The Choctaw Stadium falls silent as the towering silhouette of Dwayne The Rock Johnson goes to the field, microphone in hand.
The American Football League is now owned by Johnson and his ex-wife Dany Garcia, both here for a ‘historic day’.
It took them three years to create an innovative and revolutionary league, which gave 400 players a chance to succeed where Johnson failed – by reaching the NFL.
“I was there when they told you the dream was over,” Johnson told both teams. “But here’s the truth: your dream has only just begun.
“You’re going to show the world what it’s like to be really hungry, with that chip on your shoulder. I know, because I have the same chip.”
Three months later, Johnson will be at Saturday’s Championship Game (01:00 BST, Sunday), when this season’s best performers will have one last chance to show how hungry they are.
“Football was going to be our ticket out”
Johnson may have become a world famous wrestling star and actor but above all, he wanted to be a professional footballer.
Johnson played at the University of Miami, where he met Garcia and helped them become national champions in 1991.
But after graduating in 1995, he was not selected in the NFL Draft. Despite signing with a Canadian Football League team, Johnson was released two months into the 1995 season.
“It was our life, straight out of college,” he said. “It was the dream to play football and make it happen.
“That was going to be the ticket out. But it never happened for me and for us.”
Instead, Johnson followed in his father’s footsteps in professional wrestling while Garcia forged a successful career in finance. And despite their separation in 2007, they remain friends and business partners.
Still, Johnson’s failure to make it to the NFL is still troubling. In 2012, he and Garcia founded a television and film production company called Seven Bucks — the amount of cash Johnson had in his pocket when he was cut by the Calgary Stampeders.
It also inspired the latest iteration of the XFL.
Garcia makes history as the first female owner
So far, no second-tier American league has managed to establish itself below the NFL, although various spring leagues have tried to fill the soccer void after the Super Bowl ended the season of the NFL. NFL in February.
The XFL first tried in 2001, only to be scrapped after one season, and a revamped XFL filed for bankruptcy after the 2020 season was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Garcia pitched her ex-husband the idea of buying the league, and when they reached a $15 million deal for XFL assets in August 2020, she became the first female owner of a American professional sports league.
“We were looking for something that we were so passionate about, we were pushing for this acquisition,” she said.
“All of a sudden it was done and I realized I had made history. It wasn’t the intention, but it inspired me to make sure this moment has meaning .”
She and Johnson then promised to deliver a diverse, fan-focused and fast-paced league. They have a five-year broadcast deal with ESPN and The Walt Disney Group, as well as a multi-year partnership with Under Armour, which produces the uniforms for all eight teams.
How is the XFL different?
Johnson said he wished there was a league like the XFL when he graduated because he “never had that chance to prove himself”.
After leaving college, many players who are not drafted never play again. The same goes for those who hang out off-season and train with NFL teams, never making it to their active roster.
But the XFL is allowing them to extend their playing careers, with some quitting department store and food delivery jobs for another chance to show off their talent to NFL scouts.
The league’s new owners have pledged to tell these players’ stories and build their profiles through social media and a behind-the-scenes docuseries called Player 54, for which players and coaches have been micro-playing during games.
There are 53 players on an NFL roster, and like many XFL players, Johnson considered himself player 54 — good but not good enough.
He wore a number 54 jersey during the season opener and XFL tryouts, one of which focused on historically black college and university (HBCU) players.
The XFL operated from a central hub in Arlington, Texas, giving all teams and players full-time access to training facilities and medical care, with all eight teams traveling each weekend. end in their host cities.
The rules are also slightly different from those of the NFL, in an effort to make American football both safer and more entertaining, and the XFL has agreed to share its data and insights with the NFL to improve the game.
“If any league owners can do it well, it’s them”
The rule changes contributed to a thrilling end to this season opener as the Vegas Vipers nearly pulled off a late fightback at the Arlington Renegades.
Renegades coach Bob Stoops joked that “The Rock called me with a minute to go and said ‘if you let them score, that would definitely help our ratings’, so we decided to make it interesting”.
For the most part, the games continued to be competitive and entertaining. Crowds averaged 14,176, with the St Louis Battlehawks having the highest numbers, averaging 35,104.
Led by quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and running back Abram Smith, the DC Defenders finished with the best record (9-1) before they and the Renegades won both playoffs to reach the championship game. in San Antonio.
Speaking this week, Johnson noted the XFL’s “steady growth” this season and said the owners were “committed to playing the long game”.
Perhaps their biggest achievement has been that more than 50 XFL players have already been invited to train with NFL teams and compete for a spot on next season’s roster.
“[The new owners] are great people,” added Stoops. “You love the passion they have to keep building this league and if anyone can do it right, it’s them.”