Nick McNeil ’03 is a small-town N.C. boy from Leland. Percy Watson was raised in the glitter of Miami. Nick, who attended tiny North Brunswick High School, could get about as wild as McDonald’s on a Friday growing up. Percy’s parents “managed the hottest nightclubs in the United States.”
Nick is a hard worker who got noticed by running down quarterbacks and earning good grades. Percy gets attention with bright-red tights, bombastic speeches and the “Showtime Splash.” Nick was one of the finest football players in Western Carolina history. Percy is an up-and-coming professional wrestler.
Nick McNeil and Percy Watson don’t seem to have much in common, except for one critical thing: They’re the same person.
Choosing a career in pro wrestling is unconventional by pretty much any standard, and McNeil is fairly certain that more than a few of his former classmates in Cullowhee would be shocked to meet his fictitious alter ego. “I think the people who don’t know would be surprised for sure,” McNeil said with a chuckle recently from his home in Tampa, Fla., where he lives while he competes in Florida Championship Wrestling, which is the official developmental league of World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE.
Catamount fans remember McNeil as a ferocious defensive end who is still tied for fourth in the WCU record book with 45 tackles for loss and sixth in sacks with 18.5. After he graduated in 2003, his talent earned him stints on a trio of NFL practice squads – the Packers in 2004, the Redskins in 2005 and the Giants in 2006 – before he played a season with the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2007. But after four years, the writing was on the wall that his football days were numbered. “It was pretty disappointing, but you can’t dwell on things like that for long,” McNeil said. “I consider myself lucky to have been able to play as long as I did.”
Although he had earned a degree in computer information systems, he took a different step thanks to a friend who had connections in the wrestling world. “He made some calls, and I had a tryout a year-and-a-half ago down in Florida. Luckily I got signed,” McNeil said. “I knew this was something that wasn’t going to be easy because I had no experience. It’s hard to compare (to football), but physically it can be exhausting as well. It’s very tough on your body, very demanding.”
McNeil’s athletic talent was critical to learning how to safely execute moves such as his signature “Showtime Splash,” which is basically turning 180 degrees in the air and landing on someone. Just as important as acrobatics, however, is the ability to work the crowd verbally. Percy’s witty banter was on display when he hosted a talk show segment during season two of “WWE NXT” last summer. The program is a “reality” show built around the concept of rookies trying to break into the big time, and when Percy was eliminated in Week 11, WCU economics professor Robert Mulligan thought he’d been robbed.
“There were these 10-minute shticks where he would interview the other wrestlers. It came across that he’s highly intelligent, and he really cleaned up doing that particular thing,” Mulligan said. “I was disappointed that they allowed someone else to win. I really think he was a crowd favorite when they took him out.”
Mulligan has followed McNeil’s athletics career since he taught McNeil in an introductory economics class, and he says he knew him pretty well. Or so he thought. Watching Percy Watson opened Mulligan’s eyes to a side of his former pupil he still can’t quite believe. “He was a good student. He was very focused on getting his coursework done and managing his time,” Mulligan says. “There was very much of this all-business persona, and now I’m wondering. It’s an amazing acting job. I really had no hint of that when he was in school. He was not a flamboyant personality either in class or on the field, so to see him strutting and trash-talking as a professional wrestler is just strange.”
Brittany Bennefield ’05, a soccer player at Western Carolina while McNeil was on the football team, isn’t quite as surprised. “He was always the life of the party with this wonderful attitude. I thought he had a big personality,” Bennefield said.
Being popular with the fans is the most important component of McNeil’s new job, although he disputes the notion that the outcomes of the matches are predetermined. “It’s 100 percent competitive,” he said. “To perform in front of 10,000 or 15,000 people a week, there’s nothing like it. To get a victory over someone – it’s nothing scripted. It’s real.”
A spot on “NXT” was a big step for McNeil, but now he says he’s “in limbo.” He hasn’t wrestled on TV since, though he has continued to compete in “dark” – nontelevised – matches. McNeil also attended WrestleMania recently and left inspired. “Short-term, the goal is to get back on television. The long-term would be to capture a title, you know?” he says. “I just have to keep working. The ultimate goal is to participate in WrestleMania, the main event. It was definitely a great experience. I didn’t partake in anything, but it was good to be there and absorb the atmosphere and get myself ready for next year.
“This is a dream job. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal. It looks like I’m headed in the right direction,” he said. “So far, so good.”
Ron Wagner is a freelance writer in Henderson County.
See Percy Watson’s WWE profile online at www.wwe.com/superstars/wwenxt/percywatson.