The drops of blood on the white mesh jersey are virtually identical in color to the red of the numbering on the front. The jersey stays unwashed and hangs in a Northwest Missouri State football office, suspended in a time when Tom Pestock was not a WWE superstar, but a member of the Arizona Cardinals practice squad.
The jersey represents an exaggeration of what coach Adam Dorrel wants from his players: loyalty, toughness, pride, unselfishness — the characteristics Pestock exhibited at Northwest Missouri State.
Pestock, born in Lenexa and billed from Kansas City, gave the jersey to Dorrel when Pestock spoke to the team in 2013, two years after his NFL career ended and a year into his professional wrestling career.
Pestock spent three years with the Arizona Cardinals on their practice squad. Once he was cut, he got his name in with Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment Inc. and got a call-back after a tryout with Florida Championship Wrestling, a now-defunct developmental wrestling league. After he moved to Orlando, he became a pro wrestler.
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By the time he gave the jersey to Dorrel, Pestock was already beginning his transformation from a plump-faced 330-pound offensive lineman to a lean, 275-pound pro wrestling villain with long, slicked-back hair and a tattoo sleeve. He says part of his new look is to be aesthetically pleasing, the rest is just who he always has been.
“I want to allow myself to display myself to people,” Pestock said after he was drafted to WWE Smackdown in the middle of July. “The biggest transition is really opening up and letting people into what you’re feeling every moment and multiplying it.”
At 31, Pestock’s public persona has made him a rising talent in WWE, the mecca of professional wrestling. Smackdown averages roughly 2 million viewers every Tuesday on USA Network.
And Pestock has morphed into one of the WWE’s most hated villains, creating a sizable following along the way.
Between his Twitter and Instagram, Pestock — under his ring name Baron Corbin — has more than 380,000 followers. He made his unannounced debut in front of more than 100,000 fans at Wrestlemania 32 in April, winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Trophy. He has boosted his following competing alongside the likes of WWE megastar John Cena. He’s a veritable WWE superstar.
But strip the exterior — the pants made of 13 different fabrics paired with the leather vest he wears as he steps into the ring, lending itself to display his dozens of tattoos — and Pestock is mostly the same guy who wore that Cardinals jersey five years ago.
He still sports the same chinstrap beard, listens to heavy metal and watches horror movies.
“What you see of me on TV and all of that, that is me — that’s truly how I feel,” Pestock said. “I’m just multiplying it. It’s that arrogance, that confidence, the belief that I’m the best, and there’s a true attitude that I don’t care what others think.”
To people who know him as Tom Pestock, it’s no surprise he has come this far. That ornery, confident personality has always stood out. He was the guy who would run across the field to defend a receiver in a scuffle against a defensive back; the guy whose name is remembered by football scouts.
“He’s always had an edge to him,” Dorrel said. “If he felt like people were trying to push him around, he was gonna stand up to him. He was just wired like that.”
Now Pestock calls himself “The Lone Wolf,” his tagline is “All Hail.” He has his own action figure, a reward for his rapid success, which makes him hated by some indie wrestlers who worked years just to get into NXT, WWE’s developmental league.
They say he got into the WWE — the big leagues — too quickly, and he doesn’t belong. They say he doesn’t love wrestling. That he didn’t come up through the ranks like they did.
All this fuels Baron Corbin, the villain.
“I tell them, it’s because I’m that good. … Cry all you want, it’s never going to change where I am.”
And there is this secret he has kept mostly to himself: He has always loved wrestling.
He has buried that truth for the best possible reason: to add fuel to the fire of his detractors and build his villainous personality.
Pestock remembers going to Memorial Hall with his father to watch his favorites: Harley Race, another Kansas Citian, and Billy Gunn. There, he saw himself and what he could be one day. His dad died in 2008; his mom declined to be interviewed by WWE request.
Now he wants to become the WWE World Champion. And that chase motivates him. It’s left him power-hungry.
As he talked about that drive, he naturally circled back to Northwest Missouri State, where, he said, he was “the biggest a-hole on the team.” But when he described that current mindset, to be the best at something, his voice got a bit firm, a bit deeper. He said it as if his chest were puffed out, with a sense of confidence, channeling WWE superstar Baron Corbin.
“I want to be the best person here,” he said.
And maybe that’s his true persona; it’s hard to tell.
Perhaps he’s still Tom Pestock, the Kansas City kid who played football and boxed. Maybe it’s his character, Baron Corbin, living out one dream and chasing the next. Or maybe it’s something in between: a coalesced, self-evolved version of Pestock with hints of Corbin ingrained in him.
“You evolve as a superstar,” he said. “You evolve your personality. And it comes out more and more and more.”