Photos by Nathanael Turner

The Largest Football Player on Earth

John “Junior” Krahn is 7 feet tall, 440 pounds and has an 11 p.m. curfew

John and Cindy Krahn tried and failed for five years to have a second child. They lost five children over that period — one to a miscarriage, two boys who were stillborn and twins whom Cindy didn’t carry to term.

When Cindy became pregnant a fifth time in 1996, John insisted on giving the child his name. Cindy hated the idea. “I never wanted to call him John because our last name is Krahn, and ‘John Krahn’ sounds stupid,” she explained.

Cindy was so opposed to the rhyme she refused to sign the boy’s birth certificate. “But my husband insisted,” she said. Cindy relented under one condition: They call the boy “Junior.” John (the father) always went by his middle name, Rob, so Junior was available despite the boy actually being the third John Robert in the lineage.

Rob and Cindy had no way of knowing the nickname would later be misunderstood as an oxymoron. That 17 years later, their baby boy, John Robert “Junior” Krahn III, now 7 feet tall and 440 pounds, would be considered not just the largest high school football player in the country, but possibly the largest human being to ever play the sport at any level.

“Everyone thinks we call him Junior because of his size,” Cindy said. “But it’s just always been Junior.”

On a hazy Thursday morning in October, the parking lot at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California, is eerily deserted. Most students are at home, sleeping in, enjoying a rare, midweek day off for parent-teacher conferences. Only members of the football team are in attendance.

The players are indistinguishable from one another with their helmets on, but I can make out Junior from the sideline some 70 yards away. The starting running back Cardell Walder — one-third the size of Junior at 5-foot, 4-inches and 137 pounds — looks like he could comfortably fit into one of Junior’s XXXXL pant legs. Junior’s shoulder pads are the largest size the team could find, and his helmet is so tight on his head that the trainer can’t even pump air into the interior pads.

Yet Junior is remarkably proportional for a giant. He seems neither all arms, legs and torso (like most other seven footers) nor artificially inflated (like most 400 pounders). His body parts are commensurate with one another. They’re just … larger. Like a man who’s been Photoshopped to 200 percent his actual size and then edited back into his original, unaltered settings.

The weight room literally can’t contain Junior; when he performs Olympic lifts such as snatches and clean and jerks, he has to stand within designated areas to avoid hitting the ceiling.

It’s the kind of size that makes offensive line coaches salivate and opposing players shit themselves. If athletes are the closest thing we have to superheroes, then Junior is Juggernaut, the X-Men villain who was so large, he generated an unstoppable amount of inertia when he moved.

The problem, at the moment at least, is that all of Junior’s bulk doesn’t necessarily work in harmony. As practice starts, he struggles to lift his knees to his waist during “high knees,” to touch his heels to his ass during “butt kicks” and to reach his toes during toe touches.

Warmups finish and the players break off into their position groups, Junior going with the linemen. Wolves head coach Kevin Corridan, a 42-year-old Riverside native with a deep tan and gelled hair, takes the field late and silently watches his players while his assistant coaches run practice. He uses the break to talk about Junior. Corridan brags that Junior bench presses 345 pounds, squats 450 and power cleans 245. The weight room literally can’t contain Junior, Corridan explains; when Junior performs Olympic lifts such as snatches and clean and jerks, exercises that involve extending a barbell over his head, he has to stand within designated areas to avoid hitting the ceiling.

That said, Corridan is realistic about what Junior needs to improve upon before he can expect to play big-time college football: “He’s got to get the weight off. And he’s gotta get his footwork down.”

Sports are, at their core, celebrations of physicality — we watch them to admire feats us lesser mortals could only dream of achieving. The natural corollary is an obsession with athletes’ bodies. Most of the time, this manifests as reverent admiration for an athlete’s superhuman physique, but occasionally, it devolves into sports fans jeering at someone just because he or she is really fucking huge.

Jared Lorenzen was a competent quarterback during his college and NFL careers, but he was only famous for being one of the fattest guys to ever play the position. In February 2014, the 320-pound Lorenzen became an internet folk hero when videos surfaced of him evading pass rushers and throwing touchdowns for the Northern Kentucky River Monsters in the Continental Indoor Football League. This season, football fans have grown enamored of Baylor University’s 410-pound tight end LaQuan McGowan — despite the fact he’s caught only two passes all season (both of them for touchdowns).

Junior’s been subject to the same kind of attention lately. On September 23, MaxPreps, a high school sports website, posted a two-minute “highlight reel” of Junior. There was a shot of Junior leading the Wolves onto the field before a game and making his teammates look like Pee Wee players. Another clip showed Junior needing the help of two trainers to stretch out a single leg. Afterward, they strain to pull Junior to his feet, looking like they’re trying pull a flatbed out of a ditch.

The video quickly racked up 1 million views, and Junior’s story was picked up by every U.S. media entity with a functioning URL. USA Today compared him to Paul Bunyan. Maxim called him “a Winnebago.” Even by football standards it was an extreme case of size fetishism. Rob, Junior’s father, likened it to a digital freak show: Everyone took their turn getting a look at the Giant Boy.

Objectifying as it might have been, the attention has given Junior a chance at a college football scholarship. Prior to the video, Junior’s football career seemed destined to end with his final high school game. Now he’s a national phenom hoping to trade in that fame for a scholarship offer, which, to him, makes all the mocking worth it. “I see it as an opportunity to get to college football because it’s getting my name out there,” Junior says. “So if Tennessee, ASU, Boise State or Montana sees me and they’re like, ‘He might work here,’ that opens doors.”

Junior’s size is a paradox: It’s the very thing that qualifies him as an athlete, but it comes at the expense of his mobility and places a temporary limit on his effectiveness as a player.

And it’s working (kind of). “I saw an article on the internet talking about this big kid that a lot of schools are passing up,” says Dante Coles, head football coach at Valley Forge Military Academy & College and one of a few junior college coaches interested in having Junior play for him next year. “I just wanted to give him an opportunity to come be part of the family.”

Playing junior college is a major step down from Tennessee or Boise State, but Coles and Corridan agree it’s Junior’s best chance of making an FBS squad one day. It’ll give him two more years to find the footwork and quickness necessary to unlock his physical potential. Junior’s size is a paradox this way: It’s the very thing that qualifies him as an athlete, but it comes at the expense of his mobility and places a temporary limit on his effectiveness as a player. And if he wants to continue in football — a sport that values size, strength and speed in equal measure — he’ll have to lose weight in the name of getting fast.

Junior spans the entire width of the booth at El Roberto’s Taco Shop, a strip mall Mexican joint a mile from the high school, where he’s enjoying a post-practice meal with his “weird friend” Tucker. “I’m cheating today,” Junior jokes between bites of a bacon breakfast burrito and sips of pink lemonade, referencing the diet he’s ignoring.

Junior spent the past offseason working with a speed trainer and reduced his 40-time from a glacial 7.5 seconds to a decent-for-his-size 6 flat. But he’s still got work to do (hence the diet). Only 21 of the nation’s top 100 high school offensive tackles weigh more than 300 pounds, according to ESPN’s recruiting rankings for the class of 2016. And of those players whose 40-times are listed, all but one is faster than Junior. Not to mention that football itself is evolving into a high-velocity passing game that increasingly emphasizes speed and tempo over size and brute force.

To shave another half-second off his 40 time, Junior plans to revert to a 3,000-calorie per day diet of lean protein and vegetables once the season ends. His goal is to be 400 pounds by the end of year and 350 pounds by the start of next football season. The larger goal, of course, is a scholarship. “There’s a lot of pressure from my parents, because if I don’t get a scholarship, they can’t afford college,” Junior says.

The meal ends, but Tucker and Junior stay in the booth to kill time. When Junior finishes his pink lemonade, he shakes the empty cup at Tucker, who rolls his eyes before fetching Junior a refill, saving his friend from having to squeeze out of the booth.

The media circus has, predictably, attracted some haters.

Online commenters have called Junior a “slob” and “slow and dopey.” “Big fat pigs should not be rewarded with free scholarships,” an Auburn fan wrote about the school possibly recruiting Junior.

Cindy admitted to responding to some of the trolls: “I know that fuels the fire, but that’s my baby.”

Junior, on the other hand, is used to the sneering. “I could never do most of the things other kids did,” he says. Elementary teachers so feared the damage he might inflict on smaller students they barred him from any physical play with his peers, no matter how innocent. He served a suspension in elementary school for knocking over a boy at recess; he and Cindy maintain to this day that the kid ran into Junior and fell over. He had the body of a man, and was expected to be just as emotionally mature. “I was always held to a higher standard.”

A 6-foot tall sixth-grader with a size 16 shoe, he far exceeded the weight limit for his youth football league. Instead, he took up basketball and baseball, hoping to be another Babe Ruth. He crushed the ball whenever he made contact, according to Cindy, but he was dejected whenever he struck out. “He always felt he had to measure up to his size,” she said.

“Most of the time, if I’m around new people, I’m quiet,” Junior says. “I’ll just observe everything.”

It wasn’t until Junior started playing football his freshman year at King that he started to assert himself. “My parents made me play,” he says. “But I learned to love it.” In football he discovered an outlet for the physicality he was denied growing up. “Basketball is physical, but it wasn’t the physicality I like. I like to push people around, to be the mean guy sometimes. Basketball never gave me that.” His size was now a virtue, and pushing people around proved easy. Too easy — at his first practice, Junior fell on a teammate during a scrimmage and broke the kid’s arm.

Corridan brought Junior up to the varsity team when Junior was only a sophomore. But Junior struggled, his slow feet limiting his effectiveness. It wasn’t until the fourth game of his senior year when he was given the chance to start.

Still, football boosted Junior’s confidence. He didn’t feel comfortable taking his shirt off at the beach until this past summer, for instance. He went with a group of football players, and Cindy was surprised when he returned without his usual farmer’s tan.

Now he’s ready to ditch his lifelong nickname. “It’s just been in the last year or so that Junior calls himself John,” Cindy said. “He’s at that stage where he’s ready to be John. But for me, he’ll always be Junior.”

Tonight the Wolves are playing an away game at nearby Santiago High School. There are a few King students cheering on their team, but the school’s side of the stands are mostly occupied by the players’ immediate family members. Here the Krahns — Cindy, Rob and their 22-year-old daughter Miranda (Junior’s sister) — sit in the last two rows and cheer on Junior.

Cindy is wearing a red Wolves T-shirt with “KRAHN 87” spelled out on the back in sequins. Rob is a jovial, squat man with a large bald head (covered by a 49ers cap), an orange goatee going gray at the edges and a tattoo on each of his meaty forearms. Shortly into the first quarter, friends and an aunt arrive and pass around a smartphone. They all try to decipher an article written about Junior in a foreign language, perhaps something Nordic, but definitely “not German,” they reason.

I ask Cindy and Rob if they’re worried about the pressure on Junior in light of all the media attention. Cindy shakes her head ‘yes,’ while Rob says, “I’m not worried about it. It’ll make him a better man.”

Online commenters have called Junior a “slob” and “slow and dopey.” “Big fat pigs should not be rewarded with free scholarships,” an Auburn fan wrote about the school possibly recruiting Junior.

Time is running out for Junior to make an impression on college recruiters. He still hasn’t received any interest from an FBS program, and National Signing Day — when players can start formally committing to NCAA schools — starts in February. His performance tonight isn’t helping either. Defenders speed by him on passing plays, and Wolves quarterback Bradley Kleven spends much of the game running for his life. Yet whenever Junior does get his hands on someone, he obliterates the kid, blocking the opponent 10 or more yards down the field before driving him into the ground and landing on him for added effect.

With just under two minutes left in the game, the Wolves are up by a point. But Santiago strings together a 10-play drive that puts them in field goal range with just seconds left. Corridan brings in Junior at defensive tackle hoping he can block the kick with his Pterodactyl-like wingspan. Junior doesn’t get a hand on the ball, but the kick sails wide right as time expires.

The Wolves storm the field, but their celebration is premature. There was a penalty on the play: Roughing the kicker on the Wolves. The Sharks get another shot at the field goal, and this time, the kicker doesn’t miss.

The Wolves are devastated. Some keep their helmets on to mask their tears. Others rush to the bus, hoping to leave the field unnoticed. As always, Junior doesn’t have the luxury of being inconspicuous. And so, his crying is impossible to miss.

Five weeks later, though, the game means little. On November 30, just a few days after Thanksgiving, 52-year-old Cindy Krahn died unexpectedly in her sleep.

“Right before my mom passed, she told me to live my life the way I wanted,” Junior says. At the moment, this means more football. He’s decided to attend Riverside Community College next year, where he hopes to develop into a FBS-caliber player and where he’ll be close to family and friends.

“This is what I want, and I’m going to do it for her,” Junior says flatly, his voice betraying no emotion. Junior admits he’s not the most emotive person; Cindy was always best at explaining how he felt.

For everyone else, he’s provided what he has the most of — strength. “I’ve just got to be real with it, get through it and be strong for everyone who’s here like my dad and my sister,” Junior says. “I don’t know why I take on that responsibility. Maybe it’s just the way God made me.”

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL. He previously ranted about the futility of the OOO reply.

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