During his teen years in Honolulu, “I was a challenging kid,” Johnson, 44, tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story. “I was doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t have. I was getting arrested multiple times but at the same time, always very respectful to my teachers and elders. I was unsure of who I was and who I wanted to be.”
With his family struggling to make ends meet, Johnson attended the University of Miami and had dreams of playing in the NFL. He joined the Canadian Football League after graduating in 1995 but was cut two months later.
“Failure is obviously something that we don’t want, we’re always averse to failure because it’s not the end goal,” Johnson says.
“I played football for 10 years with one goal, which was to play in the NFL, which meant we’d never be evicted again. It meant that I could buy my parents their first home, their cars, whatever they wanted. So that failure was tough; that was a tough pill.”
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Johnson reevaluated his path in life and took stock. “I literally looked in my wallet and I had a five, a one and change. So I rounded it up to seven. It was a real rock bottom for me and I didn’t know how defining or how meaningful seven bucks would be only until years later in my life,” he says.
Following the footsteps of other men in his family, Johnson began wrestling in the WWE (both his father and grandfather were professional wrestlers). He won his first match in 1996.
“I was lucky and it was a privilege that Vince McMahon let me win,” he says.
After forging a successful career as a championship wrestler, Johnson co-founded a production company with his ex-wife and business partner, Dany Garcia, and named it Seven Bucks Productions – to serve as “a constant reminder of how things once were.”
“I’m always operating like I could go back to that,” he adds. “It sounds cliché but I always say ‘Use me an example.’ If I can do it and I did, because we all have those low points in our lives, hopefully I can motivate and inspire some people out there.”
So does the Moana star have any regrets?
“I used to. And then I got to this place where I did a lot of soul-searching, and I learned to not regret things and understand that everything happens for a reason,” he says. “Even if the reason isn’t necessarily in front of us at that time. You have to have faith in knowing that eventually the reason is going to be revealed.”