Johnson was born into a family of diverse backgrounds and heritage. His father was the Black Canadian professional wrestler Rocky Johnson, a former WWF Tag Team Champion. Johnson's mother Lia Maivia belonged to a royal lineage of Hawaii and Samoa (such Polynesian lineages are interconnected across the Pacific societies). Johnson's maternal grandfather retained the royal title of Ali‘i and was highly respected especially as an elder among Native Hawaiians and Samoans. Peter Maivia was also a professional wrestler, known especially for the tattoos (of great cultural significance) that covered the lower half of his body. In keeping with this tradition, Johnson has also received such tattoos, the most prominent covering his left shoulder and upper chest.
Johnson spent his childhood living near his maternal grandfather and grandmother in Honolulu. He attended local public schools including Washington Intermediate School and President William McKinley High School, both near Ala Moana and Waikiki.
As a high school junior, Johnson's father's career uprooted him from his Hawaii home and they relocated to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Johnson cultivated and developed a more intense athleticism in high school, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He began playing football at Bethlehem's Freedom High School, a member of the East Penn League (now known as the Lehigh Valley Conference) in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. It was then (and continues to be) considered one of the most competitive high school football conferences in the United States.
Johnson received various athletic scholarship offers from several universities before choosing to attend the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. The University of Miami football program did not openly recruit Johnson; he had to face try-outs to join the program. In 1991, he was part of the Hurricanes' National Championship team.
Considered a candidate for the NFL, Johnson's hopes of a football career was challenged by a severe back injury. After college, Johnson signed a three-year contract with a CFL team instead. However, he was cut from the team after a year. It was then that Johnson decided to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps by pursuing a professional wrestling career.