Gridiron Gang's Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson

In “Gridiron Gang,” the gritty and emotional story, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays juvenile detention camp probation officer Sean Porter, who, along with another officer, Malcolm Moore (Xzibit), turns a group of hardcore teenage felons into a high school football team in four weeks. Confronted with gang rivalries and bitter hatred between his teammates, Porter teaches some hard lessons (and learns a few himself) as the kids gain a sense of self-respect and responsibility.

Based on a true story, Gridiron Gang sends out a message that one man can make a difference and the most hopeless kids in our society can change the course of their lives through hard work, commitment and bold leadership.

It begins as an idea born out of frustration. Perplexed and appalled by the alarmingly rate of recidivism (as high as 75 percent) among his troubled young charges at Camp Kilpatrick, probation officer Sean Porter (Dwayne The Rock Johnson) and his colleague Malcolm Moore (Xzibit) are desperately looking for a way to lift these young men out of the desperate circumstances that landed them at the maximum security juvenile compound.

Most have been convicted of crimes within their communities in and around Los Angeles, and are now forced to live together in an atmosphere of mutual distrust and outright hatred. The multi-racial groups forced truce often explodes into violence. Camp Kilpatrick is seen by the judicial system as a last chance for these youths before incarceration in California Youth Authority, where they will experience the horrors of adult life in lockup. Getting these wards of the county to care about themselves and their lives has been a thankless task for even the most dedicated counselors like Porter and Moore. Too many of the young men in their care have gone back out into the world only to end up in prison or, far too often, meet a violent end before they can reach adulthood.

As a teenager, Porter overcame his own personal problems to become a first-rate high-school football player. He wonders if the lessons he learned through discipline and team spirit could be applied to these young men and help them overcome the hopelessness they feel. He and Moore cobble together a team, the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs, from among the residents of the facility, some of whom are eager to play, and others who are resistant.

Porter and Moore strive diligently to gain the trust of the team members. Slowly, through their unstinting dedication, the young men start to overcome their petty differences and commit to regular football practice, despite a myriad of factors, including the fact that the camp field is little more than a rock-strewn pasture, that there is no money for equipment, that practice often conflicts with their school classes and brings down the enmity of the other inmates who are not part of the team, which ignites violent outbursts landing key players in solitary confinement for days at a time.

Nonetheless, some of the team members begin to demonstrate special abilities. Willie has a gift for running the football. Calvin (David Thomas) has the ability to tackle any runner especially Willie, since they come from warring gangs in South Central L.A. Madlock (James Earl III) is a natural lineman, while Kenny has the good hands of a receiver. Others like Bug (Brandon Mychal Smith) and Evans (Jamal Mixon) are to lend their support as team managers.

As the team progresses through drills on the hot and dusty makeshift gridiron, there are setbacks to be sure. Junior is seriously injured and the loss of his leadership is deeply felt. Willie and Calvin continue to scrap and wind up in solitary confinement. Even Coach Porter suffers a serious loss after his mothers health spirals irreversibly downward.

Porter and Moore finally break through, however, and manage to convince one high school coach after another to play them. When the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs prove themselves to be worthy adversaries, they earn enough trust to be allowed to travel beyond the locked gates of their Santa Monica Mountains prison. Through a season that tests their minds and bodies, the players learn self-respect and respect for each other. With that comes the realization that their lives are not hopeless and desperate, that if they can reach the regional championship game, it may only be the first of many accomplishments about which they can dare to dream.
How He Got the Role

Dwayne The Rock Johnson was equally eager when he first heard about the project over dinner with producer Moritz. Neal told me about the movie and handed me the script, says Johnson, star of such recent popular films as The Scorpion King and The Rundown. He asked me to watch the documentary before I read it. I did and I was moved and inspired. The battle that Sean Porter and those kids went through was amazing. I liked the fact that most of the young men who accepted the Mustang challenge back then went on to become productive citizens. It made me admire them even more.

Parallel Stories

For producer Neil Moritz, Johnson was the ideal fit for the character because He embodies all the qualities of who Sean is. Sean Porter was a troubled kid himself and playing football saved him. Seans story paralleled Dwaynes since, as a kid, Dwayne had been arrested numerous times and was also saved by channeling his energies in a positive way through a competitive sport like football.

Real-Life Arrests

I had been arrested eight times before I was 14, Johnson admits. I was lucky in that my arresting officer told me that he was either going to continue to kick my ass and arrest me every week, or take me off the streets and put me into the freshman high school football program. I was fortunate to have someone care enough about what happened to me at that point in my life. He took me out of a bad environment and filled the void in my life with football. It taught me so many things beyond the actual game, like teamwork, sacrifice and choosing to do the right things in life.

Football as Salvation

Football became a major influence for the future actor. He excelled at the sport in high school and won a scholarship to the powerhouse football program at the University of Miami in Florida, where he continued to shine as a defensive end, becoming a member of the schools national championship team in 1989. The following year, however, injuries forced him to abandon his dream of playing professional football.

It was exciting to have Dwayne, because hed lived this story himself, says Joanou. He and Sean Porter were similar in so many ways. Dwayne understood Seans toughness and his dedication to the kids, as well as the role football could play in helping them change.

Creating Viable Football Team

Before production began, the filmmakers addressed another crucial aspect: creating a viable football team for the many sports sequences. Allan Graf, a noted film football coordinator who had created teams for such films as Friday Night Lights, Necessary Roughness and The Replacements, was hired to train the actors and their stunt doubles for the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs, as well as to work with the members of the opposing teams.

A training camp was set up at Moorpark College, just a few miles from Camp Kilpatrick in Los Angeles San Fernando Valley. Many of the actors chosen for the central Camp Kilpatrick team were athletes, but few had actually played football in high school or elsewhere.

I think only one guy on the main team had ever played much football, says Graf. And Mo, the guy we picked to play our quarterback, had never thrown a football in an actual organized game, but that played to our advantage because we didnt want these players to be too good. After all, at the beginning of the film, they are supposed to be terrible.

The camp lasted three weeks, during which time the main actors learned every aspect of the game. Jade Yorker, who played star running back Willie Weathers, was basically a basketball player in real life. I had played some pee-wee football, he says. I had some talent and dreamed of playing football like Deion Sanders. But when I went to high school, I chose not to play. I chose acting instead. But what a blessing it was to come out here and play football again.

Graf would start each training day with a chalk talk classroom session, in which the new plays of the day were diagrammed and discussed. All the guys had playbooks. We used the classroom time to teach them the plays step by step just so everyone knew what they were doing. In the classroom, they were all focused on me and payed attention. We do the same thing in pro football. We also wanted to make sure the actors played safely, because you cant finish a football movie with injured actors.

Stunt doubles were trained to take most of the potentially damaging blows on the field, although the actors were involved on every play. A large group of specialty players portrayed the opposing teams.

After two weeks of daily drills and conditioning, everyone was ready to start filming at Camp Kilpatrick. Seeing the camp for the first time was a sobering experience for cast and crew alike. The facility was spartan and surrounded by high fences and tightly secured with guards at each exit.

Working on the actual Camp Kilpatrick football field, the team bonded in ways similar to the real Mustangs while more than 100 real inmates went about their day with a movie shooting around them. Every so often a real fight would break out, or a real ward would be marched into the box in the solitary confinement building. I would look out into the camp during filming, recalls Joanou, and Id see the kids lined up, being given orders. Sometimes a fight would break out and a kid would be sent to the box. And Id think I am actually shooting that scene later today.

Sense of Place and Purpose

For Johnson, shooting the film at Camp Kilpatrick gave him and his fellow cast members an appropriate sense of place and purpose. Authenticity is a large part of this story, said Johnson. It was so important to go there and shoot on the very field they practiced on every day. It wasnt even a football field it was only about 60 yards. The grass was all beaten up, youd trip over the sprinklers in the middle of the field. Becoming a part of that world was an eye-opening experience, not only for us, but for the wards watching us work on their turf.

Encountering Inmates

The truce between the filmmakers and the inmates continued throughout the six weeks of shooting at Camp Kilpatrick. Although the wards were within earshot of the crew at all times, both sides were asked not to address one another. Johnson, however, recalls one memorable encounter with an inmate late one night on the foggy football field between takes. I had been sick the day before, he says, and the next night we were shooting in the dorms. A fight had broken out among the inmates, and I saw a kid in cuffs on his way to solitary confinement. The odd thing was that he had no one with him. He was walking himself to solitary. He looked up at me and said Hey Rock, I heard you were sick. Up until that point, I had not been aware of how fast word spreads through the real dorms. Then he said, Im gonna pray that you feel better, and just walked on. Heres someone I didnt know, who Ill probably never see again, taking the time to express his concern for me. It was very moving and it showed that no matter what these kids have done, they are still just kids with feelings and emotions for others.

Toughening Up

Another memorable day for Johnson was the afternoon he got back in football pads for a scene in which Coach Porter toughens up runner Willie Weathers by forcing the young player to knock him over time and again. It was a great day for me back in pads, he says. When I read that in the script, I got charged up. I hadnt played football in so long but it really stays in your blood. My coach at Miami used to say I had great upper body violence, and for this scene I was able to use that again. I had so much fun talking trash to Jade [Yorker, who plays Willie Weathers] with the whole team around us. He got some good hits in on me, too.

Real-Life Porter

Perhaps the most meaningful day on the set was the afternoon some of the real characters from the Gridiron Gang documentary paid a visit to the production at Camp Kilpatrick. Coaches Sean Porter (now a probation camp director in Valencia, California) and Malcolm Moore (the former USC and NFL great who is currently a deputy probation officer in Antelope Valley, California) got to meet their acting counterparts. (Two players on the 1990 Mustangs team also came face-to-face with the actors who portray them in the film).

In addition, several former Camp Kilpatrick Mustang players worked as extras on the film. One former inmate, Joseph Lucero, even landed a speaking role. Lucero now works with gang members in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, his personal effort to make a difference and hopefully help other boys avoid some of the missteps he made in the past.

After almost two months on the prison grounds, the production began shooting away football games at other high schools in Southern California at stadiums in San Fernando, Agoura and Sherman Oaks. The site of the climactic game between the Mustangs and their well-heeled rivals was the fictitious Barrington High School (the real-life opposing team for the final championship game was Montclair Prep High School at Pierce College). During this phase of production the heat was brutal with the temperature routinely soaring past 100 degrees on most shooting days.

Joanou and his director of photography Jeff Cutter used multiple cameras on every play to maximize their coverage. The director and football coordinator Graf also concentrated on using the real actors as much as possible for the games while, at the same time, ensuring that they were kept out of harms way for the bruising blocking and tackling shots. We didnt want to hold the actors out too much, says Joanou. They had to run the plays, they had to take some real hits. They had to make it real. But it was incredibly demanding, because wed have these guys out there for 12 hours a day. Even if youre playing a real football game, you arent out on the field more than four hours at the most. And here these kids were out there all day long with five cameras for several weeks.

Message Movie

For Johnson, the most important accomplishment in making Gridiron Gang was the focus of the story about real young men whose lives hang in the balance because of the choices they make as youths. Perhaps after seeing this movie, a few young men wont make the kinds of mistakes that may cost them their lives and will choose instead to become a functional part of society, he says.