in your arm."

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