"When I was 15 we had to go to a friend's house for Thanksgiving because we couldn't afford our own meal," he says. "They didn't know the half of it. I remember they asked my mom to say grace, and she started crying, she couldn't get the words out. And the family was like, God, she's really thankful. I remember I was so angry then. I thought it was unfair."
Johnson expressed his rage at school and in the neighborhood, where he fought all comers and stole "stupid dumb stuff, clothes mostly," leading to multiple arrests.
"The teen years, those were tough years for me," he recalls. "I struggled to stay on the right path. We were moving around a lot. I never had a chance to really bond with people. I had to be the anchor for the family in many ways."
Dwayne's father Rocky "Soulman" Johnson, one of the first successful black wrestlers, was always on the road. When he wasn't, he was home marinating in discontent and alcohol. "My relationship with him was strained," Johnson says. "He was not a very loving guy."
Johnson shares another Thanksgiving story, this one from his father's childhood. "It was not even a year after his dad had died, and his mom's new boyfriend got drunk and urinated on the turkey. So my dad took a shovel and knocked the guy out cold. The cops came and said these two guys are going to kill each other, one of them needs to leave – thinking, of course, that his mother would send the boyfriend away. But instead she looked at my dad and told him he had to go. He was 13 years old, on his own. With nothing."
Johnson pauses, runs his palms over his thighs. "He never had love. Never knew what it was. How could he love me?"
Johnson was 15 when he had what he calls the defining moment of his life. "I had just been suspended for fighting. I hit a kid and the back of his head hit a locker and he fell on the cement. He went to the hospital. It was a scary time."
When Johnson returned to school, he was helping himself to the faculty lavatory when the head football coach came in and asked him to leave. "I said I would as soon as I was done washing my hands. And he got in my face and yelled at me, saying I needed to get the fuck out. So I gave him the brush-by. You know, the shoulder brush-by."
The next day Johnson was seized with fear and guilt. He found the coach, apologized, and the two shook hands. The same week, Johnson was arrested for fighting again. His parents came to the police station, his mother weeping.
"She said I was wasting my life away. We had nothing at that time. My dinner every night was Chicken McNuggets from a buddy who worked at McDonald's and brought me the 100-nugget bags. I realized that even though we had nothing, I was the main source of my mom's heartbreak. And it killed me."
When Johnson got back to school, the football coach found him this time and asked him to join the team.
"This was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the sort of town where if you are like me, you graduate, get a blue-collar job, and you remain there until you die," Johnson says. "Coach wanted so much more for me. He pushed me, got me to apply for scholarships, which led to my signing with Miami." He stops talking, lowers his head. "I could have easily gone the other way."
For years football protected Johnson. "I played for the national championship with Warren Sapp. I saw so clearly my vision, that I would be on an NFL team making millions of dollars. And it all came crashing down in a matter of four months."
Johnson – who has admitted to trying steroids briefly in college – blew out his shoulder his freshman year, then his back as a senior. He wasn't drafted. He joined the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, where he made $250 a week, Canadian. Then he was cut.
"I moved back in with my parents in Tampa," he says. "I had to have my dad drive to get me. I was going to get a job pulling weeds for $10 an hour."
Before everything went pear-shaped, Johnson had made a to-do list. It read:
January 1995, 1/95–6/95. Goals.
2. Marry Dany.
3. Buy mom and dad a house.
4. Fix grandma's situation.
"My grandmother was homeless at the time. Literally on the street. Within that six-month period the only thing I was able to do was graduate. I remember as my dad and I were driving up I-75, I looked in my pocket and I had $7. That's all I had. It was a $5 bill, and a $1, and some change."
Back home Johnson fought off depression, then decided, screw weed-pulling, he was going to try the family business. "I had a feeling I might be pretty good at it."
Initially he sucked. The Rock was a "baby face," as the industry calls its good guys, and no one was buying it. Then, in an act of desperation, he turned heel. He became so hated by the fans that they threw batteries at his head, cut him with X-Acto blades when he walked through the crowd. Still, he persisted, and soon that persistence won them over. That and time on the microphone.
He worked the crowd like a Catskills stand-up. He insulted them, smacked them down with humor. The formula worked. "As soon as I had a connection with the audience, I thought, Wow, I've really got something here. I wanted to create a unique brand of comedy and wrestling." His innovation turned the Rock into the WWF's (now the WWE) most beloved star until 2004, when he left the ring altogether to focus on Hollywood.
Not long ago Johnson's mother sent him his 1995 to-do list.
"I cried when I saw it," he says. Then he framed it, along with $7, and put it in front of his desk so he could look at it every day.