Pat McAfee has been preparing for WWE debut most of his life

  • WWE on ESPN Editor

Pat McAfee spent eight years in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, turning everyone’s notion of how a punter should behave on its head. He celebrated great punts and kickoffs like a lineman recording a sack, pulled off more than his fair share of onside kicks, and he made highlight reels while recording 24 career tackles.

Then he retired from football at the age of 29, having twice been a Pro Bowler and once an All-Pro. He broke into the ranks of sports media with Barstool, joined ESPN’s college football coverage in 2019 and now hosts “The Pat McAfee Show,” a daily morning sports talk radio show on Westwood One.

The 33-year-old already has lived out multiple childhood dreams but none quite like the one he’ll experience this weekend. On Saturday, McAfee makes his WWE in-ring debut at NXT TakeOver: XXX, facing off against former NXT champion Adam Cole.

So how did he get here?

“I think anybody who’s my age, in their late 20s, early 30s, the Attitude Era, the Monday Night Wars, just captivated all of pop culture,” McAfee told ESPN. “I mean, I remember getting an in-school suspension for doing the D-Generation X ‘suck it’ chops. I remember trying to Stone Cold-stun kids. I remember trying to cut a promo like The Rock in English class.

“Monday nights, I obviously watched Monday Night Football because I come from Pittsburgh, a big football town, big football family, but boy, it was beautiful when I could bounce back and forth from Monday Night Football to Monday Night Raw to Nitro. Those were just some of my favorite times. And to be honest, ever since those days, if you talked to anybody, I’ve always said that I thought I was put on this earth to be a professional wrestler.”

McAfee’s approach to life dovetails comfortably into the world of professional wrestling. His over-the-top personality was clearly informed by spending big chunks of the late 1990s and early 2000s watching some of the most prolific performers of the era captivate an audience with every movement and every line. And while he falls short of calling his on-field celebrations a direct homage to the WWE stars of the Attitude Era, McAfee can trace the influences back to that time in his life.

“If I was to say that The Rock, Stone Cold and them didn’t help shape my personality and the human I am, I’d be lying,” said McAfee. “Then, in turn, you’re seeing natural reactions from me in a lot of situations that aren’t normal to everybody else, I guess.

“I feel like, I guess being a punter and being a little bit over-the-top or celebrating or showing a personality when that position doesn’t normally do it, it wasn’t really like me trying to do something to put myself over. I think it was just naturally what I was doing. And I think that is why I’ve always thought, ‘I’m probably supposed to be a wrestler,’ because I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I feel like I’m a pretty good talker and a pretty good athlete.”

McAfee entered the NXT picture a couple of years ago by crossing paths with Cole at an NXT Live event, and he subsequently joined WWE coverage teams in both commentary and second-screen hosting roles. But his first foray into pro wrestling was back in 2009.

After graduating from West Virginia, where he’s still the all-time leading points scorer after kicking for four seasons and punting for three, McAfee had a few months between the end of the season and the 2009 NFL draft. He and his friends had attended a handful of wrestling shows put on by independent promotion IWA East Coast during their time at WVU, and with McAfee free and clear to sign autographs and pick up some cash, arrangements were made for a signing at a show that March.

“My agent that I had at the time, he was pleading with me to not go to the event because he thought something could happen,” McAfee recalled. “I’m like, ‘No, no, no, I’m just signing autographs.’ And he was like, ‘Please do not do anything. That’s the last thing we need NFL teams to hear is that you are currently getting into a wrestling ring whenever you should be training or whatever.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it.’

“I get down there and, signing autographs, get called into the ring. And me and a man known as Warpig actually went after it. And he beat my ass a bit. I ended it with a superkick — one, two, three — and me and my boys ran out of the building and headed home. And it was a pretty cool little taste of the business.”

Dabbling in wrestling didn’t keep McAfee from being drafted by the Colts in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, but even as a punter, he didn’t feel like his position on the team was particularly secure heading into his first year. Over the course of the summer, McAfee happened to befriend an undrafted free-agent offensive lineman named Tom Pestock, who shared McAfee’s idea of one day pursuing a career in professional wrestling.

McAfee made a career in the NFL. Today, Pestock is known as King Corbin and has been with the WWE since 2012.

Even as he was playing football, McAfee never forgot about wrestling. During the later years of his playing career, a late-night purchase by McAfee got him back into the action.

“I come from a family that is not supposed to have money. As soon as I got money, I started buying dumb things,” McAfee told Mike Greenberg on Get Up. “One night, when I was intoxicated, I bought a full-size wrestling ring from the internet. It showed up in my house a couple of months later, and I had forgotten I bought it.”

McAfee set up the 18-foot-by-18-foot ring in his barn, where it remains to this day. He briefly trained with Rip Rogers, who had a hand in teaching the fundamentals to present-day stars like Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, John Cena and Batista.

It’s come in handy of late, as McAfee prepares to wrestle Cole on a live pay-per-view event on the WWE Network. The story came together in a matter of weeks on NXT TV, culminating in Triple H appearing on Get Up to formally announce the terms of a match.

“I’ve been able to slot in my training sessions here for the last couple of weeks,” said McAfee. “I’ve been trying to figure out how not to embarrass myself and hopefully how to win this thing as fast as possible.”

Further complicating McAfee’s path to his WWE debut was his marriage at the beginning of August. In order to set his rivalry and this match in motion, McAfee put his post-wedding celebration on hold.

“I was on my honeymoon the night that I got into the encounter with Adam Cole, where I kicked his head off his body,” said McAfee. “Heading to the NXT arena in the middle of the honeymoon was not immediately well-received when the subject was broached to my wife. But she’s my tag-team partner. She’s excited.”

A lot of the people McAfee has been talking to about his pro wrestling plans over the past two decades have been checking in too. McAfee was even walked to the ring by an entourage that included former Green Bay Packers linebacker AJ Hawk and former Colts teammate Darius Butler.

But now it’s time to face the music, in the form of a one-on-one match in the spotlight against a guy in Adam Cole who has been the face of WWE’s NXT brand over the past few years.

“I’ve been getting text messages and messages from people from high school that remembered me talking about hopefully becoming a wrestler one day, and [people from] college and early days with the Colts and around the league,” said McAfee. “Everybody is just pumped up about it in my neck of the woods.

“And now it’s my job to go out there and perform and see if I’ve been right this entire time saying that I’m supposed to be here.”

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