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Tom Pestock and Pat McAfee may be storyline foes when they step into the ring together at SummerSlam on Saturday night, but in reality, the moment will represent the culmination of more than a decade of friendship.
Pestock, better known as Happy Corbin in WWE, and McAfee first met in 2009. Both rookies with the Indianapolis Colts, the offensive tackle and future Pro Bowl punter were roommates while trying to make it in the NFL.
“[McAfee] was a draft pick, so he got a signing bonus and when it came time to move out of the hotel [the team put us up in], I didn’t have a lot of confidence that I was going to make the team there just based on a few things,” Corbin told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t want to sign a lease on an apartment or a house if I was only going to be there for a couple more weeks, so Pat was nice enough to let me crash at his place before I obviously got released.”
— WWE (@WWE) July 17, 2022
Corbin and McAfee bonded quickly over golf — they played almost every day — and would frequent a bar called “Howl at the Moon,” but it was a shared passion for professional wrestling that foreshadowed a match that would take place more than a decade later.
“When we were training together in the weight room, we’d be talking about wrestling and how we knew there was potential for an NFL lockout,” Corbin said. “It didn’t come until a couple of years later, but we talked about going to wrestling school when the lockout happened so that we could get a head start in that WWE career. Back then it was a dream for both of us, so it’s pretty surreal to step back and look at that, 12, 13 years later because it was in 2009 that we were rookies together, yet here we are.”
While McAfee was making a name for himself as a special teams standout for the Colts, Corbin was following through on the duo’s dream to become professional wrestlers. Corbin, after a stint with the Cardinals, wound up signing with WWE in 2012 and began to work his way through its developmental brand, NXT.
Corbin’s size and athleticism stood out, and in 2016, he made the jump to WWE’s main roster.
“I wish there would be more of a correlation drawn to the athleticism of upper collegiate and NFL-level football players,” Corbin said. “We have a lot of guys who followed that path. Roman Reigns had a stint with [the] Minnesota [Vikings]. Madcap Moss was an elite collegiate player who had some tryouts in the NFL. Those are two of most athletic guys you see in the ring in WWE along with myself. I’m 6’7, 280 pounds on a good day and I can move like that. To have that athletic ability at that size shows why we all have success in high school, college and in the NFL or our careers in WWE.”
Athletic ability is just one part of the success formula for Corbin. Since his main roster debut, Corbin has worked primarily as a heel, but has undergone several different character transformations. Corbin went from the somewhat brooding, black-clad Lone Wolf to aligning himself with Stephanie McMahon’s on-screen character, adopting the authoritative Constable Corbin persona.
In 2019, Corbin won the King of the Ring tournament, thus transforming into King Corbin. After a two-year run, Corbin would lose his crown to Shinsuke Nakamura last summer, becoming downtrodden and sad before eventually hitting it big in Las Vegas, becoming the Happy Corbin in the storyline fans see today.
“I like my evolution as a performer,” Corbin said. “I think that very, very few guys have one thing and they stick to it. Even Roman had to adapt and change into what he is now. I think John Cena is a guy who went through a few things before he found what worked and had the insanely long run as what he is today. Outside of those guys, I don’t feel like that many people haven’t had to evolve to stay relevant. Undertaker evolved, Kane evolved, Seth Rollins has evolved. That’s a testament to talent.”
While many times in WWE there will be a prolonged absence when a character is repackaged or changed, it hasn't been the case for Corbin. Corbin’s aptitude when it comes to the creative side of wrestling has allowed him to be one of the most consistent performers in WWE over the past several years, much of it at the top of the card playing foil to whoever the babyface champions was at the time.
“I think it’s because of my ability to bring my different characters to life,” Corbin said. “A guy like Hunter [WWE EVP Paul Levesque], I really look up to him, he started as Hunter Hearst Helmsley with the puffy, white shirt and being all prim and proper to riding motorcycles out at WrestleMania. That evolution of a character is rare and if you want to be here for a long time, you have to have that adaptability.”
Another unique aspect when it comes to Corbin is the fact that — because of the predetermined outcomes — he is more often than not booked to lose his matches. While wrestling statistics are largely unofficial, Corbin loses roughly 75 percent of his pay-per-view matches and is one of just a handful of Money in the Bank winners to fail in cashing in the contract to win the WWE championship.
Still he finds himself in high-profile matches like the upcoming one against McAfee.
“I understand my job very well,” Corbin said. “My job is to irritate people to no extent, to get hundreds of thousands of people to boo me, to really just get under people’s skin and make these good guys, guys that we are building, people who children are cheering for, mean something. The fact that I can still get reactions from people when I do lose a lot – it is not a fact that we are trying to hide, it is a thing – but my ability to be a threat, there’s something to that as well.”
Although he plays a heel on television, Corbin has managed to carve out a large following on social media, amassing more than 1.5 million combined followers on Instagram and Twitter. Admittedly, Corbin has had to become more comfortable with letting fans see more of his non-wrestling persona — breaking kayfabe, to use the industry term.
“I’m the kind of person who likes my private life to stay private,” Corbin said. “I’ve got two daughters and their faces have never been on social media. It took a lot for me to even put pictures of them there covering their faces. Same with my wife, my house. Those things are mine and not for anybody else, especially with social media today, where it is a poisonous, negative world for the most part. Allowing people in, I think can be hard, especially when someone has such a negative presence on television in the sense that I do, where people feel like because of what they see on TV, that they can talk to that person online like that.”
Much like he and McAfee presciently did in preparing for an NFL lockout, Corbin’s making something of a business decision with his social media feed, which is filled with a few of his passions — bourbon and barbecue, with a little golf sprinkled in.
“I have to build that brand a little bit and allow people into my world to understand what it is I do,” Corbin said. “We all know this doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later your body is not going to be able to perform in the ring anymore, so where am I going to be in 10 more years and what am I left with? I’m a competitor so will I take my skills to a cooking show like “Beat Bobby Flay?” Am I going to start barbecuing competitively? Will I start my own bourbon or cigar company? I want to have one foot in those worlds so that when my career is done in 10 years, they have something to follow whether they love me or hate me.”
Once again, Corbin will enter a marquee match at one of WWE’s largest events as the bad guy, playing foil to the fan favorite in McAfee. Despite this being only McAfee’s third match on the main WWE roster, there’s a sense that his showdown with Corbin could steal the show Saturday in Nashville.
The buzz surrounding the roommates-turned-rivals’ match is something that Corbin has picked up on and with relatively low stakes, the two athletes essentially have a blank canvas with which to work.
“When I wrestled Roman Reigns or Kurt Angle, people were already angry about something,” Corbin said. “You’re fighting this uphill battle. With this match against Pat, people seem genuinely excited. It’s going to be a really fun test and there’s no pressure.”
“I think we are setting the table to steal the show already.”
SummerSlam streams Saturday, July 30 at 8pm ET on Peacock.