By any measure, Pat McAfee’s NFL career was a successful one.
The former Indianapolis Colts punter played in a Super Bowl as a rookie, made two Pro Bowls and was Pro Football Focus’s highest graded punter of the 2010s despite retiring in 2016.
At 29 years old, McAfee walked away from professional football and began his second career as a media personality. In the four years since his retirement, McAfee has worked for Barstool Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports and has a syndicated, self-titled daily radio show on Westwood One.
To call McAfee’s transition seamless would be something of an understatement. Despite his success, there remained an itch dating back to the late 1990s that the former All-Pro wanted to scratch.
McAfee wanted to try his hand at being a professional wrestler.
“For me, [WWE’s] ‘Attitude Era’ was such a captivating thing like it was for anybody that was my age, the ‘Monday Night War’ was huge, obviously,” McAfee told Yahoo Sports. “That was when I think I started to relate more to professional wrestlers than anything else. I’m pretty athletic, I have an outgoing personality, I don’t mind if people hate me. I felt like I related to the business a lot, but then my sporting career went on and did its thing, but I think the seed was always planted.”
‘Now it’s time to find out if I can’
While there’s no denying McAfee made the right choice by opting for football over the relative uncertainty of a childhood pro wrestling dream, his fascination with the industry never waned.
Shortly after his collegiate career at West Virginia ended in 2009, McAfee made a pre-draft pit stop at IWA East Coast, performing across from WarPig and telling the West Virginian Times even then that professional wrestling was something he would have liked to pursue after his NFL career.
“I bought a wrestling ring when I was in the NFL,” McAfee said. “I found out that you could buy a full-size wrestling ring on the internet one night and I pulled the trigger. I’ve had a ring, 18 feet by 18 feet, at my house for probably the past 7 or 8 years. When I was in the NFL, it was just an attraction. People would come to my house for some beers or we’d just be hanging out and everybody always wanted to get in.”
What started out as an attraction as an NFL player turned into a training tool for McAfee early in retirement. McAfee worked with famed wrestling trainer Rip Rogers in the Indianapolis area before putting his in-ring aspirations on hold for myriad other business opportunities, one of which was working as a commentator for WWE, particularly its NXT brand.
Now, McAfee gets his shot at what he calls his “put up or shut up” moment. McAfee will wrestle former NXT champion Adam Cole at NXT TakeOver: XXX, one of the biggest events on the WWE calendar this year.
“I always thought I was supposed to do it, now it’s time to find out if I can,” McAfee said. “When I was a punter in the NFL, I didn’t have to put my body at risk that much, there was a chance I’d get hit, but now I respect the toughness that it’s going to take to get in [the ring] and I’m going to do my damn thing.
“To be completely honest, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before workout wise. There’s so much involved cardio-wise, having the ability to be comfortable flipping and with people on you. It’s much different than what I’ve done, but I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it.”
The feud dates back to a 2018 confrontation between McAfee and Cole but started in earnest earlier this summer when Cole appeared on “The Pat McAfee Show,” McAfee is playing the heel and has been the subject of intense scrutiny from wrestling fans on the internet.
While it’s not uncommon for WWE to enlist outside or crossover talent for its major events, NXT is widely viewed as the company’s pure wrestling brand and, due to the relative infrequency of its pay-per-view events, matches are in high-demand and looked at under a microscope by enthusiasts. A spot against one of the brand’s top talents in Cole only adds to the anticipation and expectations.
“I completely understand where those people are coming from,” McAfee said. “TakeOvers have been the best wrestling shows on Earth since they started. I can understand why people may be upset or what their expectations are, but they are going to be shocked, surprised and certainly impressed. I plan on proving why I’m in the position that I’m in and also why one of the biggest spots in the best pay-per-view was given to me.”
McAfee: I don’t want to ‘disrespect the business’
Although he hasn’t wrestled an actual WWE match yet, McAfee has shown his abilities to entertain in the ring in other ways. On the “go home” episode of NXT this past Wednesday, McAfee got a chance to truly sell his match with Cole by cutting a promo. Oftentimes, when outside talent or newcomers enter the industry, regardless of physical ability, working on the microphone is what has the steepest learning curve.
For McAfee, this hasn’t been the case.
“I’ve always been very comfortable with expressing my opinions, even when I was in middle school and high school,” McAfee said. “I always felt as if communication is something you should be good at because it’s in our nature. I’ve always been a talker.
“When I got the chance to speak and answer everything Adam had said about me, what the wrestling community on Twitter had said about me, I was excited for the moment. Every day on my show I go live without a script, I do 94-minute stand-up comedy sets with no script, I am very comfortable answering people. I think obviously that’s something important to be good at if you’re going to try to become a professional wrestler.”
Success in WWE is a bit harder to measure compared to the NFL. With predetermined outcomes, looking simply at a win or loss against Cole won’t tell the entire story, especially in McAfee’s eyes. Rather, how his match is received after the fact will be what truly matters as he hopes to leave fans “blown away.”
“I very much know [how it played out for] Kurt Angle and Ronda Rousey, that there are a lot of people whose debut matches are heralded,” McAfee said. “There are also a lot of outsiders who come into the ring and embarrass themselves. As a die-hard fan, I’ve always wondered why these people have gotten the opportunity if they are going to disrespect the business like that. I think you should at least put in a little bit of effort to go out there and perform.”
Beyond Saturday, McAfee’s future as an in-ring performer with WWE remains uncertain.
During a conference call earlier this week, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s Executive Vice President, Global Talent Strategy & Development, hinted that this match may not be a one-off, but in classic NFL fashion, McAfee remains honed in on his singular task.
“This might be the NFL lifestyle in me, but I want to focus on what’s next,” McAfee said. “That’s all you can focus on. I’m very much a checkers player, not a chess player. A lot of people bash that, but I’m just trying to jump over people and get kinged as quickly as possible, not think about these long moves. All I’m worried about is putting on a hell of a show on Saturday night.
“This has been the time of my life doing this, so I would expect that as long as I can put on a good show, something will happen in the future for sure.”
‘NXT TakeOver: XXX’ airs on Saturday, August 22 at 7pm on the WWE Network.
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