“The first rock bottom I hit was out of college where I worked for ten years from the time I started playing football at 14 years old to the time I was 23 and did not get drafted. Played in the CFL for approximately 200 bucks a week Canadian. I got cut from the team a couple months later, and I had to close that chapter in my life. It’s pretty sobering, and it’s a tough experience when you have to move back in with your parents. They had a little small apartment in Tampa, Florida, and I had to move in with them. And then you go through the challenges of that. You hit depression. You hit rock bottom.”
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Everyone knows what it’s like to experience loss. Not everyone knows what it’s like to hit rock bottom, but throughout film history audiences have flocked to films where characters face significant, meaningful loss, and hit rock bottom. And actors love to play those kind of characters.
In my post Writing Actor Bait I have a quote half a century old, that I bet was true 100 years ago:
“Producers and directors buy a property because they like the story. Actors buy it because they see themselves in a part. ”
The Total Film-Maker
And one reliable arena in which many star actors see themselves in a part is in sports-centered movies.
One of my favorite scenes in Rocky is when the Stallone character goes to the gym and finds he’s lost his locker. All his gear has been moved to “skid row”—gym bags on hooks where the lowest ranked boxers keep their stuff.
It sets up nicely the transformational arc that Rocky will experience. Part of what makes movies work so well is we can emotionally connect with a character facing loss. There’s a certain amount of wish-fulfillment of seeing a character like Rocky rise up from his loss, and there is also hope that we can overcome the losses in our personal lives. Who doesn’t want to at least metaphorically run up stairs and lift their arms triumphantly?
Think of the many star actors over the years drawn to playing characters in sports related movies. Here’s a list off the top of my head:
Steve McQueen (Le Mans, The Cincinnati Kid)
Tom Cruise (All the Right Moves, Days of Thunder, Jerry Maguire, The Color of Money)
Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams, American Flyer, Tin Cup, Bull Durham, For Love of the Game, Draft Day McFarland USA)
Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull, The Fan, Bang the Drum Slowly)
Will Smith (Ali, Concussion, The Legend of Bagger Vance)
Robert Redford (The Natural, A River Runs Through It, Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman, All is Lost, Downhill Racer)
Wesley Snipes (White Men Can’t Jump, Major League, Wildcat, The Fan)
Dwayne Johnson is a long way from rock bottom these days, but he explains what drew him to his role in the pro football-centered HBO show Ballers:
“One of the biggest reasons why I feel such a personal connection to the [Ballers] is because the life that Spencer Strasmore has was 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 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. Will I ever find peace with it? 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 when I had a run there where I had suffered a lof of injuries, five knew surgeries, bad back injury, complete reconstruction on my shoulder. It all happened within my college career. So it sidelined me.
“So will I find peace with it? 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’ve got to 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 in this is 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’m fortunate to be playing a guy whose life I wanted.”
MSN Entertainment interview
If you’re at a point in your life where you’ve hit rock bottom (or experienced life changing loss) let me recommend Jon Acuff’s book, Do Over. I bought the book after hearing Acuff’s interview on Brian Koppelman’s The Moment. I’ll do a run of posts on Acuff’s book down the road, but it’s a good read. This January I finished chemo and radiation treatment and 10 days later started a new producer job (and am trying to launch a sports related feature doc) so this whole year feels like a do over.
P.S. Here’s a personal anecdote of what makes many athletes transition to real world so hard. When I was a high school football player I was not a blue chip athlete, but good enough to take in a pretty heady experience at a young age. Our school would have fans line up from goal post to goal at home games and the team would run through 100 yards of cheering fans. The next day after the game there would be a write up where my name would often in the paper and sometimes a photo. Filled up some scrapebooks, won some awards. Students and teachers I knew (and didn’t know) would say things like “good game” in the hallways. In my small world it seemed like everyone knew who I was.
By the time I walked-on to the University of Miami football team nobody knew who I was—or cared. It was my first wake-up call. Every athlete gets that call. Sometime it happens when you move up in Little League and sometimes it happens after climbing to the top of the mountain in whatever sports one excels in. Sometimes you’re replaced by a better athlete and sometimes the lights just fade away.
After that it’s like an Old Testament prophecy, “The glory has departed.” I know a guy who sells sports memorabilia on eBay and his first item sold was a jersey of NFL great Emmitt Smith that he bought at a garage sale for 50 cents.
What’s particularly hard for major college football players is little has prepared them for a do over. Willie Morris’ book The Courting of Marcus Dupree and ESPN’s The Best That Never Was sum up the downside of sports in America.
Astronaut James Lovell (who was the commander of Apollo 13) once told author Jeffery Kluger, “Remember where you’re standing when the spotlight goes off, you’ll have to find your own way off the stage.”
Scott W. Smith