Thousands of athletes have been in the position Dean Muhtadi found himself in 2010.
A severe injury threatened his livelihood as a professional football player, and he faced a crossroads: Battle through months of agonizing rehabilitation in an attempt to return to the field, or get his body back to a stable and healthy state and leave the athletic arena behind.
Muhtadi did a version of both.
How, you ask?
By getting his body back to NFL-ready condition, but then switching pursuits and becoming World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Mojo Rawley — a fan-favorite sports-entertainer who appears weekly on SmackDown Live (7 p.m. Tuesdays, USA Network). Rawley is one of the many SmackDown Live superstars who will storm through the La Crosse Center at 7:30 p.m. today as part of a WWE Live: Road to WrestleMania event.
Before moving on, let’s get this out of the way: Yes, this is a column about a professional wrestler. Yes, professional wrestling results are predetermined, and competitors coordinate some moves that comprise a match beforehand and some as it goes. Yes, maneuvers are performed in a way that reduce the physical toll inflicted on an opponent, but the opponent reacts as if they’re not.
Are we done discrediting wrestling? Everyone’s aware it’s entertainment, not competition. If that bothers you to the point of relegating Muhtadi’s story, fine. But understand that professional wrestling is the same as reality TV, novels and most movies — a nonfiction story meant to amuse.
Back to Muhtadi.
He’d always been an athlete, and his injury — a torn gastrocnemius muscle in his calf suffered while with the Arizona Cardinals during the preseason after a preseason with Green Bay in 2009 — created a situation in which sports weren’t in his future.
“(The muscle) rolled up my leg like a window shade,” Muhtadi said of his injury during a phone interview. “I went to a number of doctors who all told me it was career-ending. I wasn’t willing to accept that.”
So Muhtadi went to work getting his body right. At the time, he carried 320 pounds on his 6-foot, 3-inch frame, necessary for his work on as an interior defensive lineman.
“Playing nose guard, taking on double teams against the world’s most savage men … A calf’s pretty important,” Muhtadi said with a laugh.
Throughout his 18-month rehab, Muhtadi also completed his MBA from the University of Maryland, where he’d played for two years after starting his collegiate career at NCAA Division III Christopher Newport University.
A bit of serendipitous timing put him at another crossroads.
With his MBA in hand, he accepted a job offer to enter the finance field at Merrill Lynch. He also was healthy enough to play football again, and had offers to attend some NFL training camps. He also had an offer to sign with the WWE’s developmental promotion, NXT.
That WWE offer was a result of his friendship with Gordon Gronkowski — father of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski — whom he met after playing with Gordon’s son, Dan, at Maryland. Gordon Gronkowski was college buddies with WWE producer and former wrestler Mike Rotunda, and that relationship helped grease the wheels for Muhtadi to get a pro-wrestling tryout.
Muhtadi seized the WWE opportunity, leaving behind more money in the financial-planning world to chase down what had been a dream of his as long as professional football had.
“I feel like I was born to do this,” Muhtadi said. “When I signed with the WWE, the newspaper and TV stations in my high-school community of Alexandria, Virginia, were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so perfect.’”
Muhtadi was known at T.C. Williams High School — yes, that T.C. Williams, of “Remember the Titans” fame — as an outgoing leader. He read the morning announcements, he was the president of a number of major extracurricular clubs, he gave pregame speeches before football games.
His extroverted personality is key for his wrestling persona, which can best be described as an amped-up, lovable meathead.
He rose through the ranks in NXT, homing in his character and learning the trade. Last summer, during the WWE’s brand extension that split its roster into two independent live-TV shows, Muhtadi was called up to SmackDown’s roster. He’s wrestled a majority of his stint as a member of the “Hype Bros” tag team with Zach Ryder, but an injury to Ryder earlier this year has put Muhtadi back in one-on-one matches.
A common refrain in pro wrestling — where charisma and getting an audience to either love or despise you are more important than in-ring skill — is that the best characters are reflections of the performer, just turned up a few notches. Muhtadi, though, has found that he’s had to pull back the reins on his behavior.
“It can be a little bit of a turnoff if I’m too over the top,” he said laughing as he traveled in a rental car to the next WWE Live show. “Right now it’s about finding the perfect balance of Dean Muhtadi and Mojo Rawley that’s easily digestible for the fans. Whether that’s being the serious me, or the fun and joking around me.”
While he finds that balance in his on-screen character, things are looking up for him professionally. Muhtadi got his first chance in the main-event scene Feb. 21 as part of a 10-man match to become the No. 1 contender for the WWE Championship. (Think of the title like an employee of the month award — ultimately inconsequential but it creates the faux-competitive architecture that wrestling’s soap opera-like storytelling is based around, as well as signifying which performer is at his best at that moment).
As a WWE superstar on the main roster, Muhtadi has a platform that reaches across the globe. That fact isn’t lost on him. He believes his journey and his personal and professional motto of “Stay Hyped” — what he described as the belief of maintaining maximum energy output in life — can help inspire others, and he hears as much when he talks to fans.
“Going out there and leaving my mark on the world,” said of his goals during his WWE run. “Sending that message of fighting for every inch, staying hyped. I know that’s how I had to be successful.
“I was a walk-on at Maryland, I had to earn my scholarship and starter spot, and the things that’ve come after. I took opportunities and made it work because I worked harder than everybody else. That’s really where ‘Stay Hyped’ came from, that’s my mantra because it’s about always being up and being ready to go. That’s what I’ve always had to do.”