As football players get larger, stronger and faster, concerns about the long-lasting neurological effects of their collisions have garnered national attention. The concussion crisis now has a permanent seat at the table of national discourse. But the largest and strongest of football players are dealing with an additional layer of severe medical issues no less important and often more urgent: obesity.
Scott Summers launched into his football career at the University of Arkansas as a chiseled 6’2”, 235-pound paragon of health. Fast forward 15 years and he weighed 420 pounds. The medical-supply salesman was tired, depressed, and feared he wouldn’t live to see his three young children grow up.
His story is an increasingly familiar one among thousands of former athletes struggling to lose the mass that once helped them win. They live with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, sleep apnea and other ailments that make for a short, painful life.
It shouldn’t be this way.
At every level of the game, players’ waistlines are growing along with the pressure to succeed. Consider that in 1970, there was one 300-pound player in the National Football League. In 1990, there were less than 70. Today, there are 360 NFL players weighing at least 300 pounds. High school players watch these behemoths clash on TV and many believe they don’t stand a chance of getting a Division I scholarship or making the pros unless they look like them.
The mass appeal and influence of a sport that at its highest levels celebrates and rewards such weight gain is significant. “Eight to nine percent of today’s adults are diabetics, but thirty-three percent of American children [are] on track for diabetes, based on childhood obesity,” pediatrician Tom Peterson said in Gregg Easterbrook’s book The King of Sports. “Can you imagine what will happen to health-care costs if one-third of the nation is diabetic? It’s worst for minorities—at least forty percent of African-American and Hispanic children are in the risk group for diabetes, owing to their weight.”
Not all football players at the highest levels of Division I aspire to play in the pros, but almost all of them want to keep their one-year renewable athletic scholarships. So they do what they are told to do, even when the path is self-destructive. A 2006 Scripps Howard News Service report showed that the heaviest pro football players were more than twice as likely to die before their 50th birthday as their teammates. While far fewer studies, if any, have followed the heaviest college football players who eschew the pros, anecdotal evidence and common sense point to the high likelihood of a similar problem afflicting that much larger population.
Genetics don’t always determine who the heaviest college players are. In 1998, Scott Summers didn’t hesitate when he was asked by Arkansas coaches to convert from inside linebacker to a bulkier position at tight end. “You feel like you have to do what [coaches and staff] are asking you to do,” he said. So Summers started eating more, taking creatine, and a testosterone booster he doesn’t recall the name of but says the NCAA has since banned.
Within a few months, he gained 50 pounds. The next spring, he was needed on the defensive line, so he packed on another 20. Over the next few seasons he yo-yoed some more, dropping to 265 pounds to play fullback, then ballooning to 310 pounds as a nose guard.
“There is a pressure to be as heavy as you can and still be able to move a little bit,” he said. Summers’s words hint at a future in which the 400-pound player—now an anomaly at the college level—will be commonplace. As Grand Valley State University researcher Jeffrey Potteiger told Smithsonian magazine, “It’s like an arms race. Whoever can be the biggest, strongest person out there gains the advantage on the field.”
No college football program has more riding on this one facet than Summers’s alma mater.
Fayetteville, Arkansas is home to one of the biggest offensive lines in college football. At this position, the Arkansas Razorbacks average 328 pounds, more than three pounds heavier than any starting unit in the NFL. Their size, skill and power spearhead a dominant running attack that grounds out 317 yards per game at nearly seven yards per carry. The big Hogs up front are a major reason Arkansas is the SEC’s most improved team from last year and on Saturday nearly upset No. 6 Texas A&M in Texas, losing 35-28.
Arkansas linemen get plenty of exercise to stay healthy for now. Guard Brey Cook, the runt of the litter at 6’7,” 315 pounds, said he feels as long as the biggest Hogs are “athletic enough to play the game … they’re fine.” Any health concerns should be for opponents, he joked.
Cook and his teammates, like most high major college football players, eat much healthier foods than their predecessors. Nutritionists help design meals and portions to optimize their weight and energy levels for weight training, practice, and game day. This structure and detail is a far cry from the past when players would simply double up on portions at the school cafeteria for bulk, said Clint Stoerner, who played for Arkansas in the late 1990s. “Beyond just saying you needed to gain weight, lose weight or maintain it, there really wasn’t any guidance at all.”
When former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino arrived in 2007, the team’s eating habits started to change, said Michael Smith, a Razorback running back in that era. Players stopped downing chili dogs or cheese fries before games. They started eating more often in a team-only setting, and their diets became more controlled, Smith recalled. Nutritionist and trainers escorted players assigned to lose or gain weight to the buffet line and sat with them. “They would explain why you’re eating that and how it was going to help you,” he said.
Smith, who stays close to the program, added the constant supervision has made today’s players more food savvy. The linemen better understand how to avoid going too far over 25% body fat, a mark researchers often used to define obesity among muscular athletes.
“They know how to take supplements, they know how to portion out their meals,” Smith said. “They know what to put in their body—they actually know what’s fat, what’s a protein, what’s a carb, when to put sugar in their bodies, what to put in your body before taking the field for peak performance.”
What happens, though, after the player finishes his eligibility and no longer has to prepare for a game? What about those not training for the pros who lose the same purpose and motivation for exercising they had for years?
“What happens most of the time, especially with the linemen, is that they are tired of working out and worn down from playing, and they just want to rest,” James Harris, Oregon’s nutritionist and assistant athletic director, told Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann in 2009. “They don’t change the way they live and eat. A few years later they are 370 pounds and have serious health issues. It’s a big, big problem.”
This problem can be alleviated. Because not every former player has the ability or resources to chart their own path to a more normal weight and a longer life, the NCAA and the major college programs they played for should help.
For one or two semesters after a student-athlete finishes his football career, if he’s still enrolled and taking classes, the athletic department should pay for a nutritionist affiliated with the school to supervise his weight loss and work with him to maintain the best weight. Chart their blood profile and body fat percentage; make recommendations and encourage them along their path. The department wouldn’t have to pay much beyond the extra time of its nutritionists, most of whom would already know and be familiar with the players. Cheap help could also be summoned from graduate students needing credit and/or work-study hours.
As Penn State nutritionist Kristine Clark told Sports Illustrated: “I get e-mail from former players five or six years after they’ve left saying, ‘I’m in trouble. Please help me. I am prediabetic or my cholesterol is very high.’ It’s so sad.”
The NCAA is already opening doors that should ultimately lead to colleges paying nutritionists to consult both current and former student-athletes. This summer, NCAA President Mark Emmert called for better health, safety and insurance protocols for college athletes in front of a Senate committee. He announced his support for “scholarships for life” in contrast to the normal year-to-year variety. Since then, Indiana, Maryland and South Carolina have announced multiyear guaranteed scholarships for some of their student-athletes, including football players. According to ESPN, at the University of South Carolina such a multiyear guarantee could also be applied to players who leave the school’s football program and later re-enroll to finish their degrees.
Powerful sports entities like the NFL and the Southeastern Conference aren’t shying away from obesity as an issue. But they want to confront it on their own terms, framing it as only something they are helping society tackle rather than a problem they have also played a role in perpetuating. The NFL, for instance, has a fitness campaign designed to address childhood obesity. And researchers, doctors and professors affiliated with SEC schools recently convened to “identify ways to markedly reduce America’s obese and overweight populations through prevention,” as the SEC Symposium press release specified. These efforts are good and wide-reaching, but they don’t address obesity treatment and the “deconditioning” many former players need.
Scott Summers eventually found his own way. In March 2014, he decided to buckle down, eat better and exercise regularly. He’s stuck with it so far, losing 115 pounds to get down to 305. “It was very hard to do, very difficult,” he said, adding “I feel great. I’m doing better, and my goal is to get back down to that 250-pound area.” But success stories elude many other former football players. They suffer from obesity-related issues, and face the prospect of premature death far off the radar of the fans who once adored them.