The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Dwayne Johnson

In his first movie as a leading actor, Dwayne Johnson was billed simply as The Rock. While he was promoting it, he went on Howard Stern, who laughed at the idea of Johnson acting under his real name. "Who's going to go to a Dwayne Johnson movie?" he asked. As it turns out — pretty much everyone, that's who.

Over the next 19 years, Johnson shot to the top of the A-list. Highly paid and incredibly prolific, estimates suggest he earned a wild $430 million over that period, and he still remains pretty humble about it. "That was never the goal," he told Vanity Fair. "The goal was just: I didn't want to be broke. And I didn't want my family to be broke anymore." 

It's safe to say that Johnson doesn't do anything halfway, and it's really not surprising that once he set his mind to acting, he was wildly successful. Go to any one of his movies, and you'll walk in knowing what you're going to see: pure entertainment that allows the audience to forget about the world's miserable problems for just a little bit. Also working in his favor? He's just so gosh-darn nice, and it shows. He really does get it, because he's been there: His real-life story has been filled with loss, tragedy, and the sort of struggles that can break a person. But Johnson? It made him stronger, and more determined than ever to make the world a better place, one fan photo op at a time.

His childhood was incredibly tough

Dwayne Johnson is famously from a wrestling family, but just because his father was Rocky Johnson — one of the biggest names in the 1970s and 1980s wrestling scene — that didn't mean they were rich. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Johnson spoke with The Sydney Morning Herald around the release of "Young Rock," a television show based on his life. He shared some shocking things: By the time he was 13 years old, he said, he had lived in 13 different states. That included a period of nine months where they lived in three different cities, and according to what he told GQ, it absolutely shaped the person he grew up to be. Moving so many times meant that he — an only child — had to make friends quickly: "I didn't know anything else and it was tough, but I look back at it as the start of me learning to connect with people."

That was made even harder by his relationship with his father. The elder Johnson was on the road a lot, and he described his dad to Rolling Stone: "My dad was tough. Tough, tough, tough, tough." He told a story about his earliest memory — his father pushing him in a kiddie pool when he was two — and added that by the time he was approaching his teenage years, he was sick and tired of being poor. Anything approaching financial security, he never knew, and it was only going to get worse.

He lost both his grandfather and his very best grown-up friend when he was young

Love comes at a cost, and sometimes, it's paid in grief. Dwayne Johnson knows that all too well, and told GQ that when his grandfather, Peter "High Chief" Maivia, passed away after a cancer diagnosis, he was devastated. Johnson was 10 years old at the time, and his father was largely absent and on the road. His grandfather had been his stabilizing father figure, and that's the kind of grief that doesn't fade easily. Decades later, Johnson has continued to honor his grandfather, both by bearing traditional tattoos, and by modeling his "Moana" character — Maui — after Maivia (via USA Today).

His grandfather wasn't the only father figure Johnson lost at a young age, either. In a tweet where he shared some old family photos, Johnson paid tribute to the man he called "the 8th Wonder of the World": Andre the Giant. He wrote, "Andre was a hero of mine. And for some reason he took a liking to me, too, & always treated me like his own son." Andre the Giant died in 1993, when he was just 46 years old. The cause of death was his acromegaly — the same condition that gave him his famous size — and Johnson regularly shares memories of him on social media, too. In one Instagram photo of both Andre and Maivia, Johnson wrote, "Would've loved to have raised a tequila with these men."

He started working out because he felt helpless

It's certainly no secret that Dwayne Johnson is in ridiculously good shape — it's part of his brand. His hardcore workout sessions and muscle-building didn't start out from any sort of vanity, though: This began because he felt completely helpless, after he and his family found themselves homeless. He shared in a Facebook post that he started training when he was 14 years old. His family was evicted from their apartment in Hawaii, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The padlock was already on the door when he and his mom got home, and according to Men's Health, he looked to his father for inspiration on how to make sure they never went through anything like that again. Physical fitness, he saw, was about more than just physical strength.

He wrote: "I reeeeaaaaalllyy hated that feeling of helplessness and never wanted that to happen again. So, I did the only thing I could control with my own two hands in hopes that one day my family would never have to worry about being evicted again — I trained." That moment left deep scars that persisted even after Johnson hit it big in Hollywood. He told GQ he still has a fear that, one day, it's just all going to be gone: "I still wake up in the morning with some deep-seated fear that I have to keep working out so that I don't get evicted tomorrow."

His mother attempted suicide in front of him

Depression doesn't discriminate, and in 2018, Dwayne Johnson gave a brilliantly candid interview with Express about his own struggles with it. He said that one particularly bad episode stemmed from a terrifying incident that occurred when he was 15. It was a low point in life: He and his family had been evicted from their apartment a few months prior, and he said, "I reached a point where I didn't want to do a thing, or go anywhere. I was crying constantly." 

It was during this period, he said, that he was witness to his mother's suicide attempt. They were in Nashville at the time, and he said that his mother had no memory of the incident afterwards, adding, "That was my absolute worst time."

Years later, he says that moment helped define him, and the way he connects with people. He reaches out personally to some fans who share their struggles with him, and said of his own internal battles: "We both healed, but we've always got to do our best to pay attention when other people are in pain. We have to help them through it, and remind them they are not alone."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

He spent some time in a criminal gang in Hawaii

Dwayne Johnson might be everyone's favorite hero on screen, off-screen, in the ring and outside of it, but during his youth, things were headed in a very different direction: He was definitely more of the villainous Rock. He told GQ that by the time he was 14 years old, he was already 225 pounds and sporting a mustache — and, he added, he was part of a criminal gang.

He's gone into more detail, says AZCentral, and admitted that by the time he was 17, he'd been arrested around nine times in connection with his gang activity. He was living in Hawaii at the time, and fell in with a gang that went after affluent tourists who had money to spend on high-end merchandise, recalling: "We would target the money, we would target the high-end clothes, and we would target the jewelry — turn around and sell it, best we could."

He's also admitted that he was pretty good at it, and that the group had some massive scores. His arrests were mainly for stealing and fighting, and they came at the same time he was working out at the gym — something that helped swing his life away from the direction it was going.

Football didn't work out for Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne Johnson headed to the University of Miami after high school, scoring a full scholarship for football. Things were starting to look up, but fate had more setbacks in store. All of his hard work seemed like it was on the verge of paying off, until a devastating shoulder injury sidelined him in his freshman year. He dropped out — briefly — before returning to give it another shot, but when it came time for him to graduate, the NFL draft came and went without his name being called.

Still, he wasn't quite out of the game yet, and was instead recruited to play for the Calgary Stampeders up in Canada. It quickly turned into something he didn't bargain for: According to what he told The Hollywood Reporter, it was pretty dire. He was signed for a $35,000 annual salary, and that meant sharing a two-bedroom apartment with three teammates, eating ramen, and his bed was a mattress he'd found abandoned outside of a sleazy, pay-by-the-hour motel. And then? He got cut by the team, and went back to Florida. When he got there, he had to call his father from the airport, asking for a ride. It was on the four-hour trip home from the airport that he said, "I looked in my pocket, and I had seven bucks. Wow. Seven bucks to my name."

Dreams of his first career fell by the wayside ... and his dad condemned his backup plan

When football fell by the wayside for Dwayne Johnson, he said what followed was a deep depression. He told GQ that while he never quite hit the point where he wanted everything to just be over, it was close: "I was just so unhappy and frustrated, because I had nothing."

While he'd been in college, Rolling Stone says that he had chosen to major in criminology, with an eye toward getting into law enforcement with either the CIA or the FBI. Post-football and post-college, though, he knew neither one of those could happen. He would need to go back to school, and he knew there was no way the family could afford that. His options weren't just limited, they seemed non-existent ... so, he decided to jump feet-first into the world he'd grown up in ... much to his father's chagrin. 

Johnson recalled, "When I first told my dad that I wanted to become a wrestler, we got into a huge fight. ... I understood what he was saying and I didn't have any good reason for thinking wrestling was going to be right for me. ... I just felt it in my gut." His father absolutely didn't want him to do it, but he did anyway — and he had to start at the bottom, performing in flea markets and the parking lots of used car dealerships, trying to make a name for himself and get into the big shows.

The Parkland, Florida school shooting had a personal impact

In spite of rumors that Dwayne Johnson had his eye on the presidency of the U.S. — and why not? — Rolling Stone says that he rarely gets super political on social media. He has spoken out on some issues, though, and that includes posting photos from the March for Our Lives event. It was organized to protest a lack of action and responsibility when it comes to ending gun violence, and it was a cause that directly impacted his family.

In 2018, a gunman opened fire in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. According to History, it was the deadliest high school shooting to date: 17 people were killed, and another 17 were wounded. Johnson's daughter, Simone, went to a nearby school and knew some of the victims, as Johnson describes: "She was absolutely terrified. A lot of her friends' friends died. It's heartbreaking. They're still going through it." Johnson says that he doesn't have the answer to an incredibly complicated issue, but he does know one thing for sure: "We've gotta keep our kids safe."

He was good friends with Shad Gaspard

Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy, and in 2020, Dwayne Johnson lost another friend to a tragic and bizarre accident. Former WWE star Shad Gaspard had been swimming with his 10-year-old son, off Venice Beach, LA, when they were caught in a rip tide. According to the BBC, Gaspard directed lifeguards to save his son, then vanished. Although his family held out hope that he would survive, his body was recovered later, after washing up on the beach.

Johnson posted a tribute to Instagram, sharing a picture of the two of them together and writing, "This one hurts. Great guy. My deepest condolences and love to Shad Gaspard's wife, son, and family. ... This is a tough one to process." Gaspard had retired from wrestling in 2010, and was poised to follow the same career path as Johnson: He'd had small roles in big movies like "Black Panther" and "Birds of Prey," and in a heartfelt tribute by Dave Bautista, it was said that one of the most tragic things about his untimely passing was that he was on the verge of seeing his dreams come true, when it was all taken away.

He's suffered some shocking injuries

From football to wrestling to stunts, Dwayne Johnson's life path has always been incredibly physical, and he's had some shockingly horrific injuries. In an interview for Wired, he talked about some of the worst. His shoulder injury, he said, was the complete separation of his arm and his shoulder — something that took surgical reconstruction to fix. He's also had five surgeries on his knees, and tore his Achilles tendon. And that's just the beginning.

When asked about his abs, he laughed and said that no, he doesn't have the kind of abs that most in-shape guys like to show off. The reason is the sort of injury that's so bad, anyone who hears about it gets sympathy pains: He was in a 2013 wrestling match (squaring off against John Cena, says The Hollywood Reporter) when he tore the connection between a thigh muscle and his pelvis. That, he says, caused a major rupture in his abdomen wall, which required emergency surgery to repair the damage. Injuries have since continued: Three weeks before filming started on "Hercules," he injured a groin muscle and ended up with another hernia — the same injury he had major surgery to repair several years prior.

His father and father figure passed away in 2020

Dwayne Johnson said goodbye to his father in 2020: Rocky "Soul Man" Johnson passed away at the age of 75, and according to the BBC, there was no cause of death immediately given. Johnson shared the eulogy he gave on Instagram, saying (in part), "I wish I had one more shot. To say one more thing. You were taken too fast. Slipped right thru my hands. But you were so loved." Johnson also reached out to fans through social media, to share his appreciation for everyone who shared condolences and memories with him. He also clarified what had happened: His father's death had been sudden, after a blood clot in his leg traveled to his heart, causing a massive heart attack. Johnson said that he regretted not being able to say goodbye, and told everyone (via CNN), "Go hug your loved ones hard, while you still can."

The year wasn't kind to Johnson: He also said goodbye to Pat Patterson, the man who got Vince McMahon to give him a shot, and who gave him the name The Rock (via Wired). He was much more than a mentor, though, and Johnson wrote (in part), "Rough phone calls to get this morning to tell me, our dear family member, Pat Patterson, who was my pro wrestling mentor and father figure has passed away. ... Love you, Pat. And THANK YOU. I'll see you down the road."