published Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Saving his own life

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    Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press -- Nov 19, 2010 James Miller poses for a portrait at the downtown YMCA with a picture of himself and his mother a few years ago. Miller received money for shoes from the Neediest Cases Fund, which he says helped him lose more than 200 pounds.

When James Miller was just 16, his doctor told him she didn't know how much longer he would live if he kept his current lifestyle.

In just five years the teenager had gone from 230 pounds to 450 pounds.

"I was going through a lot. I had a lot of stress on my mind with the passing of my brother and my father," said Miller, now 18.

After his brother died in 2002 and his father the following year, James dealt with it by eating.

"I felt alone in the world and that there was no one caring," he said.

At 2 a.m. he would be eating potato chips, making himself sandwiches or eating leftovers from what his mother had cooked that day.

"I used to ... sit in back of the class because I got tired to be the joke of the class," Miller said, holding a large Gatorade bottle filled with water.

"'I can't see the board, you're too fat,'" he said his classmates taunted him.

That went on for five years, until his medical checkup.

"I knew from the time I was walking out of the doctor's office that I had to do something and do something fast because if I didn't I wasn't going to be promised to be here," he said.

And that would have meant that he couldn't honor his father's wish: To graduate and walk with his cap and gown.

"I would have [gone] to my grave with that burden in my heart," he added.

Miller sought help. He changed his eating habits. He started walking -- first on an indoor track to build stamina and self-esteem so he could walk outside without worrying about what people would say.

From the end of June to Christmas last year, he went from size 64 pants to size 50. He felt good about himself for the first time in a long while.

In March, Miller requested $109.99 from the Neediest Cases Fund for a new pair of black-and-white Nike basketball shoes.

His old basketball shoes were falling apart, he said, and his mother couldn't afford to buy him a new pair.

Gertie Miller was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and lives on a fixed income, she said.

His former counselor at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, Nancy Rose -- who has known Miller since 2005 -- said she didn't have anywhere else to turn for his request.

"That was my only option for that," she said. "He had worked hard and lost over 180 pounds, so he needed to continue to stay active but he didn't have the money to do it."

She describes Miller as a "phenomenal" teen who now tries to use his story to inspire other kids.

Miller went back to his passion for basketball, a sport his mother and his late father played when they were young, and he is using it to continue to keep the weight off.

And in May he did what he thought would be impossible: He graduated from Howard School of Academics and Technology and is attending Chattanooga State Community College, where he takes classes in English and math.

He hopes to transfer soon to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where he wants to continue playing basketball.

And he's down to a size 36 waist.

about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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