From Ettore to Big E, Iowa City to WWE and back again

The New Day gets fired up over Big E's football highlights (1:05)

WWE superstars The New Day are super excited to see Big E's highlights from Iowa. (1:05)

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- As an Iowa defensive lineman from 2004 to '06, Ettore Ewen kept a low profile. But last month, Kinnick Stadium gave him a reception reserved for the greatest Hawkeye football heroes.

Twelve years after departing for a surprise opportunity in wrestling, Ewen returned to campus as WWE champion and one of the industry's most recognizable figures. His outsized character, known as Big E, was barely recognizable to those who remember a largely introverted teammate.

During a timeout in Iowa's Oct. 9 game against Penn State, Ewen emerged from the same tunnel he had run out of as a player. Wearing a gray "Iowa Football" T-shirt that could barely contain his massive chest and arms, Ewen strolled onto the field, clutching a microphone and yelling, "Yo, Kinnick!" He flexed in front of Iowa's cheerleaders and mascot, then pumped up the sellout crowd, saying, "I am damn proud to be a Hawkeye."

And before Ewen rushed off to Las Vegas, where he would introduce boxers Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder for their highly anticipated heavyweight bout that evening, he also thought about the man he was when he had left Iowa's campus.

Injuries had ended a football career that never really got started. Ewen didn't know where life would take him, and he wasn't particularly excited about any of his potential paths. He battled with his mental health.

"I describe my time at Iowa as the best of times and the worst of times," Ewen told ESPN. "I met all these incredible people, and I have such a strong connection to my alma mater. But between injuries and all my issues with depression, I really had a lot of my struggles then, too."

Ewen's path to the ring -- and to college football, for that matter -- was never a sure thing. He certainly looks the part when he walks down the aisle, as he will Sunday at Survivor Series, which takes place at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. As a headliner for one of WWE's signature events, he'll face Roman Reigns, another former college football player at Georgia Tech, in a champion vs. champion match.

But it took two chance encounters in weight rooms in Florida and Iowa to set Ewen on this unexpected course.

"I've just really learned that life takes you in ways that you would never imagine," Ewen said, "if you let it."

In May 2004, Iowa assistant football coach Phil Parker went recruiting in Tampa, Florida. Iowa had already signed its class, but Parker was getting ahead on scouting juniors. While walking through the weight room at Wharton High School, Parker witnessed Ewen bench-pressing 315 pounds for a set of 10 repetitions.

"When I saw him, it was like, 'Whoa,'" said Parker, now Iowa's defensive coordinator. "I couldn't believe what he was lifting. I said, 'This guy is unbelievably strong.'"

Football was Ewen's favorite sport growing up, but he had spent his first three years of high school at Tampa Prep, which didn't have a team. When Parker saw him, Ewen had completed only one season for Wharton's football team, and couldn't generate much interest from FBS programs. One option was walking on at Florida, where Ewen had an academic scholarship.

Ewen had won a state wrestling championship as a junior at Tampa Prep, and only transferred because his parents could no longer afford private school tuition for him and his two sisters. He came to Wharton as a 5-foot-11, 235-pound lineman, but gained about 40 pounds by the end of his senior year.

Parker met with Ewen, who soon visited Iowa, received a scholarship offer and signed with the program.

"We were short some guys, so we took a shot on him," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He was stacked together [physically]. Didn't look like a developmental guy."

Thanks to his weight-room display, Ewen was off to the Big Ten.

"If my parents could continue to enroll me at Tampa Prep, I never would have ended up playing at Wharton, never would have ended up in Iowa and probably my whole life would be different," Ewen said. "I wouldn't be in WWE now. So I'm just really grateful for all the twists and turns."

When former Iowa tight end Michael Sabers first saw Ewen, he had the standard reaction: "This guy is freakin' jacked." But beyond the bouldered chest and arms -- Ewen actually looked like this as a high school senior -- Sabers remembers him as "the most quiet, introverted, shy guy you'd ever meet." He soon bonded with Sabers, offensive lineman Rashad Dunn and tight end Lucas Cox; the four still correspond almost daily through group text.

The injuries began almost immediately. In 2004, Ewen tore the ACL in his left knee during preseason camp after a promising start. The following training camp, he tore the other ACL. A torn pectoral muscle kept him out of spring practices in 2006. Ewen finally started playing in 2006, recording 14 tackles and a half-sack in 12 games. But then came a broken kneecap.

"He had awful health, basically his knees just blew up," Ferentz said. "The worst thing for any kid is when they can't continue to play."

Ewen has some good memories as a Hawkeye, including facing No. 1 Ohio State in 2006 at Kinnick and visiting Michigan Stadium a few weeks later. He stood on the sideline for the 2005 Capital One Bowl and watched teammate Warren Holloway -- a fifth-year senior who had never caught a touchdown -- score on a 56-yard catch as time expired to beat Nick Saban's LSU team.

"I was a few months removed from an ACL surgery and it really didn't matter because I remember sprinting on the field like I had actually caught the pass myself," Ewen said. "That was a really incredible moment."

As the injuries piled up, though, the window closed on Ewen's playing career. He took a medical hardship, remaining on scholarship. Sabers, who lived with Ewen and others in a house Sabers' mother had purchased on Miller Avenue in Iowa City, saw his friend withdrawing. At one point, they alerted Iowa's football staff to reach out to Ewen.

"So often, I was my own worst enemy, and I would limit myself," Ewen said. "I didn't see much value in myself."

Ewen eventually talked about his depression with his closest friends, and he now frequently advocates being open about mental health issues.

"He didn't hide it, he let his support system help him through," Sabers said. "We came together as a house and helped him. It was tough for him, it was a struggle. To be where he's at now, it's just remarkable. I can see why he's such a champion for mental health and being proactive about it, not being ashamed to talk about it. We all go through some crap in our lives, but you can't give up. You've got to keep going because better times are coming.

"There's not a more perfect example of that than Ettore."

The story of Ewen's second life-changing weight room encounter actually begins in the first-class cabin of an airplane bound from Iowa to Chicago. That's where Mike Doughty, who had wrestled for both Iowa and Iowa State, sat next to Jim Ross, the longtime play-by-play voice of WWE.

Ross noticed Doughty's Iowa wrestling club jacket and asked if he was a Hawkeyes fan. An Oklahoma superfan, Ross mentioned his friendship with then-Sooners coach Bob Stoops, who had played college football at Iowa. They started talking. After landing in Chicago, they said goodbye and parted ways.

Doughty and Ross then boarded a flight to Philadelphia and found themselves seated together again. Ross, who Doughty didn't recognize, explained he was traveling to broadcast "Raw." They talked more about wrestling, especially collegiate wrestlers who had successfully moved to WWE, such as Kurt Angle. Doughty told Ross he attended all the big national wrestling events. Ross passed along his card and told Doughty to call if he ever found someone WWE should consider.

"I look at all those moving pieces, two flights -- not one -- having the Iowa jacket," Doughty said. "If I had worn a normal jacket, we probably wouldn't have had the conversation. Then you start going, 'Wow, maybe there's something up there in the ether that's putting these things together.'"

Soon after, Doughty saw Mike Humpal at the 2009 NCAA wrestling championships in St. Louis, and told him about the conversation with Ross. Humpal, a former Hawkeyes linebacker who had been cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers, was working out at Iowa with Ewen. Like many, Humpal was struck by Ewen's physique and one day asked him if he would have interest in WWE.

"He turned around and lit up like a Christmas tree," Humpal said. "I mean, eyes wide open. Ettore almost had been carrying himself around like Eeyore a little bit: Super quiet, reserved, didn't seem to get excited about much. But he said, 'I'll do it!'

"I didn't expect that response out of him."

As a kid, Ewen had watched wrestling. At Iowa, he and his friends would tease Seth Olsen, one of their teammates and housemates, for religiously watching "Raw" on Monday nights.

"It was kind of sophomoric," Ewen said of pro wrestling. "I just thought I was too grown for it."

While they teased Olsen, Ewen's pals also looked at Ewen and wondered.

"We had always joked, like, 'Man, WWE? You've got to do something with this body. Bodies like yours don't come around,'" Sabers said.

Ewen had been working on his body since he started lifting weights at 12. He soon saw his body change, and recognized he had more strength than the average teen. In high school, he squatted 600 pounds. He thrived in Iowa's storied weight room, even after his injuries, posting personal bests for the squat after his ACL tears and on the bench after tearing his pec.

The legend of Big E even started in Iowa City.

"Big E was his name," Sabers said. "That's what we all called him."

After Ewen's football ended, a master's degree seemed much more likely than WWE. An Iowa professor encouraged him to pursue graduate work in health and sports studies, offering him a role as her teaching assistant, and he agreed. He had no debt -- Iowa fulfilled his scholarship even after he could not play -- and a path forward in academia. But something was missing.

"I didn't know if I was ready to sit at a desk for another 30, 40 years, or teach, or whatever it was," Ewen said. "I felt like I had more to give athletically. Then, all of a sudden, Mike Humpal, one day in the weight room, just approached me with this offer."

Ewen, Humpal and Doughty met for burgers in Iowa City. Doughty immediately called Ross.

"Grounded in humility, very polite and just an incredible physical specimen," Doughty recalled of Ewen. "I've been around some well-built wrestlers, and he's just incredible. Visually, I was like, 'Look at this guy,' but when I got to talking to him, what a great young man."

Ewen surveyed his life: 23, no girlfriend, no kids, a good situation at Iowa, but not one he was passionate about. WWE's developmental program at the time was Florida Championship Wrestling, based in Tampa -- Ewen's hometown. He figured even if he got fired after three months, he could live with his parents and reapply for grad school, only missing a semester.

"I felt like I had the freedom to make that leap," Ewen said. "And thank God I did."

No one who met Ewen ever doubted his physical ability to be a professional wrestler. But the "E" in WWE stands for entertainment -- and that posed an obstacle for Ewen.

"He was a man of very few words," Humpal said. "I was like, 'I don't know if he's got the personality.' A lot of his college teammates would tell you the same thing: 'Never would have guessed it.'"

Ewen admits the process of becoming an entertainer with a wrestling persona was much more daunting than the athletic adjustment. His first idea -- a wrestling mailman named Mel Mann -- predictably flopped.

Working alongside the late wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, who would help him with promotional videos, Ewen shaped his motif, first as Big E Langston, and eventually as just Big E.

Sabers had seen Ewen's creative side when they lived together. He just never thought it would be applied this way.

"He'd write poetry, and some of the academic work he'd do was so impressive," Sabers said. "With the brain he has, I figured he would have been in the academic world somewhere, or making money. Never would have thought he'd be in the WWE. But when you look at the whole scope of what he does, he's using the skills he has.

"It's just the shaking hips, humping the floor, doing all the crazy things he does, that's the side that's still surprising. It's like, that's Big E out there?"

Sabers remembers getting a text from Ewen to watch WWE's Slammy Awards in Philadelphia. Big E made his WWE debut that night, attacking John Cena with his finishing move, the Big Ending.

"John Cena is like the top of the top," Sabers said. "That was the moment where I was like, 'Wow, I think this is actually going to be a big-time thing for him.'"

Ewen has since become one of WWE's most recognizable stars. Big E does the splits and sets bench-press records. Fortunately for Ewen, the body that repeatedly let him down as an Iowa football player has held up well in the ring.

"It's interesting that he's been able to do something physical," Ferentz said.

Ferentz, who recalls Ewen as a "great young guy," is thrilled to see the former Hawkeye having success on a major platform.

"He's probably more famous than any of our NFL [players]," Ferentz said.

Ewen's WWE travels have brought him back to Iowa several times, but last month's trip was special. After flying in, he ordered the car service shuttling him around town to immediately go to Pancheros, a college hangout where he and Sabers pounded burritos.

Sabers, who hosted Ewen for the weekend, saw his friend stop for every autograph and picture request, and talk to tailgaters.

"He's a celebrity," Sabers said. "It damn near brings me to tears that here's this guy that's been through so much, and look at how much fun he's having now. You talk about hitting bottom, being about as low as you could have imagined your life going, and now being about as high as you could have imagined.

"I'm just so proud of him, so happy for him. It's such a cool thing."

While returning to Iowa City made Ewen remember a young man resigned to being sad, not doing meaningful work or finding true fulfilment, and "kind of wandering through life," he also gained renewed appreciation for the opportunities that were presented to him along the way.

"When your initial dream is taken from you, it doesn't mean life is over," he said. "I never would have imagined going back to Iowa after all my surgeries and everything being done with football, and being able to walk out there at Kinnick in front of the student section.

"I just want to let others know who are struggling: Just because this chapter of your life is over, it doesn't mean that you can't find another incredible, beautiful, fulfilling one."