Pro Wrestling

Former Football Players Who Found Success In Pro Wrestling Source:

For some reason professional athletes from all sorts of different sports have often tried to make the jump into pro wrestling, to varying degrees of success. Inevitably, the largest number of these crossover stars come from the world of American football. Many former college and professional football players have tried to make a living in the ranks of pro wrestling, and a lot of them have had notable careers. Out of that massive number of former gridiron stars, we’ve listed several of the ones which have made the biggest impact in wrestling over the years, including some of the biggest stars the industry has ever seen!

15. Jack Swagger

Swagger never made it to the NFL, but was a two-sport athlete in high school and for the University of Oklahoma, competing at a high level in both football and amateur wrestling, where he was an All-American. After playing two seasons as a backup on some very good Oklahoma football teams, Swagger quit football and focused on wrestling, where he caught the eye of WWE Hall of Famer and Oklahoma native Jim Ross. Swagger signed with WWE after graduating from college, and quickly showed enough raw talent in developmental that he was accelerated up the ladder, debuting for WWE as part of the ECW brand in 2008. His “All-American American” character and amateur wrestling style caused many people to compare him to Kurt Angle, and he seemed on the fast track to success, capturing the ECW Championship within his first six months on the brand. Swagger’s career continued to reach new heights after he left the ECW roster, winning Money in the Bank at WrestleMania XXVI and cashing in to become World Heavyweight Champion a few days later. Unfortunately, his reign was largely considered a failure, and while Swagger remains a visible member of the WWE roster, he has not yet reached those heights again. Source:

14. Jim Neidhart

After becoming a California record holder in shot put during high school, Neidhart attempted to skip college and try to go straight to the NFL. However, he was unable to make an NFL roster out of the preseason despite multiple attempts with the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys. With a name like Neidhart, it’s probably no surprise that he ended up in Calgary, training in the infamous Hart Family dungeon and eventually marrying into the clan. Neidhart made his way into WWE as part of a tag team with his brother-in-law, Bret Hart, and the became multiple time WWE Tag Team Champions as The Hart Foundation. After the team split and Bret went on to singles success, Neidhart bounced in and out of WWE in various roles, as a singles and tag wrestler. Neidhart finally returned for an extended stay when Bret re-formed the Hart Foundation, along with Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, and Brian Pillman. Unfortunately, when Bret Hart left WWE after the Montreal Screwjob, Neidhart left with him (though not before agreeing to be humiliated on Raw in order to be allowed out of his contract), but was not able to find much success in WCW, and slipped into semi-retirement. His daughter, Natalya, is now an important part of WWE’s Divas division. Source:

13. Brian Pillman

Pillman had a very successful college career for Miami of Ohio, setting records for tackles for loss and becoming a two-time Second Team All-American. He was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent and played special teams for one year. He also played a single season with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders before his football career came to an end and he entered the world of pro wrestling. Pillman was considered one of the best cruiserweight wrestlers in North America, and put on several stellar matches while in WCW. Unfortunately, a car accident would force Pillman to tone down his in-ring style, and while he was still considered one of the best characters in the business, he was no longer able to put on the show-stealing matches he’d become famous for. During this time, he signed with WWE and eventually ended up as part of the Hart Foundation stable, a nod to his association with the Hart-owned Stampede Wrestling promotion in his early career. Pillman also was involved in one of WWE’s most shocking moments, when he pulled a gun on Steve Austin during a live satellite interview on Raw. Sadly, a previously undetected heart condition led to Pillman’s unexpected death in 1997, at the young age of 35. Source:

12. Big Van Vader

The Man Called Vader was a hot prospect out of high school, recruited by dozens of colleges to play football. He eventually settled on the University of Colorado, where he became a two-time All-American while playing on the offensive line. In 1978, he was a third round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams, and appeared in Super Bowl XIV. However, injuries ended his football career after only two seasons, and he made the transition into pro wrestling. Vader first made his name in Japan and was the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the IWGP Heavyweight title. His standout work in Japan earned him a contract with WCW, where he would become one of the company’s biggest heels, winning the WCW World Title on several occasions. In the late 90’s, he signed with WWE and was reportedly being groomed for a run with the WWE Title (the December 1996 In Your House PPV was subtitled “It’s Time” in reference to his catchphrase because he was supposed to be champion at that point), but plans were changed at the last minute, and Vader’s run in WWE was overall considered a disappointment. He would return to Japan for a while, and now makes occasional appearances for WWE under a Legends contract. Source:

11. Monty Brown

The man who would come to be known as “The Alpha Male” was an accomplished Division II football player for Ferris State, winning multiple awards including National Defensive Player of the Year, while becoming the first player for Ferris State to be both an Academic and Athletic All-American. Brown was recruited by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, where he played for four seasons, including an appearance at Super Bowl XXVIII. He also started for a single season with the New England Patriots before retiring due to injury and deciding to live out a dream of becoming a pro wrestler. Brown initially debuted in North American promotion TNA, where he quickly developed into one of their top stars. However, he was repeatedly denied in his quest to become TNA World Champion, a fact which left many fans disgruntled over his treatment. After leaving TNA, Brown signed with WWE and debuted as a member of the new ECW brand in 2007, under the name Marcus Cor Von. As a member of the New Breed faction, he became one of a very small number of people to both play in a Super Bowl and wrestle a match at WrestleMania. Later that year, he took a hiatus from WWE, citing family-related reasons, and eventually retired without returning to the ring.;jsessionid=494EF134DEF9DA36A3C6FB16E1D60914?r30_r1_r1:page=17 Source:

10. Mojo Rawley

Perhaps the most energetic man in all of professional wrestling, Mojo Rawley spent two years in the NFL after a college career that saw him honored as one of the top student-athletes in the ACC. Mojo even has an MBA, and did an internship at Morgan Stanley! During his short football career, Rawley became friends with legendary tight end Rob Gronkowski (whose brothers played with Rawley at Maryland), who is infamous for his partying habits, and is quoted as saying “Sometimes I have to hide away from him, to get some sleep or something. Because I don’t think he sleeps” when asked about Rawley’s hyperactive personality. That’s right, Mojo Rawley parties even harder than Gronk, if you can believe that. While not the greatest wrestler in the world, Rawley has steadily improved since debuting in NXT, and if he continues to stay hyped, it’s pretty much inevitable that he’ll be making his way to the main roster in the future. Source:

9. Baron Corbin

Corbin was part of a reasonably successful Division II college team at Northwest Missouri State, going to four Championship games, but he went undrafted and failed to break camp with either the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals, never playing a game in the NFL. His size and football pedigree (along with being a two-time regional Golden Gloves boxing champion) did catch the eye of WWE, however, and he signed with WWE in 2012. After spending some time as enhancement talent in NXT, he was repackaged as “The Lone Wolf”, a gimmick patterned after the biker gang from the popular Sons of Anarchy TV show. Corbin wrestled almost exclusively in very short squash matches for most of the next year, before eventually being pushed into the main event scene of NXT, where he displayed far better wrestling skills in longer matches than anyone had anticipated. Corbin is poised to become one of WWE’s most successful “homegrown” talents, and his eventual debut on the main WWE roster is all but certain. Source:

8. Steve “Mongo” McMichael

Steve McMichael actually had a fairly successful football career, playing 14 seasons with three teams. Most notably, Mongo played as a starting defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears, at one point starting 101 games in a row, and was part of the 1985 Super Bowl championship team. He was also a 2-time Pro Bowl selection in 1986 and 1987. After retiring from the NFL, he made some appearances in WWE as part of the Lawrence Taylor-Bam Bam Bigelow feud at WrestleMania XI, and then was hired by WCW to do color commentary for their new Monday night show, Nitro. Eventually, Mongo entered the squared circle as a wrestler, and was immediately granted entry into one of WCW’s most elite factions, the 4 Horsemen. As a Horseman, McMichael won the WCW United States title one time, then saw the stable fall apart in late 1997. Mongo hung around WCW in various feuds, and was one of the first major feuds for Goldberg during his massive undefeated streak. After a brief attempt to re-form the Horsemen didn’t pan out, Mongo retired in 1999. Source:

7. Ron Simmons

It’s incredibly surprising that Ron Simmons didn’t end up as a huge football star. He was a legend at Florida State University, an two-time All-American defensive tackle who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and is one of only eight people to have his jersey retired by FSU. He had only a brief career in the NFL and USFL, but once football didn’t pan out, he eventually landed in WCW, where he formed a tag team with Butch Reed, known as Doom. After a long and successful run with Reed, Simmons then made headlines by becoming the first black WCW World champion (and only the second black World champion in pro wrestling history, behind Bobo Brazil), defeating Vader in a shocking upset in 1992. After leaving WCW for WWE in the late 90s, Simmons (now known as Faarooq) did not find quite as much personal success, but was the leader of the memorable Nation of Domination faction, and later formed a tag team with Bradshaw that became known as the APA, one of the most popular tag teams of the Attitude Era. Simmons won multiple championships in WCW and WWE, and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012. Source:

6. Ahmed Johnson

As a football player, Ahmed Johnson had a short and unremarkable career, playing two seasons for the Dallas Cowboys in 1990 and 1991, just before the franchise would go on a run of three Super Bowl titles in four years. At the same time as he was playing in the NFL, Johnson was training on the independent wrestling circuit, which eventually paid off when he made his WWE debut in 1995. Johnson exploded onto the scene by becoming the first man since Lex Luger to body slam the massive Yokozuna before he’d even had a televised match. Johnson followed that up by being part of the winning Survivor Series team in his first Pay Per View match, and continued to rise from their. Within a year he had won the Intercontinental title, and there were serious rumors that he was being prepared for a run with the WWE Championship. Unfortunately, injuries began to mount for Johnson, who spent most of the next several years out of the ring with a variety of ailments. He left WWE in 1998, and after a brief run in WCW, retired from the ring. His wrestling career, though brief, was definitely eventful, and if not for some bad luck, could have been legendary. Source:

5. Lex Luger

Luger’s football career was brief and disappointing. While playing for the University of Miami, he was kicked off the team after trashing a hotel room, and never made it into the NFL. He did play two seasons with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, even appearing in the Grey Cup in 1979. After an attempt to catch on with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers failed, Luger gave up on football and was convinced to try pro wrestling, eventually making his way to WCW. Luger was a star from the start, becoming a member of the Four Horsemen and winning the WCW World Title on several occasions. He also had a brief and largely disappointing run in WWE, where he was put into a position as a replacement for the departed Hulk Hogan, but couldn’t get the fans behind him in that role, lost his spot as top star to Bret Hart, and ultimately returned to WCW a few years later. After his retirement from pro wrestling, Luger had reportedly worked backstage with WWE on aspects of the company’s Wellness Policy. In 2007, Luger suffered a nerve impingement which caused him to become paralyzed from the neck down, but fortunately, he slowly regained the ability to walk over the next several years. Source:

4. Roman Reigns

Reigns had a decent college career, starting for three years at Georgia Tech and being named All-ACC in 2006, but it wasn’t enough for him to catch on in the NFL. He did play a full season for the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL, but played only five games and was released at the end of the season. A few years later, he resurfaced in WWE’s Florida developmental system, under the name Roman Leakee. When WWE created the NXT television show, the newly christened Roman Reigns wrestled a single match before getting the call to the main roster. Reigns debuted at Survivor Series 2012 alongside Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins as The Shield, a band of mercenaries who were portrayed as the most dominant three-man unit in WWE history. During their existence, The Shield defeated every top name in WWE in a series of six-man tag matches that were often the highlight of the show. After their break-up in 2014, Roman was tabbed as a future WWE World Heavyweight Champion, a feat that he would accomplish just over a year later, at Survivor Series 2015. With forces in WWE keenly interested in his success, Roman Reigns looks to be a top star for the company for years to come. Source:

3. Ernie Ladd

“The Big Cat” Ernie Ladd played for seven years on three different teams in the American Football League, prior to its merger with the NFL. He was a four-time AFL All-Star and was an integral part of the 1963 San Diego Chargers winning the AFL Championship, leading to him being enshrined in the Chargers’ Hall of Fame. After his football career ended due to knee problems, Ladd quickly became a huge star in professional wrestling. Ladd wrestled all over North America, including a stint in the WWWF (now known as WWE), when he challenged Bruno Sammartino for the World title. His heel character was infamous for choosing to deliberately get counted out rather than take a pinfall loss, and “pulling an Ernie Ladd” became part of the pro wrestling lexicon. He won titles wherever he wrestled, and after his retirement, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995. Ladd was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003 and given six months to live, but managed to survive another three years, passing away at the age of 68. Source:

2. Goldberg

Bill Goldberg had a brief professional career that included stops in the NFL and CFL, but it was ultimately cut short due to a abdominal injury that kept him out long enough that he could not find a team to catch on with. He had the dubious distinction of being the first player cut by the expansion Carolina Panthers, at which point his football career was essentially finished. While rehabbing his injury, he was convinced to join WCW, and after a brief training period, he burst onto the scene as Goldberg. In WCW, Goldberg quickly ascended up the ranks, winning all of his matches, often in under a minute, and established himself as a force in professional wrestling. He remained undefeated for over a year, winning the WCW World Title in the process, before finally being defeated at Starrcade 1998. WCW, which was in the process of losing their lead over WWE in the Monday Night Wars, saw Goldberg as a way to get back on top, but an arm injury suffered during a backstage segment put Goldberg on the shelf for nearly a year, during which time WCW spiraled out of control. After the company folded, Goldberg eventually signed with WWE for a single year, in which time he managed to win the World Heavyweight title a single time, before leaving the company after WrestleMania XX and basically retiring from wrestling.;jsessionid=494EF134DEF9DA36A3C6FB16E1D60914?r30_r1_r1:page=17 Source:

1. The Rock

If you don’t know who this guy is, congratulations on waking up from that coma you’ve been in for at least twenty years! A multiple-time World Champion and the biggest international box office star on the planet, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson first took WWE, and then Hollywood, by storm after making his WWE debut in 1996. But prior to that, Johnson himself says he had no plans to ever set foot in the wrestling business where his father and grandfather had made a living. In college, Johnson attended the University of Miami on a football scholarship, was a stand-out defensive tackle for the Hurricanes, and was part of the team when they won a National Championship in 1991. An ill-timed injury sidelined him for part of his college career, and may have played a part into Johnson failing to be drafted into the NFL. After spending some time on the practice roster of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders, Johnson decided to give pro wrestling a shot. His family connections got him noticed by WWE, and the rest, as they say, is history. Source:
Stephen Randle

Stephen Randle

Stephen Randle is an avid wrestling and film fan. He's been writing about WWE, movies, and video games for Goliath since 2015.