BETH N. GRAY
A pair of firefighters who were obese pitch healthy eating and exercise habits to students. The youngsters can start today with a 3-mile fundraising walk.
SPRING HILL - When Subway pitchman Clay Henry unfurled the pants he used to wear, the student audience Friday at Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology groaned. Size 50 waist, he admitted.
"Now I'm size 34," said Henry, who is part of the trend started by Jared S. Fogle, the former 425-pounder whose dramatic weight loss launched the Subway weight-reducing menu ads.
Henry, 27, was on hand to lecture youngsters on making wise decisions about eating and exercising and to join in today's Pasco-Hernando American Heart Walk at Crews Lake Park, 16739 Crews Lake Road in Shady Hills. Registration for the 3-mile trek around the lake is at 8 a.m. with the pacers set to step out at 9 a.m.
No preregistration is necessary and anyone may simply show up, said Erica Rogers for the American Heart Association, which is cosponsoring the fundraiser for heart research, along with Subway. She expects some 2,000 participants.
Eight years ago, Henry had little chance of walking 3 miles. The 6-foot-2, then 19-year-old weighed 330 pounds. He could "trot" maybe a quarter-mile. Now at 192 pounds, he's fit, running and starring in national commercials for Subway's seven "healthy" sandwich varieties.
Henry will share the spotlight with someone for whom the fundraising walk will be a milestone event. Eric Millican, the 11-year-old who will lead off the event as the Red Hat Ambassador, has survived four open heart surgeries. He underwent the first one when he was 3 days old and had the fourth heart operation just before his 10th birthday.
"This will be his first (official) walk," said grandmother Suzanne Abell, who reared Eric since he was an infant and whom he calls Mom.
"All 3 miles," Eric vowed. "The doctor says if I stop and listen to my body, I can do anything."
Henry, a firefighter in Columbia, S.C., also understands the power of the can-do spirit. His tall, slender physique is a marked contrast from the kid who was fat in middle school and later topped the scales at 330 pounds. He soon realized that he was too heavy if he was going to fulfil his dream of becoming a firefighter.
"I wasn't going to be able to do the job," he said. "My weight was going to be a roadblock."
He was depressed with the person he had become.
"I got that way by eating fast food. That stuff is very, very fattening and loaded with calories," he told students.
He extra-sized his orders, slurped sugar-loaded drinks, including sweet tea, which, if South Carolina exported, would be sold as syrup elsewhere, he claimed.
"I had terrible eating habits and I wasn't active," Henry said, as he urged the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to start eating right early.
"You're at an age when it's important to start making decisions for yourself," he said.
"You've got to like yourself enough to decide on eating healthy and exercising," Henry continued. "It's so important now. It's easier if you live your life healthy" than trying to take off weight later.
Henry not only preached healthy eating, he promoted active living. He urged outdoor exercise - which about half the audience of some 100 indicated they engaged in frequently. But more of the students raised their hands in response to the question about regularly playing video games and watching TV.
"A lot of kids are like I was," Henry said. "We're a TV game society."
He's trying to end that trend.
Henry wasn't the only Jared-like inspiration on hand to motivate students. Julie Stack, a Spring Hill firefighter, joined Henry at the podium, showing off the size 26 shirt - almost a two-man pup tent - she wore when she weighed 320 pounds.
"I changed my choices," Stack said. "Veggies and salad help you burn calories. Lots of exercise, hours and hours of training, sweating," enabled Stack to shed 100 pounds in two years.
"If you want a job that's physical, you need to make the right choices now," declared the 35-year-old.