When Pat McAfee realized Peyton Manning had approached the roulette table, he didn’t know what to expect. The Indianapolis Colts’ then-rookie punter wasn’t supposed to be there. He had planned on being at home alone that afternoon. Instead, he had just spent the last few hours successfully rallying; Manning had invited him to play golf with some teammates and, as it usually does for golf novices, it went comically wrong. But during a bus ride to the group’s hotel in French Lick, Ind., McAfee won everyone over, telling jokes and tales of his exploits at West Virginia University.
Now, he was seated at a roulette table inside the hotel’s casino lobby with $100 worth of chips spread out across different numbers.
That’s when Manning made a suggestion.
How about that red 18?
Then Manning disappeared. But McAfee followed the instruction. He pulled all of his chips until they formed a stack on top of the red 18. Others at the table, perhaps confounded by his decision, all followed suit. Every chip on the table ended up on the same number.
The dealer spun the wheel. Miraculously, the red 18 hit.
“It’s the most magical thing I’ve ever seen,” McAfee tells Sports Illustrated. “And I think (Manning) even knows. It wasn’t supposed to happen.”
The tale is just one of many throughout McAfee’s life in which something that wasn’t supposed to go right ultimately did. On that day, he pocketed $3,500. Believe it or not, it probably isn’t the most impressive haul of his life.
Even before Pat McAfee was talking ears off on The Pat McAfee Show or commanding the attention of 1.5 million on Twitter, he was, in many ways, the same electric Pat McAfee most are familiar with today. The Plum, Penn., native is one of two children—he has an older brother, Jason, his “polar opposite”—born to Sally and Tim McAfee. Pat was a self-described “loud,” “terrible” child with a non-stop motor. Plausible qualities for creative, determined individuals like himself, but reason why he insists he’s “so scared to procreate.”
“I was all over the place,” McAfee says. “I made my parents’ life probably a nightmare. I was just a very rambunctious, ready-to-go person. I always had huge dreams, huge aspirations and always a lot of energy. From what I’ve been told, I could be tough to handle as a child. But I’ve always been a happy, kind of have-a-good-time, bring-the-juice type of person.”
Ambition and unrestraint helped McAfee to instigate one of the most important moments of his life.
McAfee grew up a soccer player. He didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school, but in short time, he established himself as a very good placekicker. In fact, he nearly ended up at Penn State, but the Nittany Lions ultimately signed someone else. His father helped him fortuitously land a scholarship at Kent State by his senior year, but when McAfee was invited to a national kicking competition in Miami, where about a hundred college coaches would be in attendance, he couldn’t pass up the chance.
He needed $1,500 to go. But having already committed to Kent State, his parents didn’t want to pay the massive price.
So McAfee hatched a plan.
One night, he entered the basement of an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh with $100 he had borrowed from a friend. He competed in a poker tournament against grown men, aiming to win enough money to pay for his trip to the showcase.
He succeeded, winning $1,400. His father covered the other $100. McAfee flew down to the camp, where he made a 65-yard field goal. He even had the leg on a 70-yarder that went wide right. He returned home, and the next day, a visitor came to see him at school.
“Next morning,” McAfee recalls, “I get offered to West Virginia.”
From 2005–08, McAfee made 58 field goals at West Virginia (third-most in school history), making 73.4% of his attempts, in addition to handling kickoff and punting duties. To this day, he’s grateful, particularly of star teammates Pat White and Steve Slaton, who combined for 156 total touchdowns during McAfee’s Mountaineers career. It led to the Colts selecting him as a punter with the 222nd pick of the 2009 NFL draft.
McAfee wanted to be known as a good teammate. He knew that his role was near the bottom of the totem pole. But he worked hard at his craft, enough to where he was respected in the locker room for both his skill and his personality.
“If you’re a punter or a kicker, you don’t have a lot of film study to do,” McAfee says. “There’s not a lot of things to watch. You’re just going to kick the ball. We had nowhere near the amount of preparation time that everybody else needs. So I’ve got a lot of energy. (Teammates are) coming right out of three-hour meetings where they had to learn what the hell a Cover 2 defense was this week. I have no idea what a Cover 2 is, but I know that I haven’t talked to anybody for three hours. So when they got out of that meeting, we’re getting ready for practice, there needs to be some juice, I felt like that my job in the locker room was to be the juice.”
McAfee would bring it to the field, too, ascending to become one of the NFL’s top punters. His presence gave the Colts one of the top special teams units in the league with Adam Vinatieri, the most influential figure of McAfee’s career, as their placekicker.
“I am so lucky that I got drafted to a team that had the greatest ball-kicker in the history of kicking balls,” McAfee says. “I mean, I learned so much from just watching him.”
In 2014, McAfee notched his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors. In 2016, he strutted his way to a second Pro Bowl nod, leading the league in yards per punt (49.3) and net average (42.7). But, despite only being 29, McAfee shockingly and abruptly decided to retire at the end of his eighth year in the NFL.
“I kind of knew going into the year that I was going to be done,” McAfee says. “Then I was just kind of waiting, and then a couple things happened and I just wasn’t happy going to work anymore. And it just got to the point where I wasn’t excited to get better at kicking balls. I wasn’t excited to go and maybe watch some more film on Shane Lechler or Thomas Morstead and learn more. I just wasn’t happy doing what I had been happy doing for seven years. I wasn’t excited to get up and go to work anymore.”
At the end of the season, McAfee underwent his third knee operation in four years.
“Honestly, I made a deal with myself. I watched my dad—he was a truck driver, then he sold some wood and he’d be up at like 4:30 a.m. and he’d bust his ass all day ’til six, and then he would drive me to soccer practice, and then he’d be dead tired and go to sleep. But I know he loved it. I know he absolutely loved doing that because he provided for me and the family so much, but I knew he wasn’t happy.”
McAfee’s teammates were torn. Vinatieri, his closest friend on the team, was initially upset, but understood his decision would make him happy again.
“I talked to a lot of people that I was tight with on the team before I did it,” McAfee says. “I told them I was gonna do it. Everybody thought I was full of s---. Everybody thought I was. And then when it happened, it was like, everybody was happy for me. Although I still get a lot of ‘we miss you’ text messages which is very, very cool to see.”
Perhaps the only thing more surprising than McAfee’s decision to retire was that he was joining Barstool Sports as a contributor. But McAfee had already proven his value to such a business. He estimates he had between 500,000 and 600,000 Twitter followers at the time, and had made decent money off a t-shirt company he promoted via social media. He had even done stand-up comedy, selling out a tour he did in Indiana which sold out 10,000 tickets in about an hour. His eponymous foundation was doing well. His weekly appearances on Bob & Tom, a local morning radio show in Indianapolis, encouraged him to utilize his voice. He was one of the NFL’s first punters to establish themselves as a recognizable brand outside of football.
McAfee says he never had an agent until he hired a “pseudo agent” during his final NFL season. He asked them, hypothetically, if he were to retire that year, how many networks would let him on their airwaves. “The agent got back to me like two days later and said, ‘Uh, there is zero interest, I’ve been told,’” McAfee recalls, chuckling. He nearly decided to launch an app with a local comedian, Todd McComas, who owned a standup comedy club.
“We had seen a lot of internet companies that do a lot of incredible things that made a lot of money,” McAfee says. “Todd and I were going to try and make one of those kind of small Indiana-based ones.”
But then the opportunity with Barstool came about. McAfee headed the blog’s “Heartland” division and hosted his own show on SiriusXM. “I was kind of running my own operation out here in Indianapolis with an opportunity to just learn from them,” McAfee says. “I was so so lucky to do it.”
However, the partnership didn’t last. In August 2018, McAfee left, citing miscommunication from both sides, he says, primarily due to distance between himself in Indianapolis and the site’s base in New York. He’s thankful for the time he had there, but says he reached a point where it was time to move on. There would be more opportunity to come.
McAfee says he’s had one constant in his life: WWE. He never knew what he wanted to be as a kid. He wanted to be rich. He wanted to travel. At one point he wanted to be an actor, a musician or a pro soccer player. “Anything that makes you a lot of money,” he says. “But the only constant was I want to be involved with the WWE. That’s it. That was the only thought.”
McAfee grew up watching entity icons The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H, and D-Generation X. He always wanted to be involved with WWE somehow. So when play-by-play commentator Michael Cole reached out to him, McAfee jumped at the chance. He made an appearance at an NXT Live event as a guest ring announcer, then debuted during WrestleMania as a kickoff show panelist ahead of the NXT TakeOver: New Orleans event. He became a regular panelist on the NXT TakeOver kickoff show.
“Since I’m a fan, I have some knowledge behind the product a little bit,” McAfee says. “It seems to be a natural fit at this point.”
McAfee’s broadcast career also includes coverage of college and pro football. In November 2018, he and former Packers linebacker AJ Hawk served as color commentators for a Big 12 matchup between Texas Tech and Baylor on FOX Sports 1. Then, a month later, he worked as a color commentator for a NFC North matchup between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, when kicker Matt Prater threw a touchdown, on FOX.
By getting into the booth, McAfee once again found himself a spot where he probably shouldn’t have ever been. He was rejected not once, but twice from the NFL’s broadcast bootcamp, which overlooks the resumes of current and retired NFL players prior to deeming participants eligible.
“I think I can go on the record and say this: I am the only player in the history of the NFL that has called an NFL game that was not a broadcast bootcamp graduate,” McAfee says. “And with that being said, that also means I have no clue what the hell to do.
“I went to zero broadcast school. Other than watching the games at my house on a weekly basis, I had zero clue what to do and I think that made it even better because I was just wide open having a good time, both with the Texas Tech-Baylor game and the Green Bay Packers-Detroit Lions game in Lambeau in December. When the kicker throws the touchdown, it was just a really cool thing and I never in my life expected that I would enjoy color commentating. I love it. It’s one of my favorite things on earth to do.”
With former ESPN Monday Night Football color commentator Jason Witten returning to the NFL, McAfee has launched a Twitter campaign to fill in for next year. Perhaps it’s not so farfetched an idea—one oddsmaker gave him +500 odds to replace Witten.
“We’ll see if I ever get a chance to ever do it again,” McAfee says of calling football. “Probably not, I assume. But, if I do, it’s a blast, man.”
Pat McAfee has the gift of gab. But even he finds it difficult to put his life into perspective.
“Man, I have no idea,” he says, reflectively. “I’m not supposed to be here. There’s no way I’m supposed to be here.”
Just like how he wasn’t supposed to be at the basement of that Italian restaurant some 13 years ago. Or how he wasn’t supposed to be at West Virginia, or play in the NFL, forging friendships with legendary players. He wasn’t supposed to retire early to become one of the internet’s most entertaining and recognizable personalities, or call a college football and NFL game, either. Certainly not join the WWE in any significant capacity.
But here he is having done all of those things. At 31 years old, McAfee has seen his fair share of disappointments, but they’ve never hindered him from having confidence in achieving success and having fun while doing so. His mindset is that every single day can become the greatest day of your life.
“I’m very happy with what I do,” McAfee says. “I enjoy the stupid decisions that my friends and I make. Everything for me is either a learn or a win. I just keep moving forward and that’s about it, honestly. I think I’m the luckiest guy on earth.”