In the summer of 1995, staff and players in the Calgary Stampeders football organization began to take notice of a 22-year old practice squad defensive lineman with extra-wide shoulders and thighs like tree trunks.
“He was like a Greek god,” former Stampeder Stu Laird recalled.
I may have been broke with a shit haircut, but at least I didn’t skip leg day 😂💪🏾
Thanks for the love, Stamps.
Forever grateful for the those tough times. https://t.co/Z0lANZJWgy
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) May 3, 2020
Of course, he was talking about Dwayne Johnson, a former University of Miami footballer with NFL dreams, but trying to make it into the regular playing squad of a CFL team.
After tasting success with the University of Miami, including being part of a national championship winning squad in 1991, Johnson entered the 1995 NFL Draft. However, just as many players, Johnson’s college experience did not translate into a spot on an NFL roster. Instead, his love for the game, and an ongoing dream of making it as a pro footballer, led him to the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
Johnson had started with the team during the 1995 spring training camp, and he didn’t exactly impress his coaches. He had also arrived at a time when Calgary had one of the best defensive lines in the league, with Stu Laird, Will Johnson and Kenny Walker.
He was quickly relegated to the practice roster, and found himself earning only $300 a week.
“It was one of those deals where he was never really going to get a good break unless someone got hurt, and we stayed pretty healthy that year,” Stampeders equipment manager George Hopkins recalled. “You do remember certain people… you could see that he had a charisma, he had that dazzling smile even back at that point.”
Hopkins also recalls how Johnson was “deferential to the veterans,” meaning he conveyed respect upon them.
Once he was deemed to be practice squad material, Johnson still remained with the team and awaited his opportunity. Living on a meager salary, he shared a cheap apartment with other practice squad players. In a 2000 autobiography, Dwayne Johnson recalled borrowing a teammate’s truck to pick up used mattresses from a hotel dumpster to furnish the apartment.
When the rookies were called upon to sing for the team, as part of their initiation, teammate Lubo Zizakovic recalled how Johnson, whose mother is Samoan, did a Samoan war dance.
“It was cool because we would never get to see anything like that,” Zizakovic said. “It was the coolest thing any of the rookies had done. And he got a standing ovation.”
Two months into the regular season, then-Stampeders head coach Wally Buono felt it was almost time to cut Johnson. With that in mind, when Johnson’s agent called with news of a wrestling job back in the United States, Buono advised Johnson to take it.
At the time, Johnson was so broke he couldn’t even afford a taxi to the airport. Teammate Kenny Walker gave him a lift.
Johnson has often told the story of how broke he was when he left the CFL, and even named his production company “Seven Bucks,’ after the amount of money he had in his wallet at the time.
A quarter century later, after moving up the ranks of the WWF and receiving the stage name “The Rock,” Johnson has become one of the world’s biggest entertainment and movie stars.
Wally Buono still recalls Johnson as a “good guy” with a huge personality.
“As famous as he is, as well off as he is, when I see him, I see who he was. He hasn’t changed,” Buono said.
Being on the Stampeders practice roster, Dwayne Johnson did not normally travel with the team to road games. However, he got such an opportunity when the team traveled to the west coast to take on the BC Lions in an exhibition match. In 2018, while in Vancouver, Canada, filming the action flick Skyscraper, Johnson was reminded of his time in the CFL. He spoke about never making it to the NFL, and paid homage to Wally Buono, his old coach.
“So for me, playing in the NFL was the best thing that never happened, “ Johnson said. “I thank you CFL, I thank you Wally Buono. To everybody out there, keep working hard. Sometimes, your biggest dreams that don’t come true are the best things that never happened.”
For Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, an unfulfilled football dream may become more of a thing of the past when he gets a chance to quench his thirst by being a football league part-owner, as a member of the new XFL ownership group along with his business manager Dany Garcia, and RedBird Capital.
On August 4, 2020, the day after the purchase of the XFL was announced, Dwayne Johnson tweeted the message, “My pro-football dreams never came true, but buying the XFL allows me to help other player’s dreams come true. And give the fans something special and fun – for the love of football.”
“The Rock” seems to have accepted his new mission in life, and that is to help others achieve the football dream that once eluded him.
Mark Nelson is a football fan, and founder and owner of XFLBoard.com since April 2000.