FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The bullying started in middle school - no matter that Jonotthan Harrison was an unlikely target at 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, bigger than almost everyone who taunted him.
On the school bus.
In the neighborhood near his central Florida home in Lake County.
“There was one guy that was bigger than me, but everybody else was smaller,” the Jets’ 28-year-old center recalled in the locker room after a recent practice. “A lot of the guys were naturally tough, they grew up that way and that really wasn’t me. I was a soft-spoken kind of guy.”
Harrison didn’t want to share his troubles with the most important person in his life. He didn’t want to burden her. But Jennifer Harrison knew something was wrong with her son.
“He knew it broke my heart with every bad experience that he had,” she said. “Sometimes, I would find out without him telling me. I felt [the bullying] like he did. He was afraid that I would overreact.”
Their conversations often ended in tears.
The problems started when Harrison had enrolled in a school district two towns away and had to be bused each way. At age 6, he’d been certified by the state of Florida as gifted, a student with superior intellectual development and capable of high performance, according to the state’s Department of Education. There were limited transportation alternatives, so Harrison was taken to school with special needs students, many of whom poked fun at him.
“He was the only gifted student on the bus, and he was also a band nerd,” Jennifer said. “The [other children] thought he was academically challenged.”
“It’s something I was ashamed of and embarrassed about,” Jonotthan said. “I’ve been over 200 pounds since the fifth grade, and I’ve been bigger than everybody else since elementary school.”
But using his strength to combat the bullying wasn’t an option, no matter how much the taunting hurt – whether the verbal barbs were about his intellect or his African-American heritage. Sometimes, there were physical altercations.
Harrison didn’t fight back.
“In my family, violence wasn’t a big thing,” he said. “My mom was like, ‘You don’t fight. You can seriously injure somebody if you get into a fight. You don’t need to impose your will like that.’”
“When he was being bullied daily, I would remind him, ‘You don’t have to fight back physically. You can use your intelligence,’” Jennifer said of her only child. ”’You can use words to get them off your back. If you want to use your size, look down on them and maybe scare them off.’ I taught him not to fight back.”
Eventually, football would become his salvation.
He made the varsity as a freshman at South Lake, often playing a two-way role on the offensive and defensive lines. Where his classmates had once made fun of him, they now looked up to him.
“Football gave me an outlet to safely and legally impose my will on someone,” said Harrison, who has replaced the injured Ryan Kalil as the Jets’ starting center. “That’s when I gained some respect. ‘Ok, this guy’s tough. He’s here to play some football. Let’s not mess with him. He’s kind of cool.’”
Harrison vowed never to forget his experiences as a child, and that some day he’d help others in similar situations.
Harrison recently joined the Jets’ partnership with Bethpage Financial Credit Union’s “Stomp Out Bullying” program.
"It’s important for me to share that," he said. "I realize with the increasing incidence of bullying, especially with social media, that we need to raise awareness of it, because a lot of people are still ashamed to bring it up for fear of being shunned or ridiculed by their peers."
Harrison has spoken to children at area elementary and middle schools. “I tell them a little bit about my story and help them find ways to handle those situations, whether it’s them getting bullied or somebody they know or even a complete stranger.”
He also tries to find kids who have been bullied. The acts of kindness range from bringing a student’s favorite food to the cafeteria, to getting tickets for Jets games. “Something to talk about among their friends, give them a little confidence boost,” he said. “It’s something cool that they can share with their peers.”
Jennifer Harrison is proud of the man her son has turned into. She knows a part of his strength comes from dealing with the pain of his childhood.
“We always knew that he would come out on top because of those experiences,” she said. “We knew he was going to be something special.”
At a time of year to be thankful, the Harrisons count their blessings.
Jennifer Harrison will celebrate Thanksgiving at her son’s home in New Jersey. Just like always.
“We promised ourselves a long time ago,” she said, “that no matter where we were on this earth that we would always be together at Thanksgiving.”
Her son is grateful for all he has and all he has been through.
“I’m thankful for every day,” Jonotthan said. “There have been people that have come and gone throughout my journey, and I’m thankful for each one of them. I’m thankful for life and all the pieces that fit to this puzzle of this journey that I’m on.”
- With Al Iannazzone