The Athletic: Bills sign Olympic gold medalist wrestler Gable Steveson


Staff member

An NFL team signing someone who has never played football before wouldn’t seem to be the shrewdest front office move. But it might not seem as strange if that prospect was an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling.

The Buffalo Bills hope they’ve struck gold themselves by signing Olympian Gable Steveson. The team announced the move Friday, listing the 5-foot-11, 266-pound wrestler as a defensive tackle.

Steveson, 24, has never played football at any level. ESPN reported he wore cleats for the first time when he worked out for the Bills.

He was most recently signed to the WWE but was released earlier this month.

As an amateur wrestler, Steveson had few peers. He won Olympic gold as a heavyweight in 2021 and was 85-2 in his four-year career at the University of Minnesota. Steveson won national titles in 2021 and 2022 and was ranked No. 1 in 2020 but the NCAA tournament was canceled because of COVID-19. He was the only two-time heavyweight winner of the Hodge Trophy — collegiate wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy — and was unbeaten in his final three seasons. As a freshman in 2019, Steveson finished third nationally.

Steveson signed with WWE in 2021. This is the second consecutive summer he has flirted with a career change.

Last July, Steveson considered returning to collegiate wrestling and openly debated between returning to Minnesota, transferring to Iowa or staying on the WWE circuit. It became a weekly storyline for WWE, but ultimately the Minnesota native, who was named after Iowa coaching legend Dan Gable, opted to remain in pro wrestling.

He wouldn’t be the first recent Olympian to also play in the NFL. Olympic track and field stars Marquise Goodwin and Devon Allen spent last season with the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively, as wide receivers. Goodwin, who played four seasons with the Bills, has enjoyed a 10-year NFL career since representing the United States in the long jump at the 2012 Olympics.

What are his chances of sticking in the NFL?​

A showman to match his athletic exploits, Steveson evokes memories of when the Minnesota Vikings signed Brock Lesnar, a former Gophers heavyweight wrestler and longtime WWE and MMA performer. However, Lesnar’s brief NFL excursion was marred by injuring Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard during drills in a 2004 training camp practice session. Although quarterbacks were deemed off-limits, Lesnar sacked Huard and then raised his hands toward the crowd following a drill. Huard injured his ankle in that morning session and the Chiefs players stewed for hours before the evening practice scheduled in Mankato, Minn. That night’s scrimmage turned into a near disaster, with fights and cheap shots occurring after nearly every play.

Although Steveson will require significant fundamental work to see any snaps, it’s not impossible for Steveson to make that transition and eventually contribute. His rare blend of size, power, speed and flexibility could accelerate his development. Steveson demonstrated his explosiveness at wrestling matches by celebrating victories with backflips.

Why the Bills signed him​

Bills coach Sean McDermott knows better than most how a wrestler’s skills can translate onto the football field. McDermott was a two-time national high school wrestling champion and has remained active in his support of college wrestling, notably through owner Terry Pegula’s connections at alma mater Penn State.

Albeit more extreme, the move is reminiscent of when the Patriots in 2001 signed world champion wrestler Stephen Neal. The two-time NCAA champion and four-time All-American did not play any football at Cal State Bakersfield, but did at least play in high school. He spent eight seasons with the Patriots, starting 81 of 86 games at right guard and winning three Super Bowls.

The Bills have been forced to overhaul their defensive line, a unit McDermott rotates heavily within games to keep them fresh. Behind incumbent starters Ed Oliver and DaQuan Jones, the Bills drafted Duke defensive tackle DeWayne Carter in the third round. Other newcomers include free agents Austin Johnson (55 starts in his eight NFL seasons), DeShawn Williams (an undrafted 31-year-old on his fourth team in six years) and Eli Ankou (an undrafted, 30-year-old journeyman with three starts for six teams). — Tim Graham, Senior writer
Maybe he can put on a drop toe hold or figure four leg lock on those pesky running backs! SB here we come..LOL