MIAMI >> Everybody knows him as “The Rock.” Most associate that with Dwayne Johnson’s physical prowess, his domination as a wrestler, and his steely determination. But it could stand for something else.
When he was 23, he says, he hit “rock bottom.”
“The first rock bottom that I hit was out of college where I worked for 10 years from the time I started playing football at 14 years old to the time I was 23, I think, and did not get drafted. I played in the CFL (Canadian Football League) for approximately 200 bucks a week Canadian. I got cut from the team a couple of months later, and I had to close that chapter in my life,” he says in his tailor-made gym in Miami.
“Then when I went back home, I couldn’t afford to live here in Miami with my girlfriend at the time, and I had to move back in with my parents … It’s a tough experience when you have to move back in with your parents. And at that time, my parents — we never lived in a home. So they had a little small apartment in Tampa, Fla., and I had to move in with them. And then you go through the challenges of that. You hit depression. You hit rock bottom.”
As a teenager he’d already tasted defeat of another kind. “When I was 14 we were evicted and forced to leave the state of Hawaii,” he recalls. “And it wound up being the greatest blessing in disguise because at that time, I was getting in a lot of trouble. At that time, I already had multiple arrests under my belt from doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t have been doing. And I’m lucky. I’m really lucky that I didn’t wind up in prison, and certainly I was on that track if I had stayed there in Hawaii.”
Growing up, Johnson’s dream was to play for the National Football League. But he suffered several serious injuries in college football resulting in five knee surgeries, debilitating back trauma and medical reconstruction of his shoulder. His alternate goal became wrestling, like his father before him. And the world first heard of “The Rock” when he kept pinning the competition, piling up championships like junk mail.
Even so Johnson’s fame as a wrestler has been eclipsed by his momentum in film and television, with movies like “The Scorpion King,” “San Andreas” and “Central Intelligence,” and TV shows like “Clash Time,” “WrestleMania” and his latest, “Ballers,” which returns for its second season on HBO Sunday.
On the half-hour comedy, Johnson, 44, plays Spencer Strasmore, an ex-football superstar whose contacts make him the ideal financial mediator and mentor to players. Johnson, who is also an executive producer on the show, confesses that Strasmore is the man he longed to be.
“Spencer Strasmore has a life I wanted. I wanted that life. Down here, University of Miami, 18 years old, I stepped on campus. I had no money, and we struggled for a long time. But my No. 1 goal was to make it to the NFL just so I can buy my parents their first house that they lived in. I never lived in a house until I was 28 years old. So we lived in efficiencies and apartments,” he says.
“So the point is, it’s Spencer’s life as a successful NFL player, future Hall of Famer — that was the life I wanted. I failed at that … I think I found peace with it. I don’t know. Maybe a therapist would say otherwise. Maybe I need some work with clearing some issues, but for many years my goal was to make it. And I never did. And then when the game is taken away from you or it’s cut short like a lot of players, like it happened to me … so it sidelined me,” he says.
Has he accepted that failure? “As best I can, but I think — and now, because I have my degree in psychology, clearly, I think I’m finding peace with it on the show. And I gotta tell you, it’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had. I’ve had the opportunity in movies to play a lot of characters and a lot of men who have done some pretty good things, and they galvanize some people, and they go on to save the day, and there’s bad guys to hunt down. In something like this, the muscle I get to exercise is a completely different one that I was never used to. What I mean by that is just living and just every day you’re just living and living life. So the experience has been tremendous, and I am fortunate to be playing a guy whose life I wanted.”