PICKERINGTON, Ohio — John Meadows played the role of celebrity in plain sight to perfection when he showed up to football practice with his sons Jonathan and Alexander, even if he left a few context clues.
Meadows’ biceps popped through a T-shirt with a self-portrait and a curious phrase: “Alright, hi everybody.”
He wore a white Philadelphia Eagles visor and rarely raised his voice. The 5-foot-6 coach stood out, even when he was trying to stay out of the spotlight. Yet anyone who came across Meadows could not help but say it out loud.
“Who is that guy?”
Barry Sutherland, the president of the Pickerington Youth Athletic Association football league, remembers asking himself that question on that first encounter.
“You see some pretty big guys in football, obviously,” Sutherland said. “John stood out more than most right away.”
Bodybuilders know from the get-go. Meadows, the founder of Granite Supplements and Mountain Dog Diet, was a world-famous superstar in that realm. The “Mountain Dog” spent more than 30 years competing in the sport. He had 345,000 Instagram followers and countless YouTube workouts dedicated to personal fitness.
That curious phrase — “Alright, hi everybody” — was Meadows’ signature opening line for every workout and part of his persona as the “Mr. Rogers of Bodybuilding.” James Seals, a bodybuilder who trained with Meadows for 30 years, recalled the scene when they would attend the International Federation of Bodybuilders Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus.
“People knew he was a pro because everybody knew John,” Seals said. “It didn’t matter where you went. John couldn’t step two feet without somebody noticing him, wanting to talk to him, shake his hand or take a picture and sign an autograph.”
John Meadows, 49, died unexpectedly on Aug. 8 in his home, and he left two lasting legacies that converged late in life. He was a viral superstar in the bodybuilding world, but he also emerged as an ambitious youth football coach in Pickerington, Ohio. Those who grew close to Meadows in both worlds found genuine friendship and success, and that did not surprise his wife Mary when she saw the results.
“John had a good heart, a big heart,” Mary said. “He gave without expecting anything in return. He was humble and always surrounded himself with good people. That may have been due to the type of people that were drawn to him.”
Meadows’ dream to become a professional bodybuilder took off when he watched the Mr. Olympia competition as a teenager.
“I was hooked,” Meadows said in a July 5, 2015 interview. “At 13 years old, I said that’s what I want to look like.”
Meadows set out to win his IFBB Pro Card, a Holy Grail of sorts reserved for the elite that compete at a national level.
Meadows trained with Seals and competed at the local and state level. He also emerged as a sought-after coach for aspiring bodybuilders. That is where that teaching voice was crafted, even if it was more direct at first.
“That was developed over time,” Seals said. “John was really hard on us. He did not want people screwing around when he trained. In later years, he would be way more patient. With everybody else, he was always patient. He was never short with anybody and there was never a question he did not try to answer.”
Meadows’ career was sidetracked at age 33 when he was diagnosed with a rare colon disease which required surgery. Those obstacles never stopped him. He returned, and placed second countless times in those attempts to get a Pro Card.
That 2015 interview is significant. It was after Meadows won the NPC Team Universe in Teaneck, N.J. It was the feel-good story of the competition. Meadows had a Pro Card. Mary Meadows said whenever John signed an autograph, he handed out the picture from that competition.
That was his signature accomplishment.
“I never had this vision in my head that I would compete as a successful pro,” John Meadows said in that interview. “I just wanted to accomplish the goal of winning a Pro Card. This is 30 years that it took to accomplish the goal for me.”
Meadows’ popularity in the sport would soar, but Seals said Meadows maintained the same grind-it-out-attitude in his training and coaching.
“If anything, he became more humble,” Seals said. “John had been trying since he was 13 to be a pro. Once he got it, he never changed. He was the same person. That is why others wanted to train with him.”
Pickerington is a football-centric town of 20,000-plus in the shadow of Columbus. It’s an assembly line for football talent that starts with Central and North High School. Those two schools have produced a handful of NFL players, and they combined to send 19 players to the FBS in 2021. Ohio State’s Jack Sawyer (North) and Notre Dame’s Lorenzo Styles (Central) are the latest five-star freshmen to come off that line.
The youth football scene is predictably hyper-competitive as a result, and that starts at the top with Pickerington mayor Lee Gray. He works with Sutherland to pick the right coaches each season.
Gray remembers being approached by Meadows to talk in 2019. The two went to breakfast, and bodybuilding was never mentioned.
“The conversation always went to youth football because of the season we were in and the excitement he had for his boys,” Gray said. “It had become John’s new passion.
“When he got into bodybuilding, remember you didn’t have the internet and the access that people have now,” Gray said. “He remembered what it was like to try to learn and get better and start from scratch.”
The youth-coaching fraternity in Pickerington is a tight-knit club of football-first dads and former college players. Marcus Ray and J.R. Ford played on Michigan’s 1997 national championship team. These volunteer jobs mean three practices a week, but it is more than schemes and scouting reports.
The focus is on developing players to feed into those high school programs. Meadows fit right in.
Renell Bell met John when he drafted Alexander and Jonathan for the junior team, which consisted of third- and fourth-graders. Bell had the same encounter as most after meeting Meadows for the first time. When Bell saw Meadows working out at American Barbell, that all-too familiar conversation sparked.
Bell asked, “What do you do? Your physique is crazy.”
John’s lifting partner interrupted: “You don’t know who this is?”
“Honestly, no,” Bell replied.
“Man, he’s a legend.”
That’s when Meadows quickly pulled Bell aside to tell him quietly about his career and he would be glad to help as an offensive line coach if possible at practice.
“I could see the passion there,” Bell said. “I think it was starting to build at that point. John wanted to be a football coach.”
That’s quite the juxtaposition from his other career, where bodybuilders wanted Meadows to be their coach.
“I was in the coaching business myself, but I wanted to be coached by him,” Andrew Berry said. “I saw him as someone who didn’t have the top-of-the-line-genetics, but he built a crazy physique with what he had. I knew I could learn a lot from him.”
Why not? By this time, Meadows’ influence as a bodybuilding expert had spread.
“John was known as one of the top gurus when it came to training and diet and stuff like that,” Seals said. “He did seminars all year round. He trained with a lot of the top guys. All the top officials know him in the sport, and his supplement is one of the top ones out there.”
Berry reached out to Meadows in 2011. Meadows responded with an email within two hours, and the two developed a friendship. Berry contributed to the Mountain Dog Diet website. Berry made the trip from Shelburne, Vermont, to visit Meadows in 2015.
“He was a major celebrity to me,” Berry said. “That changed when I got out of the airport. He pulls up, runs out of the car and he gives me a big hug. He said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here. We’re going to have a great week. It’s going to be awesome.’ Instantly the celebrity facade I had in my head went away. He was just John at that point.”
Like Meadows, Berry had the career goal of getting a IFBB Pro Card. The two made trips across the bodybuilding circuit for the next six years, and on Aug. 8, 2021, Berry won his IBFF Pro Card at the 2021 IFBB Tampa Pro.
“I was the last person John turned pro,” Berry said.
Yet by that time, Berry said his conversations with Meadows had changed. That new-found passion spilled over all the time. Meadows had become immersed in football.
“A good deal of our conversations were about football,” Berry said. “They were about plays he was writing up. He was so into coaching football that I really believe he would have gone to the top the same way he did with bodybuilding.”
In 2020, Meadows volunteered to be a full-time assistant coach with Scott Quick in the senior division for fifth- and sixth-graders, and they named their team the Punishers.
That’s when Mary noticed Meadows moved from his office to the kitchen table, which was covered with plays, formations and game plans. When Mary needed to use John’s computer, she found every tab locked on a football drill.
“I would tease him and ask how much he was actually working,” Mary said. “He just loved it. He loved teaching, whether that was about the body or about football. Not everyone could teach. He could.”
Meadows built new friendships. Quick weighed 330 pounds when the two met, and that is when Meadows offered some personal fitness tips. When Meadows told Quick about the 12-part YouTube series, that “wow moment” clicked.
“It didn’t hit me until he tagged me on a few things and they had like 1,000 likes,” Quick said. “I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ That’s just John, though. He was never about himself.”
Quick lost 60 pounds, and the Punishers reached the PYAA championship game with the help of Edmund McAllister III, a future star everyone knows as “E-Mac” whose father Edmund played at Saginaw Valley State. Meadows did not just want the player to win games, and that is what drew Edmund Jr. to the coach.
“John Meadows was an unbelievable teacher,” Edmund said. “John was the first coach that I trusted my son with and my son believed in.”
The Punishers won the league championship that season, and Meadows went into a rare full-go celebration mode. He hugged Quick. He ran to the fence to embrace McAllister. He took countless pictures; this time with Mary, Alexander and Jonathan holding that first-place trophy.
“That game was just phenomenal,” Quick said. “The whole time it was going back and forth like any good football game would. John was just on his coaching that day. He had all the offensive plays dialed up. We were just on the same page all day.”
Meadows called Seals afterward, too.
“He was more excited about that then when he got his IBFF Pro Card,” Seals confirmed.
“That captured that joy and that excitement and all of his plans, meeting with the coaches and working with the coaches,” Mary Meadows added. ” It brought it all to fruition. That’s what his goal was.”
Like any high achiever, however, John set higher goals for the 2021 season.
Sutherland has been the eighth-grade coach at Ridgeview Junior High School since 2011. By now he had developed a close friendship with Meadows, who approached him about taking a coaching job with cross-town rival Lakeview. Sutherland encouraged Meadows to take the challenge because of the coaching style.
“He was kind of the opposite of what you would think he would be as a coach,” Sutherland said. “Of course you see a guy that big, you think he’s going to be a screamer. Completely opposite. Talked articulately. Very well-received by kids and parents. The way he communicated football was the way he communicated bodybuilding. He never once made you feel like you were inferior.”
Meadows had started cross-over preparation while maintaining his career in fitness. By this time, Meadows’ influence spread to the NFL. Philadelphia Eagles players such as Boston Scott and Lane Johnson trained with Meadows, who was a regular at offseason camps.
Scott made the trip to Pickerington last summer. Mary said Scott played the guitar with Alexander and hit up the PlayStation 4 with Jonathan. Meadows used that opportunity to talk about football, too. On one of his trips to Philadelphia, Meadows called Sutherland, sometimes between sets while training. He was ready for that next challenge.
“He called me from camp and was actually telling me plays they were showing him, some simple things he could teach a little-league or junior-high program,” Sutherland said. “A coach leads by example. He never stopped in that regard.”
In 2021, Meadows and McAllister were set to defend the senior division championship. On Aug. 7, the PYAA conducted its draft with all the coaches, and when it was over, Meadows had a new team.
The Eagles looked great on paper. Mary said Meadows spent that afternoon picking up “goodies” for his new players. League director Rob Zook remembers calling Meadows that afternoon.
“We were laughing and joking about the season,” Zook said. “He was always talking about the kids and what he could do to make them better.”
Berry also called Meadows that day.
“I had just competed in a Pro Show,” Berry said. “We had a great conversation and he didn’t sound any different than any other day.”
John Meadows died in his sleep that night.
Seals was one of the first call Mary made after John passed away.
“It just broke my heart,” Seals said. “I started crying right there.”
In the bodybuilding and personal fitness world, Meadows left a huge void. The plan is to continue Granite Supplements, Mountain Dog Diet and the YouTube series which put Meadows in weight rooms across the country. Seals knows Meadows will have a lasting legacy.
Cris Edmunds is part of keeping that moving at Mountain Dog Diet. Edmunds met Meadows in 2008, and the Salem, Va., native had the same experience as everyone else. He was a bodybuilding coach for Meadows, but he also made the trip to Pickerington the previous week to help with football evaluations. Edmunds had just sent pictures from one of his workouts to John, and that’s when Mary called with the news.
“It still is heartbreaking,” Edmunds said. “We just released a YouTube video of the last training session I did with him, and it’s hard for me to watch. I miss him. I miss my friend.”
Berry puts it into perspective like this: Arnold Schwarzenegger remains one of the most-popular figures in bodybuidling, partly because of his fame as a Hollywood celebrity. Meadows was the hero for the every-day bodybuilder working their way up the ranks.
“You could have one conversation with him at an expo, and you would leave thinking, ‘Man, this guy could be one of my best friends,'” Berry said. “He had this uncanny ability to remember all those conversations a year later. When people do those things, it makes the other person feel good.
“When John died, there was a sense that we really lost somebody,” Berry said. “We lost a good guy in the sport; a good guy in the world. It was the energy that he put into it.”
News of Meadows’ death spread in Pickerington the next day. Coaches texted and called each other. Bell said he froze when after hearing the news. Gray met Sutherland in his driveway after receiving the text. It did not make sense.
“John was there with all of us at the draft, and he was so excited about his team,” Gray said. “Then, the next day he was gone. That’s just the hard thing to wrap your arms around. We were all in such a state of shock.”
The coaches gathered the following day for a meeting. Sutherland confirmed the news, and McAllister was named the head coach in Meadows’ place. There were hugs, handshakes and most coaches fought back tears. Jon Gialluca, who coached a junior-league championship team the previous season, simply said, “Nobody was there mentally that day. Everyone was thinking about John.”
Practice still followed. Meadows would have wanted it that way.
Sutherland, Gray and Gialluca were among those in the receiving line at calling hours five days later. Every PYAA football coach in attendance wore their shirt, and Mary saw just how much John had meant to the football community in Pickerington. She listened to their stories, much like John did.
“It’s really bizarre, actually,” Mary said. “It’s sad and I have my moments, but I am overwhelmed with feeling blessed how much John impacted so many peoples’ lives.”
The PYAA season football opened Aug. 28, and Meadows’ presence could be felt. Every coach wore a shirt with “JM” initials stitched on the front. Quick caught himself looking around at one moment.
“It was definitely awkward to not be able to look around and see him,” Quick said. “‘JM’ on the shirt. Just seeing that, seeing the boys, seeing Mary; it was tough but it is getting better.”
McAllister changed the team name from Eagles to Meadows, and the team walked on the field in unison for the first game. McAllister’s son scored three TDs. On the second score, Mary pushed off the fence and cheered in the back of the end zone.
“I just enjoyed watching him do something he was passionate about, and the kids were so responsive to him,” Mary said. “It made me sad the other day because he was missing what he loved.”
The Meadows won their season opener 33-0, and McAllister repeated Meadows’ mantra in the team huddle afterward.
“One sound. One mind. One team. One goal.”
In that sense, Meadows will still be there this season. That gift of motivating bodybuilders translated seamlessly to the game of football, and anybody who met Meadows would tell you that.
That is not lost on anybody who ended up doing a Google search on Meadows. The bodybuilder was a football coach, and the football coach was a family man.
“John is one of those people who comes once in a lifetime, and for somebody as well-known as he was, you wouldn’t know that at all by his personality,” Sutherland said. “He was more famous than people realize. In one life, I’ll always remember the bodybuilder. In the other life I will always recognize him as a father, coach and friend.”
In both worlds, John Meadows was that guy.
In any context, that was always in plain sight.