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That Time Dwayne Johnson Taught Me How to Give Better Hugs

For a second, I was warm and safe.

As the biggest movie star in the world, a one-man blockbuster with a marquee grin and box office pecs, Dwayne Johnson (who I will call The Rock in this article because that’s what I call him in life) has made a career being both likable and physically imposing. He plays men, like Luke Hobbs in the Fast and Furious films, who are hard as nails but loving to their children and significant others. In almost every film with The Rock, there’s a moment when he hugs someone tightly to his rippling breast and the look on that person changes from ragged fear to placid calm. I wanted a moment like that and, because life is unpredictable, got one.

On a recent Thursday evening, I found myself on the red carpet at the premiere of Skyscraper.  Why was I there, sandwiched between some over-loud, under-dressed Barstool Sports guys and a lovely anchor from Telemundo? I’m not totally sure. I know a publicist was involved and I know my boss asked me to go. The stars had aligned via clipped emails (on which I was not even cc’ed) exchanged by the getters and receivers of press. The Rock was smiling and waving. I was waiting to ask my one question.

The Rock is so big compared to mere mortals that waiting for him is actually confusing. He appears to be so much closer than he actually is. In fact, he’s not close at all and this is by design. He is generally protected by a phalanx of PR people waving their nervousness like spears. “We’re only doing groups!” one of the publicists shouted at me. I nodded, but chose to very, very respectfully ignore her and wait for a one-on-one opportunity.

As The Rock approached, I gently placed my hand on his arm, which is the size of a one-bedroom house. (I should pause here and apologize to The Rock for invading his space. It had been a long day and I was eager to get home to my kids after the event.) He was wearing a great suit and had a great tan and slightly leathery skin because he’s a mammal. I asked him how to give one of his famous hugs. He smiled. He smiled just for me and also for a million other people.

“You gotta go in deep,” The Rock told me. “You have to squeeze like a bear. You gotta pull them in hard.”

It wasn’t a long answer so I figured we had another beat. I pushed down my fear of rejection and asked the real question in a sort of stage whisper: “Can I get a Dad Hug?”

For a millisecond, The Rock considered it. I knew then and know now that the man owes me nothing. He could have said no. He could have made me feel small. But, being The Rock. He didn’t. He said, “Come here.”

And he hugged me.

What’s it like to be hugged by The Rock? It is bliss. The Rock is such a big person that, unless you are similarly Brobdingnagian, which I am not, you are simply enveloped by the mann. Perhaps because he had just walked me through his own technique, he followed his own advice perfectly. He pulled me in hard so that there was no gap between my armpits and his shoulder nor his armpit and mine. He wrapped his hands behind my back. And then, using what I’m sure was only a fraction of his strength, he squeezed.

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The funny thing is, The Rock is a movie star and everyone knows his face. I had been staring at it on a poster for a few hours. But, in The Rock’s embrace, I didn’t see The Rock. I didn’t even really feel The Rock. All I felt was warmth. It wasn’t Dwayne Johnson hugging me. It wasn’t a movie star hugging me. It was just a person, a really good hugging person.

As we withdrew from our embrace, the face of The Rock reappeared, smiling. It occurred to me, that perhaps they call him The Rock not because he can smash things but because he imbues those lucky enough to be hugged by him, a sense of stability, strength, and comfort. This is, of course, not the case, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were?

As I left the red carpet, I glowed. By the time I got home, my kids were almost asleep but I roused them and gave them a Dad Hug, just like the one The Rock had given me. I went in deep. The boys hugged me back and we held each other. It was better — not much better, but better.