Steveson banks on himself in career switch

AP Photo Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Gable Steveson (61) participates in a drill during practice in Orchard Park last Tuesday.

ORCHARD PARK — Gable Steveson thought he achieved the impossible with his stunning last-second takedown of three-time world wrestling champion Geno Petriashvili to win gold at the Tokyo Games.

Three years later, the 24-year-old Steveson is raising the degree of difficulty in approaching his next challenge: Pro football. Having never played a down of football in his life, he is the rawest of NFL rookies in opening his second week of practice with the Buffalo Bills on Tuesday.

It’s a passion project and a personal challenge for Steveson to see how far he can stretch his athletic abilities. Or, as the two-time national collegiate wrestling champion from Minnesota put it following practice, “Do the impossible.”

“This is definitely a unicorn situation,” Steveson said. “For me to finally push that narrative of you can come from one sport to another: that’s an incredible thing. And I hope people realize this and can see that they can do whatever they want with their lives.”

At 5-foot-11 and 266 pounds, Steveson’s career change from super heavyweight wrestler to defensive lineman follows a failed bid with World Wrestling Entertainment. After joining the WWE to much fanfare, he was mostly part of its developmental brand, NXT, before being released last month.

Steveson said he was in the midst of moving boxes, when the Bills called, asking him to attend a tryout. He showed enough raw promise for Buffalo to sign him to a standard three-year undrafted rookie contract — conditional on him making the roster.

“The first time I ever put on football cleats was at this tryout,” he said. “I gave it my all, and I wanted the opportunity to show that I could be something. And that’s what this is about.”

One big factor working in Steveson’s favor is Bills coach Sean McDermott, a two-time high school national wrestling champion growing up in Pennsylvania. And while McDermott went on to pursue football after high school, he’s credited wrestling for helping shape his life.

McDermott joked to The Associated Press that Steveson has a far deeper grasp of wrestling than he does. What matters is McDermott knowing a lot more about football and being familiar with how wrestling fundamentals — leverage, hand-fighting and foot speed — can translate into football, especially among linemen.

McDermott has even introduced wrestling terms to help Steveson’s transition, with the toughest part involving learning a playbook.

“In wrestling, we don’t have 10 different directions to go. Here you got to read a pass. You’ve got to read a reach and a base and all those funky words,” he said. “But I came in here just a blank slate and ready to learn. And I’m a week in and I feel like I’m light years ahead.”

Another adjustment is having to wear a helmet, which proved heavier than Steveson expected.

What fascinates him is being on the same team as pass-rusher Von Miller, someone he grew up watching win a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos.

His new teammates are equally in wonder of Steveson.

“You talk about being the best at what you do, he is literally the best at what he does,” said defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who has since learned of Steveson’s win over Petriashvili.

“To have a guy of his caliber, just to be around him, from the mental aspect of what it takes to get in that arena when it’s just him and another opponent. He knows what it’s like just having that one-on-one battle,” Oliver said. “He is just learning to play football. I wouldn’t put any expectations on it. I don’t want to. But I think he will be all right though.”

Steveson laughed at the memory of how his mother wouldn’t allow him to play football growing up.

“She was scared. But I said, ‘Mom, you put me in the hardest sport, wrestling,'” he said. “So when this opportunity arose, she was like, ‘This is all you. You’re a grown man now. Go ahead and do it.'”

The Bills and Steveson are taking his development one small step at a time.

“If you’re looking all the way to September, you’re not going to get far. I’m looking for the present,” Steveson said.

“I want to give Buffalo my everything. I know the fans out there are going to care about this moment, and all the wrestling fans are going to care about this moment,” he added. “I just want to be that person that, ‘Hey, here’s a guy who’s never done it and he’s going to do it.’ And I believe in myself.”


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