Toa Liona

A noisy, raucous crowd and an official proclamation from the City of San Diego greeted upstart professional wrestling promotion AEW to its first show in San Diego.

But the evening was even more special for one wrestler on the show, a former San Diego State Aztec football player who made a triumphant return to the place where his athletic dreams died.

Toa Liona, under his real name Bruce Leaupepe, was a member of the San Diego State Aztecs football team in 2011, but a back injury ended his dreams of a football career.

On Wednesday night, he returned for the AEW show at Viejas Arena with the tag team Gates of Agony and wrestled against popular AEW stars Orange Cassidy and Darby Allin.

“It was very surreal,” said Liona, in an interview. “Like a full circle moment for me.”

Liona joined the Aztecs football team in second week of fall 2011 camp and was expected to be one of the team’s defensive tackles. But a back injury forced him to sit out the year with a medical redshirt and he was never able to play for the team.

Liona took up weightlifting and became a personal trainer. But having his NFL dreams ripped away thrust him into depression and he was trying to think what to do next and how to pay the bills when his wife suggested he try wrestling, which he had watched growing up.

He trained at a wrestling school in Los Angeles and eventually made it to AEW. The 6-foot tall, 300-pound Liona and two other wrestlers are the current Six-Man Champions in Ring of Honor, a sister promotion to AEW.

Liona credits the mental toughness and attitude he developed with the Aztecs for his success in the ring.

“I didn’t have the best college experience, but man, it shaped me for the role I have today,” he said.

Eventually, Liona wants to become a motivational speaker and share his story with others who may be going through challenges.

“So many athletes want to make it and when they don’t make it, their whole world crashes on top of them,” he said.

For now, Liona is focused on becoming an even bigger star in pro wrestling and he is excited about returning to San Diego for another AEW show.

That’s likely to happen. Fans were so loud and passionate reaction at Wednesday’s show that it prompted AEW President Tony Khan to tell the crowd that he couldn’t wait to return to San Diego.

Earlier in the day, AEW also received a proclamation from San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s office declaring May 31 as “All Elite Wrestling Day” in San Diego.

For Liona, who had family and friends at the show, “It almost felt like an out of body experience.”

He added: “Not only did I make it, but I made it back to where I started.”