Former professional wrestler Marc Mero used to go by Johnny B. Badd. His motivational work since leaving the squared circle may qualify him for the opposite moniker.
In 2007 Mero founded Champion of Choices, a Florida-based nonprofit through which Mero works to spread a message of empowerment and positivity. Instead of performing in front of thousands for the WWE or WCW, Mero speaks to hundreds in church halls and school auditoriums. He gave 186 presentations in 2013, he said, and is on track to top 200 this year — including a March 30 talk at the Auburn Church of the Nazarene.
His audiences may be smaller, but the message is urgently bigger, Mero said.
"Every time we speak, we receive from 100 to 200 messages, and the most common is, 'This changed my life,'" he said over the phone Friday, just before a speaking engagement in Lake Placid, Fla.
Mero, who graduated from Liverpool High School, went on to win the New York Golden Gloves boxing tournament before becoming a pro wrestler. He frequently cites the bad decisions of friends in that industry — several of whom died from drug abuse and suicide — as incentive for forming Champion of Choices. His own mistakes were just as motivational, he said.
"I try to inspire by showing where my good choices and where my bad choices took me," he said. "Everyone wants bling-bling and an Escalade, but no one wants to work for anything anymore. You have to achieve things in life."
Much of Mero's outreach has been directed toward children and the dangerous issues they face — bullying, self-harm and suicide, which is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's so different from when I was a kid in high school," Mero said. "A lot of kids feel like they're hopeless, like there's not a future for them. It's a scary place to be."
It's for that reason that Mero spent a recent night answering letters until 3 a.m. At one recent high school visit, he said, he heard from six students who were contemplating suicide — one of whom had already written their note. At an Atlanta school, a student confessed to Mero that he had two guns in his possession and was going to kill classmates, he said.
"They asked why he didn't follow through with it and he said, 'Because the man made me realize how bad I'd hurt my mom,'" Mero said.
As Champion of Choices continues into its eighth year and Mero makes what he believes to be his sixth swing through central New York, the nonprofit's work remains far from done. The major hurdle is convincing more parents and schools to see the same urgency in Mero's work that he does, he said.
"Schools are so worried about the testing that they miss out on programs like ours that are changing and saving lives," he said. "We've already proven that we've saved kids' lives."