Viewing Dwayne Johnson’s life solely in a contemporary context in which he sits atop a mountaintop alongside luminaries like Robert Downey Jr., Jackie Chan and Tom Cruise as some of the highest-earning actors in all of Tinseltown doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s akin to the finishing move in wrestling that gets fans on their feet, not the years of practice that went into perfecting it.
While audiences in cinemas around the world recognize him for his million dollar smile and rippling biceps which he uses to continually save the world from evil, his ascent from teenage delinquent, to football player, to wrestler and finally Hollywood mogul is still hard to fathom despite a now several-billion-dollar pedigree at the Hollywood box office.
There were several instances and arrests that could have defined Dwayne Johnson and forced him down not only a path of incarceration, but also could have limited him to a wrestling lifestyle which has claimed countless lives due to the demands of the road, and the bodily injuries that are often healed through self-medication in the sport.
But they didn’t.
Dwayne Johnson spent much of his childhood bouncing between homes in California and New Zealand. To say that wrestling was “in his blood” would be a gross understatement. His father, Rocky Johnson, continued the family lineage first started by his grandparents, Peter and Lia Maivia, who were responsible for building Polynesian Pacific Pro Wrestling and who also had close “blood” ties to the legendary Anoaʻi family who counted Rikishi, Yokozuna, Roman Reigns and The Usos as would-be wrestlers.
When Johnson was 14, the family relocated to Honolulu while his father bounced around the wrestling circuits for the WWF.
Despite his father’s success in the ring – where he and partner Tony Atlas became the fist black tag-team duo to hold a championship belt as “The Soul Patrol” – the family’s financial security was anything but guaranteed. After a string of monetary woes which included his mother’s car being repossessed, the Johnson’s hit a “bottom” that was a million miles away from what would become his signature wrestling finish.
“We were living in an efficiency that cost $120 a week,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We come home, and there’s a padlock on the door and an eviction notice. My mom starts bawling. She just started crying and breaking down. ‘Where are we going to live? What are we going to do?'”
Ultimately, the family’s financial disrepair forced Dwayne Johnson down a destructive path as a teenager.
“In Waikiki there’s a couple high-end blocks where there’s your Prada, Chanel, Gucci, Armani, jewellery stores, plenty of jewellery stores,” he said. “There are a lot of tourists that come into Waikiki and there’s a lot of money. A lot of foreign money that comes in, and we were part of a theft ring that would target those groups. We would target the money, we would target the high-end clothes and we would target the jewellery – turn around and sell it, best we could.”
Although he dabbled in theft which often landed him in police custody, he also had the epiphany that one of the few things he could control in the world that didn’t need financial resources was how he carried himself.
“It was about, ‘What can I control with these two hands?’ he said. “The only thing I could do was train and build my body. The successful men I knew were men who built their bodies.”
By the time Johnson was 16 years old, he was 6’4 225lbs. He continued to bounce around high schools in the States including stops at Glencliff and McGavock High Schools in Nashville, TN before a final stop at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, PA where he would finally put that ample frame to good use on the football field.
“I had a very bad mustache and a chip on my shoulder,” he said.
Johnson didn’t actually seek out the gridiron. Rather, his teenage stubbornness had a lot to do with it. During school one day, he chose to use the teacher’s lounge bathroom rather than the one reserved for students.
“A teacher comes in,” Johnson remembers. “His name is Jody Cwik. Tough guy. He says, ‘Hey, you can’t be in here.’ I kind of pause, look over my shoulder [and say], ‘Okay, I’ll leave when I’m done.’ And I continue to wash my hands. He looked at me, didn’t say a word, but he was fuming.”
That same night, Johnson pontificated on his behavior and decided to seek Cwik out to rectify his actions.
“I felt bad,” he said. “I just felt bad.”
Johnson found Cwik the next day and offered an apology.
“He shook my hand. I’ll never forget that shake—he wouldn’t let it go—[and he] said, ‘I want you to do something for me. … I want you to come out and play football for me.’ And I went out, and I played football for Jody Cwik. He was our head football coach, and he became a father figure to me and mentor.”
As Johnson quickly flourished on the football field as an agile defensive lineman, other areas in his life began to improve as well.
“My grades got better, and I started getting recruited from every college across the country,” he said. “My thought process started to change. That’s when I started thinking about goals and what I wanted to accomplish.”
Johnson credits much of his success at an early age to Coach Cwik.
“I love that man. I’ll never forget the impact that he had on my life,” Johnson says. “My takeaway from that amazing relationship that I had was the empathy that he had for a punk kid who treated him so rudely and disrespectfully. He looked past that BS and said, ‘I believe in you and I want to turn you around.’”
After a successful high school career, Johnson accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Miami under Coach Dennis Erickson. Although he would win a National Championship, he played sparingly – starting only once and appearing in 39 games with a total of 77 tackles and 4.25 sacks.
“The problem with Dwayne was there was a guy named Warren Sapp who came along the next year,” said Defensive Line Coach Ed Orgeron.
Warren Sapp would go on to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
“When he was [first] there, I was a tight end in high school and I got [to Miami] as a tight end and linebacker, and they moved me over to D-line,” Sapp remembers. “I was real reluctant to do so. I thought I was a pretty good tight end and a pretty good athlete, but being 290 pounds, they moved me to D-line and said, ‘We need you to rush the passer or you can go home.’ So I came into the D-line room and sat down, and Dwayne Johnson walks in and says, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m here for your job.’ So that’s how me and him had our introduction to each other. I said it jokingly, but I was there for his job.”
Whether it was his middling statistics or his lowered rank in the pecking order on the team, Johnson found himself wrestling with symptoms of depression.
“I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I didn’t want to do a thing, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I was crying constantly. Eventually you reach a point where you are all cried out.”
Johnson graduated from Miami in 1995 with a Bachelor of General Studies degree in criminology and physiology but he wasn’t quite ready to give up on his football dreams despite the lack of interest from the NFL. He ultimately joined the Calgary Stampede as a backup linebacker but was cut two months into the season.
“The dreams I had, they’re dashed,” he revealed to The Hollywood Reporter. “There is no more football. My relationship was crushed. That was my absolute worst time.”
As a rambunctious teenager, Dwayne Johnson turned to the physicality of building up his body and ultimately football to overcome a rocky patch at home. Once again forced to sift through the rubble that was his life, it seemed only natural for him to once again look inward at what made him special; his wrestling pedigree.
Johnson made his WWF debut in 1996, fighting under the shared moniker of his father and grandfather’s names, “Rocky Maivia.” As fate would have it, he would square off against the Brooklyn Brawler – who was also the first opponent of his father – at a Superstars taping in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The Brooklyn Brawler remembered Johnson as, “a skinny little kid with an afro.”
“For me, I wasn’t just having ‘a tryout match,” because I had never actually had a real match in my life. Ever,” Johnson remembered. “WWE thought that I already had multiple matches under my belt, but little did they know. What they also didn’t know was that I was broke as hell and didn’t actually own wrestling gear – no boots, knee pads or most importantly.. wrestling trunks. I went to Sports Authority and bought some bright ass white volleyball knee pads, called my Uncle and asked if he had any trunks I could use for my tryout.”
Although he eventually found success in the ring – notably grabbing the intercontinental title from Triple H while wrestling on Monday Night Raw – his reception amongst fans was tepid at best.
Following a knee injury, Johnson refused to try and win back the adoration of the crowd. Instead, he became a member of the “Nation of Domination” alongside Faarooq, D’Lo Brown and Kama where he embraced the “heel” aspect of professional wrestling. And just like that, the wrestler who favored talking about himself in the third-person was born. Rocky Maivia was now just, “The Rock.”
For a year, The Rock served as a thorn in the side for notable Superstars like Steve Austin, Triple H and Mankind. The Nation of Domination would essentially be disbanded after a feud with fellow member, Mark Henry, as Vince McMahon and co. were quickly realizing that The Rock would be better suited to stand on his own rather than be sold to the public as part of a collective.
The Rock dominated wrestling coverage and storylines for the better part of a decade – finding the charismatic pugilist holding the WWF/WWE championship belt eight-times during that stretch. But Johnson wanted something more; a chance at Hollywood stardom.
Although notable wrestlers like Rowdy Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan had made the jump in the past, they always knew their bread was best buttered inside the ring.
“When I was a kid, Harrison Ford at that time was my favorite actor,” Johnson said. “He was so cool! Tough. Flirted with the girls. I wanted to be that guy. Well, I also wanted to be Elvis Presley at the time. And at the same time, I’m also thinking that I want to be Chuck Norris back then, too. So you take all those men, roll them up, and that was what was happening [in my head].”
Johnson ultimately got his start when he made his Hollywood debut in 2001 in The Mummy Returns.
Kotaku noted, “Casting The Rock as an unintelligible half-naked warrior who later turns into a half-man, half-scorpion monster painted with some truly awful early 21st century CGI was pretty much the perfect way to introduce the man to the non-WWE watching universe.”
Although it was a minor role, producers and directors alike saw the potential.
“Most wrestlers have been straight-forward characters or amped up versions of the real individual,” Adi Shankar, producer of The Grey and an avid wrestling fan, told TheWrap. “Hulk Hogan acted in a bunch of B-movies playing Hulk Hogan.”
Rather than just be the “tough guy,” The Rock opted to play the straight man opposite of Sean William Scott in The Run Down and a gay character in Be Cool in addition to adding family films to his resume with The Tooth Fairy and Journey to the Center of the Earth 2.
“Stone Cold would get over because he’d beat everyone up. Shawn Michaels was one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. Mick Foley would just do crazy stuff,” Shankar said. “The Rock got over because he was funny. You take humor out of the Rock and you don’t have anything.”
In 2015, The Rock once again earned the distinction of being the top-grossing actor in all of Hollywood based off the strength of his work in San Andreas and Fast & Furious 7.
“Only way to start this post is with ‘Thank You,’” said Johnson on Instagram. “World’s #1 international box office star. I was blessed with this title in 2013 and now again in 2015. $1.48billion is a lot of revenue to generate in our business in only one year, but it’s also the important reminder that regardless of what we achieve in life, we always gotta keep striving for more, staying hungrier than the rest and being grateful around every corner.”
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