Ric Flair, the self-proclaimed kiss-stealing, limousine-riding, jet-flying son of a gun, "walked that aisle" night after night, town after town on his way to professional wrestling immortality.
It's an aisle that began for the "Nature Boy" on the football field as an offensive guard on the University of Minnesota's freshmen team in 1968 and quickly led to the wrestling ring. It's the same aisle countless other wrestling stars have taken during the years dating back to Bronko Nagurski, who started wrestling in 1933 to supplement what was modest football pay at that time. He'd wrestle from January to July and then play football from September to December.
"There was no Nike, no endorsement deals or any of that other stuff back in those days," explained WWE Hall of Fame wrestling announcer Jim Ross. "Nagurski was a football star, a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he was also a wrestling star. He took sabbaticals from the NFL just to wrestle because he was making more money from wrestling."
In a lot of ways, he was also a pioneer.
When WrestleMania 32, pro wrestling's largest annual spectacle, is staged Sunday night before 80,000-plus fans at AT&T Stadium, many of the grapplers appearing, including some of the headliners, were once college football players. A few even dipped their toes into the professional football ranks.
Before taking the WWE by storm as Roman Reigns, Joe Anoa'i was a standout defensive tackle at Georgia Tech. Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
Roman Reigns, for instance, will tangle with WWE champion Triple H in the main event. Before he was Roman Reigns, he was Joe Anoa'i and a starting defensive tackle at Georgia Tech from 2004-06. As a senior, Reigns earned first-team All-ACC honors and was one of the Yellow Jackets' top players along with Calvin Johnson. Reigns signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2007, but was released after injuries prevented him from passing his physical. He played an entire season in the CFL in 2008 with the Edmonton Eskimos before following his family's calling and making the transition from the gridiron to the squared circle.
Growing up, everywhere Reigns looked, he had wrestling all around him. His father, Sika, is a WWE Hall of Famer and one-half of the Wild Samoans tag team with Reigns' uncle, Afa. Reigns' two older brothers, Rosey and Matt, also wrestled along with another uncle, Eki Fatu, and Reigns' most star-studded relative of all, cousin Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, also cut his teeth on the football field before morphing into one of the most explosive box-office draws in wrestling history.
Johnson was known as "Dewey" to his Miami Hurricane teammates before he was "The Rock." He was a top-flight defensive line recruit and played as a freshman on the 1991 national championship team. He finished with 77 career tackles and made one start before graduating in 1995.
LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was the Miami defensive line coach at the time and jokes that Johnson's biggest problem was that Warren Sapp arrived at The U the year after Johnson did.
"The kids on the team loved him, and he was always ready to go and full of personality," Orgeron recalled. "We just had one of the best guys to ever play that position (Sapp) playing in front of him."
But by the time The Rock was captivating WWE audiences with his combination of power and charisma, he took a back seat to no one.
"Football is a big thing to have on your resume in this business," Ross said. "It's a natural conduit and a natural bridge. If you've got a big personality and are athletic and are willing to work, there's money there."
Ross should know, too. He's been in the wrestling business since 1974 and spent 21 years at WWE. He was the head of the WWE's talent department for a large chunk of his time there and signed three of the biggest stars in the business — John Cena, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock.
It's no coincidence, as Ross points out, that all three donned football gear in their day.
"Football answers a lot of questions for you when you're trying to decide if a guy has a chance in the wrestling business," said Ross, a huge Oklahoma Sooners fan who reveled in walking to the ring with "Boomer Sooner" blaring any time he'd make appearances.
Dwayne Johnson was stuck behind Warren Sapp at Miami, but he took a backseat to no one once he hit the WWE. Miami/Collegiate Images/Getty Images
Cena, one of the WWE's top "baby-faced" draws, was a Division III All-America center at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, and one of three captains on the 1998 team that played in the NCAA Division III Championship game.
Before Austin was putting opponents to sleep in the ring with his Stone Cold Stunner, Ross said the "Texas Rattlesnake" was running over and around his opponents on the football field as Steve Williams in the early 1980s.
"He was a 7-yards deep tailback and high school sensation from Edna, Texas," Ross said.
From there, Austin went to Wharton Junior College as a linebacker and moved on to North Texas State in 1986-87, where he transitioned to defensive end. He tore ligaments in his knee and rehabbed, and then played 11 games the next season and dropped out of school 17 hours shy of a degree. His next move was to the Chris Adams wrestling school.
Since the dawning of both sports, there's never been anybody more decorated as a wrestler and a college football player than Ron Simmons, who's a member of both the College Football and WWE halls of fame. He was a two-time All-America defensive lineman at Florida State under Bobby Bowden in 1979-80 and helped pave the way to the Seminoles becoming the Seminoles we know today as one of college football's true powerhouses. Simmons, 57, was also the first officially recognized black world champion when he won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship in 1992.
"Sometimes, I look back and think, 'Did I really do all that?" said Simmons, who initially wrestled under his real name and was later billed as "Faarooq" when he went to the WWE and teamed with another former football player, John "Bradshaw" Layfield.
"I was fortunate enough to have a lengthy career. But trust me. I paid the price. I had injuries in wrestling I never had in football, and I'm talking about something every day. Remember, too, when I was coming up, we were wrestling every day, so the travel schedule coupled with the pounding you took in the ring made it brutal."
Simmons is also one of those rare superstars in wrestling that when he goes back home, he's remembered as much for his football exploits as he is for what he's accomplished in wrestling.
Glenn Jacobs, a WWE star who wrestles as "Kane," remembers doing a show in Tallahassee several years back, and as they were coming off the plane and heading through the airport, the fans weren't gawking about seeing "Faarooq."
"No, they were saying, 'There's No. 50, Ron Simmons,'" Jacobs recalled.
Before his battles in the ring, Simmons was at the center of a fierce football recruiting battle in high school when Florida State went into Warner Robins, Georgia, and pried him away from Vince Dooley and the Bulldogs. Bowden was only in his second year at FSU, and getting Simmons was an enormous recruiting coup.
Ron Simmons, right, is both a WWE and College Football Hall of Famer and helped establish Bobby Bowden's Florida State as a national power. AP Photo
"I was almost kicked out of the state of Georgia when I signed to go to Florida State," Simmons said. "That's how bad it was. There were Bulldog banners in my uncle's yard. He's the one who raised me. My cousin, Jimmy Womack, went to Georgia to play fullback and blocked for Herschel Walker. Everybody just assumed I was going to Georgia, and they went nuts when I chose Florida State. Man, did I hear about it. I got picked at. They told me I was going to an all-girls school and that we'd never do anything.
"Now when I go back, they look at me a little differently, and I can't tell you how many of them are FSU fans now."
No college football program in America has a deeper rooted connection with pro wrestling than West Texas A&M (formerly West Texas State). As many as 12 former West Texas State football players went on to become major stars in the wrestling business, including Dusty Rhodes, Dory Funk Jr., Blackjack Mulligan, Bruiser Brody, Tito Santana, Ted "The Million Dollar Man" DiBiase and the "Raging Bull" Manny Fernandez. There have been eight WWE Hall of Famers from West Texas State, the latest being Stan Hansen, who will be inducted Saturday as part of the WrestleMania 32 festivities.
"There are no injury timeouts in wrestling," said WWE Hall of Famer Tully Blanchard, who was a wishbone quarterback at West Texas State in the mid 1970s. "Plus, back in the day, if you didn't work, you didn't get paid. You were motivated to work even when you were hurt. You always had something nagging. One of the worst for me was a cracked rib. That killed me for three or four weeks, and I still had to go out and take bumps."
Blanchard went into the Hall of Fame as a member of the most renowned wrestling stable in history — the Four Horsemen. Joining him were Arn Anderson, Barry Windham (also a West Texas football alum), Flair and manager J.J. Dillon.
"We had great chemistry and knew how to play off of one another, and the thing that made it great was that there wasn't any jealousy and we all knew our role, a lot like a great football team," said Blanchard, who was masterful at playing one of the most despised "heels" in the business during the Four Horsemen's run.
Blanchard's father, Joe, played four years of football at Kansas State before he got into the wrestling business, and it was a West Texas State alum, WWE Hall of Famer Terry Funk, who first called Blanchard's dad about Tully coming to play football for the Buffs.
Blanchard signed with SMU and Hayden Fry out of high school, but Fry was fired at the end of Blanchard's first year there in 1972. The new staff switched Blanchard from quarterback to fullback to defensive end, and he'd had enough before his sophomore season started. He wound up at Cisco Junior College in Texas and graduated in enough time that he was eligible to play right away that next season.
That's when Funk put on his West Texas State recruiting cap and called Joe Blanchard and told him that his son needed to come to Canyon, Texas, to play his college football.
"I don't know what would have happened had Terry not made that call, but I went there, did some drills, threw for them, and they offered me a scholarship," Blanchard said.
Even some of the most fleeting football careers were enough to prop the door open to a successful wrestling career. Jacobs, better known to WWE wrestling fans for his spooky mask as the "Demon" Kane, didn't even play high school football. After starting at Quincy University in Illinois, he went to Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State) and initially played basketball. But he lived in the weight room, and at 6-8, bulked up to 285 pounds.
A defensive captain and two-time All-SEC pick at Georgia, Bill Goldberg's no-nonsense style stormed through the WCW and WWE. Allen Steele/Getty Images
"The football coach saw me one day and said, 'What are you doing running up and down the basketball court at 285 pounds?'" quipped Jacobs, who earned a degree in English Literature. "The school was going through some changes academically. I'd transferred in and still had some eligibility left and ended up getting a football scholarship."
Jacobs played offensive tackle at 6-8 and 315 pounds. He was running a 5-flat in the 40-yard dash and once cranked out 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. But he tore the ACL in his left knee his final season, and even though he was invited to camp with the Chicago Bears, he was never the same athletically.
Chris Park, who wrestles as "Abyss" in Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling, is convinced his background as a football player helped to facilitate his wrestling career. Park, who's 6-7 and 340 pounds, played offensive guard at Ohio University from 1989-93. He earned two degrees there, including his master's degree in sports administration.
"There's no doubt in my mind, with that kind of grind and the physicality of wrestling, that playing football prepared me as well as anything possibly could have," Park said. "As a football player, you're used to going out there and playing sore. You're used to being hit and living in a world of physicality. Something else that helped, being a lineman, was my agility and footwork in the ring. Offensive linemen have to be able to take quick steps, and at my weight, that training helped me to move around in the ring and not be so lumbering and slow."
Bill Goldberg was a two-time All-SEC defensive lineman at Georgia and a defensive captain for the Bulldogs as a senior in 1989. He also played a few years of professional football, the final three with the Atlanta Falcons from 1992-94. After tearing his abdomen from the pelvis, Goldberg, now 49, knew his football days were over, and the hulking former tackle was a natural for the squared circle.
"There are a lot of us who might not have achieved our dream the way we wanted to in football, but we achieved it in wrestling," said Goldberg, who was billed as the only unbeaten wrestler in WCW history at 173-0 and also won a world championship in the WWE as part of a short, but successful, run from 2003-04.
Goldberg, admittedly a no-nonsense wrestler who'd typically go out and "kick the (bleep)" out of his opponents in three minutes or fewer, has always understood the theatrics of wrestling. He was never a big fan of theatrics in football, though, and isn't surprised so many players want to get into wrestling nowadays.
"Now, in the NFL, they promote that crap, all the celebrating and individualism of the sport," Goldberg said. "Now, it's a form of expression, which I have an issue with. It was an insult back in the day. Everybody's a showman now if they make a tackle they're supposed to make or run for 10 yards. It's gotten out of hand, and there's even more of a natural progression into professional wrestling now than it used to be."
The football blood running through the wrestling industry isn't confined to merely reliving their old days on the gridiron. Many of the wrestlers are huge fans.
Thaddeus Bullard, who goes by "Titus O'Neil" in the ring, played at Florida under Steve Spurrier in the late 1990s. Bullard was a coveted recruit and one of the rare players to wear Spurrier's No. 11 in college.
Occasionally, Bullard couldn't help but stir up some of the old SEC rivalries when he'd be performing at an arena in the SEC footprint.
"As a heel, I'd use it when we were in Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama," Bullard said.
The fans were booing him once while he was taping a promo for a "SmackDown" show in Tennessee, and he barked, "That's not the way you guys should be greeting a winner like myself. After all, I'm a proud Florida Gator. Are you booing me just because I'm a Gator or just because Tennessee hasn't beaten the Gators forever?"
Bullard grew up in Tampa, Florida, watching wrestling with his grandmother. His first year with the Gators was their 1996 national championship season, and during his time in Gainesville, he became accustomed to seeing Flair at practices and on the sideline for games. Long before Flair was hanging around with Jim Harbaugh at Michigan's signing day extravaganza, he was close friends with Spurrier.
Ric Flair played football at Minnesota, celebrated a national title with Steve Spurrier and participated in Jim Harbaugh's signing day extravaganza at Michigan. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Flair attended the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans when Florida beat Florida State to win the 1996 national championship. He was walking back to the team hotel with several of the Gators' coaches after the game. The coaches were still in their Florida coaches' gear, and it was a madhouse among the fans outside the Superdome.
Jim Collins, now on Duke's football staff, still laughs when he thinks about the wild scene and Flair being in his element.
"Here's Ric Flair and his bleach-blond hair, and everybody recognizes him," said Collins, who has remained close with Flair. "They're all yelling, 'Go Gators,' but just as many of them are yelling Ric's customary, 'Wooooo!'"
At the official team gathering with coaches, their families and Florida administrators later that evening, the "Nature Boy" was the hit of the party. As everybody took turns toasting one another and the season, Flair jumps up on a chair and brings the house down with his own variation of a phrase that has personified him.
"Diamonds are forever … and so are the Florida Gators," Flair chortled, followed by an emphatic "Woooo!"