PAT McAfee stunned the sports world when he left an All-Pro career in the NFL aged 29 to become a media personality.
The Indianapolis Colts punter was due to earn nearly $6 million over the following two seasons when he made a surprise decision to work with Barstool Sports in 2017.
But that calculated gamble has paid off handsomely with McAfee having emerged as one of the most popular – and best paid – sports broadcasters in the United States.
Earlier this year, McAfee joined ESPN in a five-year deal worth a whopping $85 million, which works out around $17 million per year.
The agreement includes his self-titled daily show, which will air on ESPN’s cable channel, YouTube and ESPN+ as well as his weekly spots on College GameDay.
Such is his influence that McAfee, 36, walked away from a four-year deal with FanDuel worth a cool $120 million to move to ESPN.
Here is a look at McAfee’s incredible rise from NFL superstar to WWE personality and sports media multi-platform sensation.
Getting his kicks with Colts
After starring as a field kicker for West Virginia, McAfee was selected in the seventh round in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Colts.
McAfee was expecting to play as a kicker for the Colts but was stunned when told he would be the next punter.
He went to an empty high school field the next day with his dad and a bag of footballs.
“We had to figure out how to (expletive) punt,” McAfee recalled.
Over the following eight seasons, McAfee honed his craft to become the greatest punter in franchise history, with a punting gross average of 46.4 yards.
He was also skilled at onside kicks, quick-witted enough to pull off fake punts and strong enough to tackle opposing players.
After earning $4.77 million during his first five seasons with the Colts, McAfee signed a five-year, $14 million contract in 2014.
Such was his outsized personality that McAfee began to make a name for himself as a standup comic, local radio personality and social media presence on Twitter.
McAfee was named to the Pro Bowl in 2014 and 2016 but knee injuries began to take their toll, with three operations in four years.
The NFL star also became frustrated with general manager Ryan Grigson, leading to his move to quit the league at the height of his career.
Becoming sports media superstar
McAfee’s first move into sports media was with Dave Portnoy’s Barstool Sports in 2017.
But after making a name for himself at Barstool with his podcasts and digital content, McAfee abruptly left the company a year later for undisclosed financial reasons.
As a free agent, the offers soon came flooding in for McAfee, joining ESPN as a college football analyst in 2019.
He also launched his hugely popular three-hour digital show on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio channel as well as on YouTube.
Such was its success that he secured a monster $30 million-per-year sponsorship deal with FanDuel before he took his talents to ESPN earlier this year.
McAfee is now considered one of the most important members of the ESPN family alongside the likes of Stephen A. Smith, the Manning brothers, Troy Aikman, and Joe Buck.
McAfee’s daily show debuted on ESPN earlier this week, on tape delay in a bid to combat swearing.
The show even with a disclaimer apologizing in advance for any NSFW words.
The pressure on McAfee in particular to succeed at ESPN is immense.
Many sports fans on social media pointed the finger at McAfee and his contract, amid ESPN’s mass layoffs earlier this summer.
Speaking on Twitter, the former NFL punter said he was “reflecting about our show’s journey while I was getting murdered on the internet today.”
He added: “We’re very pumped to be joining ESPN and our goal is that ‘Mass exits’ are never a thing again (and) we hope to help that.
“Obviously that’s a lofty goal but, that’s how I truly look at life.”
Living childhood dream in WWE
One of McAfee’s dreams growing up was to become a professional wrestler.
“If it wasn’t for finding out that my right leg could kick a ball really far, which is what I did, I am 100 per cent certain that I would be attempting to be or would be a professional wrestler,” McAfee said.
McAfee first joined WWE in 2018 as part of the NXT TakeOver pre-show panel in a multiyear deal.
In 2020, McAfee’s childhood dream came true when he made his in-ring debut at NXT TakeOver: XXX against Adam Cole.
He amazed fans with his displays of athleticism, including leaping off the top rope.
In 2021, McAfee joined the WWE Smackdown commentary team.
But he was forced to leave the job last year after landing a full-time gig to co-host ESPN College GameDay.
McAfee had made cameos at SummerSlam 2022 and WrestleMania 39 but it seems his time in WWE has come to an end, at least for now.
In March, McAfee became a father for the first time with the birth of his daughter Mackenzie.
For all his success, McAfee is hugely grateful for the opportunities he had been given since leaving the NFL.
“I’m not supposed to be here. There’s no way I’m supposed to be here,” he told Sports Illustrated.
“I’m very happy with what I do.I enjoy the stupid decisions that my friends and I make.
“Everything for me is either a learn or a win. I just keep moving forward and that’s about it, honestly.
“I think I’m the luckiest guy on Earth.”