CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Jerry Johnson no longer has to go to the dinner table or the refrigerator to be in a happy place, and he doesn't say supersize it anymore.
"Because I was big I didn't have many friends," the Bradley Central wrestling heavyweight said. "And when I was young, food tasted good and eating brought happy emotions. I didn't eat huge meals, but I was eating all the time."
While he struggled with social adjustments, being shunned or embarrassed by being the last one picked for neighborhood or playground games of football or dodgeball, Johnson struggled further after the death of his mother.
"I wouldn't say I was depressed, but being big was a low point in my life -- that and my mom dying," he said. "I hated being called fat, and I never liked being singled out because of my weight. I'm still big, but nobody makes fun anymore."
Other than his thumbs quickly clicking on a video-game controller, the most exercise he used to get was walking to the kitchen. Yet he no longer is called "Fatty" or "Cow" or other cruel names, most of which he has blocked from his memory. And while he still has a roll above his belt, the belt is easily seen.
As nicknames go, "Bowling Ball" is one he can live with, because he relates it to rolling over people, especially when he dons the tradition-rich black singlet associated with Bradley wrestling.
The "little fat boy" is only a memory.
"J.J. has become the epitome of Bradley wrestling -- character, pride, intensity," Bears coach Ben Smith said. "He has maintained character throughout the years despite the taunts and being brushed aside. He has persevered.
"We tell kids it doesn't matter if you're tall and skinny or short and fat. It's like life. You'll get more out of it than you put into it. He developed that philosophy."
When Johnson, who stands maybe 5-foot-10, initially reported for wrestling his ninth-grade year, coaches worried that they might have to take him to the stockyard to weigh him. He was a milkshake or two beyond 350 pounds.
He weighed in earlier this week, two years and 96 pounds later, at 254.
Along the way, he absorbed daily pummelings from two-time state champion Patrick Benson and multi-medalist Tucker Bolton.
"The first day I started I went home and told my dad, 'I don't know what I've gotten myself into,'" Johnson said. "He asked me if I was going to quit, and I told him I didn't know. I just kept coming back."
Although his record is just 14-14, the students in the stands take up the chant "J.J.! J.J.!" and it no longer is delivered with derision.
"Oh, yeah, when it first happened most of them were making fun of me," Johnson recalled. "My first match this year, there were people that didn't think I could beat the guy. He was muscular and a foot taller than me, and I beat him. It's changed because people know who I am.
"Instead of being a guy to make fun, I think people see me as a guy that's fun to hang out with. It has changed because people have gotten to know me. They know I'm dedicated and they know I'm not a little fat boy anymore."
Johnson has found a contributing place in society, which low self-esteem prohibited earlier in his childhood.
"Three years ago I walked in the [wrestling room] door and I was huge, but I found something in wrestling that I'd never found before in school -- a reason to be here and something I enjoyed beyond just being in school," he said. "I had never had a group of friends that were like family. I have the type of friends now that I know will be there for me."
His coaches want him to believe he already has become a winner because he has gained self-confidence and because he pours his sweat, blood and tears into being better. However, winning a state title remains a distant goal for the junior.
"It sounds selfish, but I want that state championship for me because it's true Bradley wrestling -- a kid that works hard and puts all he has into it and wins a state title. There's still so much I can do to get there," he said. "But Bradley wrestling has given me so much more than I ever thought I had.
"I can go home and look in the mirror and feel good about myself. My life has gotten 100 percent better. I have learned you can't quit when you're down, that you don't give up, that you have to keep going no matter what. In the end it doesn't matter as long as you pushed through and gave it your best."
He just keeps coming back, and regardless of state medals he has become a point of pride within the Bradley wrestling family.
"He's loved. He is a feel-good story," Smith said. "People know his story and see how far he has come."
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...