ORLANDO, Fla. — The sun is setting on Central Florida as Bill Morrissey gazes out a third-floor window at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday. Below, thousands await, many of them here, either standing in a snaking autograph line, bellied up to the bar at one of several beer tents or crowding around an outdoor wrestling ring in the heart of downtown, to see him.
Of course, these fans — they didn’t come to this WrestleMania On-Sale Party to see Morrissey, exactly. Rather, they’re here for Morrissey’s alter-ego, Big Cass, half of the WWE tag-team duo Enzo and Cass and one of the rising stars in professional wrestling.
It wasn’t that long ago that Morrissey was one of them, a wrestling junkie eager to watch his idols up-close. And as the hirsute seven-footer* ponders the fact that he’s now the superstar they’re showing up in droves to see, the pre-med college basketball player turned ticket broker turned WWE superstar can’t help but wonder what his younger self would think of the way his life turned out.
“He’d say, ‘You’re doing great,’” the 30-year-old Morrissey told FOX Sports, cracking a smile before he headed downstairs to take the stage. “‘But he’d also say, ‘Keep working harder, because you’ve got bigger things to do.’”
Long before he was one of the WWE’s most sought-after personalities, Morrissey was an undersized kid who wasn’t good enough to make the basketball team at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens. A New York City native, Morrissey was cut each of the first three years he tried out, but a senior year growth spurt to 6-foot-8 was enough to get him on the roster, where he played under the late Jack Curran, who passed away in 2013.
“He was an absolute legend — not just in high school basketball, but basketball in general,” Morrissey recalled of Curran, who coached at the school for 55 years. “He taught me lessons that I carry and use to this day, even in WWE: hard work, perseverance, staying focused, not letting people get in your head. And he always reinforced focus and hard work, whether I was slacking in the classroom, which was rare, or on the court. He was about always focusing all your energy on the things you need to perform.”
An exceptional student and peer tutor at Archbishop Molloy, Morrissey earned an academic scholarship to NYU, where he doubled as a center on the school’s basketball team. Morrissey played sparingly for the Violets, appearing in 50 of 108 possible games at an average of 6.3 minutes per game, but was named a senior co-captain in 2008, nonetheless.
In addition, Morrissey navigated his way through a rigorous class schedule — one he willingly took on as an economics major with aspirations of someday attending medical school.
“Balancing schoolwork and basketball was very, very hard, but a lot of benefits came along with it,” Morrissey said. “The camaraderie was something I always enjoyed, spending time with your teammates and growing that strong bond together. Because you always need someone on your team, whether it’s in life, or in work. You always need someone who’s a part of your squad, and I felt that college basketball really helped with that — traveling together, studying together and fighting the same battles together.”
However, as his college career wound down, Morrissey began to question whether his heart was really in medicine.
A lifelong wrestling fan, Morrissey had been going to live events since he was a kid, and he found a way into virtually every Pay-Per-View in and around New York City over the last two decades, including WrestleMania XX at Madison Square Garden in 2004. In 2008, Morrissey skipped a college exam to travel to Orlando for WrestleMania XXIV, where he watched Ric Flair’s final match from the floor at the Citrus Bowl.
At the time, “Big Cass” wasn’t even an idea, and Morrissey could have never envisioned that he’d be on the WrestleMania card, himself, when the event returned to Central Florida nine years later. But he was sold on the idea of trying to make his dream a reality and decided he at least had to give himself a chance to make it in the business.
“I was always very passionate about it, always watching tapes, and when I was in college, studying for the MCAT the summer of 2008, I realized, ‘Man, this just isn’t my true passion,’” he said. “So I decided to finish my final year at NYU, and the second it ended, I started pursuing the opportunity to get to the WWE.”
After graduating, Morrissey began working as a ticket broker to pay the bills, and spent whatever spare time he had training with WWE Hall of Famer Johnny Rodz in Brooklyn, where Morrissey originally competed under the name Big Bill Young.
By 2011, Morrissey had relocated to Florida and signed with Florida Championship Wrestling, a developmental arm of WWE that later became NXT. At that point, Morrissey was being billed as Colin Cassady, and after struggling to establish an identity, Morrissey got his big break in 2013, when he formed a tag team with Enzo Amore.
Coincidentally, Amore, portrayed by Eric Arndt, is a New Jersey native and former college football player whom Morrissey first met as a teenager, playing pickup basketball games at “The Cage,” a famed set of outdoor courts in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The self-described “realest guys in the room,” Enzo and Cass saw their popularity — and that of their “S-A-W-F-T,” “You can’t teach that,” and “How you doin’?” catchphrases — steadily grow over the last several years, and in April, one night after WrestleMania 32 in Dallas, the pair made their main roster debut on Raw, confronting the Dudley Boyz as the longtime tag-team duo left the stage.
“When you walk in the room, you’ve got to know, deep-down, that you’re the realest guy in there,” Morrissey said of his in-ring character, which he describes as “me, just amplified a little bit.” “It brings a whole lot of confidence in there and a swagger that I feel like people need. When a guy walks in the room and everyone looks and says, ‘Who’s that guy?’ — that’s who you want to be.”
The following week, the duo fought their first match on SmackDown, and then appeared in WWE’s Payback, Money in the Bank and Battleground in subsequent months. The smack-talking pair was then picked up by Raw during the WWE draft in July, and in August, the team took on Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens at SummmerSlam — a hometown show in Brooklyn that Morrissey would have likely attended as a fan had he not been participating.
“At times it can be overwhelming,” Morrissey said of his rapid rise through the WWE ranks. “It’s crazy to think that five years ago I was performing in Tampa, Florida, in front of 10 people every week. Ten. Process that. And then we came to NXT and started performing in front of more people, then thousands of people, and then 16,000 people at the Barclays Center.
“So I personally, as a wrestler, got to see the rise of NXT, and me and Enzo feel like we were a very big part of that rise,” Morrissey continued. “All those people knew Enzo and I already (when we debuted on Raw), and they knew all of our catchphrases, so right off the bat we started hot, and the rise just keeps going. It’s crazy to think how quickly things can happen.”
And the hits have just kept coming.
One week after his tag-team loss at SummerSlam, Morrissey took part in a Fatal 4-Way match for the Universal Championship, the Raw brand’s top title, along with Owens, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns. This Sunday, Enzo and Cass will be part of a 10-on-10 tag team match at Survivor Series, and the expectation is that they’ll both be on the card for WrestleMania on April 2, as well.
It’s a long way from pickup games in Greenwich Village or pre-med studies at NYU — and it’s a course Morrissey has covered in an amazingly short period of time — but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s just wild how everything came full circle,” Morrissey said. “We were 13 (when we met) and now we’re here and we’re going to be at our first WrestleMania in front of 75,000 people when we used to play basketball in front of nobody at The Cage. So it’s crazy to think about. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit down, whether you’re in the hotel room or on your couch at home, and really just appreciate what’s going on around you. You know, ‘Look at what I’m experiencing and look at where Enzo and I came from.’”
But then again, maybe Morrissey’s success shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. After all, he’s whip-smart, he’s got the size and the look to be a natural in the ring, he’s got a deep respect for the history of the business and for those who came before him, and, despite what the brashness of his character might suggest, he’s got the humility to know how far he has to go.
“I want to be Universal Champion,” Morrissey said. “I want to be a top guy in this company. That’s my goal and it’s always been my goal — to be a go-to guy. And I think I can be somebody this company can rely on for many, many years.”
And as Enzo and Cass might say, you can’t teach that.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.