There was a hush over the classroom as the teacher introduced the new kid.
John "J.J." Denman
stood sheepishly in front of the class, head bowed slightly trying not to initiate eye contact with anyone. Some of the fourth-graders blinked a few times and turned their heads, as Denman shuffled his way by them to the back of the classroom, head down, yet feeling the curious eyes on his neck. The new kid was a novelty all right.
Not because he was the "new kid." Because he was a 5-foot-4 and a rather chunky 170 pounds, so much bigger than the rest of the kids in the class.
They thought Denman might have failed about three or four grades. Ever since that day, Denman, who was born premature but still weighed 8 pounds, has been occasionally greeted with, "Dude, you're huge!"He is. He always has been.
Today, Denman is about the size of a small battleship, at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds. But being so much larger than everyone has always come with an obstacle, that target that early in his high school career Denman shied away from. Older teammates and opposing players used the hulking Pennsbury (Fairless Hills, Pa.)
offensive lineman as a measuring tool, the one they would test and take great pleasure in bowling over. It was when Denman was in his "Baby Huey" stage, sans the blue bonnet and diaper.
It's not a good idea to venture too close to the No. 36-rated recruit in the nation now, unless you want to get pancaked into the dirt by the No. 6 offensive tackle prospect in the Class of 2012
, according to CBS recruiting expert Tom Lemming. It's Denman's incredibly nimble feet and quick, fast hands that Penn State recruiters fell in love with and why Lemming says Denman is the best-looking run blocker in the country. But more importantly, it's been his incessant tenacity that's set him apart from other offensive linemen not only in Pennsylvania, but across the country.
Goliath has a major attitude.
Projected to play right tackle at Penn State, Denman will play offense and defense his senior season for the Falcons at both center and defensive tackle. He's deceptively fast for his size, and takes great pleasure in smashing anything in front of him.
It's a mindset born of being knocked down a few times himself.
"Going in as a freshman, the older kids on Pennsbury kicked my (tail) every day," recalled Denman, able to laugh about it now. "They definitely liked to get a piece of me; I was a target
. But a funny thing happened, I fell in love with football my freshman year. Yeah, when I was getting my (tail) kicked every day, I fell in love with the game. I thought I was there for a reason. I kept coming back. I wasn't going to waste that chance to play. When I was in grade school, I was so much bigger than everyone, I did what I wanted to do. That changed when I got to high school.
"I was intimidated, I won't lie. I was pretty soft back in the day. I'll admit that, too. I wasn't comfortable playing. I thought I knew everything, and I back then, I really knew nothing and everyone would get the best of me. I think there were some people that gave up on me. We had some varsity coaches that are no longer at Pennsbury that I don't think really believed in me. That's what I thought. I think I wore this label that I was big and that's all I was. Yea, I was a Baby Huey, you can say."
This Baby Huey stopped sucking his thumb and found a hammer his sophomore year. Denman began investing in himself in preparation for his second year of high school. No longer would he be knocked around, he vowed to himself. No longer would he take the punishment. He would be the one initiating it. He had never lifted weights seriously before. He found the flame to do so that summer. He took time to perfect his footwork, and his confidence grew. Call Denman's sophomore year his breakout season, because his insecure soft body transformed into that of a hardened ruffian.
Pennsbury head coach Galen Snyder put Denman at center, where he tore holes through defenses in launching the Falcons to a PIAA District 1 Class AAAA playoff berth. It's that year that college recruiters began noticing.
"How strange it may sound, but getting my (tail) kicked was a good thing," Denman says now. "I learned a lot about myself. Some people told me I couldn't play. That got me motivated. For the first time, I was being doubted and I didn't like that. I can say it, I had a chip on my shoulder. I had to show what I could do."
Snyder, however, never had doubts. His only issues with Denman his freshman year were a matter of physical and mental maturity.
"Really that's all it was," Snyder said. "We knew J.J. was going to be this good. I knew from watching J.J. wrestle. He was on the same wrestling club as my son and the thing I noticed, in addition to his size, was his footwork. He had great feet, and this was when J.J. was in eighth grade. He's come a long way since his freshman year, but we expected it. We saw it then."
Denman's first game as a sophomore, all that anger, hostility and aggression that carried over from his first high school season spilled out. He was a human wrecking ball, a madman that ripped through Conwell-Egan in the Falcons' season opener.
"I think that's what set it off," Denman said. "I think I proved to myself that I could play varsity football, and that build up even more last year. I can't wait for this season to begin. I think people saw me at my best last year, but this year, I'm different. I'm more explosive and feel a lot stronger."
He's benching 365 pounds and squatting 455 pounds. What's more, he has his college destination set, and his focus on enjoying a successful senior year.
He played left tackle, right guard and right tackle as a junior. Then the team switched to the power-I, but that wasn't working so it moved back to the wing-T, running behind Denman. He committed to Penn State on May 18, choosing the Nittany Lions Penn State over Michigan, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. His GPA is close to 3.0 and he scored 1,550 out of 2,400 on the SAT.
"Being from Pennsylvania, I'd get a lot of support and I felt Penn State wanted me the most," Denman said. "They told me they were holding kids from committing so they could leave a spot open for me. They said the right tackle spot is mine when I come. I have my senior year to play, and we're going to have a strong year. I can't wait. I wanted to commit early and focus on my senior year. This is our year, everyone has a common goal and we're just starting to click.
"I expect to go out and be the best player on the field every game. That's a personal challenge to myself, play like the best player. I know I still have a big target on my back when I get on the field. Everyone wants to go after the big kid. That's great, I'm here. Now if someone wants to come after me, they can give it their best shot. I look forward to it, because I've never been this excited before about anything in my life."