(INDYSTAR.COM) -- Eric Ekis walked into the classroom at Franklin Community High School and slunk into a seat in the back. He wanted, as he had for most of his life, to be invisible.
But that wasn't really possible. Not when you are a 14-year-old freshman who stands 6-feet, 4-inches tall and weighs 510 pounds.
His classmates noticed. They made fun of him and taunted him. His English teacher Don Wettrick also noticed. Not long after the start of the school year, Eric pried himself out of a desk at the end of class. Wettrick then realized what Eric had left behind — a desk bent and broken under his weight.
Wettrick pulled Eric aside after class and invited him to exercise in the mornings. Eric declined.
Days passed and Eric became more self-conscious. Eventually, he refused to go to the cafeteria. He couldn't stand to eat while suffering the judgmental gaze of classmates.
By late September, Wettrick was deeply concerned. Eric appeared disheveled and depressed. The teacher reached out again, determined that this time, he would not let his student slink away.
"Eric," Wettrick asked, "when did you give up?"
"When my dad died," Eric replied.
Eric began to cry. So did Wettrick.
"Buddy," Wettrick told him, "I'm not going to let you die."
What happened in the months that have followed — and what continues today — is nothing short of one school's mission to change Eric's life: to build his confidence, to change his health, to save him from an obesity problem that plagues far too many in the state.
Indiana is the eighth most obese state in the nation, according to the 2013 F as in Fat report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Of the about 1.6 million children living in Indiana, 17 percent or about 270,000, are obese, said Laura Hormouth, nutrition coordinator for the Indiana Department of Health's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Given his girth, Eric's situation is special. So is the effort of his classmates, who now are far more likely to offer words of encouragement than a hurtful remark, to ask Eric to join them for a walk than to shun him and to take notice of their own eating habits.
Along the way, his teachers say, Eric the invisible has become Eric the inspiration.
"I was that one kid that always hid from everything," Eric said. "Now that everyone's started helping me, I feel a whole lot better."
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