Holler: Former Viking making it big in WWE

Joe Anoa'i gave the NFL a shot with the Vikings six years ago. When that didn't work, he fell back on the family business and is ramping it up as Roman Reigns.

Back in 2007, my editor said, "I've got a story for you that only you can do justice." But why would Viking Update readers need to know how to hot-wire a car or spot weld handcuffs away without burning a wrist?

No, this was a Vikings story. While Minnesotans were flocking to their local sports apparel shops to be the first on their block to have Adrian Peterson jerseys, the Vikings were using a biscuit to sop up undrafted rookie gravy. Among the names like Arkee Whitlock was a guy from whom I really did need to get the inside skinny.

That was six years ago. Six days ago, I got an unanticipated eye-opening experience that the deepest of deep Vikings fans will raise one eyebrow over – if they are also fans of professional wrestling.

Growing up, I was what wrestling promoters would call "a mark." The AWA was where it's at and you "run, don't walk" to get the available tickets for a house show. I wanted to go see the live events when they came to my town. While I was one of the few audience members – at least from my personal experience – that had 32 teeth and I.Q. markedly higher than that number, I was enthralled by the theatre of it. When I was growing up, wrestling was rasslin', not sports entertainment. It was my "Kinky Boots."

Much like asking an adult if he or she enjoys grape Kool-Aid and the response is, "Yeah, when I was 10," so it is with professional wrestling. I'll be the first to admit I "outgrew" wrestling, but, at the same time, I have seen a Wrestlemania live just about every year that there has been a Wrestlemania. It's gone, but not forgotten.

So it was that late on Father's Day when an old-school, out-of-town buddy called and said he was rolling through and wanted to hook up for a beer and some snappy banter. I made the traffic-friendly watering hole suggestion. As luck would have it, what I thought would be a sleepy tavern was abuzz with excitement. What created that excitement? A pay-per-view from World Wrestling Entertainment.

While we were discussing kids, career paths and "the good old days" when we were 20, single and looking for trouble, morbidly obese men with "summer teeth" – "summer" there and "summer" gone – were cheering on the likes of John Cena, C.M. Punk and The Shield.

I haven't followed pro wrestling in a while, but this isn't a mea culpa. Far from it. Moving away from wrestling isn't a criminal offense. But when I looked at the big screen in between the mullets and bib overalls, I saw someone who looked familiar. He gave a smile to his tag-team partner that set off a bell in my head. The face was vaguely familiar, but the eye-smile combo was something I had seen before. Two seconds earlier or later and I wouldn't have seen it. But, I was in the four-second window that it sent a shock wave through the 10 percent of my brain I use. I know that guy.

I felt obligated to ask the overweight high school dropout wearing the "Yes! Yes! Yes!" tee-shirt who the guy I saw on TV was and he said it was Roman Reigns.

Back in 2007, the Vikings signed a promising defensive tackle from Georgia Tech. He was Artist Eventually To Be Known As Roman Reigns. At the time, he was known as Joe Anoa'i. To the rest of the media throng, that was just the first name on a list that included Chad Johnson and Chase Johnson. He was what NFL insiders call "a camp body." In NFL terms, he was what pro wrestlers call "a jobber." You're there. You're gone. Who remembers?

To me, he was wrestling royalty. The Anoa'i family is to wrestling what the Kennedy family is to politics and bawdy behavior. Where the Kennedys had JFK, RFK, Papa Joe, Teddy and the dalliance-laden next generation, the Anoa'i family tree included High Chief Peter Maivia, Rocky Johnson, The Wild Samoans, Yokozuna, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka and, arguably a face on the Mount Rushmore of pro wrestling, The Rock (a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson).

Yes, I was the right person to interview Joe Anoa'i. I went into it with an approach something akin to kayfabe (look it up). If you're a Manning, you don't have the connections to get into the wrestling business – unless you're willing to be a jobber who gets folded up like a card table in 90 seconds or less. On a similar path, if you're an Anoa'i, there was no such guarantee of realizing an NFL dream.

Other reporters knew who the Rock was, but, when you start an interview reciting his family tree with Afa and Sika (again, look it up), it was five minutes of melted butter – sippin' whiskey smooth. I made an Anoa'i eyebrow go up. He wanted to play NFL football. He knew the deck was stacked heavily against him. The "family business" was a backup plan.

As it turns out, it was a pretty good backup plan. In his "family business," Roman Reigns is on the fast track to big money. As a member of The Shield, Anoa'i carries half of the WWE tag-team belt. If not for a fortunate disinterested glance at a big screen, an insider interview in 2007 would have been for naught. Instead, it was an interview that became a portent of things to come.

In 2007, Joe Anoa'i was a blown-up linebacker with a dice-roller's chance of hitting it in the NFL. Fortunately, he had a backup plan — one that pays NFL-style money if you reach the upper echelon of your profession. For the vast majority of players, a face to face with "The Turk" is a heartbreaking moment. For Anoa'i, being cut by the Vikings was one of the best things for his family that could have happened.

As current wrestling marks would say, "I'm A Roman Reigns Guy." The family is proud.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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