WWE superfandom unites NFL players

Gary Barnidge (center) and DeAngelo Williams (right) attend as many WWE events as they can. Courtesy Gary Barnidge

DeAngelo Williams and Gary Barnidge have made a pact. When both retire, they'll score a Winnebago and travel the country to catch all the pay-per-view WWE events the NFL calendar kept them from attending all these years.

First to retire buys the Winnie, which puts the 33-year-old Williams, a Pittsburgh Steelers running back, at a slight disadvantage. Barnidge, a Cleveland Browns tight end, is 31. Williams' kids might tag along too.

"My daughter's a big John Cena fan," Williams said.

For a select few NFL players, professional wrestling is not occasional TV viewing, but a way of life.

Williams, Barnidge and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry are the league's most visible converts, turning childhood memories into, well, more childhood memories.

Wrestling brings out the giddy teen in guys like Barnidge, who's been hooked on the action ever since watching a family friend wrestle on a local circuit in north Florida.

Barnidge and Williams are former Carolina Panthers teammates who struck a friendship after Williams attended WrestleMania 28 without Barnidge. They've traveled to the subsequent four WrestleManias together and drive or fly to numerous other spots each year, such as Royal Rumble and SummerSlam.

Barnidge always tries to take at least one Browns teammate to the Cleveland-area events. Sunday night's "No Mercy" event in Sacramento isn't close by, but that will be a no-brainer pay-per-view purchase at the Barnidge home after the Browns-Patriots game.

"People watch soap operas -- well, this is that," said Barnidge of the WWE. "It has a storyline and action, yet it's a physical sport. We know who's going to win, but it draws you in with the buildup and the tension."

Williams is considered the most active WWE fan, but Curry has spent time with Williams and Barnidge on a few recent road trips. Next year's WrestleMania in Orlando became a vacation for the threesome. Williams brought his family, and Barnidge -- known as Uncle Gary -- sometimes babysat when Williams and his wife step out.

"Our crew is pretty solid now," Williams said. "We'll be at Disney World the whole time, hanging out before the event. Tuesday and Wednesday you do the tourist stuff, then it's all wrestling throughout the week. It's a family thing."

A WWE spokesperson said the organization doesn't have an official relationship with the NFL, and the players don't get preferential treatment at the events. They buy tickets like everyone else. Curry said the players do get access to various WWE events and itineraries built around WrestleMania, which is like a mini-Super Bowl for that week.

Met a legend of the ring today Sid Vicious!!! Great talking to him!!

A photo posted by DeAngelo Williams (@deangelowilliams) on

For Curry, wrestling is less about the perks and more about the attitude. Well before signing a five-year, $47.25 million contract extension with Philadelphia, Curry was a New Jersey kid who couldn't afford tickets to WWE events at nearby Asbury Park Convention Hall.

So Curry got nostalgic, watching old clips of World Wrestling Federation action. Bam Bam Bigelow was a "childhood hero" through the television, Curry said.

Hulk Hogan even reinforced Mom's messages on occasion.

"As a kid, your parents try to get you to eat your vegetables. Well, Hulk Hogan could get me to eat my vegetables," Curry said. "The body slams, the stories, the costumes, the face paint. I loved all that stuff."

Many NFL players watch WWE casually, but only a few die-hards travel to the events. Former Browns Johnson Bademosi and Barkevious Mingo attended a few events with Barnidge and loved them, Barnidge said. Williams has taken several Steelers linemen to events on the Pittsburgh circuit.

Barnidge said he most aligns with Undertaker -- "calm and collected" -- but when told Williams prefers the charismatic Enzo Amore, Barnidge switched his own answer to Big Cass, Amore's partner.

"He talks a lot, but he backs up what he talks," Williams said of Amore. "I kind of push myself through my words and how I carry myself. I don't talk until after it's done, though."

Barnidge wouldn't want to try wrestling post-football because he "would get destroyed," he said. Just because football players slam bodies doesn't mean they could absorb clotheslines to the neck 100 nights a year. Wrestling requires specific training to take the bumps, and Barnidge won't be that motivated in his late 30s.

But the 280-pound Curry is game for trying.

"All my goals would be set then," Curry said.