TAMPA — Meet Tampa’s Milton Rosen, honorary sibling of Hollywood star Dwayne Johnson and one of many Special Olympics legends whose stories inspire competitors year after year.
Milton and Johnson are not blood relatives, but they are so close they call themselves family.
At 51, Milton’s speech is limited by his severe Down syndrome, but ask him about his famous friend and he’ll smile and declare, “Duey brother” — Duey being Johnson’s nickname in his family.
Johnson, who lived in Tampa off and on throughout his childhood, returned the sentiment via email: “I’ve considered Milton my brother since I was 5 years old. When I look back on all the years right up to today, he’s always been one of my truest inspirations, overcoming every challenge in his path.”
Milton was 15 when he met the man who went on to become a professional wrestler, entertainer and movie star as “The Rock.”
But Milton stood 4 feet 11 inches and weighed just 60 pounds because of neglect in foster homes where he had been living.
A decade later, taken in by an unlikely pair of saviors, Milton stood tall as a Special Olympics champion in weightlifting and track and field, his accomplishments celebrated statewide.
He is decades removed from competition now, but more legends like him are likely to spring from the next round of competition as some 1,000 athletes take part in the Hillsborough County Special Olympics Summer Games starting Saturday at the University of South Florida.
Each participant has his or her own story of beating the odds, said Glenn D. Fite Jr., Special Olympics Florida’s Hillsborough County director. And though they might not have someone as famous as The Rock in their corner, each serves as an inspiration.
“They overcome obstacles all year round,” Fite said. “Just competing makes them special.”
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Milton can credit his own perseverance and his upbringing in a Tampa gym for the inspiring story he has lived.
Twins Al and Bruce Rosen were 23 when they met the 15-year-old Milton, and nothing about them seemed parental.
“I was out of my mind,” said Bruce Rosen, now 60, describing the man he was then as someone out of the cast of “Jersey Shore.”
With Al, he owned a gym, The Boddy Shoppe, and worked as a bouncer. His main concerns were getting tan and buff by day to impress the ladies by night.
Then he met Milton.
“He changed my life,” Bruce said. “He made me grow up fast.”
It was May 1977, and Bruce had just started dating Milton’s sister, Pico McBride. She was taking Milton out for his birthday and invited Bruce to come along.
The two clicked. Milton spent the day riding piggyback on Bruce’s shoulders throughout Circus World, a theme park at the time in Polk County.
When it came time to return Milton home, what Bruce found broke his heart.
Milton’s parents had died years before, and his own family couldn’t afford to quit work or hire someone to care of him. So he lived in a foster home. It was a shambles, Bruce said, with foster children crammed into a space too small for them and forced to sleep on mattresses.
Bruce decided he wanted to be Milton’s foster parent.
When he broke the news to brother Al, also his roommate, Al quickly agreed to let Milton move in.
“I know people thought we were crazy and not ready, but it was just the right thing to do,” Bruce said.
Shortly after Milton moved in, the Rosens learned why they always needed to look after him.
They left him alone for an hour, thinking he would be safe. Milton grew hungry and made eggs, but he forgot to shut off the burners and burned a hole in a couch by putting the hot pan on it.
“Now he uses the microwave,” Bruce said with a smile.
Still, the brothers refused to baby Milton. They taught him to care for himself and gave him chores.
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Bruce and Milton’s sister got married and adopted him. Al continued to help raise him.
As did a host of others at the The Boddy Shoppe.
“We were one big dysfunctional family,” Bruce said.
Tampa was a hub of professional wrestling in those days, and The Boddy Shoppe was the entertainers’ gym of choice. Gym regulars included Steve Keirn, Tonga “Haku” Fifita, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Pedro Morales, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Rocky “Soulman” Johnson, father of the man who would become “The Rock.”
“They all took interest in Milton,” said Johnson’s mother, Ata. “They all seemed to compete for his attention, doing whatever they could to make him laugh. It was so good for his confidence.”
The wrestlers took Milton out for meals and to sporting events.
The Johnsons were the closest to Milton, Bruce said. The career of patriarch the “Soulman” kept them on the road a lot, but if they were in Tampa, Milton was by their side.
Physically but not mentally, Milton was a decade older than Dwayne Johnson, so they became close friends, often disappearing into Johnson’s room and playing professional wrestlers.
The two shared a room when the Johnson family stayed at Bruce’s home for a few months.
The cartoonish confidence of the gym’s wrestler clientele rubbed off on Milton. He began calling himself “Milton Hulk” and would strut throughout the gym like a powerhouse.
In a way, he was.
Though dwarfed by the wrestlers’ physique, Rosen worked out as hard as anyone.
One hour Milton would be bench-pressing with a famous wrestler, Bruce said, the next he’d be curling with future pro football star Freddie Solomon.
“Freddie and Milton were real close,” Bruce said.
When Solomon was named Tampa Sportsman of the Year, he invited Milton to the banquet and later gave him the trophy. Solomon died in 2012. The trophy still sits on display in Milton’s bedroom.
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By the early 1980s, Milton weighed 142 pounds and could bench-press 275 pounds and dead-lift 315 pounds.
He was a Special Olympics phenom from the start, winning ribbons in local track-and-field competitions
Then, in 1987, Milton won the state title in weightlifting.
His athletic feat and inspirational story turned Rosen into a local celebrity. The Tampa Tribune ran a front page story on him that year. He was covered on television news. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote a congratulatory letter to him.
Bruce tells the story of the time Milton still believed professional wrestling was real. He was crushed to learn that Rocky Johnson had lost a match with championship implications.
The next day, thinking his good friend was hurt, Milton showed up at the Johnson house with one of his Special Olympics trophies and handed it to the wrestler.
“That’s Milton,” Al said. “Always looking out for others first.”
The Boddy Shoppe closed in 2005, but Milton continues to work out, benching 200 pounds with ease.
“He’s still The Hulk,” Al said.
And he is still close with The Rock.
Said Johnson, “For all of us who consider Milton family, he makes our lives better just by being himself, and that’s a very special thing.”