How good was The Rock at football?
December, 11, 2012
By Dan Friedell | ESPN The Magazine
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson rose to fame thanks to his exploits in the pro wrestling ring and got his first break in the movie business as the Scorpion King in 2001’s “The Mummy Returns.”
While the film role may have been seen as a way for producers to rope in fans of Johnson’s wrestling career, it actually sparked what turned out to be a lengthy and lucrative foray into the film world. By this time next year, he’ll have starred in more than 20 movies, while continuing to make his presence felt in the wrestling world.
Wrestling is actually the Johnson family business -- his father Rocky Johnson was a star in the 1970s and '80s, while his Samoan grandfather Peter Maivia was famous in the 1960s.
But before “The Rock,” Dwayne Johnson was a burly defensive lineman that teammates called “Dewey” who wasn’t afraid to walk around in a traditional lava-lava skirt and belt out country music tunes at the University of Miami 20 years ago.
After finishing high school in Pennsylvania, Johnson joined Dennis Erickson’s Hurricanes in 1991, a team that would go on to win the national championship.
Over his four years with the Hurricanes, the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Johnson started only once, appearing in 39 games with a total of 77 tackles and 4.25 sacks.
Still, Johnson left an impression on coaches and teammates that went deeper than his numbers, starting with the man who recruited him, Ed Orgeron, currently the defensive coordinator at USC.
Orgeron, University of Miami defensive line coach (1989-1992): "He was a highly recruited kid. We were excited to have him, he came to us ahead of his time. He was developed and was extremely quick. He was a hard worker and a humble young man.
Miami/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesCoaches and teammates called Johnson an athletic "specimen."
"Everybody liked him. He was easily coachable and everybody was impressed with him. He came in and played a lot as a freshman."
Kevin Patrick, University of Miami teammate (defensive end, 1989-1993): "At that time in college football I don’t think there was any doubt the University of Miami was at the top of their game. If you were on that team and a scholarship player, you were highly recognized.
"You look at those rosters that Dewey was a part of, they were loaded with talent and he was competitive.
"I can remember one of the first times he was on campus, it was an official visit. Our D-line coach [Orgeron], who was recruiting him, he was very proud, and he says, 'Look at my new dog.'
"And you look over and there’s this yoked-up kid with muscles everywhere walking around on the field. He got everyone’s attention. He was a physical specimen from Day 1. He didn’t just become one as soon as he became a wrestler.
Orgeron: "As a freshman, he came out, and back then we didn’t play too many freshmen. But he was very strong, he had some great practices and we were able to play him as a freshman, and at one point we thought maybe we’d start him as a freshman.
"The problem with Dwayne was there was a guy named Warren Sapp who came along the next year."
Warren Sapp, University of Miami teammate (1992-1995): "He was a specimen. He looked great. He always looked great. He was tan, curly hair. He was the kind of guy you want your sister to date, because he was a nice guy. I always said that to him.
USA TODAY SportsSapp's arrival relegated Johnson to a backup role.
"When he was [first] there, I was a tight end in high school and I got [to Miami] as a tight end and linebacker, and they moved me over to D-line. I was real reluctant to do so. I thought I was a pretty good tight end and a pretty good athlete, but being 290 pounds, they moved me to D-line and said, 'We need you to rush the passer or you can go home.'
"So I came into the D-line room and sat down, and Dwayne Johnson walks in and says, 'What are you doing here?'
"I said, 'I’m here for your job.' So that’s how me and him had our introduction to each other. I said it jokingly, but I was there for his job."
Orgeron: "You’re talking about one of the best college football players of all time. If not for [Sapp], Dwayne could have been an all-conference, perhaps an all-American."
Sapp: "There was no competition between us. You could ask him and he’d tell you. He became a wrestler and a movie star. I love him to death, but he couldn’t play with me. If he’d tell you anything else he’d be lying to you."
Orgeron: "Dwayne was a good player, but he wasn’t one of our star players. We had some really good defensive linemen.
"He was very athletic, he had great gifts. Great strength. I coached at Syracuse, and if Dwayne had been there, he would have been one of the top linemen we ever had at Syracuse. He was that type of player."
Brad Webber, University of Miami strength coach (1988-1998): "At that time we had so many good players who did such a good job pushing each other, whether it was in the weight room or on the field -- we had two great bookends at that time. We had KP and Warren Sapp.
"Back in the day, Miami had some drills that were pretty cranked up. It was the offensive line versus the defensive line. At that time we had a great defensive line. They had some reps and they got Dewey in there and he got rocked right off the bat.
"And Kevin grabbed him and pulled him out of there and said, 'That’s not how we’re going to do things around here.' He didn’t really appreciate that, so they squared off right there and kind of pushed each other around, and Dewey said, 'I’ll see you in just a little bit.'"
Patrick: "We were all best friends and we loved each other but when it boiled down to it, you fought for your job. I can remember getting into a fight with him in the strength coach’s office."
Getty ImagesPatrick and Johnson got into a heated tussle in the strength coach's office.
Webber: "After practice things kind of simmered down and we had come into the weight room. And they’re doing some working out and we had a big coach’s office that looked out into the weight room. And KP was in the office kicking back, and I saw Dwayne walk in there and he turned and shut the door and locked it, and looked through that glass window and smiled at me. And I said, 'Oh no, here we go.'"
Patrick: "I was the starter and there was this young kid fighting for his place, I didn’t take s--- from anyone and neither did he.
"I went to put him in his place and he fought back and words were exchanged and next thing you know there was a huge collision in the middle of that office."
Webber: "They start going at it and I ran down through that weight room and had to unlock the door -- in the meantime they had flown over my desk and tore the desk to pieces and knocked everything off there, and they were back in a little bitty hole behind the desk just wearing each other out.
"Dwayne ended up getting on top of him and he was trying to get a hold of his tongue. He was saying, 'I’m going to pull that tongue out of your head if you keep talking that trash.'
"So eventually I dove over on top of both of them, and next thing you know we’re all laying in there. You know how it is: You’re fighting one minute, you’re boys the next. We were laughing about it two minutes after that."
Patrick: "No punches were ever thrown and I think over time this story has gotten a lot bigger than it actually was. But we got after it pretty good and tussled around.
"I think we destroyed everything in that office, including the desk. In books, I’ve gotten his interpretation of the fight and I’ve heard it from his mom, and over the years it’s changed to be more amusing."
Sapp: "When you have a partner in crime and you can go balls-to-the-wall in a ball game and come out it knowing it’s not going to fall off, that bodes well for you.
"I knew I had somebody that was more than capable of playing if I was taken out. He was our do-everything guy. He could play inside and out, he could play all four positions.
"He was the Swiss Army knife. He was our utility guy. It was, 'Dewey, go left end. Go nose. Go right end.' He could do it all.
"He was a jack-of-all-trades, but only a master at wrasslin’.
Patrick: "One of my fondest memories is we got in a fight at San Diego State, and when they were breaking it up, the Aztec Indian was trying to climb a high wall down in the end zone of the stadium and Dewey was right behind him. The Aztec was trying to climb and there’s Dewey trying to yank him down."
Orgeron: "His uncle was Jimmy Snuka, he came from a wrestling family. So we knew about that.
"I remember one day walking off the field, he hadn’t had a good day and I said something like, 'You know, Dwayne, you should just become a wrestler.'"
Sapp: "So we used to joke with him by saying, 'When you get done with football, you’re going to go into wrestling, right?'
Getty ImagesOne of The Rock's favorite catchphrases may have been inspired by his old D-line coach.
"And he’d say: 'Damn right, bitch.'
"And we were like, "All right, that’s cool by us.' It was just our way of joking with him and passing time.
"So I get to the NFL and [teammate] Derrick Brooks is a wrestling nut. He watched wrasslin’ all the time: 'Monday Night Raw,' 'Tuesday Night Thunder,' whatever it is, he watched it. And I was his roommate. I’d come in the room and I’d be like, 'Oh come on. It’s Monday night, there’s football on, and we’re not watching football?'
"And Brooks would say, 'No, no: "Monday Night Raw."'
"One day I walk in the room and I hear 'candy ass.' And I said, 'What the heck?'
That’s what coach O [Orgeron] used to say.
"And then I started watching."
Patrick: "The first time I heard Joe Diffie’s song 'If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)' was because Dewey was sitting next to me on the way back from Colorado singing his tail off.
"He’s got a pretty good voice and was big into country music. We’d see him in the apartment he lived in just singing his tail off. We thought this was pretty good. He always had that, and in combination with his family background, we knew he was going to be something special if not on the football field but in another line of work."
Webber: "Football’s an emotional game and it gets hot and heavy, but that’s one thing about those Miami teams, we were all family and still are. You don’t see some of them for 10 or 20 years, but when you do, it’s like you never left. It’s a special place and a tight bond between all those people."
Patrick: "The one thing I say about Dewey is that he’s one of the most down-to-earth, most humble guys that I have ever been around.
"He’s as quality as it gets -- that could not have happened to a better person. It’s kind of cliché, but he’s a guy who worked his ass off.
"It’s interesting to see how his career has developed over time. I was taking my kids to see 'The Tooth Fairy' and I remember my kids saying, 'We’re going to see daddy’s friend in the movie.' And they were obviously excited."