Before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson became a famous wrestler and, subsequently, a famous movie star, he was a not-so-famous football player for the University of Miami. Suffering a back injury (“I ruptured three discs in my back. I use the analogy of a squished jelly doughnut. It’s awful.”) and losing his position on the team to Warren Sapp — who went on to become an Oakland Raider — Johnson wound up playing for the Canadian Football League, making something like $250 Canadian dollars a month.
“I couldn’t even eat,” he said. “It was a blessing in disguise. It makes you realize a lot of things when you get that hungry. It’s like sink or swim. It was great. It’s great now. I didn’t know that then. Then it was the pits.”
Now Johnson returns to football with his new movie, “Gridiron Gang.” In it, he plays Sean Porter, a real-life coach who organized a football league within a youth detention center. His effortsled to a general improvement in behavior and a huge decrease in repeat offenders.
Porter was the subject of a 1993 TV documentary, the details of which the new film follows very closely.
Unfortunately, the story is so moving and so sentimental that test audiences believed the filmmakers had “Hollywooded it up,” or taken creative liberties. For example, real gang-bangers would never cry on the football field.
“No, it did happen,” Johnson said. “And that’s when [director] Phil Joanou decided to cut in footage from the documentary to let people know that this really happened. They really did cry. Here’s the proof.”
Even Johnson cries in this film. At one point in the story, Porter’s mother dies. The team gets together to buy him flowers and dedicates their next win to her memory. The documentary does not cover this sequence, and Johnson assumed it had been made up for the film. But just before shooting, he learned that indeed, the scene really happened, and that ironically, Porter’s mother died on Johnson’s mother’s birthday.
“I cried so much in that scene. I prepared so much for the scene, but once you get that, it’s the truth,” Johnson said. “I got on the phone with my mom right after. Later, I asked Sean, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ But he’s not the type of guy to lend information.”
Johnson, 34, expands his range in many other ways for this new film. For example, rather than using only his nickname, he is credited as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He says that though he’s proud of his nickname, he believes that eventually it will fade away.
“It’s one thing calling me The Rock and I’m running around looking like Bea Arthur’s grandfather or something,” he said.