First, there’s the gym. Always, the gym. Because the gym is his anchor and it’s his sanctuary, and because it helps him to remember, and because it helps him to forget.
The gym has been his home when he was homeless, and it is today, when he’s far from it. It’s seen him through his many successes and served as an outlet for frustration over his failures. Above all, the gym has provided him sacrosanct life lessons, learned in his youth but still applied in his adult life.
This is a story about Dwayne Johnson, but it’s not about his global successes as a WWE legend and Hollywood’s most bankable star. It’s also not a first-person account of an interview at a chic restaurant that details his attire and interactions with the waiter. Let other magazines tell that story.
This is the story of his formative years, and some of the lessons he learned during them, many in dusty gyms across the country, acquired by way of iron and sweat and his holiest of grails, hard work. Because, as Dwayne will tell you himself, it is these very things that have made him the man he is today.
Here are seven young Dwayne Johnson teaching moments. Seven, because that’s how many dollars he had in his pocket when, at 23, he was cut from the Canadian Football League and found himself forced to start his life over from scratch, this time as a professional wrestler. Seven, because so significant is the number to him that he named his company Seven Bucks Productions. And seven because, of course, the issue you now hold marks our Man of the Century’s seventh Muscle & Fitness cover.
No. 7: Work Hard, Always
Dwayne Johnson was 13 years old when he had his first weight workout, but he’d been accompanying his dad, legendary wrestler Rocky Johnson, to the gym since he was much younger than that—maybe five or six. Some of his oldest memories are triggered by the smell of sweat and rust and chalk, and of the hollow clanging sound 45-pound plates make when they’re slid onto a cold-rolled steel bar and slapped against one another. Although he wasn’t allowed to touch the weights at that time, it was enough for him just to sit quietly on a bench and watch his father pound the iron.
“Every morning my dad was up at 5 a.m. He’d have his coffee and then hit the gym, regardless of whether he was at home or on the road.”
More often than not, Rocky Johnson was on the road. Much of the time young Dwayne would stay home with his mother, Ata. When Rocky was home, though, Dwayne would savor the chance to accompany him to the gym. For Rocky it was a form of babysitting. For Dwayne, it was a chance to enter a wondrous world, full of men performing seemingly impossible tasks — like a bunch of real-life Hercules.
Back then, going to a gym wasn’t “a thing,” at least not like it is today. There wasn’t towel service and scented lotions in the locker rooms, and no TV at every cardio station. Hell, there weren’t even cardio stations. And if you wanted a personal trainer, you’d simply pay the biggest guy in the gym to show you what he did to get that way. What gyms did have back then, though, was lots of living examples of grit and drive and, most significantly to present-day Dwayne Johnson, hard work.
“Other dads took their kids to the playground. Mine took me to the gym, and the gyms he took me to were very hardcore. Weight rooms, really. But it was important bonding time for us, and it was there that I learned at a very young age that there’s no substitute for hard work.
“My dad and the other wrestlers would train for hours and hours every morning, just like all of the top bodybuilding stars of the day—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Frank Zane, Albert Beckles. It was all he knew, and it was all I knew back then. And it worked.”
No. 6: Persistence Pays Off
When he was eight years old, Dwayne’s parents allowed him to participate in sports—baseball, soccer, martial arts, gymnastics. Sometimes his dad would wrestle with him, bending his wiry frame into knots, toughening him up for the hard knocks to come. Dwayne was dying to lift weights like his dad, but he’d have to give it a few more years.
“They used to say that if you started lifting too young you’d stunt your growth, so my dad made me wait till I was a teenager.”
Then, at long last, the day came when Dwayne could finally step into a gym and do something other than sit around and watch the adults have all the fun. He was 13, and it was a Saturday, and he was ready to put all his years of fascinated observation to use. The bench press was an obvious first choice. Rocky started his son out with an empty bar. The kid handled it easily—none of the shaking you’d expect from a newbie—so they load a pair of 25s onto it. No problem. The kid makes his old man, and himself, proud.
“So my dad says, ‘All right! Are you ready to go for the 45s?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’
“So we put a 45 on each side, and I get down on the bench with him spotting me. He counts off, ‘One, two, three!’ and he lifts the bar off the supports…and I get buried. I was completely embarrassed. I’ll never forget that feeling. Buried with 135 pounds!”
Dwayne became obsessed with the idea of moving that weight, and soon. The quicker he could exercise the demon of failure, the better. So every day that week he could be found either in the gym training or on the floor of his apartment doing pushups. He would apply the same work ethic he watched his dad and so many other wrestlers and bodybuilders exhibit for the past seven or eight years, and be damned if he didn’t lift that weight!
The following Saturday he joined his dad at the gym, determined to push that bar off his chest. They went through typical warmup sets, and then loaded a pair of 45s onto that same bar that had crushed Dwayne seven days earlier. He got back on the bench as Rocky positioned himself to spot, and on the count of three, Dwayne unracked the weight, lowered it to his chest, and forcefully pushed it back up to arm’s length.
“And that’s why I don’t need therapy today.”
No. 5: Have a Sense of Purpose
Dwayne had seen his mother cry before, but not like this. They had just come home to an eviction notice and a padlock on the door of their tiny one-bedroom efficiency flat in Honolulu, when all the years of struggling to make ends meet as the wife of an itinerant professional wrestler seemed to come crashing down upon Ata Johnson, and she wept as hard as she ever had. It was then and there that 14-year-old Dwayne Douglas Johnson made a vow to himself.
“I was determined to take control of the situation. I would never be homeless again, and I’d never, ever see my mom cry like that again.”
Of course, at 14, Johnson couldn’t get a job that would pay the rent. Yet with his dad wrestling in Tennessee, he was the de facto man of the house and knew that he had to do something—anything—to help turn his mother’s situation around. Then he had an epiphany.
“It occurred to me that all of the men I knew who had achieved success were all men of great physical stature. And I knew that they all got that way through sweat equity—putting callouses on their hands. So in my mind, the key was simple: I’d continue going to the gym and work harder than before, and then I’d follow their path to greatness.”
To that point, Dwayne had been training two days a week, fitting workouts into a student-athlete’s schedule. But now he’d have to take his training more seriously. He would have to build himself up, just as his dad had, just as the bodybuilders whose images he gazed upon in wonder in M&F had. If he truly wanted to protect his mother and himself from ever being evicted again, he reasoned he would have to double down on his gym time.
And so he did, training harder than ever, building himself into manhood by way of heavy metal and calloused hands. And while in retrospect he knows that lifting weights and paying rent are unconnected in even a tangential way, the determination and sense of purpose that grew out of that event would continue to serve him to this day. His workouts took on a new level of intention from that moment on.
“In looking back I realize how seminal a moment that was in my life.”
No. 4: Without Control, Strength Can Become Weakness
Between the ages of 14 and 15, training went well for Dwayne. By the time he entered high school he had grown to a towering 6’4″ and tipped the Toledo at 225 pounds. This gave him a healthy dose of self-confidence—and even a degree of arrogance. But for all the focus and discipline he showed in the gym, his unstable home life left him directionless outside of it.
“I was running around and getting in trouble a lot. I was arrested multiple times for a multitude of things, from fighting to a theft ring to check fraud to more fighting. I did a lot of stupid sh** and struggled to stay on the right path.”
Then, when he was 15, came what he calls his “trifecta”—a trio of cataclysmic scr*wups that brought him to the brink of a failed life.
“First, I got arrested. My parents came down to the police station and picked me up, and I recognized that despite the fact that we were living paycheck to paycheck, I was the biggest source of their stress. And in that moment I thought, ‘I don’t ever want to disappoint my parents again.’ So I said to myself that I was going to stop getting arrested.”
He managed that, yet couldn’t keep out of trouble. The next day he was expelled for getting in a fight and knocking out the other kid. When he returned to school two weeks later he found a new way to be classified as a “troubled youth.” Deciding that the students’ bathroom at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, PA, wasn’t good enough for him, he did his business in the teachers’ bathroom.
“In walks this teacher, who takes one look at me and says, ‘Hey, you can’t be in here. You’ve gotta go.’ Well, I was a complete d**k to him. I’m washing my hands, and I look over my shoulder and say, ‘Yeah, in a second,’ and I continue washing my hands. Then he pounds the door with his fist and yells, ‘You gotta get the f*ck out of here, now!’ And what do I do? I dry my hands and brush past him like a real asshole punk kid. And he’s steaming.
“Here was a guy who was absolutely willing to fight me, as big as I was, not because he wanted to hurt me, but because he cared.”
No. 3: See the Signs Around You
That night, when he went home, Dwayne felt pangs of guilt running through him like the pain from a deadlifting session gone wrong. As opposed to the eight or nine times he’d been arrested and his multiple expulsions from school, this time he couldn’t shake the feeling that if he didn’t take responsibility for his actions and turn things around quickly he might not get the chance to turn them around at all.
“So the very next day I went back to school to look for him. I found out where he was teaching and went to his classroom, walked right up to him, and said, ‘Hey, I just want to apologize for the way I acted yesterday. I’m sorry.’ I stuck my hand out to shake his, and he looked at my hand, and then he looked at me, and he took my hand and said, ‘I appreciate that.’ And he held on to my hand and said, ‘I want you to play football for me.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ And that was it.”
Jody Cwik would turn out to be much more than a football coach. He would become a key figure in Dwayne’s development, believing in him even when he didn’t believe in himself. Football would provide
Dwayne with a positive outlet for his frustrations and aggression and a renewed sense of focus. As to why he felt compelled to apologize to Cwik, Dwayne is philosophical.
“There are signs around us all the time, and a lot of the time we don’t see them, but sometimes we do, and those become the greatest lessons.”
No. 2: When in Doubt, Go Back to Basics
Under the watchful eye of coach Cwik, Dwayne steadily improved, both as a student and as an athlete. By the time he was a high school senior he was ranked one of the top 10 defensive tackles in the nation and was offered a scholarship to the University of Miami. He jumped on the opportunity like a loose ball.
At Miami, his combination of size, strength, athleticism, and work ethic made Dwayne a standout from the moment he first stepped onto the field. Finally, at 18, and with a lifetime worth of mistakes and heartaches behind him, Dwayne Johnson was cooking with gas.
“I was ballin’. I was going to be the only freshman to play. Then, on the very last day of practice with pads I completely dislocated my shoulder. It was an awful dislocation. That night I was having a complete reconstruction of my shoulder. I went from being on top of the world to in the dumps at 18.”
Dwayne quickly fell into a depression. He stopped going to class. Then, without taking any of his midterms, he just went home.
One day he got a call from Miami’s head coach, Dennis Erickson.
“He says to me, ‘I’d like you to come back to school early.’ I ask, ‘How early?’ and he says, ‘In a couple of days.’
“So I come back to school, and he was so pissed. He and my defensive line coach charged hard on me. They grilled me. ‘How can you do this? You embarrassed us! You embarrassed the team! You were in a leadership position, and now you have a 0.7 GPA because you messed up and left!’ ”
Then came a challenge that would test Dwayne’s mettle as much as any workout he’d ever had.
“They said, ‘Here’s what’s gonna happen. From now on, you are under academic probation. You are on the verge of having your scholarship pulled. You will attend every class. Then, when you’re done with class, you will go straight to the gym and attend every team meeting, and you will sit on the sidelines at every practice. But here’s the key: In order to get into the football building, you will have to get signatures from every one of your professors every day saying that you attended class.’ ”
Even counting the nine arrests, and all his other youthful “indiscretions,” this represented a new low for Dwayne. He was embarrassed and remorseful. He knew that if he were to lose his scholarship he’d be out of school: His parents simply couldn’t afford to pay his tuition. And so, Dwayne made the decision to travel the hard road once more. By this point it was well-worn. He didn’t need directions. He would simply call upon the same principles that powered him through his most grueling training sessions: focus, persistence, and of course, lots of hard work.
“I did everything they told me to do and turned it around. Eventually I became the academic captain, and by my junior year I was pre-season All-America on a couple of lists. I did what had to be done.”
No. 1: Failure is a Virtue
Others in Dwayne Johnson’s position might choose to sweep their history under the rug, ashamed of the mess and how it might appear, but not Dwayne. To him, there’s a sublime beauty in life’s struggles, and he knows that just as he owes his mountainous biceps and barn-door-wide shoulders to years of strain and pain, so, too, are his successes made possible by earlier losses.
“I always want to remind people of my past, because it is directly responsible for who I am today. It’s undeniable that I’m a product of those tough times. I am a product of the most challenging times of my life. And that’s the value of them. They shape you and they mold you, and so, I was formed by these lessons at a very young age.”
One experience in particular has left a lasting impact, and for as painful a memory as it is, he keeps it in his thoughts at all times.
“As crazy as it may sound, in my mind, I’m always a week away from getting evicted, and that’s what keeps me motivated, not the material things. You can strip them all away–strip them away today. Strip away the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood. Strip away the red carpet, the big box-office global hits, the cars, the homes. Strip everything away to me going back to being dead broke, evicted with seven bucks in my pocket, and you know what? The one thing that’s absolutely guaranteed is that I will still be training when the sun comes up.”
Training, and continuing to learn the lessons that come from iron and sweat and lots of good, old-fashioned hard work.