Grappling with his future

MINNEAPOLIS -- The cute and curvy blonde 20-something had no idea what she was getting herself into. In her barely-there halter-top and her glossy red lipstick, she slithered into the giant's arms, set her chin on his chest, looked up into his eyes and delivered the message she had been sent to ask.

"My friend Shawn thinks you're kinda cute," she said.

Not Shawna. Not Shana.


The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Goliath, the guy who benches 475 pounds, squats 695 pounds, steamed.

"Yeah?" the former pro wrestler said, his voice growing louder, his eyes getting bigger. "Well you tell that ..."

To print what Brock Lesnar said might make even John Rocker blush. But after his curse-laden outburst, he turned to a nearby reporter and explained, "I don't like gays. Write that down in your little notebook. I don't like gays."

Offended? Too bad. He doesn't care what you think. What your mom thinks. Or what that guy at the end of the bar thinks, his sexual orientation not withstanding. Lesnar is a self-described "blue-collar redneck" who owns a 47-acre ranch and spends his free time jumping up and down on beds -- sometimes breaking them -- with his 2-year-old daughter, Mya. If he could choose only three television channels to watch, it'd be a 24-hour hunting and fishing network, The Weather Channel and The Penthouse Channel. "I'd be a happy man," he said.

Instead, he's his own man. A man who loves contact. Aggression. And people telling him he can't do something.

It's the reason he can walk away from a lucrative pro wrestling contract and not think twice. It's the reason he can stand in front of the world, tell everyone he's going to play in the NFL and not hear the critics that tell him he's nuts.

While Steve McMichael (a former Chicago Bear), Bill Goldberg (the one-time Atlanta Falcon) and even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (who played at the University of Miami) used successful football careers to catapult them onto the professional wrestling stage, Lesnar is trying to do just the opposite.

Lesnar, the former NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion and the World Wrestling Entertainment's youngest champion ever, walked away from a seven-year, $45-million contract in March. In part because he was fed up with his wrestling persona, "The Next Big Thing." In part because he was sick of the travel. But mostly because of his lifelong dream to play professional football.

Though an April motorcycle accident slowed his progress, Lesnar has spent the majority of the past three months training in Arizona, hoping to latch on with a team during summer camp, then spend a year or two on the practice squad on his way to becoming an NFL star.

Think this is like Michael Jordan trying to hit a minor league curveball? Or Terrell Owens trying to prove that he's got the moves to play hoops in the United States Basketball League?

"I'm not stupid. I know the NFL is a difficult world to crack," he says. "But I'll play defensive line to left out. I'm fighting every f------ play. I can fight for real.

"If it was legal and I wouldn't get in trouble, I'd pick a fight on every street. If I wouldn't lose any money or nothing, I would fight. I'd fight every day."

The Next Big Thing
Nobody questions his tenacity. His strength. His pure athletic ability. A few weeks after his wrestling career came to an end with a Wrestlemania loss to Goldberg, Lesnar ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds, a blistering time for a man his size. He has a 10-foot standing broad jump. A 35-inch vertical leap, not to mention the bench and squat numbers. It's the tools of an NFL running back power packed into a gladiator's frame.

"He's a pitbull," said Luke Richesson, Lesnar's trainer at the Athlete Performance in Phoenix. "The guy is going to turn every single practice into a damn dog fight. They say take it easy? That ain't going to be happening. When you think long term, I would never bet against him."

Not everybody is sold. Lesnar last played football in 1995, as a high school lineman, running back and linebacker in South Dakota's small-school division, and received a handful of Division II scholarship offers. Eight years later, his football knowledge is raw.

He's worked with former All-Pro Seth Joyner and Ty Parten, a former defensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals, to learn everything from the proper way to get into a three-point stance to how a defensive lineman drops back into pass coverage.

"He probably knows less than a high school player because he hasn't played in so long," Parten said. "But he wants to learn more."

Still, not many NFL teams have the time to teach him. Working in Lesnar's favor is the expansion of NFL practice squads from five to eight this season. Both the Indianapolis Colts and the Minnesota Vikings worked out Lesnar this month, though neither team has signed him.

"He's a project. Big time," Vikings player personnel director Scott Studwell said. "As much as you'd like to take a shot on a guy like him because of his athletic history, do you do it at the expense of cutting another player? Probably not. At the expense of taking reps away from a promising young player? Probably not. With Brock, it's like you're starting from scratch."

Football vs. Wrestling, Round 1
But Lesnar didn't turn his back on wrestling to fail at football. It was a redo. Five years ago, when he left the University of Minnesota as the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion, the same two options were put in front of him: Football or wrestling.

Gopher alumn Tony Dungy, then the head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, wanted him to try out for the NFL. At the same time, Vince McMahon, who owns what has since become known as WWE, saw Lesnar as the future of pro wrestling. He offered him guaranteed money. And career stability.

"As a starving college kid, what are you going to do?" Lesnar said. "Money on the table, a sure thing, versus a wild card. Are you kidding me? It was a no-brainer."

Lesnar became the quickest champion in WWE history, and soon had all the fame and fortune any kid from Webster, S.D., could ever want. But the unexpected birth of his daughter to a girlfriend he's no longer dating, combined with the 280-plus days a year on the road -- often in a different city every night -- wore on him. He looked at the older wrestlers, guys like Ric Flair and the Undertaker, and saw how much they missed their families. He didn't like the direction of his wrestling persona, and he couldn't get any straight answers out of McMahon. So after a South African tour in which he spent 50 hours on a plane to wrestle four different nights, he blew up and quit.

"I think Vince thought I'd change my mind and come back," Lesnar said. "But it wasn't going to happen.

"I was at the top of my game in wrestling, I was a three-time champion, I had pretty good coin in my pocket. What was stopping me? A set of nuts. You either nut up or you don't. So I did."

Against the odds
Now comes the challenge of making it pay off. Studwell puts the odds of Lesnar making an NFL team and having a successful pro career at "less than 50 percent." Complicating matters was an April motorcycle accident in which Lesnar broke his jaw, fractured his left hand, severely pulled his groin and suffered tissue damage in his lower abdomen. His testicles were swollen and bruised for weeks.

"Any other sorry sucker who went through that," Lesnar said, "his carcass would still be laying there. He'd be six feet under pushing daisies up. I'm still here."

After the accident, Lesnar's hard-nosed, gotta-play-hurt mentality kept his body from healing. On two separate occasions, NFL workouts had to be postponed because of complications following the accident.

"My mentality was to push through, but nothing could have been worse," Lesnar said. "Now, the main goal is just to get healthy. To get my body back to 100 percent so I can sign with a team, get into camp and show what I can do."

One of the biggest concerns is Lesnar's age. At 26, he's a good five years older than most NFL rookies. If it takes Lesnar two years on the practice squad and spending the offseason playing in NFL Europe to learn the game -- a conservative estimate by most scouts -- he won't be ready to contribute until he's 28.

"At that point, you have to ask yourself if he's past his prime," Studwell said. "Because you've lost some critical years in a football career."

But the transition has been done before. Stephen Neal, who beat Lesnar for the 1999 NCAA heavyweight title as a senior at Cal-State Bakersfield, is a reserve offensive lineman with the New England Patriots. Without any college football experience, he was signed as a non-drafted free agent at the age of 24. If not for a shoulder injury suffered during the preseason, he would have started last year.

"The one thing that blows coaches away is every single time he does a drill, he'll get better," Neal said. "If Brock goes in there with the approach that he knows nothing and can soak everything up like a sponge, it's just a matter of time."

The big question
Heads turn when Lesnar walks into a trendy downtown Minneapolis restaurant, his tight blue T-shirt and baggy khakis clinging to him with his every stride.

But the question is nothing new. Neither are the looks. He says they've been there since high school. Yet Lesnar insists he's never used steroids. He points to the fact that he started working out when he was 6 years old, enduring three hernias as a child after trying to replicate his older brother's workouts, as the reason his body developed as it has. He says he was tested for steroids by his college coach, J Robinson, by the NCAA at the national championships and by the WWE. Not once, he says, did he test positive.

Because of the stigma that comes along with professional wrestlers, Lesnar said he plans to submit himself for drug testing as part of the NFL's pre-employment screening process.

"All that talk is jealousy. I don't need anything to get me up at the gym other than Metallica and AC/DC," Lesnar said. "When it comes down to it, bring your little piss cup and I will fill it for you."

A summer of change
The next month is critical for Lesnar's dream. NFL camps open in July, meaning he has less than a month to impress a team, sign a free-agent contract and get ready for camp.

Once there, the biggest challenge begins -- learning the playbook. He'll be stereotyped as the physical freak that talks lots of trash but isn't quite sure how to get into his three-point stance.

He'll have gone from one of the biggest stars in professional wrestling, the center of the spotlight, to a nobody. Once the guy everybody knows, he'll become the guy that wears a piece of masking tape across his helmet to identify who he is.

The odds are against him. His road is long. But just like that night in the club, when he not-so-politely told the 20-something girl he wasn't interested in her male friend, he doesn't care. He's doing this his way.

"This is not some half-assed shot to see what I can do and try to make the NFL," Lesnar said. "For me, this is balls out, 100 percent.

"And I plan on knocking the snot out of somebody."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com and can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com