Clutching posters in one hand and indelible markers in the other, the mass had congregated a good hour before the doors opened, oblivious to the sultry temperatures, but fixated on the occasion.
The Doctor of Thuganomics, the WWE heavyweight champion, the budding motion picture star, was just around the corner waiting at a table with his pen in his left hand and enough smiles to fill up a fleet of Nikons.
In other words, John Cena was in town.
The fact that a grainy, 32-second cell phone video clip of Cena performing later that evening drew nearly 70,000 hits on YouTube sums up all you need to know about what realm the pride of West Newbury has reached in the sport.
As for what sidetracked him from his whirlwind WWE tour and into a steamy high school gym on a Friday night in the first place? Well, you need to look no further than the guy sitting to his right at the autograph table with the knee-high fiberglass cast.
A cause that hits home
It was nearly four months ago that Dan Cena, John's younger brother and a Newbury police officer, had his cruiser twisted into a pretzel by an alleged drunken driver in front of the Ould Newbury Golf Course on Route 1 while on duty. Luckily, Cena faired better than his heavy duty police vehicle, escaping with a broken leg and lacerations. He is still several months away from rejoining the force.
To help raise awareness and money to fight drunken driving, Daniel's dad, John Cena Sr., orchestrated the charity card at Triton and had no problem supplying the biggest name in the sport to referee the card's main event.
"The reason I have become involved is because it really hits home," said the world champ prior to spending the next two and a half hours affixing his signature to every piece of wrestling memorabilia imaginable.
"I felt a little bit helpless not being able to be there for him, but at the same time I thought of what can I do to help out the situation.
"My brother Dan is a damn workhorse - he's going to be fine and is already on the mend. But what we are trying to do here is raise awareness of drunken driving so it doesn't happen on a regular basis, and sadly, it does."
But with Dan by his side and a rare chance to get back to the same beloved hometown that is blared across PA systems nationwide every time he's introduced, this homecoming was all about looking back at the good times, not the bleak ones. Ask the champ about West Newbury and the adjectives come fast and furious.
"I've been all around the world, but there's no better place than a small town in summer time," said Cena, who now lives in Tampa. "This area growing up was just awesome. It really is what someone would describe as small-town America. It's a place where everybody looks out for everybody and where everybody cares about each other, and I think that shows in a event like this where the whole community comes together."
While he has attained the status where it's a major coup just to get him to step into a high school gymnasium, let alone appear on a local card like he did at Triton, Cena can still recall his first professional match like it was just last week.
"It was in a night club in Santa Ana California - I had about a two-minute match. It was in November of 1999 and it was awful," he recalled with a smirk.
Nearly a year later he would receive his first paycheck - $15 - when he wrestled at a flea market in Anaheim, Calif. Cena has never forgotten those early days, and it's clear that he enjoys the chance to work with young and aspiring wrestlers like those from the North Andover-based Chaotic Wrestling, which made up the bulk of the card at Triton.
"These events are great because you get to be involved with guys on an entry level in this business. I still have the same amount of hunger that I had when I first stepped in the ring, but it's good to see that the hunger is not dead with these guys," Cena noted of the card, which included a surprise cameo by WWE Chairman Vince McMahon.
Getting a chance to climb over the ropes with the guy who has reached the unquestioned pinnacle in sport does not come by often for guys like wrestler Brian Phillips of Salem, who spends most of his weekends wrestling in Elks clubs and Legion halls.
"It's just tremendous," said Phillips, who answers to "Straight Edge" Brian Fury in the ring. "If you grew up in this sport you grew up dreaming about being the WWE champion. It's the ultimate. I mean, just look at the line for autographs!"
Fabulous career started with Johnny Fabulous
While no one could forecast that a former standout lineman at Cushing Academy and All-American at Springfield College would rise to become the king of the WWE, it was a given that Cena would be able to recite chapter and verse all the different title holders who preceded him - John Cena Sr. made sure of that.
"A lot of kids have memories of playing catch with their dad - well, my 'catch' with my old man was watching wrestling," said Cena with a smile. "We always got beat with a strap if we were fighting with each other, but the only time we could roughhouse and get away with it was when we were wrestling.
"I vividly remember my old man getting Cablevision for the first time, not for the movies but for the wrestling."
Enter the mild-mannered tax assessor for the City of Methuen, who at 63 still moonlights as local wrestling manager "Johnny Fabulous" on the weekends. It's a sidelight that has seen him show up for his day job with busted ribs, dislocated thumbs and other sundry maladies.
John Cena Sr. and his ex-wife, Carol, raised five boys: Steve, John, Dan, Matthew and Sean. All five caught the wrestling bug just about the same time they were getting rid of their pacifiers. In fact, it's safe to say that if the basement floor in their West Newbury home could speak, McMahon would have already locked up the book rights.
Basement brawls in West Newbury
Take five brothers, four of whom are each two years apart, mix in a father who has force-fed each one with every wrestling move from those of Chief Jay Strongbow to Hulk Hogan, and you have one combustible mix.
Given that background, it only seemed natural that young John Cena Jr. would fashion championship belts out of cardboard for each brother and that the bulkhead steps down to their basement should serve as the precursor to the more grandiose entrance ramps that Cena would later march down worldwide.
"Each one had their special moves and their special holds," recalled John Cena Sr. "I can remember coming home from work hearing people hit the bulkhead and I would even hear them hit the floor. If you can believe it, sometimes they would even be body slamming each other on the cement floor."
So was the champ always the last one left standing? After a long, pregnant pause, Matthew Cena weighed in.
"Let's just say John didn't always come out on top," he said with a wry grin.
To this day, Cena knows that basement still represents the one place where he can check his high profile title at the door and take his lumps and barbs right along with the rest of the Cena clan.
"I think that's what great about our place - it doesn't ever change. You're not ever judged either higher or lower by what you do for a living or by how much money you make, because my dad and my brothers have seen me grow up and they know who I am. All that other stuff is irrelevant. As soon as I walk through that door it's all the same old B.S. with everybody making fun of everybody."
Watching John wear out his left wrist signing everything from folding chairs to an imitation gold belt held by a boy no older than 3, the quiet satisfaction in the family structure from this master architect was apparent.
"I've got five sons and they are all champions," said John Cena Sr. "To see both my sons up there like that, it says a lot about family."
The people's champ
The fact that Cena has been able to rise to the top in the gimmick-crazed WWE in just a pair of jean shorts and a T-shirt is remarkable, but it's no act. Despite his budding movie and music career as well as the perks that are inherent with his super-stardom between the ropes, those who really know him says he hasn't changed at all.
"Nothing has changed except he works a heck of a lot more," said Matthew Cena, who is a reserve for the West Newbury Police Department. "I know that if I ever need to get a hold of him, whether he's overseas or what, all I need to do is call and he'll get right back to me."
Despite a seven-figure bank account, Cena refuses to sequester himself behind a shrimp cocktail and a martini on a private jet. He can name every Red Roof and Super 8 Motel from coast to coast, and says once in a while he'll even splurge and stay at a Hampton Inn.
"I think where a lot of people in our business rise really fast they also fall really fast," Cena pointed out. "I fly commercial with everybody else. I rent cars with everybody else. The guy you see on TV in the jean shorts and a T-shirt, that's me."
As well as keeping him grounded, Cena says it's also the best market research around.
"You would be surprised at how many WWE fans you meet on flights. You can't peg them, but every one of them has an opinion, and I want to hear what they have to say."
It's all about the fans
And Cena will tell you that it's wrestling fans like those and all the others who jam the arenas and stadiums worldwide that make it all worthwhile. Whether he's being cheered or getting an earful of epithets that would make even Lou Pinella wince, it's the reaction and emotion of the crowd that fuels him.
"I'll go to some towns and I'll be Superman, and I'll go to other towns and they'll boo me right out of the ring," said Cena. "I love that. It has the energy of a Sox-Yanks championship series every freaking weekend. That's the only way I can describe it."
Cena says he's looking to follow up on his first film, "The Marine," and is in the process of reviewing several different movie scripts and has found one that he really likes. A rap enthusiast, he also would like to get back into the recording studio, but says that trading the throwdowns with the likes of Triple H is still his major focus.
"I'm in a really good spot right now," he said. "I don't think I'll ever leave the ring, only because I love it so much."
Perhaps his only regret is that he cannot get back to the home town that he clearly identifies so closely with. He calls his rare visits to West Newbury "tornado-like" - touching down ever so briefly before blowing on to another show or commitment in another town. Luckily, he said, he's found the next best place to home.
"I've found a place, and my dad can vouch for me, that is legitimately the West Newbury of Tampa," said Cena of the small gated community where he now hangs his championship belt. "It's a small town were everybody knows everybody's business and I can leave my car running with $200 in the shotgun seat and it will still be running when I get out."
West Newbury in Tampa? Seems like a bit of reach, but then again, who is going to argue with the Doctor of Thuganomics?