This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL’s past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport’s history.
For many years there has been a connection between pro wrestling and the NFL. But it’s rare to see the two sports overlap as closely as they did at WrestleMania 2.
If there’s a NFL/WWE crossover, it’s usually after a football player’s career is over. Some former football players like Bill Goldberg have become stars in wrestling. Others, like Lawrence Taylor in WrestleMania XI, jump in the ring for a cameo when they are done playing. You won’t often see active players wrestling.
But in 1986, William “Refrigerator” Perry, Russ Francis, Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic joined wrestlers like Bruno Sammartino, Andre the Giant and the Iron Sheik in a 20-man battle royal. Perry, Francis, Covert and Fralic were all still active in the NFL. Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Ernie Holmes and former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Harvey Martin, who both had retired at that point, were also in the match.
Francis at least had some idea what he was in for. His father, Gentleman Ed Francis, wrestled professionally and then became a well-known wrestling promoter out of Hawaii.
“What happened was – I knew this was going to happen – the players said ‘This is entertainment,’” Francis said. “But those guys [the wrestlers] weren’t going to look at you as one of them. They’re going to try to pound the you-know-what out of you.”
And so the battle royal at WrestleMania 2 was on.
It’s hard to imagine big-name players jumping in the ring with WWE (then known as WWF) wrestlers these days, given the chance of injury. And there would have been more players in the WrestleMania 2 battle royal, but there were predictable issues from teams. While there were plenty of volunteers, Francis said, some teams forbid their players from participating. Francis said one of the volunteers to be in WrestleMania 2 was all-time Dallas Cowboys great defensive tackle Randy White, but he wasn’t allowed. Others were also told by their teams they couldn’t participate.
“Part of the problem came with the teams saying, ‘We don’t want you getting in there with these crazed pro wrestlers and getting injured,’” Francis said.
A few joined in. Perry was coming off his rookie season, when he became a national star as part of a colorful Chicago Bears championship team. Fralic was also a rookie in 1985 for the Atlanta Falcons, and beginning in 1986 he made four straight Pro Bowls as one of the best offensive linemen in football. Covert was an All-Pro tackle with the Bears. And Francis was a three-time Pro Bowl tight end and a key piece of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl championship team.
Francis was already a free spirit. He flew planes. He broke his foot skydiving, which he says prevented a exhibition bout with Muhammad Ali, like Lyle Alzado had. And Francis spent an offseason wrestling, after his 1975 rookie season with the New England Patriots. Big mistake.
“I got pounded,” Francis said. “I decided I took enough of a beating during the football season. I didn’t need to take one in the offseason.”
Even if the results are set up in pro wrestling, the pain from executing the stunts is very real. Still, Francis wrestled here and there throughout his NFL career, and was “flattered and honored” to be asked to join WrestleMania 2. He was a natural fit, and his father had a close relationship with WWE head Vince McMahon through his father.
But how did Francis get permission from 49ers coach Bill Walsh? Francis said he had a great relationship with Walsh, and Walsh knew better than to battle his thrill-seeking tight end on everything. Francis said Walsh wouldn’t let him fly airplanes when he was with the 49ers, but couldn’t get Francis to give up riding motorcycles.
“I said, well, it said in the contract if I get injured I won’t be covered, it doesn’t say I can’t,” Francis said. “I told him, ‘I’ll still ride motorcycles, but I’ll be careful.’ So when it came to the wrestling thing, Bill didn’t even say anything.”
The match happened at Rosemont Horizon arena, just outside of Chicago. Perry, of course, got an enormous ovation as he entered the ring. It was a fun show, with Dick Butkus and Ed “Too Tall” Jones announced by “Mean Gene” Okerlund as guest referees, and Clara from the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” commercials listed as a guest timekeeper ringside. It was peak ’80s.
At one point during the battle royal Francis was face-to-face with Andre the Giant, maybe the most famous wrestler ever. Andre was listed at 7-foot-4 and 500 pounds. Francis had known Andre for many years, thanks to his father being a famous promoter. And, being a thrill seeker, Francis decided to lock up with Andre the Giant.
“I went to pick up his leg, just playing around like I’m going to throw him over the top rope. And he drilled me right between the shoulder blades, just flattened me to the mat,” Francis said. “I bounced back up but I was hurt. I looked up at Andre – everyone had to look up at Andre – and said, ‘I thought we were friends.’”
Francis slips into a pretty good Andre the Giant impression as he continues the story.
“He said, “Outside the ring we are friends. Inside the ring I’m Andre the Giant,’” Francis said. “And he grabbed me and threw me across the ring.”
The football players gave a good showing. Well, except Covert, who was eliminated first, along with King Tonga, a little more than a minute into the match (wrestlers are eliminated from a battle royal when they are thrown over the top rope and onto the floor). Covert was tossed out by Fralic, who preened for the audience. Fralic came to the ring that night with a slow, arrogant strut; he’d have made a perfect wrestling heel had the whole NFL thing not worked out.
Fralic was dumped when there were nine people left in the ring, thrown over the top rope by Iron Sheik and Big John Studd. Perry spent a lot of time battling Studd, a heel who had a rivalry with Andre the Giant. Perry charged Studd, caught an elbow to the head and was unceremoniously dumped over the top rope. From the floor, Perry offered a handshake, then pulled Studd over the top rope, eliminating him. The crowd loved that.
Francis was the last football player left. It was down to Francis, Andre the Giant, Bret Hart and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart at the end. The latter two formed the tag team “The Hart Foundation.”
Francis, who did have experience as a wrestler, thought briefly that he suffered the type of injury that NFL teams worried about when “The Hart Foundation” eliminated him.
“As I was going over, I decided to grab the top rope, but my head got caught and my neck snapped back,” Francis said. “I thought for a split second I might have fractured my neck because my body went numb. I was fine but it was a scary moment.”
Andre the Giant eventually eliminated Hart and Neidhart to win the battle royal.
WrestleMania grew fast. The first WrestleMania was a pretty big deal, with Hulk Hogan and Mr. T (at the height of Mr. T’s fame) fighting Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff in the main event. WrestleMania 2 was held in three different venues, with the main event in Los Angeles as Hogan fought King Kong Bundy in a cage match. WrestleMania III, in the Detroit Lions’ home of the Pontiac Silverdome, set indoor attendance records as Hogan wrestled Andre the Giant. Now it’s a huge annual event on the sports calendar.
When the 49ers bid for WrestleMania 31 to be held in new Levi’s Stadium, Francis was part of the group that made the bid to McMahon and the WWE. Francis was surprised when McMahon began the meeting by talking about Francis’ father.
“He talked about how his father and my father were pioneers in wrestling,” Francis said. “There was a lot of respect between the families. There still is.”
The 49ers won the bid and hosted WrestleMania 31 in March of 2015.
And it’s still pretty cool for Francis to think that he played a tiny part in the juggernaut that is WrestleMania.
“You say, ‘Holy smokes, that was 30 years ago?’” Francis said. “Things have changed just a little bit.”
Previous Shutdown Corner NFL throwback stories: Joe Montana’s underrated toughness | Barry Sanders’ long-forgotten final game | Jake Delhomme’s playoff nightmare | Barry Switzer, outspoken as ever | Was Sebastian Janikowski worth a first-round pick? | How Jim Harbaugh punching Jim Kelly helped Colts land Peyton Manning | Jay Cutler makes the greatest throw ever | “Has anyone ever kissed your Super Bowl rings?” | How the Patriots once faced a fourth-and-63 | The Packers survived a miserable two-decade run | “NFL PrimeTime” changed how we watch football | One of pro football’s greatest games happened in the crazy USFL | The time Warren Moon should have had 650 yards in an NFL game | In 1979, Lyle Alzado boxed against Muhammad Ali. Seriously | Meet the NFL team that lost its only game before folding | In 1969 the NFL demanded Joe Namath sell his bar, so he retired | Let’s Ram It! An oral history of 1985 Los Angeles Rams’ rap song | The historic AFL-NFL merger 50 years ago | Was O.J. Simpson’s 1973 the best season in NFL history? | Hertz made advertising history with O.J. Simpson’s airport runs | Before they were coaches, Bill Cowher once broke Jeff Fisher’s leg | The man who turned down the NFL because of his religious beliefs | The short list of players drafted by the NFL and NBA | The crazy story behind Steve Young’s crazy 43-year USFL contract
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