ARLINGTON -- As a decorated defensive lineman with Georgia Tech, Joe Anoa'i played before snarling crowds at hostile venues such as Auburn, Clemson and Georgia.
The experience will have Roman Reigns, his alter ego, prepared for World Wrestling Entertainment's premier event of the year: WrestleMania 32 on Sunday at AT&T Stadium. The WWE expects a WrestleMania-record turnout of more than 100,000.
"That magnitude of an event like this, sometimes it's hard to fathom," said Reigns, a second-generation performer.
"I try to keep it tied to my roots as much as possible. To be in the main event, to be able to do something so special and create a moment that can help you in the future ... that's why I'm so grateful."
Real-life intrigue will be in the air.
For the second consecutive year, Reigns is booked for the main event. He will face Triple-H, the 46-year-old son-in-law of WWE chairman Vincent K. McMahon, for the heavyweight championship.
If recent history is a guide, the main event will not be a mano a mano performance.
A year ago, McMahon added a surprise element to prop up the main event. Seth Rollins became the third man in during a Reigns-Brock Lesnar match and came out as the heavyweight champion. Rollins is among several injured performers who will miss this WrestleMania.
The WWE finds itself in a similar situation this year. Other matches are generating more heat. McMahon's son Shane's bout with former Texas Wesleyan basketball player The Undertaker is attracting attention. So is Lesnar, a former NCAA and UFC champion, against Dean Ambrose.
The "WrestleMania moment," which every performer wants, could come out of those matches.
The fan base has not warmed to Reigns, 30, as the WWE hoped when it started pushing him toward the main event. The WWE painted Reigns as the "baby face," the good guy who surmounts impossible odds. The crowd should take to the "baby face."
But the crowds have rebelled and gone off in their own direction. "Heels" -- bad guys -- are increasingly in favor. Ambrose and Rollins, who broke into the WWE on a team with Reigns, were popular as "heels." The "baby face" Reigns has been booed at some shows.
Reigns "is a good athlete, and for his level of experience, he's fine," said Dave Meltzer, publisher and editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "He's the guy they picked, but the really weird thing is the public has not nearly embraced him compared to the level of his pushes.
"They wanted to make Roman the rising star of the company. A year ago, Vince said, 'This is not working. Let's wait another year.' They waited another year, and [the reaction] is cooler this year than last year. I don't know where Vince is going to go with this."
Calling an audible?
McMahon could call another audible for the main event. Movie star Dwayne Johnson, famous as "The Rock" in his WWE career, could play that role by helping a family friend. Johnson is from the Maivia family, which considers the unrelated Anoa'i family to be blood brothers.
Reigns could do a "heel turn" and drop the "baby face" image.
"For me, it's difficult sometimes, because you try not to get too personal about it," Reigns said. "Sometimes, you can care too much and let things get to you too much. I try to treat the reaction now as a home game and an away game in football.
"There have been home games where there was a great response and it felt like everyone was with me. Sometimes it's not a great night. But I continue to do what I can control."
Joe Anoa'i did that at Georgia Tech. Giff Smith was his position coach for his final three seasons and saw him grow from an undersized 250-pounder coming out of Pensacola Catholic High School in Florida into a first-team All-ACC selection as a senior in 2006.
"He had that fire in him," said Smith, who recently joined the San Diego Chargers as defensive line coach. "He wanted to be a player, and he made himself into a player. He's smart, and he worked hard at it."
The plays of the old days run together now, but Smith clearly remembers one moment with Anoa'i. With Georgia Tech holding on to a lead in the fourth quarter against North Carolina State in his senior season, Anoa'i made a third-down stop that he simply should not have been able to make. It was a triumph of the will.
Tech was the visitor in that game. The road never bothered Joe Anoa'i, nee Roman Reigns.
When/where: 5 p.m. Sunday, AT&T Stadium.
Tickets: Sold out. WWE expects to break the record of WrestleMania III in Pontiac, Mich. (93,173) fans.
How to watch: Pay per view for $60 or on WWE Network, the wrestling company's subscription-based channel, which costs $9.99 per month.
Monday -- Monday Night Raw -- The fallout of WrestleMania will be felt at one of WWE's wildest shows of the year; 6:30 p.m. at American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave., Dallas. $25-$125.ticketmaster.com.
Dallas Morning News staff writer John O'Rourke breaks down the top matches:
1. Dean Ambrose vs. Brock Lesnar (street fight): This is a star-making match for Ambrose, who'll show how much punishment he can take. I could see it being like WrestleMania 17, when Steve Austin saw his fame skyrocket in a valiant loss to Bret Hart. But I can also see Dean winning on outside help. (Bray Wyatt, anyone?) Winner: Ambrose.
2. Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Dolph Ziggler, The Miz, Sin Cara, Stardust and Zach Ryder (ladder match for Intercontinental Championship): For fans of violence, broken bones and carnage. It will continue a feud between up-and-comers Owens and Zayn. The other five are there to take bumps. (Sorry, Dolph.) Expect Owens to win.
3. AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho: From an athletic standpoint, the best match on the show, with prized new signee Styles vs. "Best in the World" Jericho. Expect Styles to win.
4. Roman Reigns vs. Triple H (WWE Championship): It's the end of a 15-month quest by WWE to make Reigns a fan favorite and a champion, an effort that gets more disastrous each week. Both will work hard, but it's not easy to see how fans will accept a Reigns victory. We'll see The Rock here, but even that could backfire if The Great One helps Reigns and fans turn on him too.
5. Shane McMahon vs. The Undertaker (Hell in a Cell with all sorts of stipulations): The buildup has been nonsense, with fans puzzled about why they should support either one. Taker's entrance before 100,000 people should be off the hook.