Cody Runnels was a successful high school wrestler before becoming a pro wrestler
It might be an understatement to say that wrestling is in the blood for Cody Runnels. However, it might not be the type of wrestling that takes place in high school gyms and wrestling rooms across the country. Before Runnels was ever born, his father made a name for himself by winning multiple professional wrestling world titles as Dusty Rhodes. Eventually the youngest son of the internationally famous "son of a plumber" would follow his father into the so-called squared circle, but his own extensive wrestling career began on the amateur mats.
Runnels began wrestling at the youth level, and his family name quickly attracted attention. By the time he was in middle school, he had become accustomed to opponents and parents realizing he had a famous father.
"In middle school, I remember seeing this father grab his kid and give him a pep talk, almost shaking him, 'You've got to wrestle Dusty Rhodes' son. If you win, you beat Dusty Rhodes," Runnels to The Tennessean newspaper. "I guess they assume that if they beat me, they've crushed some legacy. Southern kids, their parents are such big fans."
Runnels played football and wrestled during his first two years at Lassiter High School. The school, which opened in 1981, sits about 35 minutes outside of downtown Atlanta and hosts around two thousand students a year.
In his first year on the mats, he spent most of the year on the junior varsity squad, but he got the nod at 160 pounds for the Cobb County tournament. Runnels showed signs of a bright future as he knocked off the No. 1 seed Daniel Cornett of South Cobb. He dropped his next two matches and failed to place, but the potential was evident.
As a sophomore in 2002, he finished second at both the county tournament as well as the Region 6AAAAA tournament, losing both finals against Mike Hudson of Sprayberry. Runnels then rebounded and finished sixth at the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) AAAAA state tournament. Following the season, he was awarded honorable mention status for the All Cobb County wrestling team at 171 pounds.
After placing at the state tournament, Runnels decided to focus solely on wrestling for his final two seasons and leave football behind. That decision seemed to start paying off right away in his junior season. Runnels moved up to 189 pounds, and by the time the Cobb County tournament rolled around in mid-January, he held an undefeated 18-0 record.
He won his first Cobb County title at 189 pounds with a 3-1 victory over Gerald McRath of McEachern in the finals. He followed that up with a championship performance in the regional tournament, where he knocked off defending state champion Shane Gearing of Cherokee via a 5-4 score. At this point, Runnels found himself totally immersed in the sport.
"Until I got into high school, I'd never found anything that could make me feel so good or make me feel so bad as wrestling," he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "It's the one-on-one part and the emotional roller-coaster. If you win, you take credit; if you lose, it's your fault. It's kind of taken over my life."
Runnels' father echoed his sentiments in the same article.
"This is the purest form of one-one-one competition and character building I've ever seen," he said. "I've enjoyed watching Cody as much as anything I've done and that includes being in Madison Square Garden or the main event anywhere else."
When it came time for the state tournament, Runnels had improved his record to 42-0. He ran through the field on his way to his first state title. In the finals, he scored a 6-2 victory over Matty Ory of Chattahoochee. After the tournament, he spoke once again with the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
"I didn't think anyone out there could beat me. I wanted to go out there and do what I said I was going to do. I could just do 100 laps around this place, I'm so excited."
At the end of the season, Runnels was named first team All Cobb County as well as the Marietta Daily Journal Cobb County Wrestler of the Year. He entered his senior season as the clear favorite to win yet another title at 189 pounds.
Somewhere along the way during his junior season, Runnels faced off against Austin Watson of Sprayberry. Watson would eventually follow Runnels into professional wrestling and currently performs as Xavier Woods for World Wrestling Entertainment.
The two discussed the match at length during an appearance on the Talk Is Jericho podcast. Watson apparently bumped up from 160 to 189 pounds hoping to impress Runnels' famous father. He then facetiously claimed that he allowed his opponent to win to avoid disappointment. Regardless of how it happened, they both agree that it was a one-point match in favor of Runnels.
Despite his status as the clear favorite during his senior season, he was forced to deal with adversity early in the season. After finishing the previous year undefeated, Runnels had built an extensive winning streak. However, on Dec. 6, 2003, he dropped a 3-1 match against Wade Hudson of Parkview in the finals of the Knoxville Catholic Invitational. Per the Marietta Daily Journal, the bout was voted "Match of the Tournament" by the coaches.
As Runnels described, wrestling is an emotional roller coaster. He was able to correct himself following that loss. He went on to win another Cobb County championship and headed to the state tournament on a new winning streak. Runnels spoke with the Marietta Daily Journal on the eve of the state tournament.
"It was almost like Hudson took a piece of what I have in that match," he said. "The feeling of being undefeated didn't go right away. It took awhile before I realized what had happened."
Once again he ran through the tournament and made his way to the finals. In the final match at 189 pounds, Runnels faced off against Hudson once again. This time he got the better of the match and finished his high school career with a 7-1 victory and a second state championship. Following his last match, Runnels once again spoke with his hometown paper.
"This is the way I wanted to do it; I'm so happy right now," he said. "It feels good to get a piece of your life back."
The elder Rhodes reflected on his son's high school wrestling career in his book "Dusty: Reflections of Wrestling's American Dream."
"When he walked into a high school gym, in his junior and senior years, you knew who he was. He was like a rock star and he owned it, he owned that place. He would walk around for two to three hours before his match, with headsets on, just walking around the gym, while everybody else was laughing and joking and training, and of course the guy he was going to wrestle never took his eyes off Cody, and so he was already beat. The guy was so intimidated because Cody was the most menacing wrestling I think I've ever seen on an amateur scale, ever. So to beat him, you had to beat him. He wasn't going to beat himself."
Rhodes also mentions in the book that a Penn State coach contacted him about recruiting Runnels, but at the time he was focused on starting an acting career after high school.
That thespian career never materialized, and Runnels eventually followed his father and older brother into the professional wrestling ring. He had his first match a little bit over two years after the end of his high school wrestling career on June 16, 2006. He worked his way up the WWE developmental system and eventually wrestled 1,451 matches for the company before leaving in 2016.
Runnels now performs for All Elite Wrestling under simply the name Cody since the "Cody Rhodes" moniker is technically still the intellectual property of WWE. In addition to his wrestling duties, he is also an executive vice president for the promotion, which hosts their Double or Nothing pay-per-view event this Saturday.
In 2013 longtime Lassiter wrestling coach Steve Day announced his retirement. Runnels was one of Day's 13 state champions, and he spoke with the Marietta Daily Journal about what his coach and the sport of wrestling meant to him growing up.
"He was the catalyst as to why I grew up," he said. "He was with me every step of the way. Wrestling wasn't my strong suit -- it was football. I had no real background in the sport, even though I was around it all the time because of my father. Coach Day made me into a wrestler. He didn't treat guys like kids. He was perfect because he made it your match. He taught guys how to be men and talked to us like we were men. He was someone you could talk to and knew your family and was dead-honest with you."
Match and tournament results as well as biographical information sourced from the Marietta Daily Journal and Atlanta Journal Constitution unless otherwise noted.