When it comes to John “Junior” Krahn, we’re no better than anyone else. We, too, first became aware of him when this two-minute “highlight” video made its way into our editorial Slack channel — the 17-year-old, 7-feet, 440-pound Krahn bumbling about the football field, dwarfing everyone around him (FAT GUY IN A LITTLE HELMET). And we, too, were mostly interested in him because of his size — he was, as far as we could tell, the largest person to ever play the sport (at any level). But when we profiled him back in January, we found a kid who was much wiser than his age — especially when it came to body image issues — and who was in the midst of profound heartbreak after the death of his mom.
The term “freak athlete” is typically a compliment — a shorthand for players such as Lebron James, Bo Jackson and Michael Vick, whose superhuman strength, speed and agility allow them to bend the laws physics and recalibrate what we once thought humanly possible. Junior was a freak athlete to fans, but in the most derogatory sense possible — a sideshow that fans laughed at last fall before quickly shuffling to the next viral attraction.
“It was kind of annoying that people didn’t see me as a football player,” Junior says now, more than a year after he entered the internet zeitgeist. “I’m not just big, I’m a football player, too. … I could’ve been a big person playing chess, and the response would have been the same.”
And yet, despite the mocking, Junior has spent the last 12 months quietly continuing his quest to play for a major college football program, shedding weight, gaining speed and steadily improving his play.
This summer he enrolled at Georgia Prep Sports Academy, a kind of halfway house for promising high school athletes who aren’t quite ready for the rigors of the NCAA. Georgia Prep is a postgraduate institution — i.e., its students take high school classes and are thus able to play for its football and basketball teams without losing a year of collegiate eligibility. The academy’s purpose is to help young athletes develop so they can be recruited by and receive scholarships from major collegiate programs. Indeed, the academy has over the past three years sent football players on to some of the most renowned football schools in the country, including Georgia, Louisville and Texas.
His first night at Georgia Prep, Junior lay awake, contemplating his future at the program (and beyond). “I was just thinking about what was ahead of me, and all the time and effort I needed to put in to get to where I wanted to be as a player, and whether I was willing to do it. And the answer was yes. I wouldn’t have moved to Georgia if I didn’t want it so badly.”
He lost 100 pounds over the next six months, making good on a goal he set for himself in fall 2015, albeit a few months behind schedule. His coaches limited him to a diet of fish and vegetables, and Junior didn’t eat anything outside of the three meals Georgia Prep provided him each day. Losing the weight helped him drop his 40-yard dash time by nearly half a second to 5.6.
“I didn’t notice how much my body had changed until one day we had a poor practice and the coaches made us run. We were about 20 minutes into conditioning and I realized I hadn’t stopped to rest yet.”
He adds, “Now things don’t ache and hurt as much. I used to have bad ankle problems. Now I can run and do all my agility stuff without having to ice and being all sore.”
It also helped him secure a starting spot on the Georgia Prep team, where Junior says he played well enough to be selected to the all-conference team.
He’s more concerned, however, with his future than his recent accomplishments. He hopes to lose another 30 pounds and drop a few more tenths of a second off his 40 time, a size and speed commensurate with some of the most sought-after offensive line recruits in the country. “I need to be better than where I am if I want to be a legendary or outstanding player,” Junior says.
If his current trajectory holds, people will soon be talking about Junior again, this time for his play. He has received offers to walk-on and for partial scholarships from several FBS schools and several full scholarships from Division II programs; he plans to announce which one he’s chosen in the coming months. “All I can say right now is to expect a lot from me and to expect to hear my name.”