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With JBL, everything is more than meets the eye

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JBL making a difference with rugby in Bermuda (4:34)

John "Bradshaw" Layfield reflects on wrestling his final match in his home state of Texas and explains why he got involved with rugby in Bermuda. (4:34)

The gregarious personality and can't-miss charisma are largely one-in-the-same, but if there's a major difference between John "Bradshaw" Layfield and the JBL character he portrays with WWE, it's the level of warmth, charm and intelligence he exudes off camera.

It's a reminder of just how good Layfield, a former WWE superstar and current "SmackDown Live" commentator, is at playing a character.

The real John Layfield, a native of Sweetwater, Texas, is full of surprises. Over a 17-year career in which Layfield enjoyed his finest moments during the twilight of his in-ring run, he has always been more than meets the eye.

Layfield resides year-round in Bermuda, where he makes regular appearances from his basement studio debating politics and economics as a panelist on Fox News' "Bulls & Bears" show. His wife of 12 years, Meredith Whitney, is a successful financial analyst once named by Fortune among "The 50 Most Powerful Women in Business" and Time's "100 Most Influential People."

But the most surprising part about the personal life of Layfield is how he found himself in Bermuda in the first place, and how it led him to helping underprivileged and at-risk teens on the island.

Right place, right time

When Layfield looks back on the unique arc of his career, transforming from career-long brawler into JBL, the cocky and affluent Texan who went on to become the longest-reigning WWE champion in SmackDown history, there's an element of serendipity that's difficult to ignore.

"It just happened that I was in the right place at the right time," Layfield told ESPN.com. "It was late in my career, and I thought my career was over. I tore my biceps and had two hernia surgeries. I didn't know if I would do much of anything again, and all of a sudden you have people get hurt."

The year was 2004 and Layfield was fresh off of losing his long-time tag-team partner and real-life best friend, Ron Simmons. Long a respected hand and midcard performer since his WWE debut in 1995, Layfield suddenly found himself dropped into the perfect opportunity to become the face of the SmackDown brand.

"Kurt Angle got hurt, Brock Lesnar had left the company, and [WWE] needed somebody against Eddie Guerrero right away," Layfield said. "That's when the JBL character was created."

Over the next five years, Layfield enjoyed that record-setting 280-day WWE title reign that would ultimately define him as a wrestler. Even after his in-ring career was over, Layfield transitioned to the commentary table like a fish to water. Even though the JBL character was purely evil, Layfield added a bit of an "aw shucks" playfulness to his shtick that made him an irreplaceable member of the modern WWE product -- so much so, that it's hard for most to imagine him as doing or being anything outside of the WWE.

Restless in retirement

Layfield's full-time move to Bermuda happened largely by accident. Forced to retire due to back injuries after his final match at WrestleMania XXV in 2009, and faced with his first summer off at home, Layfield felt too confined living in New York City.

Encouraged by his wife to spend the summer in Bermuda, Layfield took his admittedly cranky self and did just that.

Even though he's on the road every week with the WWE, which takes him all over the world, he's never moved back.

His wife soon followed him and the two purchased a full-time home. The underlying reason for the dramatic life change and the moment that first planted a seed in Layfield's heart that his move might've been for a greater purpose, was the first time he saw "the other side" of the popular vacation spot.

As Layfield describes it, there are two distinctly different Bermudas: the tourist and business areas, which are strategically void of tagging and graffiti, and the local communities. The latter suffers from a 50 percent high school dropout rate among black Bermudian males, according to a 2011 Columbia University study. When this other part of the island became clearer to Layfield, he realized just how much help was needed, not just for better jobs for young people, but a structure that might better prepare them for the rest of their lives.

"When people look at Bermuda they see the beautiful beaches, the golf courses, the fishing, and that's what they should see," Layfield said. "That's Bermuda. What they don't see is the almost predominant black-on-black violence that is unfortunately pervasive throughout the local neighborhoods."

He took his love for sport -- Layfield was a two-year starter for Abilene Christian University's football team -- and turned it into a way for him to give back. Layfield doesn't get much attention for the work he has done since creating Beyond Rugby Bermuda in 2011, nor does he necessarily seek it, outside of the annual fundraising he does for the nonprofit organization. In fact, there's not even a record of it on his Wikipedia page.

But the experience has clearly changed Layfield, and in many ways it's become his new life's mission. His program has helped instill discipline, the values of education and a feeling of family to Bermudian youths who have too often become embroiled in the culture of local gang violence.

"I don't know what I've done in the previous 50 years of my life, but nothing compares to what I'm doing right now," Layfield said. "At least as far as personal fulfillment with these young men and getting an opportunity to work with some great coaches and volunteers in Bermuda who simply want to do the right thing for young people who, for no fault of their own, are born into circumstances that are not conducive to success."

Creating JBL: 'I hated these guys'

This turn in Layfield's life becomes even more incredible when you think about the characters that he portrayed during his time in the WWE. The majority of Layfield's 14-year run as a WWE superstar was that of a brute enforcer named Bradshaw -- a no-nonsense cowboy as a member of The New Blackjacks alongside Barry Windham, who eventually evolved into a barroom brawler alongside Simmons as the Acolyte Protection Agency (APA).

As consistent and memorable as he was in this brutish role, Layfield had an idea floating around his head that would ultimately change his life.

"I had this idea in mind, and Vince McMahon doesn't like this from what I've been told, but I saw it as a J.R. Ewing-type character," Layfield said, referencing the manipulative oil baron played by Larry Hagman in the wildly popular prime time soap opera "Dallas" in the 1980s. "I haven't seen this character since I was a kid. I hated these guys. I hated them throwing money around."

As the roster shuffled around, and Layfield was gathering more ideas for the character that JBL would become, he was about to run headfirst into another serendipitous moment. As he was leaving the gym one day with his wife, he walked past a guy wearing a towel around his neck underneath his satin jacket.

"I wanted to slap the guy," Layfield said. "And I sat there and I thought, 'That's what JBL would wear.' If I hate it that bad, that's what I should wear."

Layfield added a cowboy hat and often dressed in suits, billing himself from New York City, and the character had all the flourishes it needed. With an opening on SmackDown for a lead heel, JBL stepped up to fill it to despicable perfection, relying on xenophobic storylines to draw real heat in his memorable feud against WWE Hall of Famer Guerrero.

"We did the storyline where we gave Eddie's mother a heart attack in El Paso, which almost got me killed," Layfield said. "I literally had a police escort out of El Paso and all the way to Odessa. The police told me not to come back, that they thought I would get killed. It was that great. We set an attendance record at Staples Center [in Los Angeles] a few weeks later, and because of Eddie Guerrero, he molded my character. Eddie wanted my character to work."

Layfield captured the WWE championship from Guerrero in controversial fashion in a Texas Bullrope Match in June 2004, kicking off a nine-month reign of terror on SmackDown. Layfield gives all of the credit to Guerrero, a groomsman in his wedding and for whom Layfield did part of the eulogy after Guerrero's death in 2005.

"If it had been anybody but Eddie Guerrero, you would have never heard of JBL," Layfield said. "But because of Eddie, I had that incredible run, and it was just the right time. I had the perfect foil in this incredible Latino star, who was one of my best friends."

Had the opportunity to become a star happened a decade earlier, Layfield doesn't believe he would have appreciated it in quite the same way.

"I don't know if I would have enjoyed it like I did because I had wrestled so long," Layfield said. "I wrestled all over the world, in carnivals and tents in Europe and in Japan over 50 times. All of a sudden I make it to the main event, and now I am world champion. I enjoyed every second of it."

'Kids were drawn like moth to a flame'

For as serendipitous as Layfield's run as the longest-reigning champion in SmackDown history was, his entry into helping teens through the sport of rugby was just as dependent upon chance.

In 2010, Layfield accompanied his wife, who was invited as a special guest to attend soccer's World Cup tournament in South Africa. It was during a side trip to Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island that Layfield was introduced to Nick Keller, the founder of Beyond Sport.

Keller, whose programs used sports to help at-risk children improve their quality of life, convinced Layfield to visit an initiative he had started using the sport of running in a shantytown outside of Cape Town. It was there that Layfield conceived a vision for a similar program in Bermuda.

One year later, as a favor to Layfield, members of Beyond Sport flew to Bermuda to help him set up the curriculum for what became Beyond Rugby Bermuda. Today, Layfield serves as a global ambassador for Beyond Sport, joining the likes of South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu and Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

"I saw very similar situations in Bermuda that I had seen around the world with the gangs, and fortunately they were territorial gangs," Layfield said. "And with territorial gangs there's a sense of belonging, and because of that you can get them into sport. They just want to belong to something."

At 6-foot-6 and nearly 300 pounds, Layfield's football background which also included brief stops in the NFL and World League did little to help him learn rugby. He knew nothing about the game, but in that, he wasn't alone; largely seen as a white expat sport, rugby wasn't offered in Bermuda as an activity in public schools, the audience Layfield was targeting.

The simplicity of the sport made it an easier decision, as did the respect and integrity ingrained within it.

"With rugby, we could start with a total green field and introduce it," Layfield said. "Rugby is just a ball. I would be much more versed to coach American football, but you need 22 players and all of the equipment. With rugby, all you need is some green grass, a ball and a bunch of kids who want to run into each other really hard, which they enjoy. They don't have any outlet like that."

When Layfield started the program, six kids showed up the first day. While the numbers have grown steadily, now consisting of 100 players from the two main high schools it's connected to and 400 overall athletes, the academic standards that each participant must maintain to participate were made difficult for a reason.

"If you want to get to these really tough kids, especially the gang leaders, you don't want to make it easy," Layfield said. "You want to make it hard, especially if they feel like they belong to something. Once you start getting those gang leaders, everyone else follows because they are going to be your leaders either in a good way or a bad way. What we want it to be is in a good way.

"It's going to be difficult to be in our program. It's going to be an honor to be in our program, and that's the only way that I'm going to do it. Kids were drawn to this like moth to a flame. They have never been pushed like this, and they love it when they are. They love when something is demanded of them, and they love when they are rewarded because they do the right thing and choose to work hard."

'If there was a void, it certainly has been filled'

For Layfield and head rugby coach Patrick Calow, the goal for the program is to raise enough money to build a world-class training facility for all sports.

Not only would the incoming money from outside teams who travel in to use the facility help fund local Bermudian sports, it would allow Beyond Rugby Bermuda to compete on a higher level internationally. In doing so, more local rugby players would have access to worldwide exposure.

This became a need for Layfield in 2016 when he had difficulty getting college coaches to come to Bermuda to scout the program's standout player, Mikle Dill. To counter the issue, Layfield organized a collegiate sevens tournament in Bermuda, using connections to attract schools such as Princeton, Dartmouth and Notre Dame.

With Beyond Rugby Bermuda fielding its own team, Dill, at just 17, led the college tournament in tries.

"Because of that, we got him noticed," Layfield said. "He's [now] going to Stella Walsh Academy, one of the most elite sports academies in the world down in South Africa."

While Layfield's celebrity has helped with fundraising and initially drew students to the program, with many calling him "Coach JBL" after watching him with WWE, he takes joy in filling whichever role is needed. After recording "SmackDown Live" on location each week, Layfield flies back to Bermuda the next day and, upon landing, heads straight to the field for two hours of maintenance.

"I got introduced at one event where I'm speaking at our annual fundraiser, and they said most of the kids think, 'That's just John who mows the grass,'" Layfield said. "So that's pretty much all I am. I'm the guy who runs the lawnmower, which is fine. That's all I want to be."

There are moments when Layfield truly realizes the impact he has had on others, including when he recently ran into a former rugby player he coached who was now in his early 20s, with a family and a great job.

"That kid probably would have been put in jail," Layfield said. "We've had several that I know for sure, if it wasn't for us, they would be in Westgate, which is the prison there."

While Layfield admits he would jump at the opportunity of working with Beyond Rugby Bermuda on a full-time basis, he credits the support from WWE in not only allowing him to commute back and forth, but giving him the platform to make connections that benefit the program.

Being in the right place at the right time has long been a major theme of Layfield's journey. And no place has felt more right in his life than what he's currently doing in Bermuda.

"I don't know if I was searching for anything," Layfield said. "When I was at the World Cup, I certainly found something. I don't know if there was a void, but it certainly has been filled."