Growing up, Carlos Dunlap was almost always the biggest kid in his class.

By the time Dunlap entered Fort Dorchester High School, he was 6-feet-4 and weighed more than 225 pounds. But as big as Dunlap was in high school, he wasn’t immune to bullying from his classmates.

“Sadly, I was on both sides of bullying growing up,” said Dunlap, an NFL defensive lineman with the Cincinnati Bengals. “I’ve said things at the lunch table when I was in school that I realize now were not the right things to say. You know, whatever the joke of the day was I would participate in making those jokes.

“And I’ve been on the flip side of those kinds of things myself. People would make fun of how big my shoes were or the clothes I was wearing because they were not in fashion because of my size. I’ve seen both sides of it. I tried to let those things roll off of me, I’ve got pretty thick skin, but I was the target of a lot of jokes and teasing when I was in school.”

For years, the former University of Florida star has dedicated much of his offseason and energy to his Carlos Dunlap Foundation which promotes education, literacy and helps kids study for college entrance exams. He also partners with Faces without Places, which throws birthday parties for homeless children.

Last summer, while Dunlap was in Florida training for the NFL season, someone from his foundation sent him a link to a newspaper article about Gabriel Taye, an 8-year-old Cincinnati kid who took his own life after being bullied.

“To think about an 8-year-old taking his own life because of being bullied was unbelievable,” Dunlap said. “I was already going into the local Cincinnati schools talking about how important education was, how important being able to read is, so this is another subject I could tackle while I was there.”

The Centers for Disease Control estimate more than 4,400 suicides annually are a result of bullying. It’s one of the highest causes of death for children in the United States.

“Suicides as a result of bullying are like the third or fourth most common cause of deaths for children,” Dunlap said. “That’s way too high. Any death because of bullying is one too many, but to have it third or fourth nationally, that’s something that needs to be addressed and looked at more closely. There are a lot of great causes and issues that need to be looked at and I really think this is one issue that I can, as a professional football player, help with.”

Dunlap started adding his anti-bullying message when he visited the schools for his foundation. The issue hit Dunlap again when 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis took her own life in Colorado after a video of her getting into a fight with a bully went viral.

Dunlap works with teachers and administrators to create “Bully Free Zones” in schools.

“It’s tough for me to think about a kid not being able to be a kid and enjoy his or her life and do his thing because they are getting bullied,” Dunlap said. “I wanted to use my platform to help raise awareness about this issue and to hopefully encourage the kids that are being bullied to come forward and get some help. The schools and their homes really should be their safe zones.”

Diane Ross, Dunlap's mother and the principal at W.B. Goodwin Elementary School in North Charleston, said her son's message has resonated with her students.

"The students look up to professional athletes so when Carlos is talking about bullying they listen," Ross said. "I think he's really been able to start a conversation about bullying with our students. They are not afraid to talk about bullying or being bullied and that's the first step in helping to stop it. He's making a difference."

Dunlap has taken his message on the road. When the Bengals travel, Dunlap visits schools in those cities as well. He’s already spoken at schools in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Baltimore and plans to pick up where he left off during the 2018 NFL season.

“You should never have to feel like you have to stand up to the bully alone,” Dunlap said. “If you think about it, bullying happens at every school no mater where you’re from. Statistics say that 60 percent of all children are bullied while they’re in school and only 50 percent of the kids that are bullied ever report it. I think when they see someone like me talking about bullying and talking about what you can do and not do, I think they get it. We’re getting a great response from the kids.”

Dunlap will hold his annual youth football camp on June 2.

Reach Andrew Miller at 843-937-5599. Follow him on Twitter @APMILLER_PandC