Johnson primarily walked away from football due to several injuries that hampered his physical performance. At the time of his retirement he was struggling to stay on the practice squad of a Canadian Football League, so even if he had managed to stay healthy, his football career probably wouldn’t have amounted to much. It was a lucky turn of events for Johnson in the long run as he now has a net worth of over $800 million.
Growing up in the late 90s, Johnson’s wrestling antics live on the zeitgeist of me and my middle school friends. It wasn’t until several years later that I learned he’d also played Division One football at Miami University, which only made him a more intriguing character to root for.
Would Johnson’s football career have amounted to much if he hadn’t sustained so many injuries? How much money could he have made if his career had lasted? The answer is below, but let’s say it all worked out pretty well for Johnson in the end.
- Johnson quit football due to several injuries including a separated shoulder, torn Achilles, and multiple knee surgeries.
- At the time of his retirement, Johnson had recently been cut from the practice squad of the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.
- Johnson’s career earnings from wrestling and acting are much higher than it would have been even if he was the best defensive lineman on the planet
Even the best player can be derailed by injuries, and as a fringe talent to begin with, the litany of injuries that Johnson endured during his playing career did him no favors. Would he have been able to stick in the Canadian Football League if he’d been healthier?
It’s possible, and there is some track record of players moving from the CFL to the NFL, most notably quarterback Warren Moon and defensive lineman Cameron Wake. 
Playing the same position, perhaps Johnson could have followed in Wake’s footsteps.
But by the time he’d retired, Johnson had separated his shoulder, torn an Achilles, and undergone five knee surgeries. Professional wrestling and a film career aren’t low-impact endeavors, but the physical toll has to be less than football.
There aren’t many careers that can be more financially lucrative than being a professional athlete in America. The highest NBA contracts now top $50 million per season while the top baseball players can earn close to $40 million. [2, 3]
But unless you’re a quarterback, the average annual salary for many football players won’t come close to these numbers. Only two non-quarterbacks currently have contracts that eclipse $30 million per season and unlike most baseball and basketball contracts, they aren’t fully guaranteed. 
One of these players, the Rams’ Aaron Donald, does play the same position as Johnson, defensive tackle. But Donald is arguably the best defensive player in the game, so his salary is an outlier.
Johnson wasn’t a talented enough player to command anywhere near this sort of salary as only ten defensive tackles currently make more than $10 million per year. 
Johnson was a Division I athlete, playing his college ball at the University of Miami, and won a National Championship. However, he went undrafted by the NFL and was not able to stay on the practice squad of the Canadian Football League Calgary’s Stampeders. 
Luckily, Johnson turned out to be not only a great professional wrestler but also a marketable movie star with career earnings of over $270 million. He’s been able to parlay this success into other financial ventures which has allowed his net worth to eclipse $800 million as of 2023. 
That seems a whole lot better to me than clinging to a practice squad and hoping to eke out a career that may not net even $1 million. Even if Johnson’s true love is football, I’m willing to guess he’s ok with how everything turned out.
Not many athletes can hang up their cleats and move onto a career that is more financially lucrative. But Johnson has managed to do that twice with wrestling and as an actor, and now plays a big role in the reinvigorated Xtreme Football League (XFL). If you were in Johnson’s shoes in the mid-90s, would you have tried to power through the injuries in the quest for gridiron glory? Let us know in the comments below.