For Brennan Williams, the phone call came on a Monday night in late October, as he was watching that week’s episode of Monday Night RAW at his parents’ home in Easton, Massachusetts. On the other end of the line was the New England Patriots, offering him what he knew would be his last chance at a career in the NFL.
When you’re an offensive tackle listed at 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds with athleticism, and you’re in shape and available to work, the phone will still ring. However, when you become labeled an “injury risk,” as Brennan Williams had, the amount of times it will ring becomes finite, like a bus pass where a hole gets punched with each ride. Eventually, all the holes get punched. Brennan Williams’s NFL bus pass was down to its last ride.
One injury plagued year and two knee surgeries with the Houston Texans in 2013, a year out of football in 2014 to rebuild and fortify that right knee and a highly encouraging training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this year that ended with him getting let go in final cuts — that was Brennan Williams’s NFL career up until that phone call from the Patriots. Not exactly what he or his family had in mind when the Texans made him a third round draft pick in 2013.
But now Williams was healthy, and the Patriots were a delightfully logical place for his career to finally blossom. Perfect, really. After all, he grew up 20 minutes from their facility. His father, Brent, played nearly a decade as a Patriot in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“You could say the first helmet I ever wore was my dad’s Patriots helmet,” Williams smiled fondly as he pushed aside several brightly colored strands of dreadlocks. In other words, maybe this was meant to be. Maybe he was meant to be a New England Patriot all along, and this circuitous, painful gauntlet the football gods had put him through was their way of making him stronger.
Before signing with and moving to Jacksonville in February 2015, Williams had spent the previous several months rehabbing his right knee at Tom Brady’s very own rehabilitation facility with retired Patriot assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia, crashing at night in the bedroom in which he grew up in the Boston area. After being cut by the Jags in August, he was back at his parents home, waiting for the next NFL call. His wife, Ciarra, and ten month old daughter, Colby, were still in Jacksonville, waiting with him in spirit.
So the next day after getting the Patriots’ call, Brennan Williams drove 20 minutes to their facility. Within a few hours after his arrival and taking a physical, he had signed his contract and was in team meetings getting ready to play the New York Jets. The next day, he wore a Patriots uniform for the first time at practice. It was quite the whirlwind, but Brennan Williams was indeed a New England Patriot.
At practice that day, Williams was rusty and a little fatigued, but given how little actual football he’d played recently, that’s normal. There was only one problem — the Patriots didn’t have time for normal. They needed a ready made tackle who could play as soon as Sunday. They determined, after one day, that it wouldn’t be Brennan Williams, and they cut him less than 48 hours after signing him. And with that, Brennan Williams’s NFL bus pass had expired. The Patriots punched the final hole.
Telling your parents that you’ve been fired on the second day of a job is a humbling experience. Brennan Williams called his parents from the Patriots’ parking lot to tell them he was no longer a Patriot. Understandably everyone was in tears. Imagine you work your whole life to attain something, you work even harder to keep it, and it ends in two days in the Patriots’ parking lot without a single snap in a regular season game.
“It was really hard,” recalls Brent Williams. “But when Brennan came home and walked in the door, after driving the 20 minutes home from the facility, his attitude had changed. He wasn’t down, he was ready. He was excited to move on. It’s his resiliency that I admire most.”
For NFL players, finding a Plan B, something to do after they’ve been told they can’t play football anymore, can be the scariest thing of all. Brennan Williams always had a Plan B, which is why he could muster a smile an hour after losing his dream job.
Because Brennan Williams has another dream, and now he is free to begin that quest. Brennan Williams wants to be in the main event at Wrestlemania. He believes Houston is the place for him to learn how to do that.
Here are the easy parts of the Brennan Williams story: He is the oldest of Brent and Jacquie Williams’s three children. His younger brother, Camren, is a senior linebacker for the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes and his younger sister, Jaylen, is a freshman on the Penn State women’s basketball team. Sports are big in the Williams household. Brennan was a team captain at Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and the No. 1 football recruit in the state his senior year. He graduated from North Carolina in 2012 with a degree in communications.
Here are the more complicated aspects: Brennan Williams has multi-colored dreadlocks, about a half dozen ear piercings, tattoos covering both biceps, and his interests, in addition to professional wrestling, include art, drama, Japanese anime and live action role playing, or LARPing, as some call it. Those people you occasionally see in Game of Thrones-style outfits in a field somewhere jousting with homemade swords? Brennan Williams does that. Hell, Brennan Williams loves that. In fact, his future wife’s first encounter with him found her on the business end of a makeshift sword in a UNC dorm.
“The first time I saw Brennan, he was walking down our dorm room hallway with a pretend sword, made of duct tape and PVC pipe,” Ciarra Williams recalls. “My suite-mates and I all ran into our suite and locked the door. We thought he was out of his mind.
“Sometimes I still think he is.”
For all his quirks, though, Brennan Williams is a meticulous planner, which is probably something he gets from his dad who makes his living as a financial adviser. In early 2013 Brennan immersed himself in the NFL draft process, spending weeks at an academy in Arizona that specifically prepares pro prospects, physically and mentally, for the draft combine.
However, as good as the preparation may have looked on paper, nothing could totally prepare Brennan Williams for the demeaning cattle call that is the NFL scouting combine.
“It’s pretty dehumanizing,” Williams remembers. “You spend a lot of time parading around in your underwear for teams. They put you in a hotel near the train tracks to see how you handle being kept up at night. It’s not fun.”
For a free spirit like Brennan Williams the NFL seems counterintuitive. It’s a league that eschews creativity, aspires to homogenize players as much as possible and, as a result, teams seem to be able to understand how the minds of players with a criminal rap sheet work better than the mind of a player with a college degree.
It’s long been thought that a high score on the Wonderlic test can be an NFL scarlet letter as much as it is a badge of honor. Some NFL coaches are fearful of having players smarter than they are. Williams was told as much when he was taking his practice Wonderlic tests in Arizona. “They told me my scores were a little too high, and that I might want to tank a few of the questions,” Williams says, with his trademark laugh.
A player with hobbies outside of football can be problematic for some teams, as well. “All football, all the time” is most desirable. Williams learned this during the interview process with a few personnel directors who seemed to take exception to his outside interests.
“Teams have spies on college campuses,” Williams says casually. “Teams knew how much I loved WWE. Some asked me if I was going to use my NFL contract as a springboard to leave and go to pro wrestling. Some asked why I loved Japanese anime so much, some asked why I love to LARP.
“One team asked me flat out if I was gay.”
One team that never interviewed Brennan Williams at the combine was the Houston Texans. In fact, they’d barely shown any interest in him at all. So when the phone rang in the third round and it was Texans General Manager Rick Smith, Williams was shocked, to say the least.
“I didn’t really know much about Houston,” Williams says, “but I was excited to get going.”
The odd circumstances under which he was drafted, though, would be just the beginning of his jagged, star-crossed NFL journey.
When we sit down to watch and enjoy NFL football each Sunday, we only see the finished product. In order to get to the 46 players dressing each Sunday, teams churn through bodies in training camp and throughout the season like disposable razors. By the end of the year, well over a hundred players will have donned an NFL jersey for each team.
The NFL’s lifeblood is its current rosters. The NFL’s graveyard is full of its injured, its released, and its retired. Brennan Williams never thought he would be part of the graveyard so quickly. But it only took one day, his first at rookie minicamp as a Houston Texan, when a teammate rolled over the back of his right knee during a drill.
Closer examination by the medical staff determined that it was a cartilage issue with the right knee, a knee that Williams had some trouble with during his senior year at North Carolina. He would undergo an arthroscopic procedure on the knee that forced him out of minicamp, OTA’s, and most of training camp, putting him woefully behind as a rookie.
Williams finally made it onto the field in the final preseason game of 2013 against the Dallas Cowboys, playing in a handful of snaps, but the knee wasn’t right. He met with team doctors and they told him the the four words no athlete wants to hear — “You’ll need microfracture surgery.”
The only predictable thing about microfracture surgery is the miserably grueling nature, physically and psychologically, of the rehab process that follows. “It involves a lot of sitting around, at first,” Williams says “so there’s a lot of atrophy and self doubt.”
As for predicting degrees of recovery from microfracture surgery, you’d do just as well predicting the outcome on a roulette wheel. Not everyone is Jadeveon Clowney. For his part, Brennan Williams’s rehab period found him in the dreadful aftermath of the Texans’ 2-14 season in 2013 and in the midst of a coaching change from Gary Kubiak to Bill O’Brien.
“Being an injured guy during a coaching change is tough. I knew a little about O’Brien from his time [as an assistant] with the Patriots,” Williams said. “He also recruited my brother when he was the head coach at Penn State. My brother actually changed his commitment from Penn State to Ohio State after Penn State was hit with all the NCAA sanctions [from the Jerry Sandusky scandal]. It was nothing against O’Brien, Camren just decided Ohio State was a better fit.”
In July of 2014, with the Texans’ new coaching staff needing fewer question marks along the offensive line headed into the season, and with Williams’s right knee still questionable, the team decided it could no longer wait and on July 21, they released him.
For the Texans, it was another empty draft choice in the seemingly cursed 2013 draft class. Losing a third round pick to injury was something the Texans could ill afford at the time, and still feels the effects from today. “Ultimately, had he been healthy, [Williams] could’ve given the Texans some options on the offensive line, especially as it pertained to [current Texans offensive tackle] Derek Newton,” says Texans sideline reporter and draft analyst John Harris. “I don’t think Williams could’ve played guard consistently, but had he shown some potential at tackle, perhaps Newton could’ve bumped to guard on a full-time basis and Williams could’ve stayed at right tackle.
“That said, the loss of Williams and guard David Quessenberry [to lymphoma] as rookies was massive in 2013.”
What Williams lost in opportunity and pay in his release from the Texans, he gained in clarity. “It sounds strange,” Williams says, “but when I was released by the Texans, it allowed me to fully focus on getting healthy on my terms, put a plan together and prepare for another shot at the NFL in 2015.”
Williams moved from Houston back to Massachusetts, his then-pregnant wife of just several months with him, and his job was simple: get healthy. Driven to get off the NFL’s conveyor belt of injury-related cautionary tales, Williams worked out daily at Brady’s facility with Scarnecchia.
On February 20, 2015, the rebuild was complete. The Jaguars signed him to a contract. The Williams family, now three with the December addition of daughter Colby, moved to Jacksonville where Brennan would get a fresh start.
In Jacksonville, for the first time in his life, he was able to go through a normal NFL experience — minicamps, OTA’s, training camp. On August 14, he played several series in the Jaguars’ first preseason game against the Steelers and he felt normal again. His parents met him after the game and they all cried tears of joy. A bone bruise Williams suffered on his left knee in the game, the opposite knee from which he had microfracture surgery, was a mere nuisance. Nothing to get worked up about, Williams thought.
However, the Jaguars were concerned and a couple weeks later, with Williams missing practices to heal coupled with the team’s juggling roster needs at other positions, the Jaguars released Williams.
“The injury wasn’t serious; I just needed time to get back,” Williams says. “And getting released at the end of camp, there are so many other players getting released around the league, it’s hard to find work. But the worst part was that most NFL teams would just see that I had another knee injury and assume it was the right knee flaring up again. It wasn’t even my right knee!”
So, Williams went back to Boston, Brady’s facility and the watchful eye of Scarnecchia. Ciarra stayed in Jacksonville with the baby, and the roller coaster of life on the NFL margins went on. Williams would work out and wait for the phone to ring. His agent would call teams reminding them he had a perfectly healthy former third round pick ready to play for them, if need be.
Eventually, that call from the Patriots came, and Williams made his two-day midweek cameo at the facility that ended with another heartbreak.
The silver lining in his brief Patriots tenure was that Williams got one week’s worth of practice squad pay, several thousand dollars. It was just enough, he estimated, to travel to Houston and live there for a few months.
So he made a call to an old friend he’d made during his time in Houston, WWE Hall of Fame performer Booker T, to tell him he was on his way to the Bayou City.
Williams is a big believer in signs, and if you ask him, there was a reason that he was in the middle of watching Monday Night RAW and not Monday Night Football when the phone call came from the Patriots on October 19. In retrospect, he sees it as evidence that his attempt at WWE superstardom was closer than he had thought.
“My dream was always to play in the NFL for as long as I could, and then move onto professional wrestling after my NFL career was over,” Williams says. “In a way, I guess technically that’s what’s happening, it’s just happening at age 24 instead of my early thirties.”
“Truth be told, I was approached about a tryout with WWE back in 2014 after I was let go by the Texans,” Williams says. “But I still wanted to be a football player, and I also knew that when the time came to try wrestling, I didn’t want to just jump in unprepared. I wanted to be ready to impress WWE.”
His love affair with wrestling began when he was in elementary school and started playing the WWE video game No Mercy with his cousins. The video game begat weekly viewings of Monday Night RAW, which begat attending WWE live shows, and it all grew into Williams’s insatiable love for professional wrestling.
While most fathers, especially those who make their living as financial advisers, would roll their eyes at their kid trying to become a pro wrestler, Brent Williams gets it. “We weren’t surprised when he told my wife and me that this is what he wanted to do,” the elder Williams says. “This is his passion.”
The beginning of his son’s development will take place beneath the wing of Houstonian and founder of the Reality of Wrestling promotion, Booker T (real name, Booker Huffman).
When Williams moved to Houston in the summer of 2013, he was looking for some local independent wrestling cards to take in during his free time. It was in Clear Lake at a ROW show that Williams was introduced to Booker. The two struck up an immediate friendship, and Williams made it clear that someday he wanted to try his hand at professional wrestling. That day is now here.
“Brennan has a couple things that you can’t teach,” Booker offered. “You can’t teach 6-foot-7, and you can’t teach the love he has for this business.”
“When a former football player is just ‘settling’ for wrestling as a career or just doing it for a paycheck, I can smell that bullshit a mile away,” says former WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross, in his inimitable Oklahoma drawl.
Many longtime wrestling fans know Ross as the play-by-play voice of Monday Night RAW’s golden age, WWE’s “Attitude Era” back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Behind the scenes, he was also the executive vice president in charge of signing and developing talent and, during his tenure, Ross assembled a WWE roster that was the most profitable and successful in the history of the business — wrestling’s equivalent of the Patriots dynasty that, ironically, just released Brennan Williams.
Among Ross’s signees were several performers who, like Williams, had previously played other professional or collegiate sports, most notably Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Brock Lesnar.
Ross has some bullet points for wrestling rookies.
“You have to be ready [to] go from a cardio standpoint, like you’re training for a triathlon,” says Ross. “So many of these guys come in thinking they need to be on the cover of Muscle and Fitness. It’s not about that.”
“You have to be on time,” Ross continues. “They don’t want troublemakers, guys that fail drug tests. You got to come in serious, ready, and in shape. Don’t look like you just had a litter of puppies. Football players should prepare for their WWE tryout like they prepared for the NFL combine.
“There aren’t any second chances.”
Williams is approaching his entry into the world of wrestling the same way he did his drafting into the NFL. This time, a dank gym in southeast Houston is playing the role of the plush facility in Arizona, and Booker T is playing the role of “combine coach.”
I actually called Booker a couple weeks before New England called me to float the idea of coming to train with him for wrestling in case no NFL teams called,” Williams said. “Booker was all for it.”
The road for an aspiring wrestler to make it to WWE is fiercely competitive, and these days all of the roads through small independent promotions like ROW in Houston eventually lead through WWE’s Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, where dozens and dozens of developmental candidates continually vie for the precious few spots that open up on WWE’s main roster each year.
While Williams’s long-term goal is to walk down the ramp in the fourth and final hour of a Wrestlemania, WWE’s annual version of the Super Bowl, his short-term goal is to get a WWE tryout in January and secure a developmental contract.
“All right, collar and elbow tie up... GO!”
Booker T barks out orders to Williams and his workout partner, a muscular athletic type who goes by Mysterious Q in the ROW promotion. On the first collar and elbow tie up, Williams’s posture is sloppy. Booker fixes it and screams “Okay, DO IT AGAIN!”
Booker makes Williams repeat this simple move no fewer than a dozen times. Quickly, you realize the excruciating detail that goes into making someone a believable, competent performer of this genre. To put it into perspective, in a given match, this particular sequence Williams is repeating over and over is maybe the first six seconds of the match. In football, this would be like working on the snap from center over and over again for 20 minutes.
Booker made a living out of spicing up something as simple as a headlock. “Wrestling is all about getting a reaction,” Booker smiles. “I’m trying to show my students that you can get a reaction doing almost anything. It’s about projecting. If he’s going to try out in January, we got to get [Williams] on the fast track. He’s basically in college now.”
Booker has Williams bouncing off the ropes, applying a headlock, executing an arm twist. With every move, Booker steps in, fixes Williams’s footwork, critiques his posture. The temperature in the gym isn’t quite at sauna level, but it’s far from comfortable. It’s just steamy and cramped enough to make you want to execute every move perfectly, so you can afford your own gym someday.
After a few hours, and several hundred headlocks, arm twists, rope bounces, and flip bumps, the workout for that day is over. Booker T has a 6 a.m. flight to catch so he can go promote next April’s Wrestlemania 32 in Dallas. The Houston gym will be Brennan Williams’s world for the next two months.
Ciarra and Colby are with Brennan in Houston now, following him on the next adventure. “I tell people that I’m chasing Brennan around as he chases his dreams. It’s been fun, crazy and at times very stressful,” Ciarra says. “I think he’s going to be great, though, because he’s genuinely interested in and loves wrestling.”
So Brennan Williams’s mornings will be about taking care of the baby and getting his cardio in so he can get down to his target weight, around 280 pounds. “In WWE, they can just say that I’m 320 pounds, I don’t actually have to be 320 pounds like in the NFL,” Williams jokes.
Williams’s evenings will be spent in that gym, sweating his ass off, adding a new brick each night to the wall, putting together the puzzle that will eventually someday hopefully walk down that ramp on WWE television. For now, the goal is for him to have his first real match on an ROW card in December.
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When asked if there’s sadness about his NFL career never getting out of first gear, Williams’s answer is pragmatic and somewhat faith-based. “The way I look at it is that everything happened for a reason,” he said. “I was drafted by the Texans so I could meet Booker T, I signed with Jacksonville so I could have a home in Florida near WWE’s developmental facility and I was signed by the Patriots to get that one week paycheck to pay my rent to train in Houston. That’s honestly how I see it.”
When asked if he’s envisioned walking out for his first WWE match, he laughs. As it turns out, he already has a friend from college working on his entrance music. “It’s pretty awesome, like a Godzilla, kaiju kind of riff,” Williams says, his eyes lighting up at the thought of his own Titantron entrance video. He himself has already designed his ring gear and invented his gimmick, which will somehow seamlessly meld aspects of Shogun and kung-fu with colored dreadlocks.
Williams has pictured the whole thing, and it’s all the most Williams thing ever. “I’ve seen myself walking through the back, getting to the curtain, my music hits, and the curtain opens…”
And the next chapter begins.