Before Dwayne Johnson was the most electrifying man in sports entertainment, and well before he earned an elite position as one of the most distinguished movie stars in the world, he played defensive tackle for the University of Miami Hurricanes.
Johnson’s pursuit of gridiron excellence is an integral part of his story, and it will be prominently featured in his new show, Young Rock, which premieres Tuesday night on NBC. In addition to highlighting a plethora of professional wrestling legends, Young Rock will also spotlight the stars of the Hurricanes college football program, which won the national title in 1991 while Johnson was part of the team.
Johnson was recruited to Miami by Ed Orgeron, a rising star on the Hurricanes coaching staff—and now the head coach at LSU. Johnson revealed to Sports Illustrated that Orgeron will be part of the Young Rock series, played by Emmett Skilton.
“Coach O is one of the best coaches across the country, and he’ll go down as one of the greatest football coaches of all time,” Johnson says. “My relationship with him was instrumental, and it helped define me as a person. He led with a toughness and a spice, imparting lessons that still resonate with me today. Coach O would tell me the things I needed to do to get better. His guidance was critical for me.”
Years later long after Johnson’s playing career was complete, Orgeron has remained an unrelenting supporter of the young man he once recruited out of Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa.
“When I look back on those times, as we were working our ass off to get better, grasping and understanding the enormity of this incredible opportunity in front of us—him coaching, me playing—we also had to overcome our own struggles,” Johnson says. “I quit school after I was put on academic probation. Eventually I righted my wrongs and got back on track because there were people who believed in me. Coach O was going through his own struggles, and he eventually came back, too, because he had people who believed in him. We had these parallel paths, and that still keeps us close, even now.”
Johnson also shared that Russell Maryland and Jessie Armstead, who were teammates and friends, will be portrayed on the show. Maryland, who won the Outland Trophy at Miami for best lineman in the nation and went on to become a three-time Super Bowl champion, will be played by Wavyy Jonez.
“When I arrived to the University of Miami, I was so full of ambition and I was ready to go,” Johnson says. “I was also only 18, and it was the first time I’d left home. There was this quiet vulnerability, emotionally and mentally, and I had the honor of learning from Russell Maryland.”
Maryland, whose nickname was “The Conscience,” was entering his senior season when Johnson was a freshman, and he served as a teammate, role model and friend.
“He took me under his wing,” Johnson says. “He taught me the playbook to college life at the University of Miami, which I still remember—when you give your word, you see it through; you show up early; you work your ass off; you take pride in being a Miami Hurricane, and you take pride in winning. But that wasn’t it. He wanted me to do all of that with grace, a little bit of swagger and gratitude.”
Johnson had a tremendous preseason camp, and he was initially slated to receive significant playing time, until an injury before the season opener suddenly changed those plans.
“I was so hungry and excited and proud to be a Miami Hurricane,” Johnson says. “I’d been looking for my identity, and I found it on the Greentree Practice Fields in Coral Gables, Fla. I worked my way up to number two on the depth chart, the backup to Russell Maryland, the best defensive lineman in college football. I was balling my ass off, and I was going to be the only freshman not to redshirt that year. We were preparing to play the season opener against BYU, and in our last two-a-day practice, I was going up against a badass offensive lineman—Mario Cristobal, who is a great friend and is now the head coach of the University of Oregon.
“During that play I got hurt. I tore everything in my shoulder, which meant that I redshirted and spent the season on injured reserve. I was so depressed during that stretch, and Russell was there for me when I needed him. I’ll never forget that, and our friendship far extends football.”
Armstead also plays an important role on Young Rock. He will be played by actor Montez Wilkins, who worked hard to capture the essence of Armstead, a linebacker that went on to become a five-time Pro Bowler in the NFL—and developed a tight bond with Johnson.
“I’ll never forget how he introduced himself, which was, ‘Jessie Armstead, best linebacker in the country,’ ” Johnson says. “I’d already immersed myself in all things University of Miami football, including studying the media guide, and I knew everything there was to know about every player on the roster. I really admired Jessie, and I always loved Jessie’s style of play and his cool, badass Texas swagger.”
Johnson’s approach to the game of football forever changed after witnessing the manner in which Armstead recovered from what appeared to be a debilitating knee injury.
“I watched him work so f------ hard to come back and overcome that injury,” Johnson says. “That was inspiring; it was eye-opening. He became my North Star for how hard I needed to work.
“Jessie, Michael Barrow, Darren Krein, all those guys were just so encouraging and important to me. Jessie was always one of my favorite players, but he was also one of my favorite human beings as a teammate. He still has that iconic smile, the kind that lights up a room.”
More than just a television series, Young Rock represents a chance for Johnson to honor those who played critical roles in his life, like Orgeron, Maryland and Armstead.
“Everything they taught and instilled in me, it helped shape me into who I am,” Johnson says. “I’m grateful for all of them.”