How Dwayne Johnson's Forgotten Football Career Prepared Him for Superstardom

Macklin SternContributor IMay 1, 2018


Go ahead and pretend otherwise, but at some point in your life, I know professional wrestling mattered to you.          

Whether it was Bruno Sammartino in the '60s, the generation of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant or the WWE's fabled Attitude Era, Vince McMahon and his programming left a mark on you—likely during your formative years—for better or worse (cue me as a 12-year-old F-5'ing my younger sibling onto my childhood bed and my mom walking in and freaking the eff out).

Maybe your attention slipped away from it in your early teenage years, upon discovering the fighting is "fake" and determining the soap-opera storylines are too, well, soap opera-y (I do not belong to this group and still love wrestling for all its ridiculousness and quirks). But it's still weaved into the fabric of your being—a part of you that comes out when certain names are mentioned.

Maybe none more so than Dwayne Johnson.

As the wrestling megastar "The Rock," Johnson was a cornerstone of the Attitude Era in the WWE (which we called the WWF back then). He seared his way into the public consciousness as, before our very eyes, he transformed from the unintentionally detestable Rocky Maivia to the most electrifying man in sports-entertainment as The Rock and finally to the second-highest-paid actor in Hollywood. Amazingly, he may even be the Democrats' greatest hope in 2020.

But part of the unforgettable journey that's often forgotten (or lesser known) was his football career, both with the University of Miami and the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.

And while the Ballers star never realized his NFL dreams, his days on the gridiron are nonetheless a large part of his legacy. Indeed, as I found through interviews with former teammates, coaches and WWE employees, Johnson's football career can be seen as a necessary prerequisite to his gradually evolving into one of the greatest wrestlers of all time—and into the global icon who proves the WWE matters more than you might admit.

To understand why, let's start with a simple question.


Was The Rock good at football? (Part I)

OK, for context, let's immediately turn to another question: Was Kwame Brown good at basketball? Yes, he was tremendous. In fact, he was so good he was selected first in the 2001 NBA draft and played 12 seasons in the greatest professional basketball league in the world. Contrary to Stephen A. Smith's opinions, Kwame could play. He may be remembered more for his small hands or for being a "bust" based on the standard of a top overall pick, but there's a difference between that and being a scrub.

When you think of Dwayne Johnson's football career, think of Kwame Brown's basketball career.

"Dewey," as his teammates in college called him, attended the University of Miami from 1991 to 1994, back when the school's football program was at its peak. The U won three national titles in five years (1987, 1989, 1991) and was such a force that ESPN produced a 30 for 30 film about the late '80s and early '90s squads (so you know it's real).

"Competition to play in Miami was just unreal," remembers former Hurricanes head coach Dennis Erickson. "It wasn't like any other program I've been a part of. ... It was a freakin' war."

Among those fighting for playing time in that war was Johnson, a high school All-American out of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He finished his career with 77 tackles and 4.25 sacks, the coolest play of his tenure being his sack of Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward (which is featured in the Ballers intro).

He wasn't the most electrifying man on the field, but if you thought his football career was a complete nothing, the defensive tackle-turned-end's stats should be eyebrow-raising.

"As a football player, on a scale of 1 to 10, Dewey was a 6," former teammate and NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp says.

Sapp—whose outspoken, no-bulls--t personality would make for a tremendous wrestling character—was recruited to play at Miami as a tight end but moved to the defensive line after arriving for his freshman season weighing in at 300 pounds.

"I went down and sat in the D-lineman room," Sapp recalls, "and Dewey walks in and says, 'What are you doing here?' I looked at him and said, 'I'm here for your job, b---h.'"

Not only that, but he eventually took it. That was the culture at The U. And that was who Johnson competed with.

Remember: It was the Miami defenses that made those '80s and '90s teams so unstoppable. Over a span of four years, Johnson played with nine future NFLers, two All-Americans and one future Hall of Famer...on the defensive line alone. (So, for example, Ray Lewis, another teammate of his, is not included on that list.)

A slew of injuries over the course of his tenure didn't help Johnson either, and it led to what he's referred to as a "dismal" senior season.

Leon Searcy, who played offensive tackle at Miami from 1987 to 1991 and later enjoyed a 10-year NFL career, adds a caveat to Sapp's harsh assessment.

"I can understand the 6-out-of-10 rating, because the standards at the University of Miami were so high. You have to remember Sapp was unblockable his senior year. So Rock had some amazing talent around him that he had to live up to."

NOVEMBER 20:  Defensive end Dwayne Johnson #94 of the University of Miami Hurricanes raises his arms as he and his teammates leave the field during the NCAA game against West Virginia University on November 20, 1993.  Dwayne Johnson is also known as 'The
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Searcy lined up against Johnson in one-on-one drills and recalls well his effort and skill on the gridiron.

"Dewey was relentless. You couldn't slow him down. Every damn practice, he went fast—100 mph, which the coaches loved. I thought he was crazy. But he was an amazing talent.

"Nobody on our offensive line could block him. He was that strong."

Searcy, an All-American and veteran on the squad, studied Johnson (a freshman at the time) closely and eventually did figure out how to stop him—by doing something very few people in the wrestling ring could do to The Rock.

"I saw [Johnson] come with the bull rush, so I hit him with a jab to the chest and to the hip, so he couldn't lift up his rip move," Searcy describes fondly. "When he came with a countermove, I hit him again in the chest and dropped him. He will never admit it to this day, but I dropped him. And that was the last time I saw him in a one-on-one pass rush."

Despite taking immense pleasure in laying the smacketh down on the Great One, Searcy parts with an interesting comment.

"I think if The Rock had went to any other university other than the University of Miami at that particular time, he'd probably be a first-round pick [in the NFL draft]."

A first-round pick! So the all-world talent around Johnson limited his playing time, but maybe if he'd attended a Penn State or Clemson (two other programs that offered him scholarships), we'd remember him differently.

Erickson summarizes Johnson's tenure at The U in the following way:

"He was a guy we needed. He helped us win a championship. Was he an NFL player? No, he wasn't. But he played at Miami. When you can say you were a player at Miami, that means you must have been pretty good."


Was The Rock good at football? (Part II)

Like Part I, I will preface the section by saying this: Dwayne Johnson made a CFL roster. He was good at football. Relative to the rest of the CFL, though? Welcome to Part II.

After going undrafted by the NFL in 1994, Johnson joined the CFL's Stampeders—another powerhouse in their own right.

"We didn't lose much," recalls former defensive lineman and Stampeders teammate Will Johnson, who played for the team from 1989 to '96. "We won one Grey Cup. We should have won five."

When Dwayne Johnson joined the Stampeders in 1995, his teammates included Doug Flutie, widely considered the greatest CFL player of all time, and Jeff Garcia, a name that makes New York Giants fans cringe to this day.

Photo courtesy of Daryl Shade

On the defensive line, dudes like Will Johnson and Kenny Walker (the first deaf player to take the CFL field) had enjoyed careers in both the NFL and CFL by the time Rock arrived. Will Johnson compared the squad to the Mike Ditka-led Chicago Bears of the '80s. And it had the greatest CFL football coach of all time, Wally Buono, at the helm.

"You come in as a rookie, you have three weeks to unseat a guy like Will, who's played 150 professional games and has been with you eight years. Knows what he's doing, knows the game. That's the competition Rock came up against," says Buono, whom Rock has warmly referred to on social media as Uncle Wally.

Calgary Stampeders @calstampeders

Dwayne Johnson was on Stamps practice roster in 1995. He later gained fame as a wrestler and actor @TheRock #TBT http://t.co/v704KgwrLq

Dwayne Johnson @TheRock

@calstampeders $7 bucks in my pocket when Wally released me. Defining low point, but motivated me to do more. #Grateful #Grind #UncleWally

And it wasn't just the talent Johnson faced. CFL football is a much different game than NFL and NCAA football. In the CFL, linemen like Johnson play more than a yard off the ball when it's snapped, meaning defensive schemes and motions aren't the same. So, Johnson essentially had to learn a new game and get really good at it in less than a month if he wanted to see the field.

But the biggest obstacle standing in the way of his getting playing time wasn't a style of play or even necessarily the talent he competed against. It was a CFL rule. General managers are required to field a certain number of national and international players (or, as they were called back in the day, non-imports and imports). Now, the ratio is 21:20:3, or 21 national players, 20 international and three quarterbacks.

"You keep players based on citizenship as much as their abilities," Buono says. "Americans compete with Americans. Canadians compete with Canadians. And very seldom does an American beat out a Canadian."

Unfortunately for Johnson, an American playing defensive tackle, the Stampeders' interior D-line was loaded with Canadian talent, like Stu Laird, Srecko and Lubo Zizakovic and more—all seasoned vets. Johnson hardly stood a chance.

He remained on the practice squad for a few months, getting paid $250-300 Canadian a week. He crammed into a two-bedroom apartment with three of his CFL teammates and apparently slept on a mattress he found on the street. Worst of all, Rock hardly saw any time on the gridiron.

A couple of months into Johnson's tenure with the team, Buono made a decision. He had been planning to cut the Miami alum for some time, but it was an unexpected source that expedited the process.

"Dwayne's agent called me," Buono remembers. "I told him that more than likely, we were going to release Dwayne. Then he asked if I could do him a favor. 'Can you cut Dwayne and send him home right now?'"

The WWF was calling.


Was The Rock good at football (Part III)?

As he was the world's second-highest-paid actor in 2017 and first-most-popular "Rock" (Chris and Kid are second and third), it's only fair we consider the movie and television roles in which Dwayne Johnson portrayed a character who played football. Spoiler: Not all were great.

• He plays selfish superstar quarterback Joe Kingman in The Game Plan, a Disney film in which The Brahma Bull appears in a leotard in a ballet production with his estranged daughter, who teaches him to be less selfish. Then, he leads his team, the Boston Rebels, to an "American Football Federation" championship because he's learned to pass the ball to his teammates rather than tuck and run himself. Kingman is a Russell Wilson type, minus Ciara, plus the archetypal Disney kid. He earns 3 out of 7 on the Rock Bottom scale of overall coolness. Yes, he's the best QB in the league and a champ, but his "Never say no" catchphrase is troubling, especially when it's advice he gives to his child...

• In Gridiron Gang, he is Sean Porter, a man who coaches a football team at a juvenile corrections facility. He dons a No. 94 (same as Johnson wore at Miami) Mustangs uniform for one scene and drops running back Willie Weathers six out of seven times after challenging him to "knock me on my ass." That gets a 6 out of 7 Rock Bottoms.

• Spencer Strasmore, the character he portrays on the hit HBO series Ballers, was a two-time All-American at The U, multitime Pro Bowler, Super Bowl champ and the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. That's a pretty successful resume in my book. Above all, Ballers is a pretty—dare I say—baller show. 7 out of 7 Rock Bottoms.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has enjoyed a vastly more successful fictional football career than his non-fictional one. He may have never achieved his dream of playing in the NFL, but you'd be forgiven for thinking he had.


Dwayne Johnson? The football player?? He's a wrestler???

It's not surprising given his lineage, but Dewey Johnson eventually became Dwayne Johnson, who became Rocky Maivia, who became The Rock. But let's rewind a bit.

Sparing the cliches of what football taught Dwayne Johnson (IT DOESN'T MATTER), his time on the gridiron actually helped form The Rock character.

Though Johnson didn't talk trash, Jim Ross—the GOAT wrestling play-by-play commentator—has a theory.

"Him playing at The U, during that era, I'm convinced it allowed him to become a polished trash-talker," Ross says. "He could come up with dialogue off of the top of his head—and resonate the point he was making. That's perfect for a promo guy."

That said, it took time for Rock to develop his mic skills. Bruce Prichard, a former manager and writer for the WWF, recalls how frustrating promos were for Rocky Maivia when he first joined the promotion. Wrestlers like Hunter Hearst Helmsley (aka Triple H) would flame his one-dimensional babyface character on a consistent basis.

"Rocky would follow the script, but his opponent would go off the script and eat him up," he says. "I told him, 'Look, you're getting your ass chewed out right now. The show is live. If you're confident that you can improvise and match him, go for it.'"

An injury, a heel turn, a run with the Nation of Domination and a split from the Nation later, Rock was the best improviser in the company. Just think about his rolodex of catchphrases: "If ya sa-mellllllll...what The Rock...is cookin' [insert: eyebrow raise]," "Know your role, and SHUT YOUR MOUTH," "FI-NALLY." The list goes on and on and on...and on some more.

That just isn't stuff you can write. As matter of fact, he didn't, according to Sapp and Searcy.

Miami University's former defensive line coach (and now LSU head coach) Ed Orgeron enjoyed yelling about as much as Brock Lesnar enjoys hurling human carcasses around the ring. Orgeron was "country as grits," as Searcy puts it.

Sapp, a goofball and instigator, remembers Coach Orgeron well.

"Oh, you'd never tell Coach you didn't watch film, or he'd kill you," Sapp says with a roaring laugh. "He caught Greg Mark sleeping in a meeting one time and almost threw his shoulder out trying to throw the heaviest chair across the room. And then he kicked us out of the room because the chair only went two inches and we all laughed."

After Sapp made it to the NFL, he recalls watching an episode of Monday Night Raw with teammate Derrick Brooks. Sapp preferred the Discovery Channel, but when Brooks told him his boy Dewey was about to be on, he had to watch.

370782 03: World Wrestling Federation's Wrestler Rock Poses June 12, 2000 In Los Angeles, Ca.  (Photo By Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images

"He comes out to the ring and does his thing. My mouth is on the floor. Because I can hear Ed Orgeron cussing us out after the offense done ran for 251 yards on us, and he's calling us 'candy-asses' and 'They runnin' that sumbitch sideways' and all kinds of stuff.

"I looked at this and went, 'Holy s--t. Dewey turned it into a schtick. And it's good.'"

Pro wrestling superstars typically develop catchphrases and personality traits from the people and places around them. In fact, they are encouraged to "borrow" material from movies, TV shows, friends, athletes, etc., according to former wrestler Tom Prichard, who trained Johnson. Nothing is completely invented. The Rock adopted "candy-ass" and "runnin' that sumbitch sideways" and made them his own.

Ross, who worked a lot with Rock on developing his heel persona (which gained him superstardom), suggested speaking in the third person, like Deion Sanders. From that, "The Rock says" and "The Rock means" were born.

Other Rock-isms that sprung from unexpected sources:

• According to Tom Prichard, "You smell what I'm cooking?" was taken from Brad Armstrong, a former WCW wrestler.

• The phrase "rudy poo" originated from Iceman King Parsons, who would go around threatening to beat people with a "rudy poot" stick. Don't have the slightest clue what that means, but coincidentally (or not), King Parsons tagged with Rock's father, Rocky Johnson, in the National Wrestling Alliance in the '80s.


Did Dwayne Johnson layeth the smacketh down (verbally) on the football field? In the WWE locker room?

No, not even a little—which is surprising since Rock is undoubtedly on the Mount Rushmore of trash-talkers in the professional wrestling business. Here's what his former coaches, teammates and WWF trainers had to say about Rock's IRL persona:

• "I've been around a lot of athletes, and [Johnson] came across with a quiet, respectful confidence." —Ross

• "He was quiet. You see him now, and what he did in wrestling—that's not how I saw him when he played for us at Miami. ... I don't remember that at all." —Erickson

• "He was really reserved." —Will Johnson

• "He was very respectful and very reserved." —Bruce Prichard

Richard Shotwell/Associated Press

• "I swear to God, for two years, I never heard him say a word. ... It was kind of odd about The Rock. He had all this amazing talent and strength and ability. But he didn't trash-talk. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the guys on the defensive side of the ball at Miami when I was playing smack-talked to the fullest." —Searcy

• "You wouldn't know Dewey was in the room unless you said something to him. He was quiet as a church mouse." —Sapp

In fact, Sapp goes even further than that. If you thought there was any lingering ill will from competing with Johnson at The U, let this quote put it to rest: "I love the guy," Sapp says. "If you ever had a sister you wanted to date somebody, Dewey would be the guy. Him or Trent Dilfer. That's it. Everybody else can go to hell."

Ross surmises that Johnson became a "polished" trash-talker thanks to his time at The U. But as an observer, not an active participant.

"He saved his trash-talking for the ring," Bruce Prichard says.


How jacked was Rock when he took his first steps on the University of Miami campus?

As far as tracing Johnson's path from football to wrestling, this is perhaps the most important question of them all. A swole AF human whose muscles seem to grow with age, he is a fitness junkie. But did that come from his wrestling training, or was he ripped back in the football days?

Seven out of the eight people I interviewed for this piece confirmed he was.

The other, Sapp, says, seemingly stunned by the question: "Dewey? A 'jacked specimen'? No. No. No. [Laughs.] No. Really? I think all y'all wrasslin' fans really put him in like a different category. Like he's a mythical creature."

Searcy calls trolling. His first memory of Johnson was when Searcy was a junior, Johnson an incoming freshman.

"It was during the summer, and a bunch of linemen were in the cafeteria. The freshmen just got out of orientation, and we were kind of sizing them up. This one particular kid comes in. To be honest with you, I thought he might have been a factory worker or coal miner, cuz he looked like a grown-ass man."

That "grown-ass man" was Johnson. We've all seen 16-year-old Rock by now, so you can only imagine what two extra years did for him. Dewey was big, but Searcy also remembers just how much of a weight-room force he was at The U.

"He was out-squatting and out-benching guys who had been there three to four years at Miami. He was benching over 400 pounds, squatting about 500. Could run, lift and loved the weight room. ... He was just bulging everywhere."

Erickson took notice too, saying Johnson lifted weights "before lifting weights was cool."

Of course, his teammates at The U, who loved trash-talking almost as much as they loved football, razzed him for his physique.

"Because he was so big and swole, he used to wear a lot of tight stuff," Searcy says with a laugh. "I remember the D-line guys getting on him about wearing clothes that were too tight—those extra medium shirts and pants he used to wear."

Tom and Bruce Prichard both noted Johnson had "the look" when they first saw him, even detailing that he was a natural in-ring worker from the jump. But perhaps the most interesting meeting story belongs to Ross, the man who signed Dwayne Johnson to his first WWF contract.


So if Ross signed Rock, does that mean he recruited him?

You bet your ass it does. Here's the story:

Pat Patterson, a legendary wrestling figure who competed in promotions all over the world and was once considered Vince McMahon's right-hand man, worked with Rock's father in San Francisco in the '70s. They were NWA tag team champions together in 1972, the year Dwayne was born. So Pat knew Dwayne as a kid and kept tabs on him as he grew older, mostly through his relationship with his father.

When Ross became the vice president of talent relations for the WWF in 1996, his job was to assemble a roster of wrestlers that could compete with rival company World Championship Wrestling. Remember: At the time, Monday Nitro was besting Monday Night Raw in television ratings on a consistent basis, legitimately threatening the livelihood of the WWF. So Ross had perhaps the toughest GM job in sports.

Turns out, he was arguably an even better recruiter than he was a commentator, which is saying something. Ross signed guys like Kurt Angle, Edge, Christian and Mick Foley, ushering in the Attitude Era.

(Aside: Ross later inked Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Batista, Randy Orton and Shelton Benjamin, among others, to WWE contracts. He also recruited Roman Reigns when he played nose tackle for Georgia Tech.)

Evan Agostini/Associated Press

Ross' "proudest" signing, though, was Johnson, whom he'd heard about through Patterson.

After researching him and learning about his football past, Ross was eager to meet Rocky Johnson's son. "I saw images of him, I saw his background, and he checked off a lot of boxes," Ross recalls. "He was a USA Today All-American high school football player, then he got recruited by Miami and was on a national championship-winning football team. ... He graduated from college. He started goals and accomplished them, and I liked that."

They linked for the first time in Florida in 1995, shortly after Dwayne was released by Buono and the Stampeders. Ross watched the behemoth work out, and then they grabbed lunch at a little Cuban joint. Ross remembers the meal like it was yesterday.

"He wore a tank top, and of course sitting in a booth with me made him look even better."

They both ordered grilled chicken with black beans and yellow rice, and Ross noticed Johnson's magnetism immediately. The customers and employees at the restaurant couldn't take their eyes off him. Men and women alike were stopping by the table to catch a glimpse.

"This is no exaggeration: Every female that worked there came by at least once to give us more water. … Even the females who didn't work there.

"A lot of times men will look at athletes like Rock and be jealous because their girlfriends are gonna like him a lot. The men were taken with him. They came by, too.

"He looked like a star."

What impressed Ross the most about Johnson, though, wasn't his look. It wasn't his ability to run the ropes. It was something else.

At the time, Johnson's dream of playing football in the NFL had just been crushed. He had broken up with his girlfriend and moved back home with his parents in Tampa. He hit rock bottom (pun fully intended). Life kicked him in the ass. It took some time, but he got back up. Despite having only $7 to his name at the time (hence, Seven Bucks Productions company), Johnson won Ross over with his positive spirit in the face of adversity—something he continues to preach and exhibits today.

"Rock said, 'I'm going to be your No. 1 guy,'" Ross recalls. "I didn't take that as arrogance. I did not take it as being egocentric. It was a quiet calmness and confidence that he was going to be successful.

"Basically what he was saying to me was, 'I'm going to outwork, outtrain, out-nutrition everyone. Whatever I need to do, I'm going to do that.'"

Johnson's confidence was contagious and sparked Ross'. He signed him shortly after the meal, and the rest is history.


But remember, that history started with football.

Reflecting back on Johnson's journey from football washout to entertainment superstardom, Ross—like everyone else who was interviewed for this piece—claims that Dwayne hasn't changed a bit. He was broke, so he's able to appreciate the money and success because he knows the feeling of not having it. His playful and upbeat nature remain a defining aspect of his character.

As far as what the future holds for his proudest signee, Ross believes Johnson can do anything he puts his mind to. It's corny, and Ross acknowledges that, but the iconic wrestling figure has witnessed Johnson set a lofty goal for himself and achieve it time after time.

"Acting, producing or directing or creating. He's a hell of a content-provider on a big, big level. I'm not so sure he wouldn't make a hell of a president. Really. Based on what we're seeing, I would definitely vote for him because of his honesty, and I know his intentions are good. He sure as hell wouldn't be doing it for the money, as we thought Trump might.

"I just think he has unlimited skills. If that includes running for the president of the United States, there's no doubt in my mind that he will win."

Can you imagine all the incredible slogans he'd come up with?