Former NFL Player A.J. Francis Wants to Play Game-Changing Role for WWE

A.J. Francis grinded to play five seasons in the NFL despite entering the league as an undrafted free agent. He's aiming for a similar rise in WWE.
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A.J. Francis has a lofty set of goals to accomplish in WWE, with the zenith becoming WWE champion. He has an immeasurable number of steps to climb to elevate himself to such an extraordinary height, but conquering the impossible is not out of the ordinary for Anthony Joseph Francis.

The 6’5", 330-pound Francis played football at the University of Maryland. As a member of the defensive line, he was durable though not quite spectacular. He was hit with what appeared to be a devastating kiss of death for dreams of a pro career when he was not selected in the 2013 NFL draft, yet Francis used that moment of heartbreak to further fuel his football aspirations.

“You don’t see a lot of guys that went undrafted make the NFL and then end their career with a five-year NFL pension,” said Francis, whose pro career spanned from 2013-2018 and included playing time with the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, and the Washington Football Team. “I loved playing football, but even when I was in the NFL, my dream was to become WWE champion.“

Split photo of AJ Francis during his time with Washington's NFL team and the WWE

Francis now hosts WWE’s Most Wanted Treasures every Sunday on A&E, leading the search for some of wrestling’s most unique memorabilia. He also revealed himself this past week on NXT as part of Isaiah “Swerve” Scott’s new stable, serving as the X-factor in Swerve’s victory against Leon Ruff. And although the 31-year-old Francis has taken a unique route to wrestling—he signed with WWE only a year after he began training—he takes pride in the sacrifices made to reach his current position.

“I paid my dues, just in a different manner,” Francis said. “I know people don’t like it when you don’t do the indies, but that’s when I was in the NFL. My story is different. I played in the NFL, I got a master’s degree, I have two albums, and I’ve been on tour for my music, but I never stopped loving wrestling. I went to every indie show I could, and I went to WrestleMania five different times before I ever signed. My dream is to be WWE champion. Until I’m WWE champion, my purpose on earth is not complete.

“That’s why it’s so cool to host this show. It’s the coolest thing to ever happen to me. I hope every wrestling fan watching sees a little bit of themself in me.“

A gifted athlete with outstanding hand-eye coordination and agility, Francis fashioned himself into a world-class performer with an insatiable work ethic. That athleticism has eased his transition into pro wrestling, and his dedication to the craft has catapulted him onto TV for NXT.

“I was trying to get back into the NFL in late 2018,” Francis said, looking back on his transition into wrestling. “I’d had the best game of my career in D.C., then I got cut in the offseason. That’s just the way the NFL works. Then I went to New York and had one of my best preseasons, but I got cut. And again, that’s just the way the NFL works. Around that time my buddies threw a party, and that’s what helped my start in wrestling.”

Serendipity was in the air that particular evening. Wrestling was a topic of discussion, and the larger-than-life, charismatic Francis was asked to work a match at an upcoming indie show. Supremely confident in his ability, Francis never mentioned he did not have any official training.

“Mike Busey threw the party, and Jason Dugan and Rey Xion, who are known as The Brothers in Arms in wrestling, were there, and that’s where I got asked to come work an upcoming show,” Francis said. “So I did. After the match, when I got to the back, one of the guys asked me, 'What’s your home promotion?’ I said that that was my first match. Then I got asked where I trained, and I said I didn’t, I just went out and did it. The guys there were amazed, and they told me I should go to a wrestling school.”

Francis turned his back on the NFL when he began training with Team 3D Academy. Six months later, he had a tryout with WWE, and six months following that, he was hired.

“I closed the door on football,” Francis said. “Teams have called me since to play, but I couldn’t spend another day in the NFL knowing my real dream was so accessible.”

The chance to play a starring role for WWE’s Most Wanted Treasures has provided Francis a chance to show a distinctive side to his commitment toward pro wrestling and the people, both in and around the industry, that give it life.

“This show isn’t scripted, it’s entertaining,” Francis said. “Kicking it with Undertaker and Kane, I’m like a kid in a candy shop. I’m a mega fan, I can relate to the fans, and that’s why I’m here. I’m not playing a character. That’s me.

“People still ask me, ‘You like wrestling? What’s wrong with you?’ So I get it. We go into the houses of these collectors. Sometimes, their friends don’t get them, their family doesn’t understand, but I do. I stare at a framed picture of Kevin Owens and a signed Roman Reigns shirt on my wall. I understand the passion. So when I walk into someone’s house, and I see these incredible collections, I appreciate the art form even more.”

Highlighting legends of the industry is a thrill for Francis, yet far from his end goal.

“We’re getting an inside look at these stars, and it’s so cool for me to get to spend time with them and learn,” Francis said. “And there is a lot more to it, too. I didn’t come here to be a TV show host. I came here to be WWE champion.”

Francis has meshed perfectly with pro wrestling. He is a top prospect for WWE, adding legitimacy to his authenticity in the ring from his background in the NFL.

“In the NFL, if you’re a good player with a loud mouth, eventually it’s going to cost you and you’ll be out of the league,” said Francis. “That’s the first thing that gets you out the door. In the WWE, if you’re a good talent with a loud mouth, you’re going to the top.

“Every other dream in my life, I’ve accomplished. This isn’t going to be the only one I don’t. You have to do something to stand out. I ain’t done nothing yet. This is the start for me.“

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.