The Most bizarre pre-season addition in NFL history
Every year, without fail, NFL sides load up their roster with players, putting them at around 90 total players. Made up largely of undrafted free agents and projects, the best they can hope for is a spot on the final roster. More often than not, they don’t make it. Some do, mind, and some go one to make it in a big way. See Phillip Lindsay for the most recent example of an UDFA success.
In recent years, there has been an influx of prospects from sports outside of American Football trying their hand at making an NFL career. Christian Wade and Jarryd Hayne, for example, are two established Rugby players who have attempted the transition in recent years. Of course, the cross-over in skills between Rugby and American Football are obvious. The two sports share plenty in common in how they’re played, so there is a natural fit there.
That isn’t to say athletes from other sporting backgrounds haven’t given it a go. Former Olympic sprinter, Dwain Chambers, had a stint in NFL Europa. Lawrence Okoye, an Olympic-level Discus athlete, bounced around the pre-season rosters of 5 different NFL sides between 2013 and 2017, and even plied his trade in the CFL and AAF. These are, of course, athletes of the highest level. Olympians.
None of these examples would, or should, raise too many eyebrows. There is one case, however, that can be considered truly strange. It involves a side looking for the spark needed to take the next step, a professional wrestler looking to fulfil a lifelong dream, and a pre-season of collective hope. Let me tell you about the most bizarre pre-season pick up in NFL history.
The Purple People Eaters
Our story begins, as all great stories do, in 2004. The New England Patriots had secured their second Super Bowl victory in three years. Manchester United had humbled plucky Millwall in the FA Cup final, and Green Day had released the anti-war masterpiece that was American Idiot. Nothing could go wrong.
Among the early to mid-noughties hijinks stood the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings were in the midst of a prolonged stint in the wilderness. Since 2000 the side was in a period of relative transition, moving away from Chris Carter as Randy Moss established himself as the dominant name in the receiving game. Despite their talent, however, the side had suffered back to back losing seasons in 2001 and 2002.
They were improving, in any case. Having taken over the role of Head Coach following the 5-10 2001 season, Mike Tice led the Vikings to a 6-10 2002. Baby steps, yes, but steps nonetheless. A solid draft, adding Kevin Williams and E.J. Henderson, as well as current analyst Nate Burleson, and there was legitimate hope that the 2003 Vikings might be something.
And something they were. The Vikings started 2003 6-0, handing defeats to all three of their NFC North rivals in the process. It was a start that caught fans across the globe completely off guard, and, at 6-0, they’d positioned themselves as a true contender.
The Vikings went on to lose 4 straight and saw all their hard work and optimism salted away. Throughout that stretch, the Vikings gave up over 28 points a game and lost by double digits in 3 of the 4 games. Though they managed to steady themselves over the final 6 games, an 18-17 loss on the final day ended their hopes of a playoff berth.
Still, 9-7 isn’t terrible. Of course, you’d like to have been in the playoffs, but not many expected Minnesota to be there at the start of the season, and that record is a tangible improvement. With free agency additions such as Antoine Winfield at Cornerback, and Marcus Robinson at receiver, further improvement from the younger guys on the roster, and an exciting new rookie class, the 2004 season would be one of renewed hope for Mike Tice’s Vikings. They were ready for the big time. One more spark and they would be there.
The Ballad of Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar loved sports. He especially loved physical, violent sports. At High School, he dabbled with Football. Quickly, however, he fell in love with wrestling, where he placed third in the State Championships in his senior year. Scholarships weren’t forthcoming, though, and he left High School in favour of a career in the military. Unfortunately for Lesnar, being red-green colourblind ended his hopes of working with explosives before they’d begun, and a failure in a computer typing test ended his military career altogether.
Undeterred, he returned to his love of wrestling, enrolling at Bismark State, a community college in North Dakota. After winning the NJCAA Heavyweight Championship, Lesnar finally received his scholarship, heading to the University of Minnesota. More success followed, winning the NCAA Division I Heavyweight Championship in 2000. Lesnar’s college wrestling career ended with 105 wins and 6 losses. Results like that don’t go unnoticed.
Lesnar signed on with the World Wrestling Federation once his college career drew to an end, and things blew up. Between 2002 and 2004, Lesnar claimed the WWE Championship on three occasions, won King of the Ring once, the Royal Rumble once, and a myriad of personal awards. He became a star. I won’t pretend I know a great deal about the pro-wrestling scene, but even I know who Brock Lesnar is. That should tell you everything.
In the back of Lesnar’s mind, however, an idea had burrowed its way into the back of his mind. Those High School football memories had projected them into his mind’s eye. He openly wondered whether he could have made it as a professional football player.
Following Lesnar’s match at Wrestlemania XX, WWE released the following statement: “Brock Lesnar has made a personal decision to put his WWE career on hold to prepare to try out for the National Football League this season. Brock has wrestled his entire professional career in the WWE and we are proud of his accomplishments and wish him the best in his new endeavor.”
Lesnar accepted an invitation to the NFL Combine and flourished. In drills designed to showcase overall athleticism, Lesnar’s sporting history gave him an edge. A 4.7ish second 40-yard dash and 35 inch vertical jump top the bill on what was a very impressive showing, and interest in his ability began to swell. And then; disaster.
On the 17th of April, Lesnar was involved in a motorcycle accident, which saw him collide with a minivan. The accident left Lesnar with a broken jaw and left hand, a bruised pelvis, and a pulled groin. Amazingly, interest in Lesnar didn’t wane. From the Ravens, Colts, 49ers, Cowboys, Chiefs, Eagles, Packers, and Vikings, requests for a work out arrived. On the 27th of July 2004, following his recovery, and subsequent workouts, it was announced that Brock Lesnar would be joining the Minnesota Vikings.
Lesnar joined the Vikings as a Defensive Tackle. For a side that struggled to keep sides out of the endzone in 2003, the move made sense. Handed the number 69, Lesnar went about an eight week crash course in playing the position, one that left him feeling less like a rookie, and “more like a water boy.”
Despite the adjustment, Lesnar impressed. He was praised for his commitment to making it work, but also his commitment to his new teammates. Following a cheap shot on then starting Quarterback Daunte Culpepper during a joint practice with the Kansas City Chiefs, Lesnar pulled out one of his signature moves. “The next play, he went and suplexed the guy. Different type of nasty, but he picked up a grown man after the play.” The move resulted in a mass brawl, or “Royal Rumble: Minnesota”, as Nate Burleson recalled.
On the field, however, Lesnar found playing time extremely fleeting, limited to sparse showings in the 4th quarter of pre-season games. So rare were his appearances that very little footage exists of these performances. In any case, the combination of playing a new sport professionally, and the limited space to grow into it, stunted him. Largely registering pressures over tackles and sacks, the almost superhuman persona that he’d garnered in the WWE was stripped away. Brock Lesnar was downright normal.
On the 30th of August, before the final pre-season game of the schedule, Lesnar was released. Though, not without a backup option. Minnesota felt there was still an opportunity there. They extended an invitation his way, to represent the Vikings in NFL Europa. Lesnar, though flattered, opted against the move, citing his willingness to stay closer to his family. From that point forward, Brock Lesnar, the NFL player, was no more
The Minnesota Vikings played out a very strange 2004 season. Despite regressing to an 8-8 record, they managed to capitalise on a universally weak NFC, securing the 6th seed in the conference. In the Wild card round, they faced the old enemy; the 10-6 Green Bay Packers. SB Nation put together a very good summary of how they managed to overcome that side in a 31-17 win. Victory in the divisional round proved a step too far, however. Tice’s side succumbed to a 27-14 defeat at the hand of eventual NFC Champions; the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brock Lesnar floated between various wrestling federations, before giving MMA a go in 2008. Until 2011, he competed in the UFC, earning the UFC Heavyweight Championship in November of 2008, in UFC 91. He would eventually return to the WWE in 2012, reclaiming the title of WWE Heavyweight Champion in 2014 against John Cena.
It’s not inconceivable to think that, had Lesnar attempted to play football sooner, he could have made the grade. He had the physical attributes to succeed, but the lack of development within the game hurt his chances greatly. In an alternate universe, NFL legend, Brock Lesnar, attempted to transition into the WWE in 2004. I wonder how it went.