MALIBU, California — It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that "there are no second acts in American lives," and it was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson who helped prove him wrong.
A juvenile-delinquent-turned-football-player-turned-pro-wrestler-turned-action-star, Johnson has made a career out of seizing second — and third, and fourth — chances. In "Gridiron Gang," opening September 15, the Rock finally gets the opportunity to give something back (see "The Rock Tackles Football Film About High-School Gangbangers").
Playing real-life coach and probation officer Sean Porter, Johnson leads a youth-football team typical in many respects — except for the fact that its roster is made up entirely of offenders from the juvenile detention center Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu. These kids are hard-nosed, and have been caught up in often gang-related crimes involving guns and store robbery. And the Rock is adamant that such real-life offenders, like him, deserve a shot at change.
"Every kid deserves a second chance," he said. "A lot of these kids, with their past, where they came from, they never even had a first chance. We've got to realize that. That's our responsibility as adults."
The children Johnson wants so badly to redeem are described by his "Gridiron Gang" character as having "trouble responding to authority, being a member of a team, and accepting criticism." The Rock himself describes them as "losers."
"They come from a word of neglect, of failure," he sighed. "They expect to fail, and they expect to either end up in jail or to die. It's that simple."
Porter believed early on that football would be the ideal vehicle to instill core values into the kids, hopefully reversing the effects of negative and selfish thinking.
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Working together to succeed — what Porter called a sports "microcosm" for life in general — paradoxically gave many of his players a greater sense of self-worth, enabling them to overcome their own failures by fully committing to something larger than themselves.
Ironically, it was failure, not success, that Johnson believes most inspired the players to cooperate. Only in defeat, he says, were they compelled to re-evaluate their responses to frustration.
"They all banded together and said, 'We're not going to be losers anymore,' " he said. "They had no idea they could handle that type of failure. They had no idea they were going to cry on the football field because they couldn't kill or fight anybody. They had to accept that failure as men."
The story of Sean Porter and the Mustangs football team was first presented to worldwide audiences as a small-screen documentary. Directed by Lee Stanley, the made-for-TV flick, also titled "Gridiron Gang," won an Emmy in 1993. The Rock credits the documentary with inspiring him to star in the film version.
"The script had been around for a little while," the former WWE champion recalled. "I watched the documentary at 2 in the morning [the night I got the script]. I called my agent and said, 'I love it — I'm in.' As a matter of fact, I told them it would be an honor to make this movie."
Known for being a tough guy in his wrestling days, the Rock said the documentary — in particular the confessions of one former player — moved him to tears. "They asked him in the documentary, 'Why are you playing football?' " he recalled. "And he simply said, 'Well, I'm playing football because I think my mom would love me if I started to play.'
"All these kids had that same thought," he continued. "Which was, 'I've been a loser all my life. Everybody's been calling me a loser. I'm tired of it.' "
To become a champ, however, takes more than desire — it takes the dedicated tutelage of someone who cares. The Rock is certain the Mustangs had the best of all possible worlds in Sean Porter.
"Sean has that way which is admirable about him and makes him a great human being," the 34-year-old actor said. "He looks you in the eye when he talks to you. No bullsh-- whatsoever. These kids had a father figure in Sean."
Most admirable of all, the Rock argues, was that Porter was willing to give the detainees a second chance by refusing to be influenced by their past cruelty and poor judgment.
"When they come in, he doesn't read their rap sheets," Johnson said. "That's amazing to me, because their life starts right [then]."
For Porter, living by this code is absolute. He teaches his players to put their mistakes in the past, which, when the time comes, means Camp Kilpatrick as well.
"One of the things that we have talked about in the program is to move on, to make better decisions and put this behind you," the coach said. "Well, part of them putting that part of life behind them is putting Camp Kilpatrick behind them. So they don't keep knocking on the door, they don't keep calling us on the phone. That's part of putting it behind us."
Porter, who the Rock calls "a hero," hopes his philosophy inspires others to be "less skeptical."
"We pass judgment on people and don't always give them a chance. The more we give to these kids, the more we get out of these kids," he said. "And that makes the world a better place."
Take that, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
For a closer look at the Rock's inspirational film, don't miss "Your Movie Show: Gridiron Gang," airing Friday, September 8, at 9:30 p.m. (ET/PT) on MTV.
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