MIAMI BEACH — Practically speaking, the day Dwayne Johnson became a University of Miami Hurricane was the day Dwayne Johnson became The Rock.
At 16 years old.
Flash back to February 1989, and there was a kid from Bethlehem, Pa., holding a news conference to announce he was signing to play football at UM. If ever there was an I'll-do-as-I-please moment, this was it, for part of the allure was that Miami initially showed zero interest in him.
So what does Johnson do? Not only barge his way onto the Hurricanes' wish list, but, upon signing, he flashes that raised right eyebrow for the cameras as his buddies roar.
You needn't be a fan of professional wrestling to know that "The People's Eyebrow," as he now calls it, has become a Johnson trademark. No, Johnson's dream of a professional football career didn't pan out, but everything else did, first by following his relatives into pro wrestling stardom, then by raising eyebrows by embarking on a movie career that has exceeded even his wrestling stardom.
Sunday night, everything comes full circle when Johnson makes a much-hyped cameo in the ring as John Cena's opponent in the main event of WrestleMania, World Wrestling Entertainment's annual Super Bowl.
The show, before an expected sellout crowd and worldwide pay-per-view audience in the millions, will be a few minutes from Johnson's Davie home, at Sun Life Stadium - the Hurricanes' current home.
"It sealed the deal for me," Johnson said of the venue proposed by WWE chairman Vince McMahon in negotiations more than a year ago. "It's going to be a fun night, an electric night, but also a very emotional night, considering South Florida has been my home for over 20 years."
He has traveled a rocky road here. No one will ever know how good a football talent he was. Johnson, a defensive tackle, saw his career bookended by a separated shoulder and then by two ruptured discs, although he stubbornly played through that as a senior even though teammates had to help him undress after games. In between, he helped UM reach three national-title games, winning one.
Johnson, 39, can only laugh now at how his football dream ended: clearing $175 a week in the Canadian league, where he and a couple of teammates were forced to scrounge wretched, soiled mattresses from a hotel dumpster just to have something to sleep on.
Yes, that's the same Dwayne Johnson who has been on the cover of Newsweek, hosted Saturday Night Live and commanded $5.5 million for The Scorpion King, a record for a first-time leading man, according to Guinness. Four years ago, a certain presidential candidate filmed a spot saying, "Do you smell what Barack is cooking?" - a play on another of Johnson's trademarks.
Cena, an action star to a lesser degree whose credits include The Marine, said, "He is known throughout the world. His movies have grossed over a billion dollars. A success at the University of Miami. A tremendous success in the WWE. I have the world's greatest opponent."
Former UM teammates can't be shocked, having known then of his family's wrestling roots or having seen Johnson impersonate wrestlers in the locker room.
Last week, Johnson's shtick was for a TV audience, virtually ad-libbing for 6 1/2 minutes in front of the Rocky Balboa statue in Philadelphia. He showed an old picture of himself with that statue. ("The Rock knows what you're thinking. Yeah, The Rock looked like a chunky little girl at 12 years old.") He described how The Rock was going to take a Philly cheesesteak and shove it in a place that would make Cena extremely fidgety.
"He just knows how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand," Cena said.
Dave Meltzer, editor of wrestlingobserver.com, said plenty of wrestlers made movies, but no one else made the crossover so smoothly.
"Face it: The greatest thing to happen to him is he didn't play in the NFL," Meltzer said. "A lot of people looked at him first as, 'Oh, he's a wrestler trying to be an actor.' And nobody says that now. Everyone knows he's a wrestler, but when they see him in a movie, it's 'Dwayne Johnson, who used to be a wrestler.' "
His WWE shtick is over-the-top cocky, but his charm is in the smile that follows, as if to say, Isn't that the craziest thing you've ever heard? Until I say the next craziest thing?
The exclamation point: the raised eyebrow.
"The eyebrow was something that came about when I was in high school," Johnson said. "We had this game that we would play, this contest. How could we get the attention of the girls without saying anything and without being vulgar? And I had this very unique talent - and I use the word 'talent' very loosely -- of raising one eyebrow. I never would have dreamed that it would create something that wound up being part of visual lexicon."
His mother, Ata, said his real-life persona is nothing like what he displays on film or between the ropes.
"He's very quiet and very soft-spoken," she said. "Half the things he says in the ring, I have to listen again: Did he really say that?"
Johnson, who for more than a year has had rings set up adjacent to his movie sets to train for Sunday, is vague on how he'll divide his time in the near future. Monday, he'll begin filming Michael Bay's true crime film Pain and Gain, "blowing up a few things" around Miami with Ed Harris and Mark Wahlberg. Sunday night, however, he'll be sweating in the Hurricanes' home once more.
"It was one of the most defining periods of my life," Johnson said of his UM days. "I look back on those memories at University of Miami and recognize that I wouldn't be the man I am today without those years at Miami."