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From the FCS Championship to Major League Wrestling, E.J. Nduka Continues a Tradition

E.J. Nduka, Major League Wrestling

E.J. Nduka captained Sam Houston to its first FCS National Championship Game. A decade later, he's a budding star of professional wrestling.

Executing a swim move on an offensive lineman and tossing a 300-pound bad guy into the wall of a steel cage have more in common than one might assume, as E.J. Nduka proves.

Nduka completed his college football career a decade ago, and as a defensive end and captain of Sam Houston's 2011 national runner-up team, left an indelible mark on the game. That squad was the first of three in the last 10 years to reach the FCS National Championship Game, a run that culminated in the Bearkats winning last spring's title.

"I take tremendous pride [in the 2011 runner-up season]," Nduka said. "We were actually the first to turn that program around."

After finishing 2004 11-3, Sam Houston endured some lean years. But with the arrival of Willie Fritz and his staff in 2010, and a "core of guys" Nduka said returned to the program, the Bearkats reached unparalleled heights.

Signs began to show in a 2010 season that started with a loss to a Robert Griffin III-quarterbacked Baylor team, and which saw Sam Houston come 11 points over three games away from winning the Southland Conference.

The next year came the breakthrough. Sam Houston remained a stalwart of the FCS title scene in the decade since, which helped land it an invite to the FBS and Conference USA.

"We didn’t win it, but we made it there," Nduka said of the 2011 Bearkats. "We were nationally recognized, we were on ESPN, and that week if you wanted to watch [college] football, you had to watch us because we were the only team[s] playing at that time."

It's been a decade since that run began, and Nduka aims to make another lasting impact in a new venture. He is a budding star of Major League Wrestling.

Two weeks after Montana State and North Dakota State play for this year’s national title, on Jan. 21, he wrestles on MLW’s "Blood and Thunder" card at Gilley's in Dallas.

A native of Dallas, Blood and Thunder marks the first time grappling before a hometown audience in Nduka's burgeoning career. He'll do so in a venue a short walk from where the Dallas Sportatorium once stood, a venue that became something of a wrestling mecca thanks to the Von Erich family.

Brothers David, Kerry, Kevin, Mike and Chris Von Erich attracted capacity crowds to the Sportatorium on a weekly basis. Kevin's sons Marshall and Ross are members of the MLW roster alongside Nduka.

"The Von Erichs are HUGE in Dallas," Nduka said. "Never in a million years did I think I’d be on a show with [members of the family]."

The patriarch of the famed Von Erichs, Fritz Von Erich, was a lineman on the SMU football team under his birth name, Jack Adkisson. He was part of a long and proud tradition on which Nduka — and others — now put their signatures.

Football has long been a pipeline to professional wrestling, dating back to Bronko Nagurski in the 1930s. A star at the University of Minnesota, Nagurski doubled as National Wrestling Association champion while playing for the Chicago Bears.

Decades after Nagurski, another Chicago Bear – Steve “Mongo” McMichael, tackle for the famed “Super Bowl Shuffle” team – became a member of World Championship Wrestling's Four Horsemen stable. The leader of that group, Ric Flair, played some at Nagurski's alma mater of Minnesota and can be seen today cheering a variety of college football teams.

McMichael – a 1979 All-American and 2010 College Football Hall of Fame inductee from the University of Texas – famously wrestled Bill Goldberg at WCW's annual flagship show, Starrcade, in 1997. Goldberg is an alum of one of this season's College Football Playoff finalists, shined at Georgia in the 1980s before becoming a World Champion in 1998.

And while Goldberg appeared in main events for WCW through the late 1990s, WWE counter-programmed with shows featuring "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, a former North Texas linebacker; and the man to whom Nduka credits for inspiring him, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Johnson started on the defensive line alongside Warren Sapp at the University of Miami, helping the Hurricanes to a share of the 1991 national championship.

"That is one of my goals, to actually let [Johnson] know…he has a lot to do with why I’m here today and the motivation behind it," Nduka said.

Referring to Johnson's arc as "the blueprint," Nduka noted their similar paths: Both went to the Canadian Football League after trying out for the NFL, arriving North of the border with "$7 in [their] pocket," a testament to the commitment required to bet on oneself as an athlete.

It's not an easy road, nor is it for everyone. But it's indicative of the "competitive bug" Nduka said visits him — like when he got into bodybuilding after football, a decision that led directly to his wrestling career.

At the behest of Sam Houston teammate and All-Southland Conference linebacker Will Henry, Nduka pursued competitive bodybuilding. Despite eating Whataburger, as Nduka remembers of the moment Henry suggested it, the former Bearkat edge rusher flourished in that arena.

Bodybuilding took Nduka to such competitions as the Lou Ferrigno Classic, and the Arnold Classic. The latter competition, named for Arnold Schwarzenegger, opened a gateway for Nduka to wrestling.

Growing up a fan of wrestling, Nduka said the action long appealed to him. And while bodybuilding met some of his competitive drive, he described it as more about looking athletic than showcasing his athleticism.

World Wrestling Entertainment scouted potential wrestlers at the Arnold Classic in the past, including former University of Tennessee All-SEC track star Bianca Belair.

Nduka leveraged Instagram to catch WWE's attention. It worked.

Scott Garland — known in the 2000s as Scotty 2 Hotty — contacted Nduka, and the former Sam Houston Bearkat said that two weeks later, he was headed to the WWE Performance Center in Florida.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck before Nduka could get rolling with WWE's developmental federation, NXT. Nduka was part of company-wide layoffs, but too promising to remain a free agent for long.

"The word was out inside wrestling about E.J," MLW owner Court Bauer wrote in an email. "He was labeled a blue-chip prospect, which is why I was stunned to see WWE made the decision to release someone with a great attitude, great athletic pedigree, and main-event potential."

For Nduka, it was just another challenge to overcome, not unlike the grind of the FCS season.

Part of the inspiration he takes from Johnson is that both played on title-contending teams. Football in and of itself is a grind that tests both the physical and mental durability of an athlete; football at the championship level only heightens the intensity.

“People don’t realize, to get to the playoffs in Div. I-AA, you’re looking at 16, 17 games,” he said. “And that is a LOT of football. … Around Week 5 or 6 is when they really say it’s the hump. Players are really banged up and it feels like, 'Man, this season is [lasting] forever.' Try doing that two years in a row for 16 games. It really taught us tenacity."

Perhaps that's why FCS specifically, not just college football in general, has started to have an imprint on wrestling.

Sam Houston became a fixture in the playoffs over the last decade around the same time a new program launched at Kennesaw State. The Owls have quickly grown into postseason mainstays with Brian Bohannon's triple-option offense, including three straight seasons of 11-plus wins from 2017 through 2019.

Fullback Bronson Rechsteiner was a central figure on those excellent Kennesaw State teams. He rushed for six combined touchdowns in 2017 and 2018, then broke out as the team's leading ball carrier in 2019 with 909 yards and seven scores.

Just two years later, Rechsteiner is the champion of NXT under the name Bron Breakker after winning the title on Jan. 4. The son of longtime tag-team great Rick Steiner, Breakker's path from college football to wrestling is not unlike West Texas A&M legends Tully Blanchard, Ted DiBiase, and Terry and Dory Funk, all of whom followed their fathers into the ring after playing college football.

Other opportunities to make that leap may develop through the advent of name/image/likeness rules. WWE launched an NIL program in 2021 that included 6-foot-10, 400-pound Portland State offensive lineman John Krahn in its inaugural class.

The FCS influence Nduka and Breakker carry in the U.S. pro wrestling scene reaches globally, too. Clark Connors took a different path to the squared circle that emulates his place in the Cal Poly football program.

As Connor Deutsch, he walked onto the Mustangs football team in 2014 and gained a reputation for his combination of toughness and studiousness.

“He was a hard-working kid who came in and worked his butt off to scratch and claw for every inch,” California Golden Bears running backs coach Aristotle Thompson said of Connors in the summer of 2020. Thompson spent 11 seasons at Cal Poly before joining Justin Wilcox’s staff in Berkeley.

"One thing I vividly remember is how detailed and organized he was in the classroom," Thompson added of Connors. "He was always great with his notes. We’d do these academic game plan meetings – go through their class schedules, office-hour questions – and he was always on point with them."

As Clark Connors, he joined New Japan Pro Wrestling's Los Angeles-based dojo under the tutelage of wrestling legend and MMA fighter Katsuyori Shibata. The "Wild Rhino," as Connors is called, shows off his football background in the ring using a running tackle as a signature move.

And Connors’ tackle is hardly the only parallel fans can see between action in football and wrestling.

“It's very similar,” Nduka said of the physical basics. "It's a lot of foot placement, it's a lot of hand placement, and you have to be cognizant of everything going on around you. … As a Div. I athlete, that was ingrained in me since I was 14 [years old]; to read and react, and to be explosive.

"Football taught me everything and anything that I ever needed to be in this type of industry," he added. "It taught me determination, it taught me time management, it taught me working with others and just pushing yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of."

Starring in football isn't a guaranteed foundation for stardom in wrestling, however.

"Ability to adapt to different environments and situations. The mental and physical fortitude to make it to a high level of competition. You need these qualities at a bare minimum to have a shot in wrestling," Bauer wrote. "But can you talk a good game? Can you manage the turbulence of not just competing but hyping the match and being an individual after being a part of a team-driven system? That's always the question [with transitioning football players], but not with E.J."

As another college football season concludes with the FCS and College Football Playoff title games, maybe one of the four teams will feature the next future star in the sport's rich wrestling tradition — like Nduka was for Sam Houston 10 years ago.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break