Babysitter nights brought out a different side of the three Nawrocki boys.
No parents meant they could rip the cushions off the couch and lay them across the floor. No parents set the stage for three-way brawls that featured incessant taunting and suplexes that shook their Syosset, N.Y., neighborhood. And yes, no parents meant they could order the latest World Wrestling Federation pay-per-view and mimic the action in their own makeshift ring.
“We’d just make up crazy scenario matches,” recalls Luke, the youngest brother, now a senior tight end on the Penn football team. “It’d be them two killing me, body slamming me off the couch onto the cushions and stuff. Stupid stuff like that.”
Oh, but the oldest didn’t see the shenanigans with Luke and middle child Danny as stupid. Far from it.
Chris — seven years Luke’s senior, who the tight end called “the personality” of the family — possessed a case of full-on WWF fanaticism, the craze leading to idolization of the souped-up superstars.
Those no-parents nights stuck with him to the point where, even after he landed a job at Guardian Life Insurance upon graduating from Syracuse, he felt the urge to experience the ring first-hand.
In 2004, here it was: the opportunity of a lifetime. While getting his weekly fix of Thursday night SmackDown, the fateful ad came across the screen: audition tapes wanted for WWE Tough Enough, Season 4.
The seeds were planted for the oldest Nawrocki boy to become a professional wrestler.
Sitting on a basement couch, hat turned sideways and biceps bulging from a skin-tight t-shirt, 22-year-old Chris strums away at a guitar and belts lyrics dissing WWE heavyweight Kurt Angle. In the next instant, he’s shirtless, rollerblading and flexing for the camera outside. Then the camera gets in his face, so he flips his hat forward to reveal a Dodgers logo and side-smacks the lens.
Chris’ audition tape is a snapshot of his 22-year-old self: the athlete who, like Luke, played tight end at Chaminade High School; the musician, who picked up guitar in eighth grade and to this day serves as the lead singer of a band; the businessman, whose current job involves full days of meetings and phone calls in New York City.
When he sent the video to Tough Enough officials, Luke and Danny — a basketball player at Johns Hopkins at the time — could barely contain themselves.
“We just thought it was so funny that he actually went through with this,” Luke says.
And their thoughts when their brother was among the 75 invited to Venice Beach, Calif., for tryouts? “It was awesome.”
Chris passed stiff test after stiff test in progressively more grueling training sessions, during which he learned the moves and took the falls. After weeks of ridiculous competitions, obstacle courses and races, he was chosen as one of eight finalists.
Soon, the whole family, including parents Michael and Kathie, gathered around for SmackDown each Thursday — or at least for the hour when Chris appeared on Tough Enough, which can be summed up as American Idol-meets-Real World on steroids.
Long gone were the days Luke remembers when wrestling on TV was met with “turn that off immediately!” The Nawrockis not only became Chris’ avid supporters, but the core group of voters who kept him on the show. Well, with one exception.
“My grandmom was horrified,” Luke says.
There Chris was, on the first episode in front of SmackDown’s live Omaha, Neb., audience, getting body-slammed by The Big Show, “who’s like 7-7, 500 pounds” in Chris’ estimation. There he was, in the fourth episode in St. Louis, winning a workout contest after chugging milk and guzzling pasta. Chris smirks as he describs the hair-raising moment that happened next, when Angle took the mic.
“He goes, ‘Do you know what your prize is? You get to wrestle me.’ And he throws the mic down and just comes at me.”
The result of Angle’s attack: two fractured ribs. And they say wrestling’s fake.
“It was the most painful experience of my life,” Chris says.
Sitting in Franklin Field’s upper level at Nov. 5 Homecoming, thick-rimmed glasses and a well-trimmed beard now decorating his face, 29-year-old Chris can’t help but think back to those Nawrocki triple-threat matches as he watches his brother plow through Princeton defenders.
“Danny was the agitator; I’d try to keep things calm between people,” he recounts during the Quakers’ 37-9 demolition. “Luke was the strong, wild one that would … be quiet one minute and if you said the wrong thing to him, he’d knock you to the ground. The same way he is on the football field.”
Wrestling did not evaporate from the Nawrocki household after Chris was eliminated from Tough Enough following Angle’s spear-heard-round-Syosset. To this day, when the gang gets back together on holidays, “we’ll turn it on and joke about it,” Luke says.
For two months following the show, Chris even gave wrestling on local circuits a shot. That was when his alter-ego “Habitat” was born.
Chris described Habitat, who dressed in full camouflage, as “a wild wrestler from the jungle” who would “speak gibberish.” It didn’t lead to performances in front of packed arenas, but it did make a hell of a 2010 Halloween costume.
Chris’ pro wrestling career ended less than a year after Tough Enough, when he declined an offer from Ohio Valley Wrestling, part of the WWE’s developmental program, and decided he was “better off in the office.”
But Luke still carries some of his older brother’s moves — and personality — onto the field.
“He’s shown me different grabs and grips that I’ll use when trying to get a release or block a guy,” Luke explains.
Quakers’ offensive tackle Greg Van Roten, Luke’s teammate since high school, considers Luke “one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet” and the “polar opposite” on the field — a nasty, intimidating “prick” known for his fiery celebrations.
Above all, though, wrestling has given the Nawrockis a you’re-not-gonna-believe-this story to tell. And to think, Luke marvels after reminiscing on those no-parents nights, that this all began as “a secret behind their backs.”
“Not many people can say they have a family member who was a professional wrestler,” he adds with a grin.