Joe Anoa’i had 120 tackles as a senior defensive lineman at Escambia in Pensacola, Fla. He added 12 sacks, forced six fumbles and had two interceptions. He was named second-team all-state in talent-rich Florida and the defensive player of the year by the Pensacola News Journal.
The scholarship offers came in to play football, as you’d expect. When signing day in February 2003 arrived, Anoa’i picked Georgia Tech as part of a 20-member class for then-coach Chan Gailey. The 6-3 pass rusher had visited the Tech campus in mid-January and committed 10 days later.
It was the next stage of an adventure in football that led to all-ACC selections and short stints with the Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.
But it was a precursor to the professional wrestling career many expected.
Anoa’i now goes by Roman Reigns, a second-generation WWE superstar who is scheduled to face Brock Lesnar for the WWE championship at WrestleMania XXXI in San Jose, Calif. in March.
“That feels like so long ago, you’re making me feel old,” Reigns said when asked to reflect on signing day. “Signing day was really a family day. My cousins signed with another school as well [Jonathan and Joshua Fatu, who wrestling as The Usos, played football at West Alabama], so it was just cool to have our family there and to have the whole process done with, to be honest.
“Making that decision — it was such a stressful decision and there was so much riding on it. It’s tough when you’re trying to look four to eight years in the future and figure it all out as a young 17-year-old kid. For me it was a combination of relief and love, just being with my family.”
After football, Reigns signed a WWE developmental contract in July 2010, carrying on the family legacy that includes his father Sika, a WWE Hall of Famer who was half of the Wild Samoans with Reigns’ uncle Afa; older brother Rosey; uncle Eki Fatu, who wrestled as Umaga; and cousins such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“By the time I got deeper into high school and seeing how I was stacking up against top-level competition, as a freshman I knew that I may have a chance of going to the NFL, so that made me take it a lot more seriously and look at it like ‘whoa, you may have that opportunity one day if you take care of business,’ ” Reigns said. “But wrestling in my family… it just is what it is.
“Just about every conversation somehow wrestling is going to be tied into it, so I never strayed away from a wrestling ring for too long. Even as a kid, before I started playing football, I always thought I was going to be a wrestler — but once I got to college, being in the NFL became a lot more realistic.”
So which is physically more demanding, football or professional wrestling?
“Both require great athletes, but as far as toughness, I think that’s where they translate the most,” he said. “In order to wrestle or play football, or play any contact sport for that matter, you have to have a certain level of toughness and a bit of old school ‘are you hurt or are you injured?’ You can move if you’re hurt, you need to sit if you’re injured. You’re constantly getting nicked up, bruised and battered. If you’re playing football, or wrestling, you’re not going to be 100% the majority of the time.
“I think the biggest difference is that there’s an offseason in football. There’s not an offseason in wrestling, and that’s where that daily grind of 365 days a year where we’re traveling and you rarely get time at home — it really adds up on you.”