Johnny Perry's favorite T-shirt declared what few would dare say to his face: "Freak."
At 6-foot-5 and 375 pounds, Perry towered over most folks who worked out with him. His tattooed biceps were 25 inches around, bigger than the waists of some girls who fancied him.
Perry knew he was a genetic anomaly, and he reveled in it.
At 27, the Carolina farm boy entered the semi-sideshow world of professional strongmen -- towing trucks, flipping tractor tires and shouldering boulders. There wasn't much money in it, but he got to travel the world and be seen by millions on cable TV..
Three years after turning pro, he was ranked second in the United States and fourth in the world. His goal was to be crowned world's strongest man, the first American to hold the title in 20 years. And if genetics alone couldn't get him there, he would use steroids to help nature along. Perry was in a hurry. He knew all too well the limits of his mortality.
"I'll never make it past 40, 45," he would tell Ronnie Shirley, his boss, weight trainer and boyhood best friend. "That's my cutoff.... Man, when you're my size, you don't make it to be 50."
But even Johnny Perry couldn't have predicted how soon death would find him.
The morning of Nov. 21, Lori Butler went to wake her boyfriend so he could pack for a flight to Sweden and his first event in the World Strongman Super Series. She found him dead of a heart attack; he was 30.
Although he didn't live to make it to the top, in death, he is having perhaps a more profound effect on the sport than if he had.
Johnny Perry was born big -- 10 pounds, 9 ounces. Growing up in tobacco country east of Raleigh, Perry couldn't escape the awareness that he was different. Other kids would call him "fat boy." For years, he wouldn't go swimming without a shirt on.
But as he neared high school, his body began converting that fat into height and muscle. His mother, Gail Perry, says his size made him a magnet for trouble, like the gunfighter every young Turk wants to challenge.
In high school, he played football but quit abruptly. "I'll hurt somebody. I'm too big," he said.
Instead, he got into bodybuilding, Shirley says, a sport where "the only person he could hurt was hisself."
Perry loved his physique -- especially his arms. "He would just sit in the mirror and flex and look at himself," said Taylor Land, 13, his stepdaughter.
Perry dabbled in semiprofessional wrestling, appearing under the stage name "Steel." But he told his mother that was too "fakey" and that he wanted "to show my own strength."
That's when he found "strongmen." You can catch them as filler between basketball or football games on ESPN: massive men tossing kegs over a high bar or running down a track with a concrete boulder perched on one shoulder, Atlas-like.
The World's Strongest Man competition, created in 1977 by CBS, is now owned by Trans World International. The contests are organized by the International Federation of Strength Athletes.
The pro ranks are fed by amateurs who compete at county fairs and festivals. Competitors go from event to event, stacking up points in search of that coveted title.
The last American to own the world trophy was Wisconsin native Bill Kazmaier -- a 6-3, 320-pound titan. Kazmaier was the world's strongest man three years running, from 1980 to '82.
Perry idolized Kazmaier, and he was determined to reclaim the crown for the United States.
Perry's first competition was in 1999, the East Coast Strongman Challenge. Promoter Gayle Schroeder immediately recognized the marketability of his good looks and imposing presence.
"He was just a monstrous man," she said.
Although corporate sponsorships allow some Europeans to do Strongman events full-time, most U.S. competitors have to hold down regular jobs to pay their expenses.
Perry worked full-time as a repo man for Shirley's Lizard Lick Towing & Recovery. He improvised his own equipment, using old oxygen cylinders to practice an event called Farmer's Walk, in which the athlete runs down a track with a 245-pound weight in each hand.
Schroeder watched as Perry blazed through the ranks. She felt that 2003 was Perry's year. "He was America's hope to win world's strongest man," she said.
But Perry was convinced that he couldn't do it without help.
Gail Perry once asked her son if he took steroids. "Momma, you know I wouldn't do that," he replied. Then he smiled at her.
Shirley says Perry complained that he would never win the world title as long as there were competitors from countries where steroid use was legal.
According to Shirley, Perry had been taking steroids for about 5 1/2 years.
Even Kazmaier has acknowledged using steroids early in his career -- although he now warns people to stay away from them. Steroid use has been linked to a range of health problems, including strokes and heart attacks.
Shirley says Perry was willing to take the risk. "To be No. 1," Shirley said, "this is what you have to sacrifice."
Perry was known for raising money for disabled children, sharing advice with budding strength athletes, being what Shirley called "the most docile human being," but he had a dark side some blamed on steroids.
Less than a month before he died, his estranged wife, Mary Cabell Perry, sought a domestic-violence protective order.
"He's large, full of drugs + steroids ... ," she wrote in a request, complaining that two years earlier, Perry grabbed her so hard during an argument that he broke her neck.
Perry had a history of convictions for assault, destruction of property and other lesser crimes dating back to 1991.
Use of anabolic steroids has been linked to increased aggressiveness, a phenomenon known as " 'roid rage."
Results of Perry's autopsy have yet to be released.
Dr. Harrison Pope, a steroid specialist at Harvard Medical School, found that steroid use can increase the levels of bad cholesterol.
Given Perry's prolonged use of the drugs, he said, "it would be very tempting to say that steroids hastened the onset of the heart disease."
But Perry's supporters seem almost desperate to point to any other cause.
Shirley says Perry was a big fan of ephedra, sometimes popping six at once to "get wired" before a competition. The nonprescription fat-burning supplement has been targeted in the recent death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, 23.
Shirley says that steroids were just "two grains of sand" on the beach of Perry's life, and that opponents of their use have made an example of his friend.
But the critics have had an effect. Starting with the nationals in August, competitors will have to undergo testing for steroids and amphetamines. Competitors will also be required to submit proof that they are not suffering from any heart or other ailment that could lead to death or serious injury in the arena.
Perry died with no insurance and many debts. He is buried in a field beside his parents' home, with only a tin funeral home plaque marking his grave.
Five days before his death, Schroeder gave Perry a gift -- a smooth, 240-pound concrete "light stone." It was the first piece of professional Strongman equipment that he'd ever owned.
His mother is thinking of using it as his headstone.