TORONTO — James Wilder Jr. always wanted to follow his father into pro football, but it wasn’t always his activity of choice.
Growing up, the Toronto Argonauts running back admits he spent as much — or more — time watching pro wrestling on TV than James Wilder Sr. lugging the ball with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins. Next month, the junior Wilder will attend a tryout with the World Wrestling Entertainment in Orlando.
"I’m super excited, it’s a dream," Wilder said in a recent telephone interview. "I think every kid born in the early ’90s — I was born in ’92 during the Stone Cold, The Rock, The Undertaker and Kane era — was probably a WWE fan before they were even a football fan."
Wilder, 26, learned of the tryout via email. Turns out the CFL’s top rookie in 2017 was nominated for the gig, although the WWE didn’t say by whom.
"I don’t want to ask too many questions," he said. "I’ll definitely ask who after the tryout but right now I don’t want my mind to be in the wrong place."
Wilder certainly has the chiselled physique and charisma of a pro wrestler. The former Florida State star has quickly become a Toronto fan favourite with his engaging smile and gregarious, fun-loving persona.
But Wilder understands the demands of pro wrestling. It’s certainly very physical and involves plenty of travel as many of the WWE’s top stars spend over 200 days annually on the road.
However, many of the top wrestlers earn over US$1 million annually with the chance to make more in potential movie gigs.
Wilder wouldn’t be the first CFL player to head into wrestling. Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson — a former Calgary Stampeders defensive lineman — and longtime Hamilton Tiger-Cat Angelo (King Kong) Mosca are two more notable players in Canada to achieve success in the squared circle.
Another is Ron Simmons, a former Florida State player and defensive lineman with the Ottawa Rough Riders.
"Wow, there’s a connection there," Wilder said. "Ron Simmons? That’s Florida State, baby."
However, Wilder said his main focus now is the tryout. How that goes will dictate if — or when — he can start worrying about the logistics of a potential wrestling career.
Wilder says football remains his top priority — he’s under contract with Toronto through the 2019 season and still has a strong desire to continue playing. However, an opportunity to audition for the world’s largest sports entertainment organization was simply too good to pass up.
"Right now it’s a tryout but a pretty serious tryout and one not everyone gets," he said. "They know I’m playing football, they know that’s my priority, they know I don’t have much wrestling experience but they’re willing to show and teach me.
"They think I fit and I think so to."
Since receiving the tryout notice, Wilder has combined his football workouts with studying videos of wrestling holds and techniques. Starting on Monday, he plans to put those lessons to practice at a ring in Mississauga, Ont.
And then there’s always trying new moves on his training partner, six-year-old daughter Nala.
"Sometimes she kicks my butt," Wilder said with a chuckle. "You know how a six-year-old is, they never get tired.
"We’ll wrestle for like 15 minutes and you’re catching your breath and feeling sweaty."
Wilder’s preparation also involves determining what character he’ll be in the ring.
"I get up in front of my wife and (four) kids and get into my character," he said. "It’s tough because you have the kids laughing and you have to keep a straight face and stay in character but I think that’s going to help me out.
"I was going to go with Wildman Wilder but there was wrestler who used to go by Wild Man so I don’t know if that would cause any conflict. I also came up with Wilder Beast and that seems to be the one people like most."
And Wilder hopes to play a baby face in the ring.
"I think I want to come in as a good guy, a guy of the people, a guy of the fans," he said. "That way I’m not too much out of my own character.
"If they let me get that role I think it would be easier for me because I’d just be myself at that point."
Wilder said the Argos have been supportive of his upcoming opportunity.
"Of course, football comes first," he said. "This is the biggest sports entertainment business in the world and I have support from (Argos), have huge support from my teammates and even the Canadian fans.
"I always thought (wrestling) would be cool to do, that I could definitely do this and it’s me but I never could really imagine it. However now that I’ve got a tryout … I don’t want to let them down and take advantage of the opportunity."