How a for­mer Stam­peder rose from rock bot­tom

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - News - KELLY CRYDERMAN

While Dwayne John­son did not play for Cal­gary’s CFL team for very long, los­ing that op­por­tu­nity helped kick off the rest of his life

It was tra­di­tion for the Cal­gary Stam­ped­ers: Af­ter ev­ery home game, play­ers filed into the club­house to re­lax, and meet up with their spouses and kids.

In the sum­mer of 1995, many heads would turn as a young de­fen­sive line­man with im­mense shoul­ders and mas­sive thighs strode in.

“He was like a Greek god,” for­mer Stam­peder Stu Laird says. “The wives all loved him.”

That much-ad­mired ath­lete was a for­mer Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami player with NFL dreams rel­e­gated to a CFL prac­tice ros­ter and earn­ing $300 a week. In short or­der, he was cut from the team and dis­patched back to Florida, where he sank into a deep de­pres­sion at his par­ents’ Tampa apart­ment.

But 22 years later, that player – Dwayne John­son – is one of the world’s big­gest movie stars. He is in Van­cou­ver now film­ing the ac­tion flick Skyscraper and post­ing on In­sta­gram about his love for Bri­tish Columbia’s largest city.

He first vis­ited there with the Stam­ped­ers for an ex­hi­bi­tion game against the BC Lions.

For Mr. John­son, 45, com­ing back to Canada is a re­turn to the place where his foot­ball am­bi­tions died. But it was his un­re­mark­able per­for­mance in Cal­gary that pushed him back to­ward the fam­ily busi­ness of wrestling, a move that made him fa­mous, and opened the door to Hol­ly­wood ac­tion roles.

Mr. John­son’s for­mer team­mates, who were suc­cess­ful in the much smaller arena of a Cana­dian sport­ing in­sti­tu­tion, have watched his prodi­gious rise with pride, and awe.

“Now he could prob­a­bly buy the whole league,” Mr. Laird quips.

Mr. John­son is to­day one of the high­est-paid celebri­ties in the world, earn­ing $65-mil­lion (U.S.) in the first six months of 2017, ac­cord­ing to Forbes, with dozens of movies, ads and other pro­duc­tions un­der his belt. The hulk­ing ath­lete left Cal­gary and quickly be­came a star in the World Wrestling Fed­er­a­tion (WWF, later World Wrestling En­ter­tain­ment), and then moved to film in 2002’s The Scor­pion King. His long list of fea­tures since in­cludes Fast & Fu­ri­ous films, San An­dreas, Disney’s Moana and the forth­com­ing Ram­page.

Hol­ly­wood loves him be­cause he is a global fig­ure who ap­peals to men and women of all ages and back­grounds. Not com­pletely sat­is­fied with his cur­rent lot, Mr. John­son is also mus­ing about a run for pres­i­dent of the United States – an idea not eas­ily dis­missed in the age of Don­ald Trump.

His Al­berta ex­pe­ri­ence is not one he al­ways speaks of with af­fec­tion, but it is a key part of his rags-to-riches story. Mr. John­son started with the team in the spring, but wasn’t a stand-out player. He also came in at a time when the Stam­ped­ers al­ready had one of the best de­fen­sive lines in the league, in­clud­ing Mr. Laird, Will John­son and Kenny Walker.

“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,” re­calls long-time Stam­ped­ers equip­ment man­ager Ge­orge Hop­kins.

“You do re­mem­ber cer­tain peo­ple. … You could see that he had a charisma, he had that daz­zling smile even back at that point,” Mr. Hop­kins adds. “But he was def­er­en­tial to the vet­er­ans.”

Soon, Mr. John­son was rel­e­gated to the prac­tice squad. That knocked down his salary to sub­sis­tence lev­els, and left him crowded into a cheap apart­ment with other prac­tice-ros­ter play­ers, sur­viv­ing on Spaghetti Os.

“He was starv­ing. He couldn’t go any­where ex­cept back to his Mo­tel Vil­lage and his squalid lit­tle room there,” says Bruce Hart of the fa­mous Cal­gary wrestling fam­ily, who knew Mr. John­son through his Nova Sco­tia-born fa­ther Rocky John­son, a wel­l­known wrestler in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

While his time in Cal­gary might have been a low point, Mr. Hart and other Stam­ped­ers also re­mem­ber good times for the well-liked Mr. John­son: Free food from north­west Cal­gary in­sti­tu­tion Nick’s Steak­house & Pizza, and a hand­ful of in­vi­ta­tions for home-cooked din­ners.

For­mer team­mate Lubo Ziza­kovic says he and his brother Srecko, who shared a base­ment apart­ment near McMa­hon Sta­dium them­selves, had Mr. John­son and other play­ers over for din­ners of roast or turkey. Mr. Ziza­kovic, now an in­vest­ment banker in Toronto, re­mem­bers be­ing first im­pressed by Mr. John­son in an ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony where all the rook­ies were forced to sing for their team­mates.

Mr. John­son, whose mother is Samoan, did a Samoan war dance that re­minded Mr. Ziza­kovic of the Haka per­formed by New Zealand rugby teams.

“It was cool be­cause we would never get to see any­thing like that. There are more and more Samoan-based play­ers that are do­ing re­ally, re­ally well in foot­ball. But we didn’t have a heck of a lot of them in Cal­gary,” Mr. Ziza­kovic says.

“It was the coolest thing any of the rook­ies had done. And he got a stand­ing ova­tion.”

In his 2000 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Mr. John­son wrote of bor­row­ing a team­mate’s truck to go pick up used mat­tresses from a ho­tel dump­ster to fur­nish the apart­ment he shared with three other prac­tice-ros­ter play­ers.

Mr. Ziza­kovic says that truck was his Chevy, nick­named Big Red, which Mr. John­son – an avid fish­er­man – also bor­rowed to go on trips to the Bow River and the Glen­more Reser­voir.

“He was on the prac­tice squad so he wouldn’t travel with us to away games. And so he al­ways asked to bor­row the truck and go fish­ing,” Mr. Ziza­kovic says.

Two months into the reg­u­lar sea­son, then-Stam­ped­ers head coach Wally Buono was plan­ning to cut Mr. John­son from the team. The process was sped up af­ter Mr. John­son’s agent called with news of a wrestling gig back in the United States. Mr. Buono said he re­mem­bers telling Mr. John­son: “I don’t want to screw up that op­por­tu­nity for you.”

Un­able to af­ford the cost of a taxi to the Cal­gary air­port, Mr. John­son got a ride from Mr. Walker. He has of­ten re­called that it was af­ter his flights from Cal­gary to Mi­ami that he re­al­ized he had barely any money in his wal­let. His pro­duc­tion com­pany and YouTube chan­nel are named af­ter that mo­ment of clar­ity: Seven Bucks.

Mr. John­son stayed in­doors in Tampa lick­ing his wounds for a few weeks, and then started train­ing for wrestling. The rest is his­tory. He and Mr. Buono have tweeted at one another in re­cent years, with the Rock say­ing Mr. Buono was a class-act men­tor who “has no idea what cut­ting me did for my psy­che and drive.”

Mr. Buono is now with the BC Lions, and the long-time CFL coach is still hop­ing for a re­union with the player he re­mem­bers 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.”

CAL­GARY STAM­PED­ERS

Dwayne John­son runs the field dur­ing his brief time play­ing for the Cal­gary Stam­ped­ers in 1995.

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