Damien Woody is trading a year for a life. The weight that prolonged his career as an offensive lineman is now a threat to sustaining his retirement. His goal in the next 12 months is to shave off about one-third of the 345 pounds he once carried. While he played, the need to drop down to a healthy weight was compromised by the demands of life in the trenches. Now he knows that his life depends on it.
“You don’t see fat old people,” says Woody, who split his 12-year career between the New England Patriots, Detroit Lions, and New York Jets. “They don’t exist, and the reason they don’t exist is that they end up having some kind of chronic disease or they end up passing away before their time. That’s why I decided, ‘Ya know what? I’m retired from football. There’s no need for me to be this big anymore.'”
Woody knows that one minor health problem can snowball into an avalanche of issues. A sore joint can deter him from working out. The inability to work out can lead to cardiovascular issues and additional weight gain. The weight gain can lead to a life that ends prematurely.
For Woody and other recent linemen retirees, The NFL was a precursor to this larger struggle. Their training is no longer mandatory, practices are not scheduled, and the cameras are no longer on. Nearly all these retired linemen need to confront shedding the weight of their playing days to avoid debilitating health issues. The exiting generation of lineman is acutely aware of the importance of slimming down.
“Keeping your body maintained, keeping it clean, it’s not as easy as people may think,” says Kris Jenkins, a defensive lineman who announced his retirement this summer and played at about 360 pounds. “Where I’m at now, I just feel like I’m in the next stage of my journey as a man. That’s it. I feel like that’s the biggest game that I’m playing. Football is a minigame to that. I’m still playing the big game, which is life.”
In 1990, fewer than 70 NFL players weighed more than 300 pounds. A count of this season’s opening-game rosters reflected 358 players who weighed at least that much. The Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks each carry a league-high 15 players who weigh 300 pounds or more. As player weight continues to balloon, their cartilage remains the same — whether it supports fat or muscle. Today’s players are bigger, but also more nimble. They represent a generation that followed in the giant footsteps of William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who could stuff gaps, score touchdowns, dance, and eat.
Cautionary signs have accompanied the generation of larger players. In 2004, the Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White died of fatal cardiac arrhythmia at age 43. Thomas Herrion of the San Francisco 49ers died a year later from a heart disease that obstructed blood flow to a coronary artery. He was 23 years old. Orlando Bobo, a former offensive lineman, died in 2007 from heart and liver failure at 33 years of age. Lee Roy Selmon, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman and Tampa Bay’s first selection, died from complications relating to a stroke earlier this month at the age of 56.
A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded in 1994 that offensive and defensive linemen are at more than 50 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population. In 2005, the Scripps Howard News Service fielded a study of nearly 4,000 players and found that offensive and defensive lineman are twice as likely to die before reaching 50 years old than teammates who played other positions.
“All your connective tissue, your supporting structure, your bones, and all that, they don’t necessarily grow proportionately with the muscle mass, so you have that extra weight and it’s a wear-and-tear deal,” says Dr. Charles Yesalis, a professor of health policy and sport science at Penn State.
“It’s very predictable given the American psyche. You want bigger, faster, stronger in sports. The NFL long ago, as many people have commented, morphed. We don’t have lions and Christians, but we have the NFL and the toll it’s taking on these guys, not even the muscular-skeletal system, but the toll on their central nervous system; and all the problems that, thank god, are now coming to light, is alarming. And the bigger projectiles that you have equals the more damage.”
The NFL disputed the reports of the Scripps Howard study and a University of North Carolina study in 2005 that stated that more than a quarter of players were between moderately or morbidly obese. Since 2005, the league has commissioned a subcommittee on cardiovascular health, and their studies reflect that football players are healthier than the general population in many important categories.
Dr. Robert Vogel, a co-chairman of the committee and a cardiologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said he started the study expecting to find worse results and that the post-playing careers of football players cannot be generalized.
“Football, in general, is not associated with a short life,” Vogel says. “Having said that, there’s no question that the big guys do pay a price, and if you compare them with the non-lineman, they do have a higher cardiovascular mortality, they have higher rates of other diseases that are associated with obesity, as does the general population. So, if you’re a football player, being large really doesn’t protect you in any long-term sense.”
Ben Lynch never thought he would weigh more than 270 pounds. He now scoffs at that number. He passed it early in college and tipped 300 pounds while in the NFL.
“It’s more that you see what other guys weigh,” says Lynch, 38. “When I first started in the NFL and I was in the midst of the season, I would be in the mid-280s or low 280s and there was some encouragement to put on weight. Over time, you see how big linemen were getting and you just realize where you fit in.”
Lynch played four seasons with the 49ers and retired in 2003 after a failed bid to land with the Houston Texans.
“I was eating anything I wanted,” he says. “It was just about calories in. That was my biggest thing. I would be somewhat health conscious, because when I was playing with NFL teams they had decent food around to eat. But when I went out to eat at a restaurant, it would be an appetizer, a salad, an entrée and then dessert, and that would be every time I would go out to eat, and that’s fairly frequent when you’re on the road going out to games and going out to eat with teammates.
“You spend the majority of your life trying to gain weight to play football. It’s a tough thing to do to make that transition to losing weight.”
In retirement, Lynch also confronted the ravages that come with life as an offensive lineman. He underwent nine surgeries1 and spent the bulk of his recovery on his couch. Eventually, Lynch wanted to make life easier on his joints by losing weight. He started by trying to not eat out as frequently. The midnight snack routine was axed. When these measures sputtered out, his sister suggested John Berardi’s nutrition plan, and he decided to give it a trial run. It worked, and he has stuck with it while trying to resist glutens and grains.
He now weighs 240 pounds and suggests the routine for other retired linemen.
“I felt I was on my own,” Lynch says. “There needs to be more guidance in terms of helping guys shed the weight and get down to a healthy body weight.”
The common threads between the players who successfully shed weight are motivation, momentum, and reachable goals that are determined by rigid rules. Woody’s faith is now in what he calls his “hand rule.” If a meal portion does not fit in his palm, it does not go in his mouth.
In the morning, he eats proteins and carbohydrates for the energy to sustain him through two daily workouts. As the day wears on, he eats more proteins than carbohydrates. Water is his beverage of choice.
As of last week, he had trimmed off 22 pounds since starting. He is still a ways from his goal, but on the correct path. “One thing that’s really helped me out so far is that I look at my body as a machine,” says Woody, who is now an ESPN analyst. “If you have a luxury sports car, you don’t put 87 in it. You put in 93. So why would I put 87 into my body? I want my body to run as efficiently as possible, so let me put good stuff in it and go out here and exercise. That’s the key, and it’s been working.”
At times, even the linemen most committed to losing weight are stymied by injuries that have lingered from their playing days. Chris Samuels now works as an offensive coordinator for Blount High School in Mobile, Ala. He is still hindered by a neck injury that stemmed from a helmet-to-helmet hit and shortened his career.
“Some days I do well,” says Samuels, 34. “Some days I don’t. It hurts, and just sleeping is kind of tough for me. A lot of times, I’m tossing and turning because my neck is so stiff and tight and sore.
“Sometimes I feel great about getting up and going to work out, and other times my body’s hurting and I’m just not eager to get out there and work out. So, I just got to take it in stride, the good days and bad days, get it in when I can.
“When you’re retired, there’s really no one pushing you,” he continues. “You know what’s at stake if you’re going through a season out of shape and not properly trained. You’re going to get injured, or you’re just going to have a bad season. But now no one’s pushing you, and, really, it should be the most important time to work out because you’re really fighting for your life. If you let things get out of hand, things can happen.”
The post-playing jobs of some dictate their workout regimens. Tra Thomas, the former All-Pro offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, opened a gym in New Jersey appropriately named 7 Deuce Sports. The facility trains athletes, and Thomas enlisted several former teammates to assist him. Some Eagles used the facility to train during the lockout.
Thomas often takes advantage of his own facility in an attempt to lean himself out through many repetitions with low weights.
“You don’t want to retire and just balloon up,” says the 36-year-old Thomas. “I’m always [at the gym], so there’s really no excuse. I’m working out at least five, six times a week. It keeps me going, and it’s motivation. You don’t want to be the type of facility owner that doesn’t look like he trains at all. It keeps me motivated because the people that we train, they’re not going to take coming in there and looking at a fat trainer. “
Jon Runyan, Thomas’ former teammate on the line, is now a U.S. Representative in New Jersey. His schedule is loaded — speeches, appearances, meeting, traveling — and often not at his discretion.
“I can sit here and tell you the truth right here — I haven’t done anything since Saturday morning,” Runyan, 37, said in an interview on a Thursday. “I’m a little behind the curve. But that’s the thing — forcing it in your schedule. And truly, where I’m at, you have to put it in your schedule, so your scheduling people actually leave the time alone so you can get out and do it.”
Whatever exercise Runyan manages is often in the small hours of the morning. Sometimes, he joins in with congressional workers who train to the popular P90X series of fitness DVDs. Soon, there will also be the added motivation of preparing for the annual charity football game that features members of Congress against Capitol Police.
“Let’s hope what’s left of my knees will help me through that process,” Runyan said.
But there is not one set guideline to follow.
“Not everybody’s going to gain and lose weight the same way,” Jenkins says. “My weakness is stress. I don’t pig out just to pig out, but if I’m in a stressful situation and I have a hard time getting things together or achieving the success that I want to see or do the things that I want to do, then I do tend to stress-eat. A lot of those things that I went through I had to be mindful of. But then when you go out there and try to be a vegetarian or something like that as a defensive lineman, it might not work too well because then you lose the type of strength that you want.”
“You kind of get tired of shopping at Rochester Big & Tall, and the only reason you buy things is because they fit as opposed to being something you really like,” Lynch says. “So it’s kind of cool to walk into a store and buy something off of a rack as opposed to just buying something that fits.”
Woody made the same point: He and his fellow linemen want to live long and no longer large.
“I call it downsizing,” Woody says. “That’s what I’ve been doing, just starting my downsizing. I just feel so much better. Once I get to my ultimate goal, I can only imagine how great I’m going to feel. That’s what’s really encouraging me.”
For more on how Ben Lynch is keeping his weight down, check out his food diary on The Triangle.
Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland, and Robert Mays is an editor at Grantland.
Previously from Robert Mays:
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Couldn’t Lose: An oral history of Friday Night Lights
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