Iowa and Florida are set to meet in the Outback Bowl. And WWE Superstars Big E and Titus O’Neil have the highest of interests in the postseason showcase.
When Iowa and Florida meet in the Outback Bowl next Monday, all expectations are that the game will be a defensive struggle befitting of a classic wrestling match—a tug of war, so to speak, filled with back and forth action, two opponents exchanging blows.
If any two people can relate to such a struggle, it would be Ettore Ewen and Thaddeus Bullard, Sr.—better known by their stage names of Big E and Titus O’Neil.
The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstars played football for the Hawkeyes and Gators, respectively, before rigorous training and development led to careers entertaining the WWE Universe inside the squared circle. Big E competed on the defensive line in Iowa City, while O’Neil starred on the gridiron in Gainesville. As expected, the trash talking between the two alumni has already begun.
“It’s been friendly so far, but I’m sure it will ramp up a bit,” Big E told Campus Insiders. “And the beautiful thing is that we’re in Tampa—Titus and I both live in Tampa—but thankfully Raw is in Tampa [Monday night]. So we’re going to hopefully have some time to get over to the game a little bit before we have to go to work.
“In terms of a bet, I’m sure we’ll put something on the line, whether it’s loser has to wear the winner’s college garb around work one day. Something in that vein for sure.”
Big E, who is one-third of The New Day—the longest-reigning tag team champions in WWE history—had an interest in pro wrestling while he played as a D-Lineman in Iowa City. After redshirting in 2004 and missing the 2005 season due to injury, E played a lone season in 2006. After college, he started to focus on power lifting, which was a seamless transition from football because of his benching and squatting ability.
After signing a developmental contract with WWE in 2009, E began a venture that now has him performing in sold-out arenas on a nightly basis. However, that trek began with the Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz, who at times has been the subject of scrutiny in Iowa City due to his handsome paycheck and up-and-down tenure. But Big E reiterated what former Hawkeye players who played for Ferentz have told me in the past: playing at Iowa is about a lot more than just winning and losing.
“I don’t have a negative thing to say about Coach Ferentz,” Big E said. “It’s not until you know Iowans or get a chance to live in the state of Iowa that you understand the makeup of that community and how important values are. Of course, winning is big. But I feel that it doesn’t have the same ‘winning over everything’ feel that you often get with programs in the South.
“As much as I love watching SEC football, there’s a different attitude toward programs. And we live in a day in age where at Texas, Charlie Strong had three years to seemingly win a Big 12 title. And now he’s out. So there’s a lot of pressure on coaches to get things done very quickly. Obviously winning is important at Iowa, but maintaining a program that is one the community can be proud of is important as well.”
When it comes to having pride in his or her school, perhaps no one has more than O’Neil with Florida.
The grappler played for Gators coaching legend Steve Spurrier from 1997 to 2000. He redshirted during the Gators’ 1996 national championship season, and ended up playing in 44 regular-season games with three starts. After college, O’Neil played in the Arena Football League from 2003 to 2007 before ultimately signing a developmental deal with WWE in mid-2009.
While O’Neil has had a successful wrestling career, it’s his numerous and various charitable efforts that make him stand out from most every other superstar.
“I am very closely tied to my university,” O’Neil said. “We started this Gator Good program to help our alumni base be active in their communities, give back and make a difference in this world. So my time at Florida is continuing. I enjoyed my time when I was there but I also enjoy seeing other people become Gators, be Gators and leave and become productive Gators.”
His character-building upbringing is why he is so passionate about making a difference in today’s world.
“I grew up in a single-parent, fatherless home,” O’Neil explained. “I always keep in mind all of the instances that I saw growing up, like the poverty and the homelessness, and seeing kids with cancer and my grandmother passing away from cancer when I became older. I just realized that my understanding of my purpose here on Earth grew.
“I’ve had a lot of people help me along the way, and I feel it’s my duty regardless if I’m a WWE superstar. Because it’s very important that we understand that we’re only one situation away from having our lives turned upside down. So that’s my motivating factor every day when I wake up: to repay those people that took a chance on me when they didn’t really have a reason to do so.”
In the game on Monday, Ferentz’s Hawkeyes are seeking their first bowl win since 2010, while Jim McElwain’s Gators are looking to bounce back from a rough end to their season despite being SEC East champs. These are fan bases that are becoming quite familiar with one another, as Iowa and Florida are squaring off for the third time in the Outback Bowl. Because of several Big Ten-SEC bowl tie-ins, this probably isn’t the last time that E and O’Neil will have a chance to jaw at one another. Heck, O’Neil doesn’t even need to see his Gators in a matchup with the Hawkeyes to try and get underneath E’s skin.
“The thing about Big E is he’s such a gentleman,” O’Neil said. “He’s competitive, but I can’t drive myself to try to provoke him, because I know he’s not going to fire back at me. I tried to do it when LSU played Iowa [in the Outback Bowl] two years ago. He was hyped about that, so I was doing the whole ‘SEC against Big Ten’ thing. I got him on the field for the game, and after the game I was dancing with the LSU players. I like to get him back that way.
“But I think it’s going to be one hell of a football game. Iowa has a lot of pride and tradition coming down here, and so does Florida. Both teams want to start off the New Year the right way. So I am looking forward to having Big E on one sideline and me on the other.”