His aunt and uncle lent him an exercise bike to get him started. "I lost maybe 25 pounds riding it maybe 15 to 20 miles a day for about a month. Then I got the treadmill."
He told his gym teachers what he was doing. "Every day, they'd ask me how far I ran the night before. That really helped, especially at first. If I didn't feel like running one night, I'd think, 'They're going to ask me tomorrow, so I better run.'"
The teachers didn't realize they were doing something important. "We were just so amazed by his determination," said teacher Tess Gump.
West Virginia high school students are required to take only one semester of physical education in four years. Luckily, that was Benji's semester.
"Once I lost about 30 pounds, other people started to notice," Benji said. "People at church and school started saying I looked better. That helped so much, just people encouraging me. Those little comments kept me going."
At the same time, he was finding he loves to run. "Now I feel weird if I don't run," he said.
"As I lost weight, I became more popular at school. People started congratulating me in the halls and coming up and asking me how I did it, so we'd talk and it would go from there, then we'd be friends. It seems like people are more willing to talk with me without the weight."
His youth group at Ripley Baptist Temple, young people he's known all his life, "were with me all the way," he said. "They kept encouraging me, saying 'Way to go!'"
Facebook helped. While he was losing the hundred pounds, he'd post how many pounds he'd lost each week. "I'd get 20 or 30 comments back," he said. "I couldn't wait to read them. They kept me going."
The right motivation
Benji weighed only three pounds when he was born. Low birth-weight babies are at high risk for overweight, diabetes and hypertension.
He was skinny "or normal weight" till about fourth grade, he said, then he started packing on pounds. "I ate a lot of junk food, and I spent most of my free time sitting around playing video games. I wasn't out there riding bikes or running or anything like that."
But diabetes and hypertension "weren't anything I thought about," he said. "I know I lowered my diabetes risk when I lost weight, and that's good," he said, "but that's not why I did it. I was tired of being fat, and I want to be a good firefighter, those two reasons."
"People who want to help young people lose weight need to pay attention to that," Dr. Jeffrey said. "It's not enough to tell them they might get diabetes. They need -- anyone needs -- an immediate reason that means something to them."
The day Benji turned 16, 100 pounds lighter, he signed on as a trainee at the Ripley Volunteer Fire Department. His dad, with 27 years experience in Charleston, joined the VFD with him. Now Benji keeps his VFD radio with him and goes to the firehouse several nights a week, sometimes with his dad, sometimes not.
When he posts on Facebook, he often tells what happened at the fire station that day. Sometimes he cleaned the engines or the firehouse. Other days, he's learning to tie knots or handle a high-pressure hose or rescue somebody trapped in high water. Sometimes he just sits around with the guys and talks.
"We're always waiting to get called out for runs." He can help with medical emergencies, people who get lost, or water rescues. He can't go into burning buildings until he's 18, "but I can help in other ways."
His parents have supported him right down the line. "Obviously, I'm not crazy about having the treadmill taking up so much of the living room," said his mom, Jane, "but our house is too small to put it anywhere else, and we know how important it is to him. We're here to support him any way we can.
"We don't fry anything anymore," she said. "It's all baked. He insists on it. We have hamburgers, but we bake them. We bake our chicken. And it all tastes good."
Benji learned about nutrition on "The Biggest Loser," he said. "They should teach it in health class at school too, but they don't," he said. "They mainly talk about alcohol and drugs. Half the teachers don't eat healthy themselves, so maybe they don't like to talk about nutrition."
He is on a low-key campaign to get his parents more fit. He asks them to go power-walking with him in the evening. "I'm trying to get them onto a walking schedule," he said. Sometimes they go with him.
Occasionally, he thinks back to the night he went coon hunting in the dark. "It's funny, because now I'm the first person the fire department puts on the ground if somebody's lost in the woods at night, because I can get around so easily."
Not long ago, he helped find one of his classmates who got lost in the woods. "Life is very different for me now," he said. "My future looks good." As he wrote on Facebook, "I'm going to have a fun life."
Reach Kate Long at (304) 348-1798 or katel...@wvgazette.com.
To send Benji a message, comment on this story online at wvgazette.com."The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.