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Living in a different light

BY CODY GOODWIN | AUGUST 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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When Big E Langston first stepped out in front of the WWE World, none of the screaming fans surrounding the ring noticed at first. It’s somewhat funny, really. The industry’s most famous name, John Cena, was tangling with Dolph Ziggler in the ring when out of the dark sauntered Big E: a hulk of a man who can practically deadlift a car.

Big E approached the runway, picked up speed and charged towards the ring. He hopped on stage just as Cena and Ziggler broke free from each other. The announcers making the call seemed just as perplexed as the crowd. “Oh my God,” one said as the big man crept out of the dark. The same announcer shrieked again moments later: “Big E Langston has gone right after John Cena!”

There was no warning. Big E dove underneath a haymaker attempt from Cena, loaded up on the ropes and flung his 5-11, 290-pound frame back at him. The veteran professional wrestler forcefully hit the deck. Big E then picked up Cena on his shoulders, as if he were nothing but a body pillow, and planted him into the surface of the ring. Emotion never crossed his face.

This was Big E’s WWE début. It was during an edition of RAW back on Dec. 17, 2012. Since that thunderous coming-out party, the former Hawkeye football player has become a huge role player in the world of professional wrestling. That world will invade Des Moines’s Wells Fargo Arena on Sept. 2 for the first time in three years.

“It was obviously a big deal,” Big E said of the match. “It kind of thrust me into the spotlight right away. I think it was a positive for me to be out there with the biggest name in wrestling.

“It was a great start, and really helped put my career where it’s at.”

Big E, 27, is expected to make an appearance in Des Moines. He is currently billed to compete Sept. 1 in Washington D.C., but plans on returning to the state to see some very important friends.

He wants to thank them — again — for helping to jumpstart his WWE career.

•••

Before Ettore Ewen became Big E Langston, he was just a kid from Florida. 

He attended a private school in Tampa from sixth to 11th grade. Ewen’s parents wanted him to get a good education, and he appreciated that. What Ewen wanted to do, though, was play football — a sport that school didn’t offer.

Before his senior year, in the fall of 2003, his parents let him transfer to Wharton High in Tampa to play football. Ewen flourished in his lone season (in large part because of his size and athleticism), but didn’t garner any scholarship offers. Nobody recruits a player who excels for just one year.

Still, Ewen stayed in the weight room. His hulking muscles suggest he lived there growing up — when he was a kid, Ewen would actually do curls and dumbbell workouts during commercials when he was watching TV.

One afternoon, Iowa’s Phil Parker showed up at Wharton on a recruiting trip. The then-defensive backs coach for the Hawkeyes stood inside the coach’s office (which was connected to the weight room) and talked recruiting. What he saw, though, was Ewen rep out 315-pounds on bench press. Ten times. 

Parker mentioned that there was a scholarship open at Iowa. One thing led to another, which led Ewen to Iowa City.

“It was just one of those things where I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Ewen said. “I was very fortunate because I was very late in the [recruiting] process.”

•••

Ewen’s Hawkeye years were less than stellar. He took a redshirt year in 2004 because of a major knee injury, and then sat out the 2005 season because of another.

Even in Ewen’s lone season playing ball — in 2006, where he compiled 14 total tackles and 2 sacks as a member of the defensive line — he managed to break his patella, which caused him to miss the Alamo Bowl that postseason.

“It was extremely difficult for me,” Ewen said. “The hardest part wasn’t necessarily the rehab and the surgery. It was being away from the team … You just feel separated from the guys who are actually contributing.”

Ewen stayed on campus after his football stint ended. He finished his undergrad and was pursuing his Master's. He even taught some classes on campus. Education was still important.

Just like he had in high school, Ewen also kept lifting. He worked out with another former Hawkeye, Mike Humpal, whose NFL career was cut short because of injury. Humpal played linebacker for Iowa from 2004-2007. He recorded 198 career tackles — including 124 in a breakout senior campaign.

Humpal felt for Ewen and his myriad injuries throughout college. He described Ewen as a workout freak and a heck of a football player with sound fundamentals, and said it was unfortunate that his playing career was cut short. The two bonded through their workouts.

"It seemed like every week, the guy was throwing another plate on the bar," Humpal said. "He showed guys that it was possible to squat 800 pounds. It's actually humanly possible."

•••

Mike Doughty boarded a flight to Chicago during the 2008-09 wrestling season wearing an Iowa wrestling jacket. He was on his way to Pennsylvania when he met a man wearing Oklahoma apparel who happened to be Jim Ross, a commentator for the WWE.

Ross had just come from the Oklahoma-Iowa State wrestling meet. He’s a good friend of Sooners football coach Bob Stoops while Doughty is a good friend of Dan Gable and a huge fan of Iowa wrestling. The two hit it off during the flight and talked about all things wrestling.

When the two parted ways, Ross asked Doughty to keep an eye out for any heavyweight wrestlers who might be interested in professional wrestling. Doughty declared himself a part-time WWE Scout, though none of his early recruits panned out.

Later on in 2009, Doughty and Humpal sat inside the Edwards Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo., watching the NCAA Wrestling Championships. They sat in Gable's suite and watched the Hawkeyes win that year's national title. They initially met at an I-Club golf outing several years prior, and have been good friends ever since.

Doughty told Humpal he was going to stick around and watch the heavyweights wrestle. A confused Humpal asked why, and Doughty told him of his meeting with Ross, and how he was watching to see if any of that year's heavyweights fit the WWE bill.

Humpal suggested someone else.

"A former football teammate of mine, Ettore Ewen," Doughty recalls Humpal saying. "He was a heck of a defensive tackle and an incredible athlete. And he was a state champion wrestler in high school."

The two met back up in Iowa City not long after, and Ewen joined them at Shorts on Clinton Street. Doughty got to know Ewen a bit, and thought he'd be the perfect candidate for a WWE tryout.

"I could not believe how wide his shoulders were and how big his arms were," Doughty said, the awe still palpable even through the phone. "My God, this guy was taking up the whole booth. No wonder he's ordering two Dundees. This guy is big enough to eat them both.

"He was a solid young man. He was polite. He was nice. He was articulate. You could tell he was grounded in humility. He was a symbol of what comes out of the Ferentz program."

One thing led to another, which led Ewen back home to Florida for a tryout. Tryouts led to training. Training led to a developmental contract. It was yet another happenstance where Ewen was in the right place at the right time.

•••

Humpal and Doughty have kept in contact with Big E since he's turned into a WWE star. They've tracked him as he climbed the ladder of the WWE ranks. Big E became an NXT Champion in early 2013. He successfully defended his title up until May.

Earlier this summer, in June, Big E met up with his friends in Cedar Rapids. The WWE packed the U.S. Cellular Center. Doughty, Humpal and a group of friends went to watch the event. For some, it was their first time seeing a professional wrestling show live.

"At the beginning of the show, we found ourselves laughing," Humpal said. "But by the end of it, you're finding different people to cheer for. Your interest piques so much more because you know somebody who's in it.

"It's a different light that shines on him now. You can tell that he's really enjoying what he's doing."

Humpal said Big E is still the Ettore he remembers. The fame hasn't changed him, though Humpal wouldn’t mind seeing Big E show off his personality more during his matches. Doughty said the whole scenario has allowed Big E to live the American Dream.

This opportunity, no matter how unlikely, has allowed Big E to come out of his shell and do something he loves.

“I’ve always had this budding extrovert inside,” Big E said. “It was something that took a while, but it’s been exhilarating for me. Being able to perform, to show personality — it took some getting used to, but something that I really enjoy. It’s one of the biggest thrills of my life.”


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