Cena works hard on his rags to riches story
By JIM MOORE, P-I COLUMNIST
TEN YEARS AGO this summer, John Cena was folding towels and cleaning toilets at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, Calif., while living out of his car.
He slept in his 1991 Lincoln Continental, the one that he drove across the country from his hometown in West Newbury, Mass. Cena took all of the cash he had — $500 — and two duffel bags to California.
Before he left, his dad told him: "Kid, you’ll never make it. Stay here." But Cena, with his degree in exercise physiology from Springfield College, wanted to start his life in L.A., dreaming those Hollywood dreams.
Just by chance, he ran into a guy who asked him if he’d be interested in pursuing a career in professional wrestling.
Cena has since become one of WWE’s most popular attractions, while also blossoming into a hip-hop artist and actor who is starring in his second movie.
"12 Rounds" will premiere March 13. Set in New Orleans, it’s a nonstop action flick in which Cena has to endure a series of dangerous tests to save his girlfriend, who was kidnapped by a terrorist.
"I’m gonna hunt you down, and I’m gonna kill you," Cena, as detective Danny Fisher, says to the terrorist in the movie trailer.
"I’ll look forward to that," the terrorist says.
Cena, 31, can’t believe that all of this is happening to him. I caught up with him Sunday morning at KeyArena, where WWE’s production of "No Way Out" was about to explode later that night.
He seemed as down to earth as dirt. His beer of choice: Pabst Blue Ribbon. Old style Schlitz is his second choice, and original Coors is No. 3.
"They’re all-American, all affordable," Cena said. "They’re workingman’s beers."
Let’s get the other basics out of the way — you bet he has a dog, and if you want to see a picture of him, he’ll show you; it’s right there on his Blackberry. Lou is a white mini-Schnauzer. Cena rescued him from a family that was about to put him down for reasons unknown.
Friends take care of Lou when Cena’s on the road, and he’s on the road a lot — WWE has 250 shows a year, and the Seattle stop is the first of three in three nights. He’ll be in Spokane on Monday and Portland on Tuesday.
The muscular Cena is also the kind of golfer you’d expect him to be — he drives it a mile but has a terrible short game. He has been told he has the touch of a rhinoceros, and he won’t disagree.
Because of his length, you’d want him as a partner in a scramble, but sorry girls, if you’re looking for a husband, he’s taken — Cena’s engaged and said: "I’m gonna get married this year."
For now the bachelor lives in what he calls a "very, very modest home" in a small town outside of Tampa, Fla. But his garage gives away his one indulgence of fame — it’s bigger than his house.
It has to be — Cena owns 20 muscle cars. Growing up in West Newbury, there was nothing to do. So kids hung out and worked on their cars, and Cena noticed that the coolest kids had the fastest cars.
His favorite now is his 1970 Pontiac GTO. "That thing looks like it kicks ass, and it does," Cena said.
The fastest he has ever driven is 150 mph in a Ford GT on an airfield test track, but he keeps it at or near the speed limit when he’s behind the wheel of one of his muscle cars.
"I’m a safety-first guy," he said.
Besides, Cena wants to be a role model, and role models avoid trouble.
"I don’t know when it happened, but nowadays it seems like nobody cares," Cena said. "Our main figures are collapsing around us. People don’t seem to know that other people are watching them."
It means a lot to Cena when parents say that their kid looks up to him. He remembers what that was like. A Red Sox fan, Cena nonetheless worshiped Don Mattingly because of the way the Yankees first baseman carried himself.
What happened with Alex Rodriguez and the steroids revelations sickened him. He thinks if everyone really wants to get serious about cleaning up the game, "they should send the guys to jail."
Cena is about as cut as they come, but he said he’s not steroid enhanced.
"I’m not only a guy who will say I’m clean, but I’ll beat my chest to the world that I’m clean," he said. "I have very, very strong opinions on that."
This is the man who could be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone in the action-film genre. Maybe that’s a long shot, but he has already gone from toilet cleaner to wrestling star, so who’s to doubt him now?
"That’s a giant void in cinema," Cena said. "Everywhere I go, the question is always: ‘Who’s the next guy?’ I think I’m damn near the closest thing to come around the pike."
Back when he was a Division III All-America center and team captain at Springfield, Cena figured he’d be a high school football coach someday. Yet here he is, a multi-talented entertainer who has gone from a small town and small college to the really big time.
P-I columnist Jim Moore can be reached at 206-448-8013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.