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It’s possible the most-famous Iowa football player in the Kirk Ferentz era is someone whose name is unfamiliar to you.
Does the name “Ettore Ewen” ring any bells? No? Well, you may know him as “Big E,” the WWE heavyweight champion as of Monday night. Big E became the champ at Boston’s TD Center in front of a national television audience on “Monday Night Raw.”
It seems to be an enormously popular move with fans of that entertainment genre, and it is the same with many people who have Iowa football connections.
Ewen has over 900,000 Twitter followers and a million on Instagram. Not bad for a guy who was a backup defensive lineman at Iowa from 2004 to 2006. His former teammates suggest he could have had a great football career, but knee and pectoral injuries cut it short.
Ewen got in 12 games as a backup in 2006, making 14 tackles. Knee and pectoral injuries cut short a promising career.
“He had some real physical issues,” Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said at his Tuesday news conference. “He had a tough challenge that way. But a great guy. Really great guy from the Tampa area. I think it's been neat that he's gone on and had this great success.”
When Ewen saw a video with Ferentz’s remarks about him, he tweeted “Oh man! This is incredible! That’s my coach!”
Several of Ewen’s former teammates contacted him this week to congratulate him.
“Those people mean so much to me,” Ewen said. “(Former Hawkeye linebacker) Mike Humpal is the reason I even got to WWE.”
The back story: Mike Doughty of Washington, Iowa, the director of development for the Dan Gable Wrestling Hall of Fame director of development and close friend of Gable, met then-WWE announcer/talent scout Jim Ross.
The two were seated next to each other on a flight from Des Moines to Chicago, and again on their connecting flight to Philadelphia. Ross noticed Doughty was wearing a Hawkeyes wrestling jacket, so he struck up a conversation.
Doughy recalled: “He goes ‘Hey, if you’re ever at an NCAA tournament, here’s what we’re looking for: A good look, charismatic — he named all these attributes that he was looking for. He said ‘You ever see anybody like that, here’s my card, give me a call.’
“So I’m at the next NCAA tournament in St. Louis in 2009. Mike Humpal and I are good friends, and Mike and I are down there watching together. He and his friends wanted to go have beers. Humpal says ‘Hey, Mike, you coming with us?’ I said ‘I’m going to stick around and watch the heavyweights.’
“He asked what for, and I said ‘Well, I’m kind of a WWE scout now.’ He said ‘Well, I’ll stick around with you.’ We watched the heavyweight wrestle-backs together.”
Not long after, Humpal contacted Doughty and said he had a guy for him.
“I was back from Pittsburgh (after having been cut by the Steelers) and at the (Iowa football) facility trying to stay in shape and get linked up with another team,” Humpal said. “Ettore was around, he was going to grad school, and kind of doing his own thing.
“We became workout partners. I kind of got to know him then, but he was super quiet. But he was a nice guy, and we clicked and worked out well together.
“I went to the NCAA tournament, and Doughty tells me he was watching the heavyweights looking for (pro) wrestling talent. I asked him if they had to be wrestlers, because this guy I work out with. I don’t know if he has the personality for it, but he’s certainly got the appearance.”
Humpal, now a chiropractor in North Liberty, said “Ettore used to refer to himself as a budding extrovert.”
Ewen blossomed, putting to use a sense of humor, a flair with words, and a very expressive face. He kept honing his in-ring skills, and maintained his massive strength in the 12 years since he signed a developmental contract with the WWE.
Sports Illustrated’s Justin Barrasso wrote Ewen is “a combination of personality and power,” the WWE’s “most-charismatic big man.”
“Sensitive, compassionate and brave, Ewen brings a distinct heartbeat to the WWE championship.”
When Humpal asked Ewen if he would be interested in meeting with Doughty about pursuing WWE’s interest, “His face lit up like a Christmas tree,” Humpal said.
Ewen made a promotional videotape. The WWE signed him to a developmental contract and he developed. He was placed on the company’s main talent roster in 2012. Monday night, the company made him the face of its weekly show on USA Network.
“You can have a 10-, 15-year-career here and never get that moment,” Ewen said. “And I never knew if it was coming. Not that I necessarily would have thought my career was a failure if I didn’t have that moment, but I’m glad I got to have it.
“Everyone has been so incredibly kind and gracious. It’s all so humbling.”
You repeatedly hear the word “humble” associated with Ewen when you talk to his friends. Like former Hawkeye teammate Mike Sabers, who roomed with Ewen at Iowa and now is a special education instructor at Iowa City High School.
“He was actually a very quiet guy,” Sabers said. “We hit it off right away.
“I saw right away how smart he was, how smooth of a talker he was, some of the academic work I’d see him do and how good he was at writing. I knew right then he had talents. Obviously, he’s a physical specimen.
“But as far as being this outspoken guy who’s shaking his hips and all that, I wouldn’t have told you in 10,000 years that that’s the career he’d go into.”
“Iowa people, they mean so much to me,” said Ewen. “(Iowa teammates) Mike Sabers, Rashad Dunn, Lucas Cox, we’ve known each other since we were 18. Those are guys I talk to pretty much every single day.”
He freely credits Doughty and Humpal for their roles in him starting that career. He noted that if then-Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle hadn’t let him keep coming to the football building to work out after his Hawkeyes football career was done, “I wouldn’t have been around Humpal at the time.”
Everything, he said, was “so serendipitous.”
“No one gets to good positions in life alone. I’ll give myself some credit for doing the work, but there are a lot of people that have been in the right positions at the right time, who just really helped me grow.
“And I was fortunate enough that I found something that I love.”
Doughty got a finder’s fee from the WWE. He hasn’t “scouted” anyone for the company since directing Ewen its way.
“I’m 1-0,” he said.
Saturday night, not long after Iowa’s 27-17 football win over Iowa State, Ewen tweeted a celebratory GIF. He’s still a Hawkeye.
“I’ve been to their bowl games several times, but I haven’t been able to get back to Iowa City for a game since I left campus.”
If Ferentz is looking for an honorary game captain who loves his Hawkeye ties, would connect with college athletes, and knows what it takes to become a champion …
Here is a University of Iowa video of an interview with Ewen this summer:
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