Before Dwayne Johnson was the most electrifying man in sports entertainment, he was Dewey, an unheralded defensive tackle for The U stuck behind future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp on the depth chart. Who’d have known that about 20 years later – while his more prolific teammates are kicking back in retirement, or taking cushy broadcast analyst jobs and The U’s football program fades into mediocrity – Johnson would be the biggest star of them all?
At halftime of 2013, The Rock has become nearly as ubiquitous as any celebrity excluding The Carter-Knowles union. He’s starred in Snitch, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Pain & Gain, the sixth installment of the Fast & Furious film series and has a reality show premiering on TNT in June. We haven’t even hit the summer solstice.
In the midst of all this, he moonlighted wearing the 45 in his brief return to wrestling as the WWE champ. It was a stark contrast from his humble beginnings as just another face in the star-studded crowd at The U from 1991 to ‘95.
"He was the Swiss Army knife. He was our utility guy. It was, 'Dewey, go left end. Go nose. Go right end,” Sapp told ESPN.com. "He was a jack-of-all-trades, but only a master at wrasslin’.”
After his collegiate career, he embarked on an obscure path to the NFL, through the CFL, that was sabotaged by his agent, and Wally Buono, now the league’s all-time winningest coach.
“His agent phoned me from Miami because he had a wrestling opportunity [because of Johnson’s wrestling heritage] and asked me to do him a favor by cutting him,” Buono told the Vancouver Sun. “I knew he was from a wrestling family. Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have any problem letting him go.”
Who knows what would have happened if Dwayne Johnson had begun a career in the CFL? Perhaps he would have taken the Cameron Wake scenic route to the NFL. WWF Attitude era fans have Buono to thank for his ten World Championship belts and 2013’s “Rock buffet.”
Johnson became a pop culture icon before he ever stepped onto a Hollywood set, thanks to his off the cuff wit that was nurtured by cats like Sapp and Ray Lewis. His charisma and improvisational ability to dress down fellow wrestlers – like Chris Rock would do a heckler – forced CEO Vince McMahon to build his billion-dollar company around The Rock’s transcendent popularity.
But your man Johnson’s performance ability has range like Steph Curry, so he soon caught the eye of the entertainment industry.
His first role wasn’t action, but a comedy. Hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time in 2000 affirmed his credentials as a performer rather than just being entertaining “for an athlete,” which is akin to being called “cute for a fat guy.” Johnson’s first movie turn was a bit role in The Mummy Returns. Based on that performance, though, his salary for its spinoff The Scorpion King, was the largest ever for a first-time leading man.
However, the greatest role of his early career may have come inside the ring. After doing his thing in Hollywood, The Rock returned to the WWE portraying The Rock as a bit more Hollywood, and transformed into the most loved heel in WWE history. The People’s Champ was suddenly the target of vitriol. In a testament to his cult-icon status, it was an unmitigated success.
Now, Johnson wasn’t the biggest wrestler, but he’d grown too big for the nightly grind of the WWE schedule. So, he retired from pro wrestling in 2004 to focus strictly on movies.
This could have all gone wrong since, initially, he appeared on track to duplicate the mistakes of many entertainers-turned-actors by plunging into the cash grab of children’s films. From the jump, The Rock was removed from film credits and rebranded as Dwayne Johnson. The hulk-sized Mr. Rogers took a hiatus from action films and took leading roles in The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain, Planet 51 and the Tooth Fairy. Those three years were as much of a waste as Jordan playing baseball.
So what do you when you seem on the verge of turning into a very well-paid toy for kids? You tap back into the S.O.B.-charm that made you a star in the first place. This is what The Rock pulled off in 2010 when the odd couple of Mark Wahlberg and Johnson crossed paths for the first time as detectives in The Other Guys. Johnson channeled The Rock in his role as Detective Danson, alongside his film tag team partner Samuel L. Jackson, playing the cocky alpha dog alternatives to the bumbling leading stars Wahlberg and Will Ferrell.
The fate of Detective Danson in The Other Guys was symbolic. The Rock was reborn. Of the 10 roles he has filmed since 2010 or currently has in development, only one has been a kid’s movie. The kids and teenagers who grew up imitating his larger than life wrestling persona, are now adults and are turning out to watch him in the next act of his career.
Next step? Johnson – now fully detoxed from his ill-conceived kid’s movie era and intent on taking on edgier roles – returned to the action genre with the R-rated Faster and hasn’t let off the gas yet.
“Well, the goal was to get back into a space where I can be physical and where the tone of it could be ‘I want to grab you by the f***ing throat.’ If I got back into the space I wanted it to have that type of intensity,” Johnson told Collider.com last year.
Take for instance, Snitch. The film’s message espouses transparent social commentary about the War on Drugs, informants and the overzealous mandatory federal sentences for non-violent drug crimes. It’s not for your niece.
And consider his previous roles where he’s played lovable good guys and formulaic bad guys with a heart of gold, but he’d never played a vile character. Well, it’s not quite Denzel Washington in Training Day, but his reunion with Wahlberg in Pain & Gain represents his darkest role yet. The film has generated controversy for portraying South Florida’s grisly murders by the real-life Sun Gym Gang in a comical manner. But as they say in Hollywood, any publicity is good publicity.
"People say, 'what the hell did we just see?' You know? It's not your normal movie," director Michael Bay told South Florida’s NBC 6 about the film’s plot.
For the first time in his career, The Rock is on a winning streak in Hollywood on some Miami Heat ish. A brolic wrestler wasn’t supposed to step into the Hollywood arena and actually become a marquee face in blockbuster films. Hulk Hogan, John Cena and Triple H tried to slip into Hollywood, playing versions of themselves in physical roles, but it never took.
Johnson’s ascent to becoming the biggest star in the history of the professional wrestling industry was meteoric because of his third generational roots, comedic timing and dynamic charm. It took 12 years to reach this point as a movie star, though. He came up short on the gridiron, became a goliath amongst giants in the ring and finally, Hollywood can smell what Dwayne Johnson is cookin’.
Johnson has Hollywood in a chokehold and if his past is any indication, he’s not loosening that grip anytime soon.