By Jacques St. Jean
There is no Springfield College alumni more notable than John Cena.
His long list of accomplishments include being a New York Times best selling author, a five-time WWE United States Champion, a record-tying 16-time WWE World Champion, and granting over 650 wishes with the Make-A-Wish foundation, the most in the organization’s history.
Today, he is well known all over the world for his illustrious acting career, starring in F9: The Fast Saga, the Transformers spin-off film Bumblebee, and more recently in last year’s Suicide Squad, which eventually led to Cena starring in the television show Peacemaker streaming on HBO Max.
As a childhood fan of professional wrestling, John Cena was my hero. Despite the insurmountable odds he was up against, like the seven-foot giant Big Show at WrestleMania XX, or returning months early from an injury at the Royal Rumble in 2008, Cena would find a way to win and come out on top. His “Never Give Up” mantra inspired millions of fans, and the three words that he lives by and wore proudly on his merchandise – “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect” – are an easy summary of his character.
Cena’s legacy at Springfield is a key selling point for the College. His rare visits and interactions with faculty, staff and students have become legend on Alden Street. Today, there are very few people on campus who were around during Cena’s time as a student-athlete from 1995 to 1999. One of these few is Professor of Theater Arts Martin Shell, who taught Cena in one of his final courses at Springfield – ironically in an introduction to acting class. Shell began teaching at the College in August of 1993, and Cena enrolled in his acting class in the spring of 1999.
“I don’t think I had heard about John before he came to [my] acting class,” Shell noted. “He makes a first impression, partly because of his physique… which is in part intimidating, but at the same moment kind of fun because he immediately exudes a very charming and warm presence.”
Despite being such a physical specimen and having a dominating presence on the gridiron, Cena was a pleasure in the classroom, according to Shell, and had tremendous natural acting skills. In one specific acting exercise, Shell was amazed at how easily Cena was able to pick up the lesson that was being taught.
“Status work has to do with territorial behavior and when someone is being very dominant or when they’re being more submissive,” Shell said.
“I [was] really curious to see how John would respond to that exercise because he seems to be such a dominating persona, but he took to it very quickly and was very easily able to play the ‘submissive’ part of status [work]… and to flip gears. That’s the skill we’re trying to learn in an acting class… and he was very good at that exercise.”
Cena’s semester in Shell’s acting class could be credited as the very beginning of what would be an amazing professional wrestling career, and a highly successful acting career that we are seeing play out today.
A year or so after Cena graduated from Springfield, Shell ran into him visiting campus. While they briefly caught up, Cena explained to Shell that he had begun training in professional wrestling, and it was “just like acting.”
“I’m sure what he meant was there’s a certain amount of status, dominance, and submission, and a certain performative element to wrestling that made sense to him from what we were doing in acting class,” Shell described.
Although he was technically Cena’s first acting teacher, Shell does not take all of the credit for teaching him what would be the foundation that built the rest of his future.
“[I will take] no more credit than any other teacher that he had in his life,” Shell said. “He’s the kind of guy that I’m sure was learning a lot from all kinds of people. I’ll be willing to take the credit that he enjoyed the acting class, enough to realize and recognize the fun of wrestling… I can’t say I’m responsible for his success as an actor now, that’s all John, obviously.”
It’s a no-brainer that Cena’s own work ethic and commitment to his own future led him to having such a prolific wrestling career. His dedication in the classroom and on Stagg Field were unmatched. One witness to his amazing athletic ability and work ethic was Damon Villnave, a graduate from the class of 1998 who was not only Cena’s teammate on the football team for three seasons, but also his neighbor across the hall in Alumni Hall, and coworker at a local bar in Springfield.
“I’ve known John since 1995,” Villnave stated. “I was a sophomore at Springfield College, he was a freshman. I was fortunate enough to play next to him my senior year, his junior year. He was the center, I was the right guard. We played together, we lifted together, we ate together, we lived together. I’ve known John forever, as long as forever can be!”
Before they played side by side on the offensive line, Cena and Villnave played face to face on opposite sides of the ball in practice.
“My first interaction [with John] was going up against him on the football field,” Villnave expressed. “[He was] an incredibly strong individual. That’s where the first interaction happened. My last two years at Springfield I moved over to the offensive line, and that’s when our relationship became pretty tight.”
To this day, Villnave and Cena still talk a few times a week. Though they are hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles apart, they stay in touch by texting each other back and forth. Villnave graduated in ‘98 from Springfield with a degree in Business Administration. A year later, Cena graduated with a degree in Exercise Physiology.
Today, Villnave works as an assistant principal at Paul V. Moore High School in Central Square, New York. Despite being a lot more static than Cena in terms of a career and lifestyle, they maintain their over 25-year-long friendship that began on Alden Street. Villnave believes that Cena’s greatest attribute is his loyalty to those around him.
“[John] is very loyal to people that were loyal to him,” Villnave stated. “Obviously where John was and where John is, are just completely two different worlds. Where John is now you can kind of get people into your life that come and go and are looking for different things. I’ve been on the ride with John the entire time, and I’m not looking for anything, nor have I ever looked for anything or ever wanted anything from him; just friends.”
Villnave continued, “He loves my kids. He’s always been tremendously giving to me and my kids. Again, not that I’ve ever asked for anything, but that’s just who John is, [he’s] just a great human being… a true human being [who] understands where he came from and where he is, and nothing has really ever swayed him from who he is.”
Another person who was able to know Cena on a close level is former head football coach Mike DeLong, who had the privilege of coaching Cena for all of his four seasons.
“[John] was ahead of his time,” DeLong emphasized. “He knew what he was doing in the weight room, [with a] scientific approach… he was a good kid. [He had] good work ethic, a positive teammate, positive in the locker room, a good leader…and plus he was a good player. Some guys have all of those characteristics, and that’s great, but they’re maybe not the best of players, but he could back it up.”
Cena’s character was well-rounded on the field and in the classroom, and his qualities were the kind that lit up others and rubbed off on those around him.
“[John] came in as a freshman, and as a freshman they’re worried about ‘how am I doing’ and then as he progressed it became more of ‘how are we doing’ and that’s a positive piece of growth. He made other people around him better because of that tremendous work ethic that he showed. He didn’t have any complaints; even if it was raining, he would always find something positive being an offensive lineman on a rainy day in the mud.”
Similar to Villnave, DeLong attested to Cena’s loyalty to his former teammates and friends that he met at Springfield, as well as his generous and outgoing personality. The last time Cena visited Alden Street was 2013, where DeLong was just a few seasons away from his eventual retirement.
“I was here the last time that he was on campus,” DeLong added. “Anybody who wanted to, he stopped and took a picture with them, he said hello to everybody… President Cooper came down and said hello… he was not a standoffish guy when he was on campus, not at all.”
It has been almost a decade since Cena’s last appearance at the Birthplace. In my four years here, I have heard many rumors about why Cena has yet to pay a visit here, whether it was the administration asking him for money, or Cena himself being denied from donating money specifically to the football program that he played for.
Regardless of what might have happened, people on campus believe there is a rift between Springfield College and John Cena. From DeLong’s perspective, he believes that Cena is just simply too busy.
“[Whenever] he was in town, he wanted to come on campus,” DeLong said, “but I don’t know of any rift. I think sometimes in people’s careers they just get busy, and his career is pretty busy.”
While I was unlucky during my time at Springfield College to cross paths with my childhood hero, I hope that some time in the near future, the Champ will eventually return to Springfield, Mass. and finally be seen back on campus.
Photo Courtesy Springfield College Archives