CRYSTAL LAKE – At 6 feet tall and 235 pounds, it's hard to imagine David Otunga was ever bullied.
The WWE star has made a career out of throwing opponents into the ropes, but as a young boy, the Elgin native was the victim of relentless teasing because of his weight and thick glasses.
Now Otunga uses his celebrity status to teach kids about the dangers of bullying, and on Tuesday he spoke to more than 300 middle school students at Prairie Grove Junior High.
“I was bullied when I was growing up, and I think that really shaped who I am today,” said Otunga, who was connected to Prairie Grove through the Crystal Lake Park Police. “A lot of kids go through that.”
Otunga's visit to Prairie Grove comes after the school experienced a flurry of teasing last week. Having Otunga address the school gave the students a role model who speaks out against that type of behavior, Principal Vic Wight said.
“The kids are looking up to a star figure and see that he got bullied, and hopefully that impacts them in how they treat other people,” Wight said. “A student they think might not be exactly fitting in or looking like them is going to eventually be someone that they could look up to.”
Otunga travels around the world speaking to schools about bullying. He explains how he was hurt from teasing and name calling, and offers advice to kids who are bullied.
“It's becoming a serious problem now with cyberbullying,” he said. “It's everywhere. Now when you go home, you're not even safe. Online, kids are picking on you. You can't get away from it.”
Otunga sees the effect of cyberbullying even as an adult, as WWE fanatics often send hateful and misguided messages to him on Twitter.
“In the WWE, I play a heel, or a bad guy,” he said. “A lot of people don't know that I'm acting. On Twitter, people will really talk bad about me because I'm a 'bad guy.' I think that helps the kids because it lets them know that nobody is safe from bullying. Even I get bullied. What I'm trying to do is help them learn how to cope with it.”
Otunga's path from a Larkin High School graduate to a WWE star and anti-bullying spokesman has a variety of stops in between. After attending the University of Illinois, Otunga went to Harvard Law School and later worked for the Sidley Austin law firm in Chicago.
He quit the firm in 2007 for a stint in reality television, as he was chosen to be a contestant on the dating show “I Love New York.” Otunga made it to the final three and was eliminated on the second-to-last episode.
Today he is engaged to actress and Chicago native Jennifer Hudson and recently made his debut on the big screen as a police officer in the Halle Berry movie "The Call." He is also a frequent legal expert on HLN and has been on to discuss the Jodi Arias trial.
“I feel like I'm just like a regular guy,” Otunga said. “It's still weird to me when people know me and get really excited about it. But if that helps you to pay more attention to what I'm saying, I'm all for it. That's great.”