When a back injury ended his playing career at 24, Johnson slipped into depression and moved back in with his folks. "That was a defining moment for me," he says. "That's when I decided I'd train to be a wrestler."
Long before he was asking fans at a packed Madison Square Garden if they could "smell what The Rock is cookin'," Johnson was living a life similar to Mickey Rourke's has-been athlete in The Wrestler.
Johnson moved to Nashville and made $40 a day wrestling in tiny circuits before as few as 25 people in vacant barns, used car lots, anywhere you could fit a ring. He lived off grits and eggs at the Waffle House and put 1,500 miles a week on his Isuzu Rodeo driving from event to event.
"I wasn't making any money," he says. "But I loved it."
He corrects himself. "Well, I loved most of it. The entertainment part. But I saw these guys addicted to drugs, struggling to make a living, working well past their prime. I decided I wasn't going to be that guy."
Within a year, he was with the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment). Johnson, who is half Samoan and half African-American, would win seven WWE championships with moves like "The Samoan Drop" and "The People's Elbow."
"That was my first taste of acting in front of a big, live audience," Johnson says. "I didn't want to be the biggest wrestler out there, or the loudest. Just the most entertaining. I had found what I wanted to do."
But Johnson knew that wrestling, like football, was a career with an expiration date. He approached WWE head Vince McMahon about branching into TV. He made an appearance on short-lived show "The Net," followed by cameos on "That '70s Show" and "Star Trek: Voyager."
When he made his film debut in 2001's "The Mummy Returns," he had found a new career. He hired an acting coach and rented virtually every movie by Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood.
"Those were my models," he says. "Guys who could be tough but self-deprecating, who weren't afraid to make fun of themselves. And who can act in virtually any genre."
In retrospect, Johnson says, acting could have been his first career choice. His mother, Ata Johnson, still has tapes of her boy as an 8-year-old, reciting dialogue from his favorite movies, "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy."
When he wasn't quoting Richard Pryor or Gene Wilder, Johnson was mimicking Elvis Presley — hip shakes and all.
"The first time I met Dwayne, I was a little nervous," says Fickman, who also directed Johnson in Game Plan. "Here comes this huge guy who sits next to me, leans in and asks what I think of Elvis Presley. He might as well have asked me what I thought about beer nuts, I was so caught off guard."
Always a few seconds for a fan
Even on set, Johnson is something of a changeling. When he gets around Fickman, Johnson can be as cutting as a stand-up comic. But when a girl who looks to be about 12 sheepishly approaches Johnson to have a photo taken, the divorced father of a 7-year-old girl comes through.
"Sure, honey," he says, bending his massive frame to get in the picture. "You just want one?"
The one role Johnson says he fears playing is the aloof star.
"I used to be that guy who didn't want to be seen or bothered," Johnson says. "I'd wear hats, sunglasses, anything to not be recognized."